Down in the Gutter with Marketing

Osar Wilde quote on San Fransciso street

For the last six months, I’ve been part of a small group of authors who gather together via email to discuss book marketing strategies, toss ideas around and in general, support one another’s efforts where and when we can. The organization is loose, the group diverse in terms of location, background, gender, writing genre and point of view. We don’t seek consensus. Instead, we bring the fruits of our experiences to the table and individual members make up their own minds on what to take or leave.

I recently floated a question to the group: What are the ethics and/or etiquette around claiming best seller status. Does getting to #2 in the Amazon Top 100 Free books make me an Amazon Bestseller? How about getting to #1 in a genre category in Free and then hanging in the Top 10 for about 48 hours of that same category after my book went back on the paid list. Is it bad etiquette to drop the word Amazon and just say Bestselling author? Does one have to make it on to a paid list to legitimately claim a bestseller status? And if so, at what point and for how long – Top 10, Top 100, for one hour or one day? What about author ranking? I was in the Top 100 for a day after a promotion. Does that qualify?

A complicated question and the group responses, as expected, ranged far and wide. A few members came down on the side of only paid lists being equated with best selling status. A best seller should, at a minimum, be based on selling. Good point. I went back and took a look at my screen captures for how Disappearing in Plain Sight had done during it’s BookBub extravaganza of free downloads. On one, a large headline read – Best Sellers in Literary Fiction – Sagas. Under that is my book at #1. It doesn’t say Best Non-Sellers due to being Free. Amazon isn’t distinguishing in the big print between paid or free – that comes beneath in a secondary header. Hmmm …. interesting.

Literary Fiction - Sagas - DPS

A member who had previous experience working in the traditional publishing field felt the entire concept of best selling, best seller, best selling author was bankrupt – overused and abused to the point of meaninglessness. Unless, of course, one attempted to claim a place on the New York Times Best Seller List. That you better be able to back up!

One blunt member of our group, wrote – The idea of a great author sitting in the gutter saying, “I didn’t sell many books but I kept my ethics as an author,” has about as much appeal to me as stepping in a dog turd. The premise of the subject is wrong! We’re flogging books and we’re flogging them cheap. We’re not sharing a cup of the tea with the local vicar. Get rid of the word ‘etiquette’ and replace it with ‘marketing’ and you would’ve never needed to ask the question.

When I got up from rolling around on the floor laughing, I read a few more responses. “In an age of distortion and mirage, the big lie seems to carry the day. Even in the dog-eat-dog world of fiction writers.” Another member agreed that best selling is a devalued currency that I could feel free to spend as I liked.

It would seem that I may go ahead and claim a spot on a meaningless list, or I may roll around in the gutter clinging tightly to my moral superiority or I may participate in the big lie and be a dog gobbling up my fellow authors.

On the other hand, I could simply play by the rules Amazon sets forth. My book sat at #1 of a Best Selling List and I don’t see why I wouldn’t mention that when it seems that to do so would be a wise marketing move.

What do you think. I’d love to widen this discussion. At best, we are in for some chuckles as we climb from the gutter to the meaningless and, dare I say, best selling heights.

Clematis 2016 - Guenette photo

28 comments on “Down in the Gutter with Marketing

  1. Rosie Amber says:

    Very tricky and I feel it is all time constricted, you can be a best seller one day and down the charts the next, so are you still entitled to say the book is still a Best Seller? Should it be like the music industry, “number 1 in the album charts for 6 weeks”

    • In terms of marketing – it seems smart thinking to add the extra information if you have it to add. On the other hand, only a person intent on shooting themselves in the foot, will say (unless required to do so by law – LOL) – number 1 on the charts for 15 minutes. Less is more in some cases and so it becomes like reading house ads – what does fixer up really mean? Buyer beware and all of that.

  2. Definitely a tricky one. My first thought was if your top of a free list how can you claim to be a bestseller. Then there is the fact that Amazon don’t seem to differentiate.
    For marketing purposes it seems you can claim to be a bestseller. Even better if you have a screenshot of the your title at the no.1 spot with the Bestseller banner.

