8 Notable Attempts to Hack the New York Times Bestseller List
Surprise: Republican Politicians Also Cheat at Book Sales
The bestseller list is a surprisingly complicated creature. A good and thorough explanation is here, but basically, to get on any official list of bestsellers, you have to sell at least 5,000 books in a single week—which seems straightforward, except that it’s really hard to count books sold week-to-week, even harder to count books sold by non-traditional outlets, and also not everyone is looking at all the same numbers. Publisher’s Weekly uses BookScan, but BookScan doesn’t track everything. Other bestseller lists rely on reported data from bookstores (online and off), or a combination. The New York Times list is the most prestigious, of course, because it’s the New York Times, but also, at least in part, because it’s the most opaque. “The Times’s best-seller lists are based on a detailed analysis of book sales from a wide range of retailers who provide us with specific and confidential context of their sales each week,” a New York Times spokesperson told Vox. “These standards are applied consistently, across the board in order to provide Times readers our best assessment of what books are the most broadly popular at that time.” Which doesn’t tell us much, and the Times is notoriously hush-hush about which stores they track and how they interpret and arrange their data.
Despite all the confusion, it’s not super hard to buy 5,000 books in a single week—if you already have the money—which could send your book to the top of the charts, depending on the week in question. This isn’t illegal, but it is gaming the system, or even cheating, if you will, and the New York Times list will sometimes include a dagger next to books they suspect might owe their placement to “strategic bulk purchases.” Worse than that demure little dagger is the fact that you’ll likely be found out and raked over the coals, especially if you’re already a public figure. On the other hand, years after people have forgotten that you scammed your way onto the bestseller list, you’ll still be putting “bestselling author” in front of your name.
Not everyone will forget, though. Considering the recent spate of bestseller-list drama, here are eight notable instances of list-hacking in its various forms, from the very cynical to the very silly.
Lani Sarem, Handbook for Mortals
In August, a book very few people had ever heard of shot to the top of the Young Adult Hardcover section of the New York Times bestseller list. The book, Handbook for Mortals, was published by GeekNation, a website launched in 2012, and if that sounds odd, it’s because Sarem’s book (and attendant movie franchise deal) was the geek culture site’s first foray into publishing. It all smells a little pre-packaged, honestly, and the fact that Sarem is JC Chasez’s cousin does not make it smell any fresher.
YA author Phil Stamper brought the oddity to the book world’s attention, tweeting, “I find it . . . strange that a mediocre website can decide it wants to be a publisher, and one month later hit #1 on the NYT Bestsellers list” and “A book that’s out of stock on Amazon and is not currently in any physical B&N in the tri-state area . . . A book that no one has heard of except for the two niche blogs that covered the [GeekNation] press release. Sells ~5,000 in the first week? Ok.” Soon, booksellers began writing to Stamper, reporting that they had been getting mysterious bulk orders of Handbook for Mortals—but only after the caller made sure that their sales were reported to the Times bestseller list. More evidence quickly began to stack up, and by the end of the day, the Times had changed the list. “After investigating the inconsistencies in the most recent reporting cycle, we decided that the sales for Handbook for Mortals did not meet our criteria for inclusion,” a Times spokesperson told NPR in a statement.
In an interview with HuffPost, Sarem said, “OK, I get it. I didn’t play by the normal YA rules. I didn’t […] send out galleys two years in advance, and I didn’t go talk to the people that thought I should come talk to them. I did it a different way. Do you only get to be successful in the YA world if you only do it the way that they think it’s supposed to be done?” Later, she complained, “People keep saying that they’re tired of hearing the same story over and over again. Well, start supporting new stories. Start supporting new artists.”
A couple of weeks later, she wrote an op-ed, also at HuffPost, in which she admitted to buying her own book in bulk to sell it at Comic Con events, but said this was “well within the rules” of the bestseller list. This isn’t really borne out by the evidence, though, which shows many orders and no stock to fill them with—that is, nonexistent books purchased by people who didn’t care if they ever received them.
Fun fact: Blues Traveler, whom Sarem used to manage, tweeted that they “fired her for these kinds of stunts. Her sense of denial is staggering.”
