Wednesday, October 19, 2005


I've been told by many other pros that you can buy your way onto the NY Times bestseller lists*, and sorta-kinda believed it, the way you do when your friends tell you there is no Santa Claus. You pretend like it's okay, and you're cool, but you don't really want to believe them because these are the same kids who told you that the stork didn't deliver you to Mom and Dad. Excuse me, but stork delivery was how babies showed up on Popeye, which in 1969 was the cartoon bastion of truth, justice, and the American Way.

Yes, my childhood hero was a short bald deformed tattooed chain-smoking vegetarian landlocked sailorman who had commitment and anger management issues. I make a lot more sense now, don't I?

Anyway, reading Tess Gerritsen's 10/08 post about writers buying their way onto the Times took me back to being a kid again and hearing my girlfriend Sandy say Sure your folks've been lying to you all this time, but my brother Joey says it's a trah-di-shun.

I probably should believe her, but I don't want to.

Btw, that lovely Santa Claus tradition? Did make Christmas magic for the darling children who never did anything wrong. You know, the Mary Sues we all hated. Kids with overactive imaginations and religion-induced guilt complexes (yo) didn't fare so well. Santa never hears Confession (not even when he's holding audience in the mall) so you can't do penance and avoid the lump of coal payback. How many holidays did we spend in silent fear, behaving like the angels we weren't because we believed that He Who Knows When You're Bad or Good was watching? How many times did we dread getting up on Christmas morning because we thought we hadn't been good enough?

Getting back to the Times BSL, I'm still in kinda-sorta-whatever territory. Yes, I suppose it can be done, but I don't believe all that many authors do. For one thing, the paper does list a cross next to the titles for which some stores receive bulk orders, so that's a flag. You can show up at whatever stores report to the Times for signing, as Tess hints, but that doesn't mean customers are going to buy your book.

I don't want to believe other authors are that desperate, or that manipulative. Disclaimer: I believed in Santa until I was thirteen, and pulled an all-night Christmas Eve stakeout so I could know once and for all. Thirty-one years later, I'm still pissed off -- do you know how many times I didn't defend myself in a playground fight because I thought Santa would coal-lump me?

I've never gotten anywhere close to the Times -- nor will I, evidently, unless a miracle happens -- but I'd be mortified if I could only get on by buying my way there. I hate that we live in the age of padding the resume, campaigning for awards and getting cheat codes for video games. But then, why work your way through all those difficult levels when you can skip right to the top and have everyone think you earned it fairly?

I'm sure it also makes good business sense. You only have so much time to establish yourself as a bestseller; why waste time competing with the herd and working to build a readership from scratch when you can get a bank loan, order a bunch of books from the right stores and make it appear as if you have one?

You can justify it a million ways, or write it off as meaningless industry posturing, only it's still wrong, and it's still cheating. What do you guys think? Feel free to call me a silly Popeyed idealist, too.

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  1. Anonymous12:39 AM

    What I was told, by someone I trust, is that it's a fixed list anyway. That the books on the list are decided ahead of time. (Can you $ay ka-$hing!!) Ranking is the only variable, and it's by sales as reported by the specific stores chosen to be counted (as mentioned in Tess' blog).

    So, if you're not "on the list" and you're not selling like hotcakes in the specific stores, you're SOL. If, by some miracle, you ARE selling hot at those stores, you might sneak onto the list. If they decide to send in your info. Maybe.

    The USA Today list, though, is supposedly unbiased and based on reported sales across the board. It's a more level playing field.

  2. Anonymous1:18 AM

    "Yes, my childhood hero was a short bald deformed tattooed chain-smoking vegetarian landlocked sailorman who had commitment and anger management issues. I make a lot more sense now, don't I?"

    Hmmm. I had a think for Mighty Mouse when I was little. Wonder if that's why I'm still a sucker for macho little men who sweep me off my feet.

  3. Anonymous2:23 AM

    I was also very fond of the Popeye cartoons (especially the Jeep and Alice the Goon).
    My favorite thing about Popeye was the way he muttered unintelligible obscenities under his breath.

    That's what I do when I think of people buying their way onto the list.

  4. It's a chicken-and-egg situation. Walk into any bookstore in Australia right now and they're wall-to-wall with new releases by Terry Pratchett and Robert Jordan. You can't get out of the shop without scraping a knee or an elbow on a stack of them.
    These guys are proven sellers, so of course stores are going to put hundreds of their books on display. It's taken them 10 years plus to build a loyal readership, and when a new book comes out you just stand back, watch in awe and try not to look overly green.

  5. Anonymous3:44 AM

    No Santa Claus? Say it ain't so.

    As for the NYTBSL? As a reader, I don't pay any attention to it. Or ANY lists like it. I buy what I think I would like to read.

    It's a shame things can be so corrupted so easily.

  6. Like Mary, I don't pay any attention to NYTBSL. But I believe that the right amount of money will ensure that an author can make it onto there.

    Colour me cynical.

    I think it does make good business sense, because you only need to have been on the list once, and you're forever remembered as one of the elite who reached those dizzying heights.

    It then becomes easier to persuade publishers to market you more than they would other newbies, thus creating enough hype and buzz to make your name a familiar one to the book-buying public.

    I've read too much dross on the list to believe that it doesn't happen.

  7. I liked the wee fat bloke who ate all the hamburgers. Suppose he's dead by now though, all that saturated fat and salt. Must have had arteries like concrete and a prostate the size of a grapefruit.

