This Isn’t Cheating, Is It?

Here’s an interesting Wall Street Journal article by Carl Bialik (“The Numbers Guy”) on how authors (and their public-relations firms) try to push a book to No. 1 on Amazon.com or Barnes&Noble.com:

For $10,000 to $15,000, you, too, can be a best-selling author. New York public-relations firm Ruder Finn says it can propel unknown titles to the top of rankings on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble with a mass email called the Best-Seller Blast. Popular authors such as Mark Victor Hansen of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series recommend your book in messages to fans, and offer a deal: Buy the book today and you’ll get downloadable “bonuses” supposedly valued at thousands of dollars — such as recordings of motivational speeches and contact information for important people. Orchestrating even 1,000 book purchases in a single day can drive a title from obscurity to the top of the charts.

This probably strikes some people as clever marketing, and it probably strikes others as something close to cheating. I lean heavily toward the clever marketing side. It was interesting to me that in this post about optimizing my bus commute, a few commenters thought I was a cheat for walking to a better bus stop. To paraphrase an old love song: if cheating like that is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

As for jacking up your Amazon rating: what’s described in the Journal article strikes me as less troubling than what the author David Vise reportedly did back in 2002, buying up thousands of copies of his own book.


EmmettCloud

I'd never want to game the system, but I do w

EmmettCloud

My last post was sent a bit prematurely. But I'd love to draw everyone's attention to a book that I believe you'll all enjoy. It's called Looking for Alaska, by John Green. And while it's written for young adults (in the 15-20 range, and not any younger [there's a BJ scene])), most older adults will find themselves intellectually fulfilled; yet very amused. By the way, this book won the Prize Award, the highest accolade for a book of this type.

avirexla

Isn't it the same "trick" as the record exec that buy track listing slots for their artits?

Maybe that's why people rely less and less on majors to find good music. Marketing cost are driven up and sales numbers down. Viva Bit-Torrent!

People are also surprised when you tell them that being a loyal customer on major websites drive the price they pay up and not down.

Then they will find ways to buy (or download for free) elsewhere...

drproactive

There is absolutely ZERO CHEATING involved. It is all about good strategy and smart marketing. It is really no different than writing a direct marketing email piece for your own email list, or in buying a list and sending a hard copy direct mail piece through the US mail. With the Amazon strategy people are buying books based on the endorsed recommendations of opt-in list owners (JV friends) who are happy to pass on a good deal to their fans. The book buyers are happy to get free bonus gifts (real gifts of real value, which is just like you going down to the supermarket and gladly choosing the "2-for-1 on-sale" product over the regular price one.) Everyone is happy with this strategy. The author because of the high number of books sold. The opt-in list JV friends, because they have happy fans who stay on their lists. And, the book buyers who not only get great books, but a whole bunch of valuable bonus gifts. It is a total win-win-win and there is no cheating or coersion involved. It is American marketing at its best. The only losers are the sour puss, jeaslous marketers who feel they are more righteous because they cling to their old "brag about their book" marketing methods.

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MarcyKarsey

I don't know if this has already been adressed on this site but best-seller lists are self-perpetuating.
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/15/magazine/15wwlnidealab.t.html?ex=1334203200&en=79be2f770fc76c6d&ei=5124&partner=permalink&exprod=permalink&pagewante

Strategy is necessary to even get ahead a little bit in the game. I am still waiting for my copy of Freakonomics, but it, like any other best-seller, benefited because the more people that bought the book, the more other people had to go out and buy the book to share in the cultural knowledge. Like the author mentioned about the book bracket in New York, it can be important knowledge at cocktail parties to have read popular books.

CrunchyFrog

I'm less bothered by an author or PR firm would using this tactic than the thought that authors whose websites and blogs I read would be party to it. For me, the recommendation of an author I like is more valuable than any giveaways.

Now I have to second guess every recommendation. You guys have mentioned or recommended several books here. Are you required to tell us if you're receiving any financial benefit for doing so?

