Got an email recently from a college fraternity brother of mine that read, in part:

I have a small favor to ask, A good friend of mine, ____, has written a book, and Amazon is currently running a contest to determine the winner in this category. It would really help him out if you could go over to Amazon and write a good review of the book (here’s the link: ____). The more good reviews he gets, the better his chances of winning. I know he’d really appreciate it.

The author’s original note was below in the same thread, where he expressed his no-doubt sincere appreciation: “Thank you SO much for doing this!” So earnest. So grateful. So ethically-challenged.

 So, if enough people write good reviews, he can win. And winning is what it’s all about. Right? Here was someone sending out a most innocent and legitimate-sounding request to help out a friend, asking us all to write a gushing review of this guy’s book (and providing the link to do so), minus the inconvenience of actually having to read said book. After all, we’re all busy people, y’know…

What’s particularly troubling about this is that this person feels nary a qualm about sending a note to a huge list of folks asking them to do something that’s just not right. There was this presumption of understanding: that being dishonest is so accepted and commonplace, it’s not even considered dishonesty anymore.

This is similar, incidentally, to the requests I get to “blurb” someone’s upcoming book, and all they send is the table of contents and introduction (more and more the prevailing M.O.). One person actually sent me only the table of contents from a previous edition, looking for a blurb for the updated version, and was mystified at my refusal. Everyone does it, y’see. Not this everyone. 

Sure, I understand that few people will read a review copy, cover to cover, and that’s fine. But shouldn’t we start from the assumption that they will, and work toward a middle position? As opposed to starting from the other end, as these folks have (i.e., that no one will), so anything you send, no matter how trivial, is fine? The unspoken “nudge-nudge-wink-wink” message in all this, of course, is “Fellow Author, wouldn’t you like to get your name, book title, and web site in print in my book?” Just a friendly quid pro quo. To paraphrase Tina Turner, “What’s truth got to do with it?”

Speaking of which… I just have to shake my head when I see these ridiculous campaigns to “Become an Amazon #1 Best Seller!” You know the drill. During a one-or-two day period, using a veritable cornucopia of inducements – free ebooks, bonuses reports, multiple copies of the book itself, etc. – the author tries to entice as many people as possible into buying their book during that period. All via mass emails with frantic urgings to forward to as many lists as possible – and all with the goal of “#1 Amazon Best Seller!” bragging rights.

Philosophically speaking (indulge me here), I assert that what the author is really trying to do, aided and abetted by a healthy dose of self-delusion, is to buy their way to a better book. After all, they figure, if it becomes a #1 (or even Top 10) Amazon best-seller, it must mean it’s a good book, right? Of course, it doesn’t work that way, any more than giving a kid an A for C or D schoolwork will make him truly believe it’s deserved.

Here’s an analogy: Say there’s this competition in your town for the designation of “#1 Restaurant in the City!” And say it’s based on traffic – actual diners – over a certain period of time. One restaurant with mediocre food goes all out, offering free appetizers, free drinks, half-price entrees and free desserts. The predictable end result? They pack ‘em in, and based on the thundering hordes they attract, they earn the #1 designation.

Now. Would anyone who knew how they actually accomplished this feat give much credence to that #1 designation? Not a chance. And you can bet the restaurant wouldn’t go out of their way to explain it either. In this case, the whole power of the accolade is in people not knowing how it came about (ditto for the Amazon best-sellers). Anyone unaware of their dubious strategy would likely see that honor, and logically – though erroneously – conclude that it was based on the quality of the food. 

Which brings me to the crux of all three of these examples – the public perception. In my perhaps hopelessly old-fashioned mindset, it all comes down to our responsibility to the end reader of that book review, blurb or “#1 Best Seller!” designation. As a reader, when I see a glowing review or blurb, call me crazy, but I actually like to think I can count on its veracity – that there’s a foundation to it.

If I see that a book was a #1 best-seller on Amazon (and knew nothing about how the dubious strategies for generating these designations), I would naturally assume that it had earned that moniker because, well, it was a really good book. Not because of some tortured short-term process of intense lobbying and outright bribery to create the illusion of best-seller status. That’s what these authors want you to think: #1 Best-Seller = Good Book.

Manufactured Best-Sellers

A friend forwarded an article to me some time back about a couple of guys who, huffing, puffing, and grunting, pushed their book – a shamelessly repackaged series of past articles of theirs – onto The Wall Street Journal business best-seller list. Apparently, they didn’t care too much about making money; they just wanted to be able to claim they’d made the list. They sold their hardcover book for $14, and gave away two free copies for every one purchased. And made the list. Sigh.         

Call me a shortsighted little brownie, but as I see it, manufactured rankings don’t mean much – and that’s what this was. The ranking they earned had ZERO to do with the quality or value of the book (again, what most people conclude when they see “Best Seller!”). It had everything to do with “working the system.” The content was just past articles. Is that worthy of “Best Seller” status? I think not.

And heck, offer three hardcover books for fourteen bucks, you’ll have a lot of takers. Great. They hit their goal. But it’s all smoke and mirrors. They got to say “#1” but it wasn’t achieved honestly. Ditto in most cases with the “#1-on-Amazon!” strategies.       

The operative question for those employing these tactics is simply this: would those same buyers, if presented with a detailed but straightforward description of the book, along with legitimate reviews – minus all the imploring and freebies – still have purchased it? On its own merits? If not, then that milestone means little.

Sadly, we’re now living in The Age of Expediency. How you get somewhere is far less important than simply getting there, period. Tricks, gimmicks, and cutting corners are all acceptable strategies for achieving commercial success. Yet, all that said, the one comfort in all this is that mediocre books, regardless of the games their authors play, never have a long lifespan. They’ll never benefit from the invaluable word-of-mouth publicity that accrues to truly solid titles, never earn heartfelt kudos from those whose words really matter, and never hope to garner serious industry notoriety.

So, do yourself a favor: if you’re looking for long-term success, start by writing a really good book. You’ll dramatically simplify your marketing tasks, while eliminating the need to prop up a title that can’t stand on its own. And you’ll sleep better at night.