Buy Your Way to the NYT Best-Seller List?

New York Times Best Sellers

When my first novel came out, I had no notions of being a best-selling author. My goal was simply to sell enough copies to make my publisher happy and ensure future contracts.

An odd thought struck me. Hey, I know how to be a best-selling author. I just need to be rich enough. I could give tons of money to a friend, who could then buy up all my copies. Then my publisher could proclaim that I have an instant best seller!

Does that idea sound fanciful? Not so fast. It appears that others have entertained the same idea.

I recently saw an article in World magazine about Mark Driscoll, pastor of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church, who authored the book Real Marriage. According to the article’s author, Warren Cole Smith, Mars Hill Church paid a marketing company up to $210,000 to ensure Driscoll’s book made the New York Times best-seller list. How exactly the marketing company pulled off this feat through manipulation of the system in place appears to be complicated and would take perhaps a series of articles to explain.

Now, I don’t know anything about this book. I also don’t know Pastor Driscoll personally and want to be careful not to cast aspersions on his motives or behavior. Whether he personally did anything wrong, I don’t know. Nevertheless, consider the implications if this story is true.

Maybe my idea of buying one’s way to the best-seller’s list isn’t so farfetched after all. But is it ethical?

When you read that a book made the New York Times best-seller list, what immediately comes to mind? Most of us assume regular Joes on the street bought tons of copies. We assume this must be an amazing book if it has sold so well. I would have never suspected that some sort of manipulation of the system could have occurred behind closed doors.

Unfortunately, this story now casts doubt on the very accuracy of the New York Times list itself.

Why is it so important to make the New York Times best-seller list anyhow? Well, mainly, there’s a cultural norm that isn’t going away anytime soon. Let’s face it. People flock to whatever is new and popular, whether it’s the new Disney movie Frozen, The Hunger Games trilogy, or the iPad.

That doesn’t necessarily mean best-selling products themselves don’t have merit, but in publishing it means that a lot of folks buy whatever is “best-selling,” whether good or bad. It’s all about keeping up with the Joneses. If two million people say a certain book is outstanding, then I must have a copy too. The logic is as old as the hills.

But in this case, if the book didn’t make the list by ethical means, then many people may have bought the book under false pretenses. Perhaps the book never deserved to make the list to begin with. Who knows?

So what does this story say to those of us who consider ourselves to be very small fish in the very large pond of publishing? What if we don’t have the bucks to buy our way to a best-seller’s list? What are we to do? Find a rich uncle?

My personal philosophy hasn’t changed. I’m not out to write books so I’ll be popular and get rich. I write books because God has given me a desire to. And if He has motivated me to tell a story and touch just one heart, then let His will be done.

For all the manipulation people may attempt to beat the system, nobody will thwart the will of the King in the end. I may never make a big-time list like the New York Times, but I can go to sleep with a clear conscience, knowing that I wrote the best book I could and didn’t do anything unethical to manipulate my sales numbers.

What about you? How does this story make you feel about publishing? Do you think it’s right that those who have the bucks can manipulate the system?

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3 thoughts on “Buy Your Way to the NYT Best-Seller List?

  1. Lynne Walding

    Adam, I found this article really interesting. Cool to know that others wonder about this “best seller” mystery, because I’ve read some “best sellers” that were downright awful. Like you, I write because that’s what I feel called to do. God impressed on me that I have some things to say that need to be heard, having been on both sides of the fence – letting Satan influence my decisions before learning to live my life for my Savior. I must admit I’m disappointed in the lack of marketing of my book and the slow sales. But the letters I get from people who feel they’ve benefitted spiritually from reading it – that makes up for poor sales. I always enjoy reading what you have to say. Keep up the good work.

  2. NikeChillemi

    The deck is stacked against Mark Driscoll, just as it’s stacked against you and I.

    The New York publishing world is incestuous. Publishers are married to authors, editors to news anchors who also have best selling books. They all went to the same colleges. They attend the same parties. This is not an easy world to break into.

    Yes, someone can write a book that flies off the shelves at B&N Walmart. That does happen.
    In addition you or I could hire a publicist, and many lower mid-level authors do just so that a publicity release can be sent out to Publisher’s Weekly and the like. Because authors can’t sent PR kits to those publications. Oh, we can, but they won’t get read. The sad truth is that PR releases from publicists we can afford to hire probably won’t get read either.

    The marketing firm Mark Driscoll hired will get its PR release read. They can set up book signings at B&N and get local TV to cover it. They have publicists who have spent a career getting their phone calls answered.

  3. Adam Blumer Post author

    Thanks for sounding off, Lynne. I can relate to slow sales as well. Just keep writing what God has put on your heart and leave the rest to Him. Nice to hear from you!

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