April 25, 2017

Gaming the Best Seller Lists: How Business Book Authors Might Cheat the System

And why it might be costing you time and money.

social proof gone wrong

In order to kill as many buffalo as possible in a short period of time, it is said that Native Americans used to herd buffalo off a cliff. 

Buffalo apparently have the ability to only see two feet in front of their face due to their eyes being buried so deep on either side of their head, and will follow the buffalo in front of them, no matter the consequence.

This lack of ability to see pending doom made it easy for those who had a stake in the death of the buffalo, to kill more buffalo, by simply, and literally, herding them off a cliff. The inability to see for themselves created an irresistible force for the buffalo, ultimately leading to their death.

Assertion

Some people are leveraging this same type of force, by using similar tactics deployed by the Native Americans to herd you of a “cliff”. The “cliff” in your case is the expense of your most valuable resources of time and money. 

The blinder, leading to the death of your time and money, is your seemingly uncontrollable urge, a psychological bias, which has you want to follow the crowd.

One group of these “herders” is the authors of business strategy books who sometimes even find their way on to the Best Seller lists.

My opinion is, your preconceived notion of what it means to be an author or to be on a Best Seller list, creates a powerful force, that has you, in many cases, unknowingly misplacing your trust in these authors and:

  • Trying to use the tactics the author suggests, falsely believing that your effort will produce positive business outcomes
  • Paying the authors for their consulting advice, falsely believing that the author has a unique way of producing positive business results
  • In the case of wannabe rock stars authors, trying to replicate the author’s success by mimicking how they rose to such a high level of popularity (particularly when the author says they used a certain tactic to create buzz and drive sales.)
  • Blocking your visibility to the authors who write books that have real value.

An author can fool you into believing they are an expert by writing a book. Like Mike Brady said, caveat emptor. This is totally on you. You really shouldn’t be so naive as to think just because someone wrote a book, they can help you grow your business.

In my view however, it becomes a more serious ethical dilemma, bordering on fraud for you, for the author and the industry, when you consider that some of these authors game their way onto the Best Seller list, by in some way shape or form, buying, or using someone else, to buy their own books.

What allows you to be so taken in and in some cases manipulated by these authors? It’s a psychological bias called social proof, and it’s something that has the potential to kill the growth of your business.

What is The Principle of Social Proof?

I know all about social proof. I want to jump ahead.

“Social proof, also known as informational social influence, is a psychological phenomenon where people assume the actions of others in an attempt to reflect correct behavior for a given situation. This effect is prominent in ambiguous social situations where people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior, and is driven by the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation.” Source

I prefer a simpler definition provided by Robert Cialdini.

The Principle of Social Proof, as defined in Robert Cialdinis book, Influence, “states that one means we use to determine what is correct, is to find out what other people think is correct.”

“Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.”

Walter Lippman

Image Source

This is a seemingly logical way to make good decisions, because in many cases, if the masses are doing it, and not being harmed, it may be a safe bet for you to do it.

The problem arises when, like in the case of buffalo, people are being mislead to accept something as a safe bet, or an effective course of action, when in reality, they were fooled into their belief by an initial manufacturing of social proof. 

Why is Social Proof so effective?

In a study done in 2010, and published by Cornell University, three researches tried to understand why people desire but reject creative ideas. It turns out that we don’t like risk and uncertainty, and at a subconscious level, gravitate away from anything that poses a risk or an unknown. It would seem to make sense then, that social proof gives us a comfort level that something has been tested before, making us perceive it to be a safe move for us.

You might be thinking that you are an independent thinker, and that you don’t follow the crowd. You might be right, but I wouldn’t be too sure.

Psychological biases are not so easily managed or controlled. In fact, research suggests that we really are not aware that these biases exist, because many exist at a subconscious level.

At a minimum though, we can know that we are all susceptible to biases, and work to think through the decisions and choices we make as a result.

Just in case you are skeptical…

Proof of Social Proof

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that what others are doing has a huge impact on our choice to join in. If you doubt that you can be mislead by the power of social proof, you might find the following research useful.

The question now is, what do the Best Seller lists have to do with social proof?

Social Proof and The Best Seller Lists

Social proof is largely derived from either the volume of people who you think endorse something, or the reputation, in your mind of any one person or group endorsing something.

In the case of a Best Seller list, and in particular with lists like the New York Times Best Seller list, it is both.

The list itself can be a “celebrity” type endorsement, and the crowds of people buying the books makes you want one for yourself.

