If I told you, publishing can be a racket, you’d likely agree. But in your mind, the bad guys are the publishers and the victims are the authors. You know, like in the music industry.
Wrong. In the digital age, helped along by sleazy-cheesy marketers, it’s the readers who are the victims of the modern publishing racket. The perpetrators are ambitious authors, motivated by dreams of being published, donned a best seller and discovered by the general public.
I’ve been watching this phenomenon develop over the last few years, and finally, it’s time to speak out against it. After all, what’s bad for the end customer is bad for the industry.
Several years ago, a few companies sprang up, offering aspiring lecture circuit speakers the ultimate marketing asset: A New York Times best selling book. The deal was pretty straightforward: Pre-sell or pre-buy tens of thousands of books. Hire them to purchase them for you, using a sophisticated fulfillment technique that gets around best efforts at the New York Times and Amazon to detect bulk purchases. For pre-sale campaigns, the service builds a long “sales page” that reads like a Ginzu Knife infomercial. It offers hundreds of dollars worth of bonus content if you pre-purchase a book – usually donated by friends of the authors.
I’ve always been queasy about these campaigns, because I believe that a book is worth the price for its content and not the free PDFs, videos, etc., that other authors are willing to throw in “if you buy today.” When authors ask me about doing a sales page program, I explain how cheesy it is, and recommend a Kickstarter instead (case study). At least in that case, backers want your book to be made, and don’t need insane incentives to support you.
But it’s the pre-buy approach to tricking the list that really takes the cake. This is where the author buys tens of thousands of his books through retail, and then either gives them away or sells them at their speaking gigs (over the years). It’s likely a six figure campaign in the end, which is great if you are uber wealthy, I guess. The prize? A best selling author can frequently leverage their status to get more speaking gigs at $20,000 to $50,000 a shot. One speaker friend of mine calls this “the steroids of our business.”
Who are the victims here? You. You buy books because they are best sellers, be it on Amazon or the NYT. They show up in your peripheral vision through this campaign, and you assume that they are good reads because they are crushing the list. Even worse, brick and mortar stores often stock shelves based on the list. The better books, playing by the rules, are pushed to side. Seth Godin decided to skip pursuing the NYT list for his Domino Project, in part, over his resentment of the tryanny of 'making the list at any cost.'
Solution: When a book is on the business or advice best seller list, wait two weeks before you buy it, and see if it falls like a rock. You see, when these authors take their foot off the gas, their book falls off the NYT list forever and on Amazon. It dips from #7 to #27,000 and then a week or two later, into the sea of six digital rankings. If it sticks like this one or this one, it’s a keeper.
Thanks to this feature in the New York Times (ironic, huh?), this long time scam has been uncovered. For a fee, you could purchase a number of reviews for your book, with the promise that most of all of them would be five stars. While GettingBookReviews is now closed, fake reviews continue via small time players and unscrupulous uses of Amazon Mechanical Turks.
Besides fake reviews, there are solicited reviews, which involve getting one’s friends and family to post five star reviews. Even though in many cases they’ve read a portion of the book, still, these are fake reviews because they are not objective. It’s fine to respond to a fan letter with a recommendation to share their enthusiasm with friends or review it. That’s referral marketing for customers.
In many of the fake best seller campaigns, fake reviews are a piece of the puzzle. When the book shows up at the top of the Amazon list, gathering up eye balls and click throughs, there are 30-100 five star reviews there, encouraging the dupe to buy the book.
This is also bad for the reader. They use reviews, like Yelp or Trip Advisor, to avoid bad reads and discover good ones. When reviews are fake, the buyer (reader) is often disappointed by the book, and less likely to buy or read as many in the future.
Solution: Rely on Goodreads reviews instead. They tie into Facebook, so its easy to see what your friends like. Goodreads is much much harder to game, and the reviews are more balanced. Some say, they might even be a little tougher on books. Good. If you stumble accross a book page on Amazon, make sure you discount all the reviews that occur around the launch date. Eventually, you'll start to see one star reviews, like the "If You Like That Sort Of Thing" review of instant Kindle best seller "Angelfall." If you look closesly enough, you'll be able to spot these review collector strategies in a minute.
This is a recent scam, where authors purchase followers to build up their perceived marketing platform. Last year, an associate told me that he’d gone from 300 to 40,000 Twitter followers, using one of the these services. In my mind, it didn’t make sense, because if the followers aren’t real, what’s the value to me?
In the publishing industry, though, having a big marketing platform makes an author more valuable. Often, the advances on their books reflect the author’s following, be it on social networks, newsletter lists or radio/tv shows they appear on. In many cases, publishers have lost significant money on authors with fake followers.
(In the case of Facebook, the market valued the company based on users. According to recent reports, a big chunk of them are fake.)
Solution: There’s a free app for that! Fake Follower Check reveals the real, inactive and fakes in a person’s Twitter following. My most recent check of our Twitter account came up with 1% fake followers. When I checked some notoriously scammy marketing types, their percentage of fakes was ten to twenty times higher!
If you are an author reading this, take this away: You don’t have to lie, cheat or shortcut your way to publishing success. Focus on writing the best book in you, and keeping the reading experience top of mind. Build an engaged following nine months before launch by sharing content and soliciting feedback on it. When you launch, apply elbow grease and not raw dollars to helping readers find your book.
When you find success, you’ll appreciate it much more because you’ll know it was organic. And the readers will thank you too, especially when you publish your next book.
Tim is a bestselling author and former Yahoo! executive with a mission to disrupt the traditional publishing and self-publishing industries and share knowledge with authors looking to publish and market high-quality books.Follow @sanderssays