The Mystery of the Book Sales Spike
How Are Some Authors Landing On Best-Seller Lists? They're Buying Their Way
Last August, a book titled "Leapfrogging" hit The Wall Street Journal's list of best-selling business titles upon its debut. The following week, sales of the book, written by first-time author Soren Kaplan, plunged 99% and it fell off the list.
Something similar happened when the hardcover edition of "Networking is Dead," was published in mid-December. A week after selling enough copies to make it onto the Journal's business best-seller list, more hardcover copies of the book were returned than sold, says book-sales tracker Nielsen BookScan.
It isn't uncommon for a business book to land on best-seller lists only to quickly drop off. But even a brief appearance adds permanent luster to an author's reputation, greasing the skids for speaking and consulting engagements.
Mr. Kaplan says the best-seller status of "Leapfrogging" has "become part of my position as a speaker and consultant."
But the short moment of glory doesn't always occur by luck alone. In the cases mentioned above, the authors hired a marketing firm that purchased books ahead of publication date, creating a spike in sales that landed titles on the lists. The marketing firm, San Diego-based ResultSource, charges thousands of dollars for its services in addition to the cost of the books, according to authors interviewed.
As ResultSource's website points out, hitting best-seller lists can mean fame, and potentially lucrative consulting assignments.
"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 says.
ResultSource's principal, Kevin Small, declined requests for an interview. On its website, the company outlines its ambitions: "'We create campaigns that reach a specific goal, like: "On the bestsellers list," or "100,000 copies sold.'"
Precisely how it goes about that is unclear, though, and there is discomfort among some in the publishing industry who worry that preorders are being corralled and bulk purchases are being made to appear like single sales to qualify for inclusion in best-seller lists, which normally wouldn't count such sales.
Nielsen BookScan, which creates best-seller lists that are syndicated widely, including to the Wall Street Journal, says it tries to prevent its sales data from being manipulated.
"Stringent rules and controls exist to help validate consumer sales, and confirmed bulk sales are always flagged and pulled from BookScan's best-seller chart-making process," said Jonathan Stolper, general manager of Nielsen BookScan, a unit of Nielsen Holdings NV.
Nielsen BookScan's definition of bulk sales includes quantities bought by corporations or associations either for resale or free distribution, and quantities purchased by their authors, regardless of whether the writers intend to resell the books, give them away, or use them to fulfill a direct-marketing promotion.
The Journal declined to comment.
Amazon.com Inc. said it has stopped doing business with ResultSource. Amazon declined further comment.
After concluding that his book stood little chance of getting noticed without some special effort, Mr. Kaplan says he hired ResultSource.
He said ResultSource told him it could arrange the purchase of a quantity of books in such a way that they were counted toward national best-seller lists.
While Mr. Kaplan wrote the initial check for the books, he got reimbursed through preorders from his clients, he says.
"They use that check to buy the books," he says. "I had a big network of clients that I'd been consulting for, and I was able to presell enough books to them to get the funding to have ResultSource buy the books."
Mr. Kaplan purchased about 2,500 books through ResultSource, paying about $22 a book, including shipping, for a total of about $55,000.
Mr. Kaplan says he also paid ResultSource a fee in the range of $20,000 to $30,000.
With 3,000 copies sold in its first week, "Leapfrogging" hit No. 3 on the Journal's hardcover business best-seller list. It hit No. 1 on BarnesandNoble.com on Aug. 7. By Nielsen BookScan's count, about 1,000 print copies have been sold in the six months since. Barnes & Noble declined to comment.
Mr. Kaplan's publisher, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, discouraged him from using ResultSource, both the author and the publisher say. Steven Piersanti, president of the firm, says authors should instead focus on long-term goals such as building stronger relationships with potential readers.
Yet he also acknowledged that many first-time business authors face serious challenges in getting attention for their books.
Berrett-Koehler said "Leapfrogging" sold about 11,000 print copies between August and December 2012, including several thousand outside the U.S. Mr. Kaplan says sales were also boosted by references in various articles and media interviews.
At least one publisher, John Wiley & Sons Inc., recommends ResultSource to a small number of business authors. "We view it as a marketing tool that targets sales and the timing of those sales," a Wiley spokeswoman says.
To make a business-book best-seller list, a title doesn't need to sell as many copies as in other, bigger categories, like general fiction and nonfiction.
A title that sells 3,000 copies in a week, for example, might hit the Journal's business list, confirmed Nielsen BookScan.
Nielsen BookScan data tracks about 85% of the nation's physical book sales based on information supplied by national retailers and independent booksellers. Nielsen BookScan said it currently doesn't display its data from tracking digital books.
For the marketing of "Networking is Dead," co-author Melissa G. Wilson, a writer and consultant, says she hired ResultSource in part because she wanted to understand the experience firsthand before deciding whether she could recommend it to her publishing clients.
When asked how the process worked, Ms. Wilson said, "I write a check to Kevin, he buys the books and he ships them."
Ms. Wilson said ResultSource shipped the titles to the people to whom she had presold the books.
She added that she doesn't know how ResultSource did that so that the books were counted by best-seller lists. "It's a secret sauce," she said.
She said she was able to presell 3,000 copies—a big chunk of the first-week hardcover sales of 4,500—in part by telling companies that had hired her to speak that she would prefer to provide them with books in lieu of part of her speaking fee.
Ms. Wilson said she is satisfied with ResultSource's work. The publisher, BenBella Books, said "Networking is Dead" has sold about 8,800 copies to date, including paperbacks and e-books.
The UCLA Health System hired ResultSource to help launch Joseph A. Michelli's "Prescription for Excellence," a book that provides business lessons garnered inside the health system. ResultSource, acting on behalf of the UCLA Health System, purchased copies of the book, the health system said.
The book was published in May 2011 and hit No. 1 on the New York Times hardcover advice and miscellaneous list dated June 12, 2011. In its second week, sales plunged 96% and it fell off the list.
The New York Times compiles it own best-seller lists based on reports from retailers large and small, and statistically weights them. A spokeswoman declined to comment.
"They mailed [the copies] to the CEOs of all hospitals in the U.S. as part of the effort to disperse our message of patient-centered care," says Dale Tate, a spokeswoman for the UCLA Health System. The book has now sold 28,000 copies, including e-books.
Marcus Buckingham, whose "Go Put Your Strengths to Work" appeared multiple times on the Journal's best-seller list in 2007, says ResultSource's Mr. Small suggested a lengthy, successful promotional bus tour, with attendees paying $50 for a ticket that included a copy of the book. "Kevin was really smart at thinking about how to build energy and excitement around a book," said Mr. Buckingham. Still, Mr. Buckingham says he no longer uses ResultSource. "I want to do something that lasts over time," he said.
Write to Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg at email@example.com
A version of this article appeared February 21, 2013, on page B1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Mystery of the Book Sales Spike.