Evidence of this social proof can be examined by looking at the value of being on the list. The value can be somewhat quantified by examining:

  • What “experts” say about the value derived from writing business books
  • How “experts” promote their best seller status
  • The business impact of writing business books

What do the “experts” say about writing a book?

NOTE: The authors I mention in the next few sections are named ONLY to demonstrate how effective being an author can be. I am not, by including them here, implying that they are either not smart, or that they gamed the syste. 

Here is what a few high profile consultants say about just writing a book:

  • Joe Pulizzi – “A number of my friends produce events. For about 50% of them, they won’t even approach someone to speak at an event unless they’ve written a book (self-published or published through a traditional publisher like McGraw-Hill or Wiley). So you can’t even get a ticket to the ball in most situations without a book.”

  • Michael Hyatt – “Being a published author has done more for my career—and my income—than I could have ever imagined. It has opened doors of opportunity I couldn’t have dreamed were possible. And, it can happen for you, too.”

My personal favorite is an acknowledgment from Jason Falls:

  • “The reason you actually write and publish a book is not to make money from sales. Unless you’re Stephen King. You write and publish a book for credibility. That credibility allows you to charge more for what you did before. As a social media marketing consultant, my hourly rate increased. As a professional public speaker, my fee increased. In a matter of days (on or around Sept. 15, 2011), my hourly rate jumped $50 per hour (which was conservative … I could have gone up $150). My speaking fees almost doubled. (I’m still one of the cheapest social media keynote speakers on the market, though.) As a result, I’ve probably pulled in about $40,000 in additional revenue from September 15, 2011 until now. When you look at that perspective, writing a book is a no-brainer: Write your ass off!”

How do the “experts” promote their “Best Seller” or even just “Author” status?

When you write a book, you certainly gain some value as an expert. When that book becomes a best seller, the value skyrockets exponentially. Note, as evidence that there may be value in being an Author or Best Seller, “best selling author” is not very far from the authors name, ever. (again, note, these authors are listed here ONLY to make the point that it is valuable to be a Best Selling author)

The same Micahel Hyatt from above, who suggest that there is value in just writing a book, says this about becoming a best seller.

  • Michael Hyatt – “From my perspective, hitting the bestseller lists had five benefits: It credentialed me as an expert (or at least a perceived expert). It raised the visibility of the book with retailers, resulting in more orders, and thus spreading the message. It resulted in more media interest and more interview requests. It provided more speaking inquiries and enabled me to secure higher fees. It continues to open doors.” 

Yes Michael indeed, and part of the problem is, people only perceive that you are an expert. Many authors really are not experts at all.

What is the business impact of book writing?

Mike Schultz in a survey of 200 business book authors conducted back in 2006 found the following to be true:

  • “The vast majority of the authors we surveyed — 96% — said they did realize a significant positive impact on their businesses from writing a book and would recommend the practice.”
  • “It may sound obvious, but the biggest finding was that authors who sold more than 10,000 copies of their books were much more satisfied with how the effort paid off than were those who sold fewer than 10,000.”
  • “Those who sold 20,000 copies or higher were off the charts in their enthusiasm. So, more than anything else we measured, the number of books sold was the biggest factor contributing to the project’s success.”
  • The benefits cited were things like “generating more leads, closing more deals, charging higher fees, and getting better speaking engagements.”

In other words, there is value in writing a book, and even more value in making it on to a Best Seller list.

That value is largely derived from people, as Michael Hyatt suggests, perceiving that you have some sort of expertise.

This in and of itself is a dangerous thing, but what happens when an author games their way onto a Best Seller list? It becomes, in my opinion, manipulative, deceptive and even, in my opinion, getting very close to being a fraudulent activity.

AT THE VERY LEAST, gaming your way onto a Best Seller list is unethical.

Gaming the Best Seller List

Now that you and I can appreciate the value of writing a business book, it is safe to assume we understand why some authors might be motivated to use manipulative tactics to get on a Best Seller list, or just sell more books. (Kinda like steroids in Baseball)

One way is to get fake reviews for your book. This is a piece of cake to spot. All you have to do is see if a book has anything but 5 start reviews.

Another way, and a bit harder to detect is, when authors manufacture fake sales of their book.

Dave Kerpen and Resultsource

I just recently read an article written back in 2012 by a man named Brandon Medelson, or BJ. BJ asserts that a social media “rock star” by the name of Dave Kerpen actually revealed privately to BJ that his rise to the NYT Best Seller List was gamed by his paying money for a company to buy in bulk copies of his first book.

Now, I don’t know either BJ or Dave all that well, and have little to no interest in their personal battle. What caught my eye was the assertion that Dave admitted to using ResultSource.