    I know of an artist who didn’t manage to get her painting hung in an exhibition but got highly commended.
    That attribute gained many sales.
    My painting got in the exhibition with no such accolade and I began to wish I too had been Highly commended instead of actually being chosen.

    At the end of the day I think it is whatever you feel comfortable with and can argue the toss if anyone chooses to disagree.

    • First – many thanks for reading and joining the discussion. What we think might garner sales, isn’t necessarily what does. Maybe more visibility from an accolade than from winning a spot somewhere else. It’s all a bit of a crap shoot. All one can do is give it careful thought and go with what one feels is justified. People will take it with a grain of salt or open their wallet. The artist has no control over the outcome.

  3. As usual Fran, this is a great discussion.
    There seems to be no industry-wide definition of the term “‘#1 Best-seller.”
    My advice? Go with what make you feel good.


    • In the absence of … and all of that, I agree. I’ll go with what allows me to look myself straight in the eye in that old morning mirror. And if and when anyone can come up with a definition that is applied to all – I’ll change course if needed.

  4. Interesting post, marketing is always tricky. I often wonder what accolades within our own industries mean to a purchasing customer? But we do need all the marketing exposure we can get when selling a product, especially online. Maybe go with what you feel most comfortable with someone saying as they introduce you?

    • Now that sounds like as good a yardstick as any I’ve heard – would I feel comfortable with someone introducing me as an Amazon best selling author? I’ll ponder that thought. Thanks

  5. Susan says:

    Interesting discussion.

    I think that because the word “bestseller” includes the word “seller” it is only fair to assume that one is talking about actual sales, not free books. However, it is such a mouthful to say “my best-free-downloader” isn’t it?

    There’s a big difference between “bestseller” and “best seller” – the former implies the traditional NYT Bestseller List and so on. Anyone who has actually reached that status would be justifiably annoyed to hear the term being bandied about by the rest of us.

    However, of the three books I have for sale on Amazon, one sells a lot more than the other two, so I tend to call it my “best seller” when talking about it. It’s not my fault if I’ve had too much wine and it makes me slur and people don’t hear the gap between the words…

    • What an interesting distinction, Susan, and one that puts another twist on this topic. Bestseller as opposed to best seller. And the addition of wine to any discussion of how our books are selling (or freeing – LOL) can only add to the fun. Many thanks for adding your thoughts.

    • I wasn’t aware of the difference between bestseller and best seller, but it makes sense. I’ve seen Amazon best seller (or best-seller) used a lot.

  6. Debra says:

    Really great questions! I admire that you’re asking them and giving such careful thought to the ethics involved. I’m not at all involved in publishing or writing, but I’m a big reader, so I’ll give my thoughts from that perspective. I take note when a book is marked “best seller” or attributed to a list with distinction, but I never overthink it! I consider all labels from a marketing standpoint and in today’s world, I expect an author to pull out absolutely anything that calls attention to their work. I wouldn’t think less of an author for counting the “free” downloads, quite frankly. I’ve purchased many books I never read. And I’ve read many excellent books I didn’t pay for! I’m traditionally pragmatic, and I think you market to attract readers! Great discussion!

    • Many, many thanks, Debra, because what we are lacking here is the reader’s perspective. It sounds as if the words – bestseller or best-seller or best seller – catch the eye but the discerning reader doesn’t bet the farm on what is clearly advertising. Pragmatic – sounds like a good word for authors and readers alike. I’m happy for the kudos on pulling out all the stops to get my work in front of a reading audience.

  7. I’ve wrestled with this question a lot. I have three books out on Amazon. One sold spectacularly well in its first year, sitting high on three category lists for several months and reaching #40 in ALL ebooks on Amazon for a few hours. The other two had short bursts of time on category best-seller lists following promotions. I would argue the first book allows me to use the title in good conscience, but the other two don’t, despite their place on best-seller lists. That’s not to say I didn’t use their placement for promotion – I totally did, but as “This book reached such-and-such place on this list! Hooray!”

    All that said, getting to a place of maintained best-selling status is hard to do and deserves some kind of recognition, despite what that guy who duped Amazon with a picture of his foot says.