    Ah, the heady joys of youth...

  8. Anonymous6:38 AM

    Even out of NY Times issue, hard work does not guarantee anything. There are ten thousand ways to skip the competition, and all of them require nothing but a healthy amount of money.
    The easiest way to get rich and famous writing?
    Start as a millionaire and dazzle everyone with promotion, promotion, promotion...

  9. It's wrong to try to get yourself onto the NY Times list. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Same as the people who vote for themselves a thousand times in online contests. Totally unethical. "Good business" has nothing to do with it. Cheating is wrong.

    I don't think I agree with anonymous that the NY Times list is fixed, exactly, but books don't usually show up there unexpectedly. It's not always established authors-- THE HISTORIAN, by a debut author, got a humongous advance (was it one or two million?-- either way, a whole heckuva lot). When it was released, it showed up in massive stacks at the front of the stores. Naturally people are more likely to buy it than other hardbacks languishing in obscurity in their own section. Publishers put the push behind books, and those books wind up on the NY Times list. Without a hard push, a book is really quite unlikely to show up there.

  10. I wanted to BE popeye!! I'd walk around flexing my four year old muscles and threaten to kick everyone's ass on my block.

    Funny, I lift weights today, and I still threaten to kick everyone's ass hehehehe!

  11. Anonymous9:52 AM

    I still believe in Santa Claus (though my version comes from Frank L. Baum - who I think probably has had it right all along). In my family, the rule is very simple: as soon as you decide not to believe in Santa, Santa will stop bringing you gifts. It's your choice whether to believe it or not. It's the outlook I've adopted for a lot of things.

    I can believe you can cheat your way to success, or I can believe that my hard work will get me there. If I believe I can cheat, what do I gain? Knowledge that there's a short cut? Knowledge that I need not struggle and fight and learn? Does that actually give me anything except a chance to see my name printed on a page? Seeing my name there won't tell me if people are actually reading, enjoying my books - it just tells me how many were sold. What's the point if I sell a lot, and they're all used to line someone's basement?

    I can decide that there is no Santa Claus and squelch out the one bit of magic I actually still believe in, or I can hold onto it and be able to find a reason to smile when Christmas Chaos has descended and left me banging my head against a wall. I can believe cheating is the best way to go and never learn another thing about my writing, never know that my story was enjoyed by someone. Or I can believe that the road with downed trees, chasms, and mountains is the better way to taste accomplishment.

  12. Anonymous10:11 AM

    I am not surprised.

    I will never tell my children that Santa is real. Ever. I remember knowing better when I was little, and seeing a long, dragged out argument between two boys about the subject. One boy said he was real and the entire basis for that was the fact that his parents wouldn't lie to him. They had told him that they wouldn't lie to him. Once he found out that they HAD lied to him, I'm sure there were trust issues for the rest of his childhood (and possibly longer). "What do you mean the dentist won't hurt me? Is that like the Easter Bunny thing?" "The doctor wants to make me better? Is that like when you told me I was found under a cabbage leaf?" No way I'm doing that to my kids. They will get the actual truth. They deserve it. All those cute little lies aren't for the kids anyway, they're for the parents. The kids will tear off the wrapping paper and play with the gifts no matter what, but the parents get to play games with their heads by using Santa and The Tooth Fairy. Makes them feel superior I suppose.

    As for the NYTBSL, I don't think you can get there without selling a whole lot of books. If you aren't a very good writer, you'd have to buy so many books to make enough of a splash, that you'd never make it back in new sales because of being on the NYTBS list. People would be fooled once into reading one of your books, but that would be the last one they read. To make the whole thing work (Buy your own books to get on the list to get more sales to cover the cost of the books you bought) you have to be good in the first place.

    Still sucks that such a thing can be bought. It would be better if the NYT had ten times as many sources of sales for the list as they have now, and randomly picked 20% of them to report on. That would make the cost of rigging it prohibitive and the pay-off way out of reach.

    -- F

  13. I don't care if you can cheat. I wouldn't do it because I'd hate myself. I have a reputation for being "too honest". As in not fudging my taxes, not keeping it if the clerk gives me back too much change, etc. Is it possible to be too honest? I don't think so. I guess I'll always be one of those "different drummer" folks who thinks doing the right thing is more important than getting what one wants. If that means I never reach my biggest dreams, so be it. I didn't want them if I have to cheat to get them. :)


  14. Is it possible to buy your way onto the NYTBSL? I think there's probably a way to do anything -- like the man who spent $20 million for a space ride. Do I think that lots of authors do it. No. Do I think it's ethical to pre-order a lot of books or send everyone you know into certain bookstores to buy multiple copies of your book that first week -- if you plan to return all the copies? No. If I had family and friends near those stores, would I ask them to please go buy my book at those stores in that first week to help out my numbers? Heck yes. They're going to buy my book anyway.

    Do I think that publishing houses plan strategies to launch a hot author and book onto the list? Of course. That's not cheating. It's marketing.

    If you have an author who has been steadily growing in readership, sales, popularity, then why wouldn't you do a bigger print run and throw significantly more money into building pre-release buzz?

  15. Anonymous6:48 PM

    You're a silly, Popeyed idealist- and I'm right there with you.

    Fair is fair, and it's a bunch of #0!$$#!^ that talented people that deserve recognition don't get it (I'm thinking music, Mike Doughty) and talentless turds (insert knob of your choice here) with a good marketing dept get all sorts of press.

    I declare a revolution! Take back the arts!


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