Isaac

In the "clever marketing" category, you could build up a fanbase by podcasting your books, then ask all of your fans to buy your book from Amazon at the same time, on the same day, like Scott Sigler's doing: http://scottsigler.net/

furiousball

Man, you could fill a teaspoon with the integrity of this concept.

brettpeven

The line between marketing and cheating is becoming increasingly thin. In this case, I tend to believe that this crosses the line, though just barely. As for walking a block to catch the boss, I don't believe that's cheating but I would believe it's cheating to walk a block (or even a hundred yards as I've seen people do) to catch a cab during rush hour.

Shifting back to the last topic of "herd mentality", by living in NYC and subjecting yourself to paying a premium to live like that (which reads absurd now that I'm not living there anymore) aren't you part of a different side of that same herd mentality coin?

egretman

Man, you could fill a teaspoon with the integrity of this concept.

Mind if I steal that line?

lehong

In my reply to the bus stop entry, I speculated that the cheating label evolved to punish individuals who increase their own utility at the expense of overall group utility. In other words, individuals who increase their piece of the pie while causing the overall pie to shrink.

I would label this cheating for the exact same reason. By skewing reviews, the individual gets a short term boost but the usefullness of the review site decreases. The long term equilibrium is that everyone who publishes a book spends an extra 10k to artifically boost it, or consumers comb through each review looking for signs of artificial ratings. Either way, real ratings go back to roughly how they used to be, and extra costs are imposed on both publishers and consumers.

As a society, this is not a desirable outcome, so the "cheater" (and other) labels have evolved to punish individuals, and to some degree avoid the tragedy of the commons.

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CrunchyFrog

Back to that blog about the scarcity of comments - I meant what lehong said, but my French major brain wasn't nearly as good at saying it, which makes me reluctant to comment.

Jennifer42

"Either way, real ratings go back to roughly how they used to be, and extra costs are imposed on both publishers and consumers."

Yep- there are a handful of notorious authors on Amazon who have tried to game the ratings, but people always seem to see through it.

dyland

It's always been the case that marketing spend has influenced behaviour, everything from which beer you drink to what soap you use. If it didn't then marketers would stop doing it.

I work in Internet Marketing and buying links is seen as cheating by the search engines as it artificially increases the site's rankings. The search engines have ways of punishing sites for buying links - shouldn't Amazon have some similar system. If it sees an email blast about a book, it could discount the sales for that book for the next week. But then you start hitting the issues of what's a bought recommendation, and which one's are legitimate recommendations. Do adverts on TV cause the book sales to be discounted because the encourage people to buy the book?

bluepenguin

I don't think we'd ever get agreement on where the legitimate/cheating line is. I do think it points, however, to a declining value in "word of mouth."

The reason the NY Times best seller list means anything is because it reflects some reality of what people really believe. If someone's gaming the system, sooner or later we all stop paying attention to that metric.

GreatObserver

I'm still waiting for you guys to reveal what "clever marketing" you used to keep Freakonomics on the best seller list for sooo long.

Acrobat

Isn't the easiest way to be on the best-seller's list just to write a really good book? Or am I being excessively simplistic here?

(Perhaps "easiest" is the wrong word...would "most effective" work better?)

On the other hand, didn't someone once say "It's only cheating if you get caught..."

MoreCowbell

Is this really any different from the practices of traditional publishing outlets? I always assumed that these backdoor dealings were common knowledge.

When you walk into Barnes and Noble, the prominently displayed books are not there by accident. Publishing outlets engineer agreements with vendors for the display of the books as a method to drum up sales. Sure, theoretically they advocate the "good ones." But this undeniably gives some authors a significant advantage over others.

jmessick

REO Speedwagon has a new CD coming out next month that they've been promoting pretty heavily on their email list. They are also apparently looking for heavy first-day sales by packing a bonus CD and DVD for no extra cost at Walmart. I figured this was a way to debut high on the charts and maybe generate some attention. Not a bad ploy, like the bum-run of iTunes some bloggers and others were promoting for an unsigned artist earlier this week.

tony_M

I have to disagree with this:
"It was interesting to me that in (the) post about optimizing my bus commute, a few commenters thought I was a cheat for walking to a better bus stop."

Actually, not a single commenter thought it was cheating. There were only people speculating that others might consider it cheating, and none of those commenters seemed to imply this was a legitimate viewpoint.