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Can Big Data Game Bestseller Lists?

Intellectual snobbery makes some Bestseller and Top Ten lists an obvious target

Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to Barack Obama (2009–17), recently published a book, Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward.

Such a book might be expected at this point in her career but it attracted attention for an unconventional reason: According to some, its placement on the New York Times Best Seller list did not seem warranted by its showing in the marketplace. Finding My Voice appeared there when it was only 1,030 on Amazon and had only three reviews. And, despite 12,600 recorded sales, Publishers Weekly did not list it:

“Given the organic sales of that book and the fact that during the entire week of rollout it barely cracked the top 100 on Amazon, there’s no way the book should have a place on the NYT Best Seller list. Inconceivable,” one prominent book industry insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “There’s likely an effort to game the system, it’s the only explanation.”

Luke Roziak, “ Obama adviser’s book is ranked 1,030 on Amazon. How did it make NYT’s best seller list?” at Daily Caller

So what’s the game? It’s usually one or another version of pretending that a bulk order of 10,000 books came from 10,000 individuals, which counts for much more. The digital era is a golden age for such manipulations because digits on a screen are much easier to fake than feet on the street.

Daily Caller is unfriendly to Jarrett’s politics; thus might be expected to play up such a story in her case. That said, the accusation isn’t a new one; it’s bipartisan and it sheds some light on the seamier side of Big Data in the book industry.

In short, your colleagues and acquaintances may not be reading what you think they are, if you go only by the figures you hear touted. So let’s delve a bit more into the art of faking up book sales numbers.

Intellectual snobbery makes some Bestseller and Top Ten lists an obvious target:

… if a book shows up on the New York Times list, there’s an imperative (in certain circles) that you know about it. In my own experience working at a bookstore this was true. Every week we’d receive the New York Times Book Review, and turn to the best seller list. We had to make sure we had copies of every book on the list in the store. And sure enough, that same weekend people would come in looking for those books more than any other.

Erin Bartnett, “Are Conservative Titles Using Shady Tricks to Get Onto the Bestseller List?” at ElectricLit

One company, ResultSource, was rather open about the rewards of making the list:

“Publishing a book builds credibility, but having a Bestseller initiates incredible growth—exponentially increasing the demand for your thought leadership, skyrocketing your speaking itinerary and value,” ResultSource’s website says.

Carl Franzen, “How authors are buying their way to the top of bestseller lists” at The Verge (2013)

Honest villainy doomed ResultSource. It shut down after the Wall Street Journal revealed its methods, but insiders say that similar outfits thrive in its wake, doubtless more quietly.

Underlying the problem is the mystique around data which is often, to be candid, bunk. The co-founder of Book in a Box, a self-publishing and book marketing firm, explains that “every bestseller list is a lie”. He singles out the New York Times list as a “cool kids” club, rife with “weirdness and elitism” (think high school):

For most of the 20th century, they pretended to use a scientific method to count book sales and claimed their list was authoritative and accurate. And then William Blatty wrote a novel called The Exorcist — which has sold 10 million copies and is a famous movie. It sold more than enough copies to be high on the bestseller list for a long time, but initially, it did not appear. He rightly claimed that The New York Times was intentionally excluding it for editorial reasons — the book was considered very controversial at the time — and claimed that their decision was costing him millions of dollars in sales.

Tucker Max, “How Bestseller Lists Actually Work – And How To Get On Them” at Entrepreneur (2016)

That was back in the Eighties and Blatty lost his case because, as Max recounts, the New York Times’ successful defense was that “the list did not purport to be an objective compilation of information but instead was an editorial product.” Nothing much has really changed. In other words, the Times list and other social must-haves for aspiring authors are not truly data-driven. He adds:

You can see this clearly if you have access to Nielsen BookScan, which is the database that tracks paid sales covering about 70 to 80 percent of book outlets. I have access because I own a publishing company, and I can see how much the New York Times List varies from the Nielsen report of actual books sold. Anyone in publishing can see this, and it is a known fact.

Tucker Max, “How Bestseller Lists Actually Work — And How To Get On Them” at Entrepreneur

Despite the “how-to” title of his article, Tucker doesn’t think that most authors should even try to be on bestseller lists. Books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies that never appear on such lists. Authors usually need these list rankings for status reasons. In that case, he counsels, they must be published by a big New York house and validated in those media that “the coastal media elite read and take seriously.” That may sharply limit the ideas that can be introduced and defended.

Such authors must also plan to sell five to ten thousand books in a single week, not over a year. That’s where the ten thousand sales that look individual but are actually a manipulated bulk order tempt some. The outcomes can be drastic, as one evangelical pastor found:

In January 2012, former megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll’s book Real Marriage went to the top spot on the Hardcover Advice section of The New York Times best-seller list. In March 2014, it was disclosed by evangelical magazine, World, that Driscoll’s publishing success was aided by a consulting firm called ResultSource, which purchased books on behalf of Driscoll in a coordinated effort to spike sales and give the impression that the book was popular with thousands of book buyers. Driscoll recently resigned from his church and one factor associated with his departure is the decision to buy his way onto the best-seller list.

Warren Throckmorton, “How the Religious Right Scams Its Way Onto the New York Times Bestseller List” at Daily Beast

As Brent Underwood warns at the Observer, the term “bestseller” today is like “when you see a food described as ‘natural. The FDA doesn’t actually regulate that term, so it’s basically meaningless.”

It’s never been easier to publish a book than it is today—and to market it through a tidal wave of channels in our highly connected society. Some questions I often put to writers’ seminars loom more urgent than ever:

  • Who is your intended audience?
  • Aren’t you the person who knows best how to reach them?
  • If not, shouldn’t you become that person before you try to publish the book?
  • Once you are that person, won’t you be much better able to judge what promotional activities will work best?
  • In a world of channels, which lists of books will really help you reach that particular audience?

The decline in the importance of coastal media could signal a decline in the importance of their Top Ten and Bestseller lists. But there is never a decline in the importance of knowing how to reach the people we need to communicate with.

See also: AI is not a simple fix for plagiarism. The internet speeded up a perennial problem without changing it


If thoughts were data, machines could write The fact that creativity does not follow computational rules may well be a ceiling for machine writing and it is not made of glass.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Immortal Mind: A Neurosurgeon’s Case for the Existence of the Soul (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Can Big Data Game Bestseller Lists?