Stop Drinking the Bath Water
The last couple of weeks have been far from restful for me. Two weeks ago The Wall Street Journal published an article on “bestseller campaigns” and highlighted the fact that I used the marketing strategy to vault my book Leapfrogging onto the bestseller lists. I woke up to see my face prominently displayed on the Journal’s webpage. Later that day, Forbes released a similar piece, again featuring my book, and then the Christian Science Monitor also jumped on the bandwagon.
Quite literally overnight, I had become the poster child for a secretive and all-too-common practice in the book publishing industry.
As I first described in Debunking the Bestseller, I didn’t speak out about my own experience with these bestseller campaigns just to perform a public mea culpa. I did it because I recognized that I had been handed an opportunity to practice what I preach in my book Leapfrogging – to find the strength for deep introspection, dive into the unknown, and embrace uncertainty as a necessary catalyst for jumping to the next level. Needless to say, the last two weeks have been brimming with both introspection and uncertainty.
We Can’t See Our Blind Spots Until We Overcome Them
When I first decided to run Leapfrogging through a bestseller campaign, my goal wasn’t focused on finding status, fame, or transitioning to a new career. I thought hitting the bestseller list – even just for a week – would create real market demand for the book. It didn’t.
But if I hadn’t run my book through a bestseller campaign, I wouldn’t have gained the personal knowledge of the secret system used to manufacturer Wall Street Journal and New York Times bestsellers. I wouldn’t have discovered that most publishing insiders are keenly aware of this prevalent marketing strategy and that they view “gaming the system” as standard practice.
Now with my firsthand experience, I feel a personal responsibility to help plant the seeds for a much-needed discussion on a topic that’s indicative of a larger issue in the publishing world – and which hopefully contributes to a broader exploration of how the industry can reinvent its business model.
“SpikeSellers” – Publishing’s Dirty Little (Symptomatic) Secret
Given what I’ve learned from working with ResultSource, the marketing company who’s literally written the book on bestseller campaigns, I estimate that a minimum of 20-30 percent of all business books on the bestseller list in a given week are “SpikeSellers” – books that achieve enough of a short-term sales boost through orchestrated pre-orders to hit the bestseller list, only to fade away into obscurity. And my estimate is conservative. A few years ago, Todd Sattersten of the BizBookLab conducted an analysis of the Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list and found that “60% of the titles that appeared on the list one week were gone the next.”
Since Nielsen BookScan compiles its data based on weekly sales numbers, SpikeSellers stack the deck in favor of those authors and marketers who are able to cram significant sales into a single week, usually the first week after the book’s publication date. While not “illegal” in the sense of the law, they usurp the assumptions held by the general public – that the books on bestseller lists are quality reads that represent what’s trending in society.
Why is this issue so gut-wrenching for so many? Easy answer: one more trusted institution in our society has been debunked.
Follow the Money
We’ve seen it in professional sports, politics, and business. Bestseller campaigns further diminish our faith in the institutions we rely on to steward our values of equality and meritocracy. Once again, we find that the system is skewed to benefit those with resources, status, and power – not exactly motivating for the small publisher or self-published author.
During the process of writing and marketing my book, I began to see how truly systemic the practice runs in the industry. And after 20 years working in business, leadership development and innovation, I’ve learned to do one thing when I want to gain insight into a market or industry – follow the money.
Here’s the bestseller campaign business model. Just follow the money to see who benefits:
- Literary Agents – Easier and more lucrative to broker a book deal when a bestseller campaign is part of the author’s stated marketing strategy
- Publishers – Reduce their financial risk when contracting with an author who commits to a bestseller campaign due to assured sales numbers; gain significant revenue from the initial sales spike while creating a greater likelihood of future sales due to bestseller promotional status
- Book Retailers – Obtain individual and bulk sales, which are especially lucrative for large retailers like BarnesandNoble.com
- Nielsen – Sells book sales data to publishers and others; only counts hard copy books as part of their bestseller list formula, which promotes hard copy print book sales that benefit traditional publishers
- Marketing Firms – Charge authors fees for each bestseller campaign
- Authors – Gain status and potentially increase speaking and consulting fees
When it comes to bestseller campaigns, the publishing industry is a closed loop system that reinforces itself. Each party keeps the secret because they benefit in their own way.
Don’t Drink The Bath Water
Whether we’re talking about business, politics, or anything else, I’ve seen a common dynamic unfold when individuals, groups, and organizations are invested in the status quo: they keep silent, stop asking tough questions, and avoid introspection. We’ve seen the casualties of these mindsets and behaviors in business many times – just think Encyclopedia Britannica, Kodak, and Blockbuster.
In my view, bestseller campaigns represent a symptomatic ripple within a broader sea change facing the publishing industry. The industry is in the midst of a massive disruption and just about everyone has taken a white knuckled grasp on their shrinking piece of the economic pie.
Over the past two weeks, some have called for a re-examination of the “black box” way bestsellers are tabulated by Nielsen and The New York Times (for a great article by my own publisher on this topic check out What Do Bestseller Lists Really Measure?). These types of challenges to the status quo are a great start.
If the publishing industry truly wants to successfully navigate the disruptive changes it faces, its breakthroughs won’t come from drinking its own bath water. It won’t come from gaming an antiquated system but rather reinventing the system so that everyone can create and obtain a new level of value – especially consumers. Real “leapfrogging” comes from a desire to change the world, honesty and transparency, and collaborative dialog.
New Questions Lead to New Answers
Albert Einstein said, “No problem can be solved by the same level of consciousness that created it.” I believe the publishing industry needs to tackle an entirely new set of questions that address the various forces – technological, social, environmental, financial, etc. – that pose very real threats and opportunities:
- How are various forms of digital content, text, and social media converging to redefine the “book” itself – and what are the opportunities for packaging and selling the most meaningful content, whether in bite-sized pieces or traditional book formats?
- How can we take a longer-term, more holistic view of “bestseller” so the system doesn’t reward weekly sales spikes but rather the longer-term impact of a “book”?
- How do we most effectively capture and share what’s truly trending in society through more dynamic, real-time “bestseller lists”?
- How can we move away from closed, proprietary evaluation systems and instead adopt approaches based on the principles of “open” and “social” (e.g., the “Klout” for bestsellers)?
These are meaty questions and require both small and large players to step up to the plate – from Nielsen, to Barnes & Noble, to Wiley, to Harper Collins, to the myriad of indie publishers, authors, technology start-ups, and beyond. If the incumbents don’t disrupt themselves, the history of innovation shows that someone else will (and its name may start with the letter “A” and end with “zon”).
So what do you think? What’s needed to fundamentally change the system and who’s going to do it? What needs to be done to restore faith in the system?