Not one to take anyone I do not know at face value, and because BJ indicated that Dave admitted using Resultsource via a blog article, I went and found the blog article.  The blog article was Dave’s attempt to provide his opinion about Bulk Sales of books as well as a response to BJ’s article.

According to Dave, because I asked him why his blog article was deleted, the blog article was deleted “because his entire blog was deleted”. He indicated that he writes for Inc. and Linkedin, and didn’t feel the need to keep up a blog. 

At this point I am wondering why someone would take down an entire blog, but in any event, the one article is relevant because in it, Dave tells us how he made it to the NYT Best Seller list.

In his own words…

“There are also several companies who help coordinate bulk book purchases and bestseller campaigns. For my fist book, I used Resultsource, a company who has worked with Tony Hsiesh, Ken Blanchard, Keith Ferrazzi and many other great authors. Again, this is something I talk about transparently to anyone who asks. ResultSource didn’t buy any books from me, and I didn’t buy my own books – they helped coordinate the books being purchased and distributed through several major retail channels.” 

I will stay away from the notion that Dave mentions other authors in his own transparency, making the assumption that they too want to be transparent. I suspect given that Dave deleted his article, none of them seem to want to be all that transparent, but that is just me.

In fact, I don’t know anything about Dave Kerpens book sales other then he admits to using Resultsource.

Let’s move on to discover this “Ace In the Hole”, Resultsource.

Who is Resultsource?

According to Resultsource – All you can determine from their current website is that they want you to contact them. However, according to a cached version of their completely deleted website

result_sourceSince 1997 RSI has been building some of the most recognized titles in publishing today—with the longest and strongest track record in the marketplace (in fact, our titles just keep getting stronger).  Yes, it takes a good book, to generate great results.  But, even a great book, without great publicity, positioning, platform, and strategy, isn’t going to reach its potential. RSI is a campaign-focused company—creating customized plans, unique to your needs and your networks—with an end-goal in mind.  RSI’s campaigns are a sequence of actions all designed to produce clearly defined objectives within limited timeframes and with limited resources.  We don’t sell vague promises like “increase your awareness”.  Instead, we create campaigns that reach a specific goal, like: “On the bestsellers list”, or “100,000 copies sold.” How do we achieve these results, book after book? RSI has developed proprietary methods to influence engineered and organic levers in the marketplace.  Our strategies are customized, proven, and backed by trust-governed relationships throughout the industry.

According to BJ – “Dave tells me that he, much like Guy Kawaski and other prominent business and marketing authors, paid a company (ResultSource) “in the low five figures” to bulk buy copies of his book in order to get on that list.” 

According to Dave – from an email he sent to me: 

“I have written 3 books to date. With every book I write, I offer to sell bulk books to companies and conferences in exchange for speaking. There is absolutely nothing wrong with or unique about that practice. If a book isn’t good, reviews will indicate that, as will future sales. When promoting a book, you want to get as many books out there as possible in the upfront, so that enough readers can fairly evaluate it and gain momentum.

Resultsource, to my knowledge, is a company that helps distribute the bulk book purchases. That’s certainly how I used them when I did. I’m not sure how, unless you were very rich, and had many friends across the country, you could game that system to make the New York Times best seller list. You have to legitimately be able to sell books. Marketers may be better at pre-selling books, which is why many of these books reach the list– but that’s just a hypothesis. I found that many companies in 2010 wanted to know an awful lot about social media.

The “hot topic” of Result Source is one that seems to have come up in the past few years.  I’m unsure of how their program works today or if it has changed. When I worked with them, they shipped books that I legitimately sold to readers, companies, and conferences across the US.  I can only share my own experience, but this was my experience with the company.”

According to an article in the WSJ – “Precisely how it (Resultsource) 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.”

From the same article, and in regards to author Soren Kaplan, “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.’

From an article in Forbes – “For clients willing to pay enough, it will even guarantee a No. 1 spot. It does this by taking bulk sales and breaking them up into more organic-looking individual purchases, defeating safeguards that are supposed to make it impossible to “buy” bestseller status.”

The most revealing article actually posted an image of a contract between Mark Driscoll and Resultsource. In it, RSI clearly outlines a process by which the author and/or RSI will provide addresses dispersed throughout the country where books can be shipped. They say that the NYT requires this disbursement of addresses. 

What’s worse is, it appears from the same article, that RSI uses over 1000 different payment types to avoid detection.

