I don’t know for how long I’ll leave this post up here, so read it while you can.

Fake Empire

It’s better to be a fake somebody
than a real nobody

Matt Damon

What does it take to hit #1 on Amazon? Or, more traditionally, the #1 on the New York Times Best-Sellers list? Be an excellent writer, have an outstanding book?— No. All you really need is a bit of money, or even a loan.

I am floored by the ruthless manipulation that is going on in the publishing industry. And that’s not just books; we’re also talking music here. It probably shocks me more to realise how unfathomably naive and oblivious I was. I have come to believe now that the rest of the professional world knows fairly well about the ins-and-outs of manipulating the markets, and I didn’t have a clue the whole time. Fact is, anywhere you look, you will see the results of massive cheating on a very professional level, and trust me, fake reviews are the least of my worries.

But finally it all makes sense now: How many times have I picked up a #1 best-selling book from the shelves of a trusted bookshop, only to realize half-way through reading, that it’s actually utter shit. How stupid has mankind become for a book like that to make #1?

The Audience That Doesn’t Exist

I thought this phenomenon was mostly limited to the world of self-publishing; I am looking at you, less-than-150-page-wannabe ‘books’ on Amazon. Wordpressers doing whatever it takes to promote their way into a best-selling life. Understandably. But then there’s the other side, when completely unknown individuals boast about their incredible follower numbers, often well above 10,000 followers on platforms like Instagram or Twitter? Time to get involved in some sponsoring deals, eh? Yeah right! If you aren’t regularly on TV, somewhat popular in print or radio and have more than 5,000 followers —I know what’s up, buddy—everybody knows what’s up. For reference, take people like Alexis Conran (@alexisconran), or Conor Woodman (@conorwoodman). Two UK-based TV hosts, known around the world for their incredible shows on National Geographic and Discovery (you might not know them, I assume you don’t, but their shows have been seen by millions of people on TV worldwide). Alexis has 8,259 followers, Conor has 9,854 followers. Those seem to be very realistic, if not even modest follower numbers. Now, on the other side of the ring, we have a lot ‘friends’ on Twitter who each seem to have close to — or even more than— that. How come? I know what you think, different media, different industries, computer people, etc. — but I call bullshit when I see it. I don’t run a Twitter analytics product for fun, I have data on this. Lots. But that’s just kids playing. Let’s take a look at what the grown-ups are up to these days:

Best-selling Books

To end up in the top ten on Amazon, all it takes is about 300 printed copies sold in one day. Want the #1 spot? Sell up to 5,000 copies and the fame is all yours. The question is now, what self-fulling cycles are starting to kick-in after you hit #1? Smart folks around the world have long done the math on that. Overnight, you can double, triple, even 10x your speaking fees. You will suddenly get paid for writing commentary, for endorsing a product on Instagram. The power of perception is stronger than common sense, people love to know what a #1 book has to reveal. After all, why else would it be the best-selling book of the week?

In 1996, the authors of The Discipline of Market Leaders admitted to spending $200,000 to buy ten thousand copies of their book from numerous bookstores. The book ended up spending 15 weeks (!) on the New York Times Best-Sellers list. Whatever your plans may be in life after this— it will be a smooth ride. But of course, you can’t just go out and buy thousands of books all by yourself. Don’t be stupid, there’s an app for that!

Pick any self-help or business book on any of the best-seller lists, and you will probably see a customer of ResultSource — a San Diego-based book marketing company that conducts “bestseller campaigns” on behalf of authors. To achieve a best-seller, a contract with ResultSource may state something along the lines of this: “RSI will be purchasing at least 11,000 total orders in one week.” In the case of pastor Mark Driscoll, who contracted the company to place his book Real Marriage, it worked out really well, and the book successfully reached No.1 on the hardcover advice bestseller list on January 22, 2014 — A pastor, on number 1!

But I should have known it all along. In fact, we did the very same thing.

The Music Industry

In 2011, my band’s debut album appeared on iTunes. We were #1 by the afternoon. When uploading to iTunes (which is done through a third-party distributor), you need to classify your music genre. Now, if you decide to go with the ‘pop’-category, you will be right up there with Katy Perry or Kanye West. Unless your fans have the purchasing power (or complete inability to keep money in the pocket) of a 16-year old, you will always be outsold by those records any time of the day.