    • Your own experience with working through this issue perfectly describes what a fellow commenter said – go with what you’d feel comfortable having someone say about you as an introduction. So far we’ve talked a lot about hitting a place on a certain list – the whole issue of maintaining such real estate is a huge challenge and as you say, deserves recognition.

  8. Gallivanta says:

    This is a curly subject. Most of the time, as a reader, I am not interested in the word, bestseller. I read a lot of books which have never been classified as bestsellers, yet are beautifully written and/or have subjects which appeal to me. Does Amazon have a poll where you can record why you chose a particular book? I can’t remember. It might help authors with marketing if they had access to such data.

    • Curly – indeed – good way to describe it. I’m sure more than a few authors have curled their toes or clenched their fists over this subject. Authors can generally get an idea of why readers chose their book from reviews – not always though. I get a better idea from the bad reviews why readers didn’t like the book. But a checklist could be a good idea – to be filled in when buying and before reading with items like – good blurb, catchy cover, author recognition, bestseller status etc.

      • Gallivanta says:

        A catchy cover would get me! I think if authors have taken time over the cover, the type setting, layout etc, there’s a good chance the book has been carefully thought out and written.

  9. TamrahJo says:

    Having just finished re-watching the Ken Burn’s documentary on Mark Twain, and fondly remembering Twain’s works – why not do it the ‘writer’s’ way – i.e. – make it mean whatever you want it to mean and then weave your ‘marketing story’ from there – with well-crafted words, you can turn one line of marketing that seems like a marketing ploy, of devauled currency and yet, to the discerning reader, make fun of humans and yourself, all at the same time…. LOL

    • TamrahJo says:

      ..and society, and capitalism….hmm… I suggest Dicken’s and Twain for getting your brain into the rhythm – – the words will flow from your fingers to the screen … 🙂

    • Ah … yes – and therein lies the beauty of this whole discussion. I love the idea of weaving my marketing story in well-crafted words that turn a ploy using devalued currency into a hook for the discerning reader. The ability to do something like that would truly raise me to a new level – LOL. Thanks for the comment.

  10. Gwen Stephens says:

    Fascinating discussion that seems to have generated more ambiguity to a very interesting question. I’d say in the end, it’s up to the author’s discretion on how to use the term, as long as he or she has earned the rights to it. Obviously you’ve attained best seller status, however Amazon chooses to define it, and who’s going to argue with the end-all, be-all book giant? As one reader says above, you’ve got the screen shot to prove it if anyone should ever have the inclination to challenge you on it.

    From a readers perspective, I’ve become a bit wary of the term since its overuse has definitely watered down its meaning. But regardless, it’s eye-catching and has compelled me on several occasions to take more than a cursory glance. So the term “best seller” will often draw me in, but it’s the writing and the storytelling ability of the author that ultimately hooks me. I’m of the opinion that marketing is a necessary evil for today’s authors, but it becomes a pointless exercise if the author is unable to craft a compelling story.

    • As always Gwen – your comment grounds this discussion in what matters. If I haven’t been able to craft a compelling story all attempts to prime the marketing pump will soon enough come up dry. The success of the BookBub promo has shown me that selling books is a numbers game – to a certain extent. Getting the product in front of readers in a big enough way makes a difference. But if the first book they download doesn’t hook them with memorable characters and a good story – no halo effect resulting from subsequent books sold will be coming my way. I’ll just end up being a toss away author who’s book contributed to yet more skepticism on the part of readers.

      • Gwen Stephens says:

        The BookBub slot was absolutely the Hail Mary you needed to get your work in front of readers, in terms of raw numbers. But I also think you made this move at an ideal time in your career, since you had more work for readers to invest in, a series to continue with. If a reader emotionally connects with your story and characters, I think it’s a natural inclination to want to read more of your work. Fortunately, you had more to offer, so your halo effect was possible. 🙂

  11. Interesting question, I’ve asked this too! Without storytelling ability, I don’t get hooked into the book!

    • Bottom line from the reader’s perspective – if the story isn’t there, what is the point? Slick marketing may get a quick sale but without substance there will be no repeat sales. Glad you stopped by to comment, Michele.

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