BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week commentators were still chewing over the entrepreneurial zeal of Washington Post reporter and author David Vise. He was accused of trying to goose best seller lists by ordering 20,000 copies of his own book, The Bureau and the Mole. He flatly denies it saying he bought the books on line to sign and sell on his own, and we are inclined to believe him since the book had already landed on the best of all possible best seller lists, the New York Times. OTM's Jad Abumrad offers this quick look at the list and the authors who love it.
JAD ABUMRAD: When it comes to best seller lists, there's still only one game in town.
WOMEN: New York Times.
WOMEN: I look at the New York Times Best Seller List.
MAN: Occasionally I'll look at them.
WOMEN: Oh, I read it every week.
JAD ABUMRAD: Visit any bookstore in Manhattan and most browsers will tell you there is no other list they trust like the New York Times Best Seller List. But not just Manhattan -- across the country that phrase on book jackets -- "New York Times Best Seller" -- appears to guarantee consumer confidence. [SOUND OF CASH REGISTER] Not to mention that most times best sellers are heavily discounted by booksellers. For authors the impact of landing on that list can't be overstated.
WILLIE STERN: You can get a huge advance on your next book, typical deep six figures. You can get anywhere from 5 to 30,000 dollars per speech.
JAD ABUMRAD: Reporter Willie Stern of the Nashville Scene says that especially for non-fiction authors, a spot on the Times list can mean not just thousands but millions of dollars in consulting fees.
WILLIE STERN: People have been trying to buy their way onto the New York Times Best Seller List for as long as the New York Times has had a best seller list. If you give me 10 credit cards and 250,000 dollars and the name of a book, I can have that book on the New York Times Best Seller List 2 weeks from now.
JAD ABUMRAD: This is essentially what happened in a 1995 scandal which Stern reported in Business Week. To promote their new book, The Disciplines of Market Leaders, authors Fred Wiersema and Mike Treacy collected credit cards from co-workers. Then they had assistants use those credit cards to buy small amounts of books each day from various stores they knew reported sales to the New York Times.
WILLIE STERN: There were so many books piling in, they rented a tractor trailer and stacked these purchased but unread books in a parking lot in Paragon, Ohio. But even to this day the two authors can say hey, we're New York Times Best-Selling Authors.
JAD ABUMRAD: The scam worked because the two had access to the secret behind the Times' list. Each week the Times checks in with a select and confidential group of 3,000 bookstores throughout the country and compiles its list based on statistical sampling. The Times would not return phone calls, but an editor at the Book Review, Michael Kagay, has said the secrecy is intended to guard against manipulation of the list. But according to Stern it's the worst-kept secret in publishing.
WILLIE STERN: There are certain truisms in the book industry. Truism number one is that when you send your author out on his or her book tour, you always do a book signing at a New York Times reporting book store.
JAD ABUMRAD: After the '95 incident, the Times began putting a small dagger next to books where a portion of the sales resulted from bulk purchases. Still, this relies on book stores reporting when books are bought in bunches, and according to Stern, many do not report it. Complicating matters, publishers and literary agents are quick to defend the right to buy books in bulk in certain situations. Ron Land is a sales executive with Thomas Nelson Publishing.
RON LAND: It is common and I believe it is legitimate promotion where an author will arrange for a book store or a book store chain to be in the back of the room selling books to a large convention, quite often a thousands books or, or more in a single day are sold through that kind of event, but those all end up in the hands of legitimate consumers.
JAD ABUMRAD: Publishers and literary agents have the resources to arrange big sales events for established authors, but what about first timers? Robin Miller, counsel for the Authors Guild, says they're left to swim on their own.
ROBIN MILLER: It used to be maybe even 5 years ago that the author's job was to write and the publisher's job was to take those words and get it into readers' hands. Now basically the author is responsible for most of it. Publishers don't do that any more for most books.
JAD ABUMRAD: What used to be a gentleman's trade of literary cocktail mixers and wafer thin profit margins, she says, is now a business of widgets. She points to the fact that publishing house salesmen are instructed to limit the time they pitch each book to a chain store to only 7 seconds.
ROBIN MILLER: And they'll use many books' 7 seconds [LAUGHS] to give one book a minute, and you just have to hope that isn't you, but for most authors it is them.
JAD ABUMRAD: Tempting the individual author to consider more radical forms of self-promotion. To better ensure the accuracy of their sales figures many chain stores have begun to use new computerized systems like Book Scan to tally the exact number of books purchased. Even though these system offer more disclosure than the Times list, they share the same fatal flaw.
WILLIE STERN: An inability to distinguish between bulk orders that are being bought to manipulate the list and end up in somebody's garage and bulk orders that are being purchased for legitimate reasons -- to give out at book signings, to give to friends, to give to clients.
JAD ABUMRAD: Reporter Willie Stern says as long as authors have the means and the motive to manipulate these easily-manipulated lists, readers are advised to scan the reviews and not judge a book by its numbers. For On the Media this is Jad Abumrad.