The book business is not an easy one to break into, that’s for sure. So new authors often rely on book launches, social media campaigns, and networking to promote their books and get people buying. And what happens when enough copies of a book are sold? It makes the best seller list. Some authors will apparently do anything to get on these lists, even something that may be considered unethical or unfair.
Mark Dawson, an author of more than 20 books with multiple awards nominated, made his way to number eight of the Sunday Times hardback list with his book The Cleaner. When the Times released the midweek chart, Dawson saw that his book had reached number thirteen, just three spaces away from the coveted top ten. In his podcast, The Self Publishing Show Podcast, he explained that he contacted a children’s bookstore in Salisbury and asked if he could buy 400 copies of his own book for a whopping £3,600, or $4,587. They agreed, and The Cleaner made it to number eight.
His actions sparked a polite outrage on twitter, with other authors sharing their concerns over his tactics. Dawson replied by saying that he bought the books from his local bookstore in order to ship copies to interested readers outside the U.K., because the bookstore wouldn’t have been able to ship them otherwise. It wasn’t as though the books were just sitting on his shelf—they’d be going to interested readers, just with Dawson as an intermediary. Author Clare Mackintosh pointed out that this allowed him to control the timing of the sales. Since all the copies were bought before the best seller list came out instead of over a broader period of time like would have happened without Dawson’s actions, the more copies counted for the best seller list.
For an infamous example, look at Handbook for Mortals by Lani Sarem, published in 2017. Sarem pre-ordered several huge bulk orders from a series of bookstores in order to propel her book to the New York Times best seller list, where it reached number one. When Handbook for Mortals reached number one with very little real excitement or details from the young adult blogging world (very rare) and with the lack of availability on Amazon or physical Barnes and Nobles stores, hackles were raised and Sarem was accused of buying her way onto the best seller list. Sarem claimed that she was buying copies of her book for events, but this didn’t fly with the New York Times, who removed her book from the best seller list once her actions were discovered.
In fact, the New York Times has even come up with a method for identifying the books whose authors have bought their way onto the best seller list. If you’re browsing the best seller list and come across a dagger symbol next to an entry, that means that the books have been bulk-bought through bookstores that report their sales to the New York Times.
Shouldn’t this be illegal? Or have some sort of consequences? While Handbook for Mortals was pulled from the best seller list, The Cleaner wasn’t, nor were any of the other books with that bulk-bought dagger. It’s not illegal, and it seems as though it’s up to the best seller lists to either pull the books or not.
But here’s an even bigger question—is this ethical? Could it just be seen as a strategy to boost your sales? According to this 2004 study, getting on the New York Times best seller list increased debut authors’ sales by 57 percent, and on average it increased sales by 13 or 14 percent. So to buy your way onto the list could be seen as an investment for future sales, which will hopefully surpass the front payment needed for all those copies.
But…it’s definitely not fair. It means that authors with the means to buy their way onto the best seller list can get that boost because of money, not because of merit. Meanwhile, authors without those means don’t have that opportunity. Buying your way into the best seller list turns the list farther from a meritocracy.
The New York Times dagger, however, is at least a step in the right direction towards making this tactic fair. Sure, people can still bulk-buy their way onto the list, but readers will know. It gives the readers a chance to make their own decision as to whether they consider this move a valid strategy for boosting sales or an underhanded, unfair method only available for some.