Writer note: I recently read a post in this forum on "book bombs," and just felt compelled to post a counterpoint. I realize this position will likely make me unpopular, and it's not my intention to single anyone out for the "hot seat." Heaven knows plenty of people are big proponents of this marketing strategy. But, I assert they're missing a key truth about these programs. My desire is to spawn a healthy discussion on the subject...
Okay, hypothetical situation… You release your new book at a book fair, and in the course of one day, sell 50 copies. Or heck, 500 copies. Whether 50 or 500, from that day forward, based on that one day’s outcome, would you refer to it as a “best-seller”? Of course not. I mean, what would it be based on?
It may very well have been the “best-selling” book at that fair, but the notion that such a limited one-day result in one venue would earn you the right to call it an unqualified “best-seller” is pretty ludicrous. Okay, file that away for a moment…
A few months back, I got an email from a woman I’ve known and respected for many years in the writing/publishing world. Its tone and content were sadly familiar:
Ever since the #1 bestselling Amazon launch of ________________, I have been asked again and again, "How did you attain best seller status in less than 5 hours from launch?" My team and I implemented a very unique set of strategies that worked like gangbusters! And I have decided to share our strategies with you - in fact, hand you all our hard work - so that you can save weeks and months in your own best selling book launch…
Of course, you know the drill. Using a veritable cornucopia of inducements – free ebooks, bonuses reports, multiple copies of the book itself, etc. – the author tries to entice as many people as possible into buying their book on one particular day. All via mass emails with frantic urgings to forward to as many lists as possible – and all with the goal of “#1 Amazon Best Seller!” bragging rights.
Understand what the accolade she’s now claiming truly means: For that brief period, and ONLY that brief period, her book sold more than any other on Amazon’s system. Oh, after I got her note, I checked her book’s ranking: ~55,000. Whoa. From #1 to 55,000 mighty quickly. Hmmm. Doesn’t sound like most best-sellers…
Let’s get clear about something right up front. The only – I repeat, ONLY – reason programs like the one my colleague was offering even exist in the first place is because people have figured out that the Amazon rankings system is “game-able.” Translation: because of the way Amazon is set up, a short-term burst of activity – even as few as 30-40 books sold in an hour – can boost a book to the top ten or even #1 for a few minutes. Mission accomplished.
Yet despite all the shrieky promo-chatter that accompanies these campaigns, I’d wager good money total sales for the day rarely get much higher than that 30-40 mark. But, even 10 times that volume (highly unlikely) still doesn’t warrant the “#1” title.
I can hear some people now: “Well, as far as Amazon is concerned, it IS a ‘#1 Amazon Best-Seller’ so what she’s claiming is true.” Yeah. Mmmm-hmmm. Okay. Sure. Technically, that’s accurate. And you can say that with a straight face? Seriously, there’s more to the story, and it starts with the definition of “best-seller.”
In our culture, when you say “best-seller,” there’s an understanding of what that means. It means a book that has “sold the best” among its peers over a significant period of time. It’s moved a lot of units. It’s a book a sizable chunk of the reading public is talking about.
What it definitely doesn’t mean is a book that's been a best-seller for one hour or even one day (in my email to her, I told her doubted her book was a #1 best-seller for even one full day, and she didn’t correct me). What’s one day in the life of a book? Nothing.
But more importantly, what’s our responsibility to the end reader of that “#1 Best Seller!” designation? As a reader, when I see that, call me crazy, but I actually like to think I can count on its veracity – that there’s a solid foundation to it.
Think about it. If you saw a “#1 Best-seller!” on Amazon (and knew nothing about the dubious strategies for generating these designations), wouldn’t you assume it had earned that moniker because, well, it was a really good book?
What if you discovered, after buying it, that it had earned that designation thanks to a tortured short-term process of intense lobbying and outright bribery? And that, during that brief period, it had, in fact, sold only a tiny fraction of the number of books you’d expect it would take to earn such an honorific (i.e., tens of thousands, at the very least, if not more)? I’m guessing you’d feel a bit snookered.
Yet authors like her are counting on you equating the “best-seller” moniker you’re familiar with and this mutant creation. And they’re not even close.
Understand I have ZERO problem with running such a campaign, short-term or otherwise with a goal of selling a bunch of books. We should all be doing whatever we ethically can do to get the word out on our books. But, that, of course, wasn’t the point. Big sales numbers were beside the point. It was the “#1” bragging rights.
Philosophically speaking (indulge me here), I assert that, in part, what the author is really trying to do (besides earn that #1 accolade), aided and abetted by a healthy dose of self-delusion, is to promote their way to a better book.
After all, if their book goes to #1 (or even makes the Top 10), it must mean it’s a good book, right? Of course, it doesn’t work that way, any more than giving a kid an A for C or D schoolwork will transform that work from mediocre to marvelous. And whether her book is in fact wonderful is besides the point. Arrived at in this fashion, the accolade has no relation to the quality of the book.
Not to get all misty-eyed and nostalgic for “simpler times,” but there really does seem to be a trend in our culture these days towards what you might call “ethics creep.” What would have been considered dishonest and shady 20-30 years ago, is just “smart marketing” today, and this is a good example of that. How you get somewhere is less important than just getting there.
Yet, all that said, there’s one comfort: mediocre books, regardless of the games their authors play, never have long lifespans. They’ll never benefit from the invaluable word-of-mouth publicity that accrues to truly solid titles, never earn heartfelt kudos from those whose words really matter, never hope to garner serious industry recognition.
