Saturday, February 23, 2013

On Bestseller Lists, Book Ratings and Ethics

A few years ago, author David A. Vise riled industry insiders when he bought thousands of his own book from Barnes& to sign and resell on his own Web site. He said he was simply promoting the book. I was a new author and could see how he might not have understood the ethical ramifications.

David Vise didn't do anything that hasn't been done since Joseph P. Kennedy "bought" John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage a top place on The New York Times Best Sellers List. Vise didn't do anything that many authors haven't done; writers often buy their books from one of the online bookstores because they get service faster from the web booksellers than from their own publishers.

Some may say "two wrongs don't make a right."

And I'd agree.

Trouble is, what is "right?" Is The New York Times list always "fair," anyway? I've heard people (indeed, experts!) say the data-gathering for that list is skewed by the accuracy of reporting stores, the frequency of an author's events, the idea that publisher reports don't consider the number of books returned and a whole lot more.

We all know that the entire publishing industry system is one of favoritism. It ignores books because they are published on a particular kind of press The very process that publishers use for selecting titles panders to sales rather than literary quality. I think it's wonderful that under such a system so many really good books do get the attention they deserve and saddened that so many deserve better than they get. It just doesn't seem fair.  

What about book clubs that only consider books published by big publishers? Is that fair?
What about paid-for book reviews? Can they be trusted?

What about online book launches that encourage people to buy books within a certain time period to see if they can make a book a #1 bestseller?

What is fair in the book industry these days?

I am not defending David Vise's actions. But as a novelist and poet who is just trying to see that her book gets exposure and that she is paid royalties on books that are sold to those who read them, I constantly see ideas and offers that reek of "unethical" to me—or border on it. After some years at looking at so many manipulating the already corrupt system any way they can, here's where I've decided I must ethically draw the line:

I've decided that I can legitimately buy the books I send to reviewers and to the media directly from (their prices are generally lower than B&N's). This process does a couple of things for me. Amazon ships my orders faster than some of my publishers. It keeps an online record of the addresses of these important media folks for future reference. It's almost as cheap as ordering from my publisher, especially when I factor in freight. And yes, it edges Amazon's ratings in my favor, though ever so slightly. But is sure won't rig those ratings enough to shoot my books to bestsellerdom—on Amazon's list or any other.


I also often buy my own books from online bookstores when I send them as gifts. Again, it's a thrifty and convenient not to have to pay shipping twice on the same book. And the numbers are small. The intent isn't to rig the system.


If Vise bought 17,000 books and put a match to them, he was probably trying to tamper with the Best Seller list. That he bought 17,000 and resold them becomes problematic. So many things that have to do with ethics boil down to motivation. And maybe quantity. I can see why he was tempted. All of us should give our great promotion ideas a quick once over to see if they pass the ethics test. And only we can truly judge our own motives.


If Vise had bought 17,000 books that were then donated to libraries, the homeless, etc., would that have worked for some ethicists? Doing what he did doesn't seem fair to those authors who haven't the means to play the same game, but then--as I said before--what is fair?


By now most authors have gotten used to a whole lot of things that are unfair.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author of This Is the Place; Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered; Tracings, a chapbook of poetry; and how to books for writers including the award-winning second edition of, The Frugal Book Promoter: How to get nearly free publicity on your own or by partnering with your publisher; The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success; and Great Little Last Minute Editing Tips for Writers . The Great First Impression Book Proposal is her newest booklet for writers. She has three FRUGAL books for retailers including A Retailer’s Guide to Frugal In-Store Promotions: How To Increase Profits and Spit in the Eyes of Economic Downturns with Thrifty Events and Sales Techniques. Some of her other blogs are, a blog where authors can recycle their favorite reviews. She also blogs at all things editing, grammar, formatting and more at The Frugal, Smart and Tuned-In Editor . If your followers at Twitter would benefit from this blog post, please use the little Green widget to let them know about this blog:

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