The Myth Of The Best-Seller: Fooling Some Systems Some Of The Time

If there’s a system, there’s a way to game it. Especially when those systems are tied to someone making money.

Buying a Best Seller

Take publishing, for instance. New books that say they are on the New York Times Best-Seller List sell more copies than ones that don’t make the list. A 2004 study by University of Wisconsin economics professor Alan Sorenson found the bump is about 57%. That's; certainly motivation for a publisher to game the system.

There's also another motivating factor. According to a Times op-ed, Michael Korda, former editor in chief of Simon and Schuster, said that an author’s contract can include a bonus of up to $100,000 for hitting No. 1 on the list.

This amplifying effect is not a one-shot deal. Make the list for just one week, in any slot under any category, and you can forever call yourself a “NY Times bestselling author,” reaping the additional sales that that honor brings with it. Given the potential rewards, you can guarantee that someone is going to be gaming the system.



And how do you do that? Typically, by doing a bulk purchase through an outlet that feeds its sales numbers to TheTimes. That’s what Donald Trump Jr. and his publisher did for   his book “Triggered,” which hit No. 1 on its release in November of 2019, according to various reports.  Just before the release, the Republican National Committee reportedly placed a $94,800 order with a bookseller, which would equate to about 4,000 books, enough to ensure that “Triggered” would end up on the Times list. (Note: The Times does flag these suspicious entries with a dagger symbol when it believes that someone may be potentially gaming the system by buying in bulk.)

But it’s not only book sales where you’ll find a system primed for rigging. Even those supposedly objective 5-star buyer ratings you find everywhere have also been gamed.

5-Star Scams

A 2021 McKinsey report said that, depending on the category, a small bump in a star rating on Amazon can translate into a 30% to 200% boost in sales. Given that potential windfall, it’s no surprise that you’ll find fake review scams proliferate on the gargantuan retail platform.

A recent Wiredexposé on these fake reviews found a network that had achieved a level of sophistication that was sobering. It included active recruitment of human reviewers (called “Jennies” -- if you haven’t been recruited yet, you’re a “Virgin Jenny”) willing to write a fake review for a small payment or free products. These recruitment networks include recruiting agents in locations including Pakistan, Bangladesh and India working for sellers from China.

But the fake review ecosystem also included reviews cranked out by AI-powered automated agents. As AI improves, these types of reviews will be harder to spot and weed out of the system.

Some recent studies have found that, depending on the category, over one-third of the reviews you see on Amazon are fake. Books, baby products and large appliance categories are the worst offenders.

Berating Ratings…

Back in 2014, Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen wrote a book called “Absolute Value: What Really Influences Customers in the Age of (Nearly) Perfect Information.” Spoiler alert: they posited that consumer reviews and other sources of objective information were replacing traditional marketing and branding in terms of what influenced buyers.

They were right. The stats I cited above show how powerful these supposedly objective factors can be in driving sales. But unfortunately, thanks to the inevitable attempts to game these systems, the information they provide can often be far from perfect.

Next story loading loading..