So, do yourself a favor: if you’re looking for long-term success, start with a really good book. You’ll dramatically simplify your marketing tasks while eliminating the need to prop up a title that can’t stand on its own. And you’ll sleep better at night.
Peter Bowerman, veteran commercial freelancer and writing/publishing coach, is the author of the three award-winning Well-Fed Writer titles (www.wellfedwriter.com), the self-published how-to “standards” on lucrative commercial freelancing. He chronicled his self-publishing success (currently, 60,000 copies of his books in print and a full-time living for nine-plus years) in the award-winning 2007 release, The Well-Fed Self-Publisher: How to Turn One Book into a Full-Time Living. www.wellfedsp.com.
Well said, Peter.
Book Bombs and other such devices are just one more example of why we are all so cynical and defensive today (and why we need to be).
It's awful, really, that our trust in one another has nearly evaporated. It wasn't so long ago that a business owner's word was as good as gold. Now, instead of trusting the advice of professionals, we're supposed to independently verify everything our doctors, lawyers, accountants, and now, apparently, publishers, tell us.
The good news is that we, as business owners, don't have to go down this slippery slope, where the only thing that matters is the bottom line. If we choose to create quality products, because it's the right thing to do, then our advertising and marketing will be truthful. Ultimately everyone wins; the business owner can be proud and the buyer receives real value.
Book design and self-publishing advice. With hand-holding.
Our society runs on sensationalism of instant gratification.
A good book simply endures the test of time irregardless of designation.
Thanks Michele, Bradley and Claire, for weighing in!
I'm with you Michele, it is definitely a different world in which we live these days, with ethics getting a lot more…well, fluid.
And you're right, Claire, sensationalism is the engine driving our culture, but good books stand the test of time.
Bradley, I appreciate your willingness to engage in a discussion here. As you say, the only way venues like this can thrive is through a diversity of opinions and viewpoints.
That said, I’m afraid I must take issue with your assertion that, “as a marketing technique, the Book Buy Bomb has its place.” Needless to say, I firmly believe that, when structured as described in the above piece, I don't think it's a legitimate strategy in any situation. And I welcome the opportunity to debate anyone who feels differently.
Sure, it’s a free country, and people can and will do as they please. And I’m certain my words here won’t sway many who’ve decided to follow this path. After all, just getting from Point A to Point B has become, in our society, more important, than the ethics of how that’s done.
But, it’s not just something that, in my opinion, is wrong. It’s doing damage to the power of a true “best-seller” accolade, something you referred to when you said, “the more people that do it within a given locality, the greater a decrease in value for that given marketing vector.”
When someone can earn it for literally 30-40 books sold, it’s only a matter of time until the average buyer realizes the designation means nothing, or at the very least, is highly suspect (something that many, myself included, already believe).
All I’m suggesting is that we as authors should do what we can to preserve the power of the accolade. We all know the fairy tale of the boy who cried wolf. We keep shouting “best-seller” when it’s anything but, and it’s only a matter of time until no one believes it, even when it IS the truth.
You're right, Michele. Just recently did an article for the IBPA Independent entitled, "What's an Amazon 5-Star Amazon Review Worth?" In it, I noted that the trend toward made-up five-star reviews is worrisome enough, that none other than The New York Times devoted a recent story to it (8/19/11: “In a Race to Out-Rave, 5-Star Web Reviews Go For $5.” The trend’s actually spawned a new writing specialty – writing five-star reviews for money. Pay me $5 and I’ll say whatever you want me to say. Amazing.
I think everyone knows that the first few reviews at Amazon are fake. At least there's hope for truth there, as real buyers weigh in over time with legitimate opinions.
This is such an interesting topic. I know of a local woman who does the 'I can make you into a bestseller' spiel and I've never heard of any of the writers who pay to go to her seminar... I don't even know if they write, or if it's to hype them up to write. Either way, I have found myself happiest around writers who write. Writing is something I do. I have a great business/marketing background and used to own a sales company but never felt attached to what I sold. Now I'm interested in selling my works, but I'm more interested in having my works sell themselves. As a friend says, a 1-star review reflects the reader's opinion just the same as a 5-star, so I'm going to let go of the fear and worry about the acts of others and just write and produce. That's my job as a publisher. Not to buy my success but to put my work out there, do my marketing work and let the right readers find it. No one can tell me HOW to make a book a best seller, that is up to the whim of readers. And, honestly, being #1 for an hour on Amazon should NOT be listed as a best-seller. You are starting off as a non-truth teller. Integrity matters. Always.
Appreciate your weighing in. There was a woman here in ATL a few years back who’d run these types of seminars, and her promos on the local writing groups email lists were laughable: “Want to make your book a #1 AMAZON BESTSELLER? I made my book a #1 AMAZON BESTSELLER, and I can show you…” blah-blah-blah.
A few years ago, I wrote a piece for the Seybold Report entitled, “What Does ‘Bestseller” Really Mean?” In it, I quoted novelist M.J. Rose, commenting (none too charitably) on one of these programs she’d received an email about (with a $2,000 price tag, to boot), and offered up an only-half-tongue-in-cheek suggestion, “…take that same amount of money and buy a whole lot of your own books all at once, in the middle of the night where there’s not much book buying going on. You’ll get your low Amazon number and you’ll get a lot of books for…promotional purposes.”