Fortunately, our music fits better into the ‘alternative’ genre. With new albums showing up only every other day, this market was considerably calmer. At the time, we were based out of Austria. A country where only about every two or three weeks a local artist may release an album, on the alternative charts. Austrians, however, like anyone else around the world (except the United States), continue to buy a lot more Kings of Leon or Foo Fighters records in favor of any local music. But even that slows down after a while. So if you pick a good day, with no superstar releases on the horizon, you may end up a lucky winner.

The trick is to organise a burst-purchase on release day, and your album will rise up all the way to the top. In our case, we were #1 within hours on the first day of our debut. Our second album, “The Night is Setting In,” only managed to peak at #2 — but that’s alright, it was a good enough story at parties. All it took: just begging all of our friends on Facebook to buy the album on iTunes. And most people didn’t even bother; of course, friends. Those who did, however, were plenty enough to let us rise to the top of the charts that day. Number #1 for a bunch of nobodies? Sounds shady. Not to discredit myself or the band, but we are infinitely unimportant in an industry that manages to pull this off on a much larger scale, internationally.

In 2005, Germany’s Gracia Baur, 5th place on DSDS (a German version of ‘America’s Got Talent’) and later Eurovision participant, got banned from the charts for the very same manipulation methods. Her producer had cultivated a network of album purchases around Germany over the years, and he ordered his freelancers to go out and buy 2,000 copies of her album during its release month. When confronted about it, he fully admitted that this is how the industry works, that’s how everybody does it. But who cares about Germany, right?

Then there’s this other band: The Beatles. Who did the very same thing. Brian Epstein, their manager, admitted to purchasing over 10,000 copies of a single released by the Beatles to drum up sales. But his defense was a much better one. Rather than simply attributing it to the fact that everybody does it, Epstein argued that this is commonly done to evaluate the quality of the distribution chain, in other words: to get an idea of how their products are being sold in the stores. All right. There you have it: the real reason for that market research job on Craigslist— market manipulation.

Reviews

But what about those reviews you wonder? You would surely spot a fake one, no? Here’s what happens:

The ‘legal’ way: Before you sell a book on Amazon, you send out copies. Free copies. And you keep a list of people who you sent those books to. This is 99% of why authors try to build a marketing e-mail list before an upcoming book. To get those golden first reviews coming in. On launch day, you make sure that your early readers leave raving reviews. This already is a highly evangelised group, willing to leave a good review for a shallow promise. Authors offer special deals, bonus material, and whatever in the world is available to them to get those reviews.

The ‘illegal’ way: You outsource review writing. There are a million-and-one services online for micro-task workers. At a $1 a pop, or even less, you can get real people, with real Amazon accounts to sell their soul for a few nice words. The trick is not to have them go mayehm on your review page the first day your book comes out, but quite the opposite, namely, to stretch it out over the coming months instead.

Why does it all matter? Who cares?

Well, you may argue that you don’t care about best-seller lists. But then there’s journalists, who are told by their editors to write-up a piece on that new best-seller. And then there’s schools, who purchase best-sellers in bulk and often make students read them. Then there’s Amazon recommendations, the Skynet of words. Best-selling authors are the ones invited to TV shows, morning shows, and radio chats. Once that marketing wheel is spinning, it’ll drive over any trace of actual opinion.

Since I’m about to start schmoozing up with this particular industry, I can’t name any authors specifically. But if you google around a bit, you will find that pretty much anyone of your best-selling, favourite non-fiction authors, has been a customer of ResultSource, or a similar company — at one time or another.

Oh what a fake empire we’ve helped to build. Don’t even get me started on the AppStore.

Now follow me on Twitter: @mittermayr and make me happy.

Unlisted

Roman Mittermayr

Written by

Made BUSY (busy.io) and FRUJI (fruji.com) — Published writer, previously Product Planner at Microsoft. Musician. Nerd with an MBA. Living in Islington, London

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