My Questions So Far (And if you are paying attention, Your Questions Too)

  • If books were legitimately sold, wouldn’t the addresses just be aligned with the buyers?
  • Would there be a contractual need to collect addresses purposely dispersed all over the country?
  • Would RSI do something for Mark Driscoll that they wouldn’t do for Dave Kerpen?
  • Why would a legitimate book agency need to do anything to avoid detection?
  • Why did Resultsource try to erase their existence from the web if they had nothing to hide?
  • Why did Dave Kerpen delete an article where he comes clean about using Resultsource?
  • Why would some Best Seller lists make public statements about avoiding Resultsource and condemning their methods?
  • Why would Best Seller lists allow authors like Dave to continue to make money using the label of “Best Selling Author” when he admits to using a service that is unacceptable?

What do the Best Seller lists think of Resultsource?

In fact, the NYT doesnt appear to think bulk sales are good either. “An asterisk (*) indicates that a book’s sales are barely distinguishable from those of the book above. A dagger (†) indicates that some bookstores report receiving bulk orders.” 

Dave Kerpen “New York Times Best Selling Author”

Dave Kerpen uses plausible deniability when he said to me that “as far as he knew, Resultsource did…”. The problem in this case with plausible deniability is, that it is is a double edged sword.

If Dave is as he wants us to believe he is, a world class marketing consultant, business adviser and NYT Best Selling author, how could he expect us to also believe he had no idea how Resultsource got him to the NYT Best Seller List? I don’t know.

It truly seems difficult to believe that Resultsource, given the evidence, and the fact that Resultsource vanished, that they are not into shady stuff. If that is the case, what does that say about Dave if he  in fact was not in the know? I don’t know.

Which makes me wonder about Dave’s transparency as well as the book marketing industry as a whole.

Comment On Dave’s Deleted Blog by Olivier Blanchard

I am not alone in my suspicion. While there are enough people who love Dave, there are a few who question his use of Resultsource. One person was Olivier Blanchard.

When you view Dave’s deleted blog post on an iPhone, you can see an exchange of Facebook comments occur between Dave and Olivier.

Dave Kerpen and Transparency

Dave indicated to me both privately, in a twitter conversation as well as in his blog that he is and has always been very transparent about how he sold his books. 

He also, in his response to Olivier (see image below taken as a screen shot on my iPhone) proclaims that he his transparent about his use of Bulk Sales.

dave_kerpen_response_to_olivier

This could mean that Dave actually believed Resultsource was not gaming the system, because he doesn’t seem to think bulk sales are bad, and seemingly didn’t know Resultsource didn’t come by bulk sales honestly.

A position Dave still holds firm to this day. (as evidenced by his email to me)

OK, so, assuming he is telling the truth about what he knew about Resultsource’s methods, Dave coming clean, no matter how honorable, isn’t relevant.

Why?

The problem is, wherever Dave is on the internet, so is the recognition that he is a NYT Best Seller. In other words, Dave is transparent if only if you know enough to ask him. Otherwise, Dave is reaping the rewards of being a Best Selling author, without a disclaimer that might make you question his advice as being applicable to your business.

The problem with all that is, Dave might not actually be a New York Times Best Selling Author.  

Dave Kerpen on the Internet

david kerpern

I had to stumble on an article and then research a deleted article to see Dave’s transparency. Wouldn’t it be more transparent if Dave and authors like him had a asterisk next to their Best Selling Author label?

Additionally, if the evidence against Resultsource is true, we have some reason to doubt whether Dave or authors like him, are actually Best Sellers. Don’t we?

In fact, in my opinion, if Dave and authors like him used unethical methods to game the system, and continue to use the label of a bests selling author, everything they do is based on a lie.

“I think it’s going to affect this whole business model of how these authors cash in on their fame,” Duncan says. “They bill themselves as bestselling authors for the rest of their lives after having paid their congregations’ tax free money to Result Source.”

James Duncan – A Blogger who exposed Mark Driscoll

Their deception is a carry forward to anyone who blindly follows them based on that powerful force of social proof.

Is Dave Alone?

Soren Kaplan is an author who admitted that he too used Resultsource, as referenced above.

soren_kaplan

The truth is, there are more likely more than you or I think, but I am not going to call anyone out who hasn’t admitted publicly that they used a service like Resultsource to find their way onto the Best Seller lists.

Here are a few articles that document a few more stories for your review. The thing you have to keep coming back to is, are the authors who used Resultsource really Best Selling authors?

