Writing Ethics 4: Amazon Ranking and Best Seller Status

This post is a follow-up to my last three posts and continues a conversation at Grow Your Writing Business.

While this topic didn’t come up in the original discussion, my thoughts extended to one more issue that bothers me. Do you really know what it means that a book is a bestseller?

One of the most common ways for a book to become an Amazon bestseller is to use a technique developed by a book promotion company that sells an expensive program to make books bestsellers. Lots of authors copy the technique on their own, and at least one book marketing guru promotes this concept.

Since a book can be called a bestseller if it hits the top ten (I believe it’s ten; it might be a higher number) in its category on a single day, the gimmick in this program is to generate huge sales of the book at Amazon on a specific day , usually the day the book is officially released.

To generate those huge sales, the author (or the promotion company) sends mass e-mails and enlists other people to e-mail their lists offering incredible bonuses for ordering the book from Amazon on a specific day. I’ve seen claims of more than a thousand dollars in bonuses for ordering a $15 book! Of course, the bonuses are $297 e-books, $29 special reports, $89 software, etc. – downloadable products that are assigned outrageously high value but have little or no direct production and distribution costs.

The customer places the order at Amazon on the specified day, e-mails a copy of their receipt to the author or promotion company to prove it, and receives a link to download the bonuses. The sales for the book are enough for it to be called a “bestseller,” most of the time in a category (though the authors don’t say that). In one specific case I know of, the book was second only to the latest Harry Potter book at the time on its launch date. The author can then promote his book as #2 at Amazon.com, even if there is never another book sold on Amazon!

Do you think that’s fair?

Of course, “bestsellers” in general often sell far fewer copies than the general public realizes. Every bestseller list uses different criteria and sources, but the major lists (New York Times, USA Today, etc.) primarily track sales only through larger distribution channels in specific time periods. The sales aren’t necessarily sales to retail buyers; some lists track sales to bookstores. A book can be a bestseller based on the orders shipped to chain bookstores for the launch date, even though many of those books may be later returned.

I’ve heard that about one-third of all books “sold” to bookstores are returned. Books are really placed on consignment in bookstores with the option to return them if they don’t sell. For mass-market paperbacks, “returned” means the cover is stripped from the book and sent back to the publisher for credit, and the rest of the book is discarded. Imagine that a third of the books published are filling up landfills every day without ever being read by anyone.

Books can acquire bestseller status from a particular publisher or bookseller (either overall bestseller or bestseller within a specific genre). These books can be legitimately called bestsellers, even if the book was the bestselling historical novel at ABC Publisher. While consumers may not realize that a “bestselling book” or “bestselling author” may have actually sold far fewer units than a title that isn’t a bestseller, the authors or publishers aren’t manipulating the system.

But when an author bribes customers with outlandish bonuses to buy the book at Amazon.com on a specific day so the book can become a bestseller … I call that manipulating the system.

What do you think?

Related Posts:
Writing Ethics 1: Fake Testimonials
Writing Ethics 2: Voting in Readers’ Choice Contests
Writing Ethics 3: Reviews

[tags]writing ethics, Amazon.com, bestseller lists[/tags]

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