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February 22, 2013 11:39 AM

Buy Your Way To The Top

There's a (not so) dirty little secret that authors don't like to tell...

You can buy your way to the top. Literally. The Wall Street Journal ran an article yesterday titled, The Mystery of the Book Sales Spike. It's a story that creeps on to the radar every so often, but it's a practice that is deployed by a lot of business book authors that you may know and love (and a lot of others that you never hear from). From the article: "It isn't uncommon for a business book to land on best-seller lists only to quickly drop off. But even a brief appearance adds permanent luster to an author's reputation, greasing the skids for speaking and consulting engagements... But the short moment of glory doesn't always occur by luck alone... the authors hired a marketing firm that purchased books ahead of publication date, creating a spike in sales that landed titles on the lists. The marketing firm, San Diego-based ResultSource, charges thousands of dollars for its services in addition to the cost of the books, according to authors interviewed... Precisely how it goes about that is unclear, though, and there is discomfort among some in the publishing industry who worry that preorders are being corralled and bulk purchases are being made to appear like single sales to qualify for inclusion in best-seller lists, which normally wouldn't count such sales."

Should I buy my way to the top for CTRL ALT Delete?

I almost worked with one of these organizations for my first book, Six Pixels of Separation, but I opted not to. I probably should have. Are you surprised by my answer? See, there is a world of difference between someone buying 10,000 books and dumping them into a landfill just to hit a bestseller's list so they can command better speaking fees or consulting gigs, from the hard working speakers who can genuinely sell a lot of books at the bulk sales level and get no recognition for it. My first book came out in 2009 and ranked #13 on 800 CEO Read's The Bestsellers of 2010 list. For my dollar, this is one of the most important lists to watch because 800 CEO Read handles most of the major bulk orders for business books. I worked extremely hard to book, travel and go to corporations all over the world to promote my book. Having these organizations buy my book for every one of their attendees seemed like a more much strategic move than trying to convince individuals - one by one - to take a chance and buy my book. I found myself getting a handful of engagements and selling thousands of copies of my book. The problem is that the charts that the public acknowledges as "credible" (New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, etc...) won't count them as sold.

It's not just business books.

Brands buys fans, friends and followers online, all of the time. Some in a very strategic and real way, and some are buying vapor, fake accounts and other stuff that creates an artificial bump in the numbers. We're marketers. What we do is pay to capture attention. The trick is in figuring out if that attention is authentic, if people care, if they connect to the message, if they tell others about, and if they become loyal to the brand. There are varying levels of intensity and nuances with that last sentence that are dependant on the brands positioning and consumer needs, but those are the overall goals. So, if I sold 15,000 copies of a book to 15,000 individuals who purchased them on Amazon or at Barnes & Noble or if five organizations each bought 3000 copies of the book to give to employees and customers, what is the real difference? If you engage with Facebook in a fan acquisition strategy and include reach within your Facebook marketing dollars, what is the real difference from just posting to corporate page and hoping that your ideas spread on their own?

If it's ethical. It works.

My understanding from the conversations I have had with businesses like ResultSource is that they help take those bulk sales and ensure that instead of it being counted as one, lump bulk purchase, that each individual gets a physical book that is then reported back to the bestseller's list. It seems somewhat ironic that the work that they do is considered questionable, when it's really the mystery and lack of transparency behind the reporting and building of the bestseller's lists that should be put into question. You see, brands buy fans on Facebook, Twitter and beyond all of the time. But brands can't keep fans. They have to earn them. The acquisition strategy seems somewhat inconsequential against the actual customer outcome, doesn't it? So, a handful of business books rocket to the top of the bestsellers' list and then the following week, they have all but disappeared. Why is this an issue? It's only an issue for the author who wasn't able to capitalize on that momentum to truly earn the exposure to new readers that the attention may have garnered. No, I don't plan on using any of these services for CTRL ALT Delete in May. Personally, I'd love to be on the top of all of these lists, but that's just because of vanity. Personally, I just want the ideas in the book to spread. That's where my heart lies, and I know that my professional lifestyles means that the majority of the sales and spreading of the ideas in CTRL ALT Delete won't count to any list, because a big focus will be on corporate events and bulk purchases.

There's nothing wrong with buying your way to the top. The challenge is in staying up there.

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