Donald Trump, The Art of the Deal
Donald Trump loves to brag about how he’s a great businessman, and how he’s a great bestselling writer, and how he’s a great bestselling writer of a great book about being a great businessman. The Art of the Deal is second only to the Bible, right? But recently in the New Republic, Alex Shephard reported that when it comes to the popularity of The Art of the Deal, Donald Trump may not be as great as all that. Shocker! Shephard reports that ex-Trump executive Jack O’Donnell’s 1991 tell-all Trumped! explains exactly how The Art of the Deal became such a big bestseller: the Trump organization bought “tens of thousands of copies on its own.” Shephard reports:
In his book, O’Donnell recounts buying 1,000 copies of The Art of the Deal to sell in the Plaza’s gift shop—only to be told by fellow executive Steve Hyde that it wasn’t nearly enough. “You’ve got to increase your order,” Hyde told him. “Donald will go nuts if you don’t order more books.” How many more? Four thousand copies, O’Donnell was told.
. . .
And it wasn’t just the Plaza Hotel that was buying the book in bulk. According to O’Donnell, Trump executives were instructed to buy thousands of copies for their properties. In typical Trump fashion, the boss pitted his top executives against each other: When Trump’s then-wife, Ivana, ordered 4,000 books for the Trump Castle Casino in Atlantic City, O’Donnell was warned that he needed to match her. “Hey, Jack,” a fellow executive cautioned him, “you better buy as many books as Ivana, or Donald will use it against you.”
To be fair, Shephard says, The Art of the Deal would have wound up a bestseller anyway. But only last year, Trump pulled the same thing with his book Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again (which I have never heard of), buying $55,055 worth of copies at Barnes & Noble. Again, not illegal—unless he gets any royalties from the purchases. “It’s fine for a candidate’s book to be purchased by his committee, but it’s impermissible to receive royalties from the publisher,” a representative of nonpartisan nonprofit Campaign Legal Center told The Daily Beast. “That amounts to an illegal conversion of campaign funds to personal use. There’s a well established precedent from the FEC that funds from the campaign account can’t end up in your own pocket.” Of course, that probably didn’t stop him. It’s Donald Trump, after all.
Ted Cruz, The Time for Truth
In 2015, the New York Times ruffled some feathers by keeping Ted Cruz’s biography off the bestseller list, despite the fact that, according to the Nielsen BookScan, it had sold 11,854 copies in its first week. “We have uniform standards that we apply to our best seller list, which includes an analysis of book sales that goes beyond simply the number of books sold,” said a Times spokesperson. “This book didn’t meet that standard this week.” When pushed by a Politico reporter, the spokesperson said, “In the case of this book, the overwhelming preponderance of evidence was that sales were limited to strategic bulk purchases.” That’s because, as the New Republic reported, Cruz paid $122,252.62 to his own publisher, likely to buy copies of his own book—which at the time of the piece in question he was selling, signed, on his website for $85 a pop. At that price, I would hope there would at least be some dirty pictures inside. We all know Cruz likes those.
Herman Cain, This is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House
In 2011, Herman Cain’s campaign not only bought $36,511 worth of his own books, it bought them from his own motivational speaking company, which seems to be called T.H.E. New Voice. Same issues apply here: “All candidates publish books and they offer them as premiums to donors, but most candidates aren’t buying them from their own companies,” said Bill Allison, editorial director at the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation. “It raises the question of his campaign contributions ending up in his own pocket.” The book debuted at number 4 on the New York Times bestseller list.
Mitt Romney, No Apology
(Is there a pattern developing here?) Mitt Romney did things slightly differently than Trump and Cruz—instead of buying his own books directly, he essentially bartered for book sales. According to Politico, when Romney went on book tour in May of 2015, his book hit the top of the Times bestseller list—albeit with the dagger they use to denote bulk sales. But how did he get those sales? By asking for his speaking fees in books purchased instead of dollars transferred. Ben Smith writes:
Asking that hosts buy books is also a standard feature of book tours. But Romney’s total price—$50,000—was on the high end, and his publisher, according to the document from the book tour—provided on the condition it not be described in detail—asked institutions to pay at least $25,000, and up to the full $50,000 price, in bulk purchases of the book. With a discount of roughly 40 percent, that meant institutions could wind up with more than 3,000 copies of the book—and a person associated with one of his hosts said they still have quite a pile left over.
I mean, it’s certainly crafty, and more creative than what his fellow offenders tried, but it’s still a hack, and it’s a hack that wastes a lot of paper.
Mark Driscoll, Real Marriage
This one will stand in for a number of books that have cheated their way onto bestseller lists via “consulting” services—in this case, ResultSource, a firm that charged megachurch pastor Driscoll some $210,000 to guarantee a #1 spot. In 2012, Real Marriage hit the top of the Times bestseller list, but it wasn’t until 2014 that it was revealed that Driscoll had purchased its place there. After the news broke and the controversy began to brew, Driscoll apologized publicly, writing in an open letter that he would no longer call himself a “No. 1 New York Times bestseller” and that he would “reset his life.” Driscoll was far from the only author to hit the bestseller list this way—the Wall Street Journal did a whole exposé—but it seems to have been Driscoll’s outing and the resulting response from the evangelical community that sent ResultSource underground. (They’re not dead, they’re just quiet.)
