You need some advice so seek out a book or website of a best-selling author. Why not? If someone's that popular, they must have something to say, right? And it must take a lot of work. In the case of Brent Underwood, who works in book marketing, achieving best-seller status took less content and work than you might think. His title, Putting My Foot Down, was a page long, featured a picture of his left foot, and became a number 1 best seller on Amazon in a matter of minutes with the sale of three copies.

"I was fairly certain that it wouldn't take many copies to hit the top of a category, particularly since Amazon lets you choose the category," Underwood told me in a phone conversation. "I overshot my mark a little bit and probably could have done it with just a single copy [with a more obscure category]."

His category choice was "transpersonal psychology," whatever that means exactly.

Once a bestseller, always a bestseller

Although a veteran of the publishing industry, he was surprised. "They make you go through an approval process of some sort," Underwood said. "I had to wait a couple of hours. But it's not a very strict approval process since it was just a picture of my foot."

It didn't matter. He got a screen capture of the best seller banner and now could put "bestselling author" on his resume, if he were so inclined. Underwood's example may be extreme, but gaming the best seller system is nothing new or unique. Authors, particularly those of business books, are using techniques like cherry-picking lists to present an image that may not be true, like a picture of a foot being a best seller.

Even the New York Times list is vulnerable, though not easily. "It's extremely difficult to crack," Underwood said. "We've had clients sell upwards of 10,000 copies in a single week and not crack the New York Times list." But cracked it can be, as Jeffrey Trachtenberg reported in the Wall Street Journal a few years ago. There are marketing companies that, for a walloping fee, will buy copies, spread out to appear more like individual purchases in hopes of triggering the reporting mechanisms that gets a title on the New York Times list.

"The first best seller list was the New York Times list. It carries a certain level of prestige and respect in a person's bio, in conversations. That was kind of ingrained in people's minds. As Amazon has become more popular, they created their own 'best sellers'. People started to throw around the term and allow themselves to cash in on that respect and prestige that previously was reserved for the New York Times list and a lot of hard word." As Underwood showed, if you're not too proud and can live without the Times imprimatur, getting bestseller status can happen a quicker and cheaper.

Greasing the wheels of personal commerce

Part of the reason people go this route is ego, racking up a status symbol (especially, as happens more often than many like to admit, the "author" has next to nothing to do with the book's writing and sometimes even content). "Typically I think when my friends or the general public hear best seller their ears perk up and give the person a little more attention and respect," Underwood said.

Part is practical. .

"If you see a book that jumps on the New York Times list and it stays on there for just a week, that's not a great indicator for success," Underwood said. But that week is long enough for someone to claim being a New York Times bestselling author for life. "If you do a lot of public speaking, it comes down to a math equation" because speaker agencies pay more for people who can claim Times bestselling author status. "Just being a New York Times best seller can open up [other] doors as well." It can also require someone to open their wallet to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

And, clearly, many find that even an Amazon bestseller label can provide benefits.

Published on: Mar 7, 2016