Here is How to Buy Your Way Onto the NYT Best Seller List

The Mystery of the Book Sale Spike

The NYT and WSJ Best Seller List Must Die

Who are some of the names that are listed on the deleted website of Resultsource? All of these authors used the same “Best Seller Campaign” service provided by Resultsource, just like Dave did.

result_source_best_seller_campaign

There are a few more listed on the page, but you get the point.

I Asked a Few GOOD and ETHICAL Authors/Consultants What They Think 

Danny Brown – Co Authored Influence Marketing

Danny“Bulk buying is nothing new, especially when it comes to business books. However, there’s a big difference in the way authors do this. Getting organizations to buy 200-300 books in exchange for you speaking to their executive team, or at an employee workshop, is part of the selling process, because you’re actually working for it. Paying an agency $25,000 to bulk buy books purely to give away, in order to get on the New York Times Bestseller list, is unethical, shady, and a slap in the face to all the honest authors working their asses off to provide education through their book(s), and service through their workshops. I know of two big names in the social media space that took the latter approach, and then made a big song and dance about making the NYT list as if they’d actually earned it. If that’s your approach, and you can live with that, more power to you. Personally, I’d rather not be on any bestseller list as opposed to being a faker who buys his way onto one.”

 


Paul Greenberg – Authored CRM at the Speed of Light

paul_greeberg


Ian Brodie – Ian is a Consultants Consultant

ian_brodie


David Amerland – Author Semantic Search

david-amerlandIn the days before social media buying a book was an exercise in “mystery meat” navigation. You never quite knew what you were getting beyond the publisher’s self-serving publicity and the author’s ability to beg, cajole or outright buy sales that would push their book past the critical mass required to make it a best-seller. That concept, however manufactured, served as sufficient proof of quality to push a book up the list and to the attention of the book buying public. It was a bona fide technique, sometimes it delivered a quality product. Many times it didn’t but that did not matter because readers were isolated and a sale, each time, had been made. That was a model that played well with McCarthy’s 4Ps of Product, Place, Price and Promotion.

In the social media age the shift to the 4Es of Experience, Everywhere, Exchange and Evangelism is slowly happening. The authors who still use the same old model are finding it harder and harder to find an audience and make sales and while some still have the clout necessary to command or coerce corporate bulk sales that push their books up the charts, they are on a declining spiral from which there will be no rise. Doing it the other way round, of course, where you have to work hard to find and then keep your readers, proving that you know what you are doing and buying your book is not a leap of faith, is much harder. With time it will also be the only way any author will find any reader and any of us will think of parting with our money to buy a book. 


Conclusion

The truth is, consultants write books for good reason. Most know it is a great way to get you to think they are smart. Some authors have written great books, and worked honestly to create social proof. Others, not so much.

But even in the cases where an author has legitimately sold books, you shouldn’t blindly follow their advice. 

In the cases where authors used services to manufacture book sales, thus leading to fake social proof, you should not only have nothing to do with their book, you should also have nothing to do with their advice.

I have been accused of being naive, and of using this information to get some attention, riding the coat tails of guys like Dave Kerpen.

Dave Kerpen in his own deleted blog post revealed that he was asked at a conference if he thought he would have been a Best Seller absent bulk selling. His response, “I don’t know”.

That is correct. None of us will ever know, about Dave or any other author who manipulated the system. Yet, there is no asterisk next to Dave’s name, there is no dagger next to his book.

I am not being naive. I also don’t doubt that Dave Kerpen is a nice guy. Nice has nothing to do with it.

Dave, and every other author who doesn’t belong on the Best Seller lists, will continue to reap the rewards powered by the social proof that so easily makes you think they have something of value to offer you.

Keep your wits about you, because in many cases, they offer nothing you need. What is nice about that?

Learn How Marketers Influence You

Other Resources

Resultsource Deleted Website

Dave Kerpen’s Deleted Blog Article

How to Buy Your Way Onto The New York Times Best Seller List

Mark Driscoll and Resultsource

Business of Writing a Book by Jason Falls

Should You Write a Book?

What Does it Mean to Be a NYT Best Selling Author?

How the NYT Best Seller List Works

Disclaimers

  • I wrote this article as a result of recently being made aware of how book authors were using Resultsource to buy their way onto Best Seller lists.
  • Dave Kerpen was mentioned only because he admitted himself to using Resultsource.
  • My intention is to make you aware that people you trust may not have earned it.
  • Where I found evidence of authors admitting to using Resultsource, I noted it here.
  • Unless I have stated it here, I have no knowledge of any other authors using Resultsource.
  • I am only giving my opinion on Resultsource based on what other writers have written.
  • I have no evidence but that which I shared here as to the methods used by Resultsource.

 

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