Penelope Ashe a.k.a. Mike McGrady (et al.), Naked Came the Stranger
Here’s a different sort of hack: in the late 60s, a Newsday editor named Mike McGrady had an idea. “It came after a night of reading [Jacqueline Susann’s mega-bestseller] Valley of the Dolls,” he said, “which I couldn’t put down because I was asleep.” The idea was this: to trick the literati (and the New York Times bestseller list) with a truly terrible book written by committee, an “ironic commentary,” as the Times put it, “on the public’s appetite for Jacqueline Susann and her ilk.” McGrady sent a memo to a group of journalists at Newsday: “As one of Newsday’s truly outstanding literary talents, you are hereby officially invited to become the co-author of a best-selling novel,” he wrote. “There will be an unremitting emphasis on sex. Also, true excellence in writing will be quickly blue-penciled into oblivion.” Twenty-four of them signed on, and the book was published in 1969, its author declared to be “demure Long Island housewife” Penelope Ashe. It quickly sold 20,000 copies. When the hoax was revealed, it only made the book more popular, and it stayed on the bestseller list for 13 weeks.
Now, I admit that this one is sort of a gray area for our purposes here. As Nicole Cliffe put it a few years ago at The Awl: “Can a novel even be a hoax? Being intentionally bad and unwittingly fabulous isn’t a crime, my dears. . . . Can you tell that each chapter was by a different journalist? Not really. Are the sex scenes worse than sex scenes ever are? No. Is there any discernible reason that Fifty Shades of Grey is “real,” and Naked Came the Stranger is “fake”? Nah. We’re through the looking glass here, people.” But it seems enough of an intentional coup, not to mention a cynical bid for popularity, whether ironically-intended or not, that I’ll just leave it here.
Frederick R. Ewing, I, Libertine
There once was a late-night DJ named Jean Shepherd, who in 1956, had the graveyard shift (1 am to 5:30 am) at New York’s WOR, in which he championed Night People, like his listeners, over the Day People. The Night Person, he said, “believes in the world of the office; he really believes in file cabinets. . . . The time from 8 am to 6 in the evening is the time he’s alive.” Well, harsh but fair. At the Awl, Matthew Callan describes how the hoax began to grow in the mind of the charismatic DJ when he visited a bookstore:
When he couldn’t find a book he was looking for on the shelves, a clerk informed him the book must not exist because it hadn’t appeared on any publisher’s list the clerk had ever seen. Shepherd was positive the book existed, but no amount of insistence on Shepherd’s part could budge the clerk from his certainty. This encounter would prove to be the fuel for the fire to come.
Years later Shepherd described the hoax’s genesis while a guest on Long John Nebel’s radio show — WFMU has the clip — saying: “I was new to New York, and I suddenly became aware that New York is almost entirely a city that really does run on lists.” But, he asked his listeners, “has it occurred to you that these lists are compiled by mortals and that they are human just like you are and, in fact, they have many more axes to grind than you?”
Shepherd decided that he wanted to get a book on the bestseller list—an imaginary book. “What do you say tomorrow morning each one of us walk into a bookstore, and ask for a book that we know does not exist?” he asked his listeners. The book they decided to ask for was I, Libertine, its author, Frederick R. Ewing, published by Excelsior Press, an imprint of Cambridge University Press. And ask they did:
The listeners did exactly as they were told, invading bookshops in the hundreds to “seek” their copy of I, Libertine. The requests came up in Paris and Rome, as pilots and flight attendants (natural Night People, it seems) did their duty and asked for I, Libertine wherever they landed.
The initial requests were easy to dismiss, but once two or three people had stopped by their local New York bookstore, asking for I, Libertine, bookstores were forced to take notice. Confused bookstore workers called one another, each asking the next if he’d heard of this I, Libertine thing, or had any idea where copies could be found. The book wasn’t on any lists, but it had to be somewhere, right? Why were so many people in so many places asking for a book if it didn’t exist?
Later, Shepherd would claim that the book did wind up on a couple best-seller lists, on account of pre-sales, but Callan says there’s no evidence that this is true. What is true, though, is that this book became real through sheer force of will. After only a few months, the story broke: I, Libertine was a hoax. But then it was un-hoaxed: Theodore Sturgeon, a friend of Shepherd’s, actually wrote the book, and Ballantine Books published it. It may not have actually ever cracked the bestseller list, but that bestseller list certainly helped call the book into being.