Tommy Mottola’s memoir Hitmaker: The Man and His Music hit the NY Times Bestseller list in it’s first week of publication at #3. How could this be? Here’s a record executive who hasn’t been with a record company in over a decade writing about a shrinking business and trying to sell his memoir to a shrinking book buying public.
If you’re an old school record industry guy, you’re probably very adept at manipulating the charts. In the pre-Soundscan days, the list of Billboard reporting retailers was a loosely kept secret and simple bribery was used to get many of those retailers to report inflated sales figures. When Soundscan eliminated the shenanigans by actually recording real sales by computer, record executives responded with new ways of gaming the system, like selling Mariah Carey singles at $.29 each, well below standard wholesale price, thus spiking sales, boosting chart positions and helping to establish new records… like outselling the Beatles.
So it makes perfect sense that a record executive could just as easily manipulate the book business and its version of the Billboard charts, the venerable NY Times Bestsellers. Such seems to be the case of Tommy Mottola’s recent autobiography. Upon close inspection, the timeline of the short-lived Hitmaker raises eyebrows. The book was released on Tuesday, Jan. 29. After one full week of sales, Hitmaker enters the NY Times Bestselling Non-Fiction Hardcover list at the Number 3 on Feb. 9 (for the week ending Feb. 17). Pretty impressive, right? The loving Mrs. Thalia Mottola dutifully tweeted the good news (Tommy’s new book #HITMAKER is #3 on the NY Times Best Sellers list – Hardcover Nonfiction! http://www.nytimes.com/best-sellers-books/hardcover-nonfiction/list.html … Congrats! @TommyMottola). The book also entered bestseller lists from the LA Times, USA Today and Publishers Weekly at Number 6. According to reports, the next evening, at the Grammy’s, “Hitmaker was given out for free at a Grammy party by the truckload.” The rule of thumb is that once a book appears on the bestseller list, sales spike. But one week later the book had completely disappeared from every bestseller list. Not just dropped to a lower position, but completely gone. Not even in the top 150 bestsellers in USA Today. Vanished.
Gaming the bestseller list is not new. The first high profile case was in 1968 when producer Hal Wallis bought the film rights before the publication of True Grit. Wallis’ studio, Paramount, wanted to get the book on the bestseller list before filming even started, so the publicity department sent its people out to buy every copy of the book and gave them away to the media to build hype. By the time the film started shooting True Grit was Number 2 on the bestseller list, headed for Number 1 and a lengthy run as a bestselling novel.
According to The Economist, “In the late 1980s, the Scientology movement was accused of artificially inflating the sales of books by its founder L. Ron Hubbard to make them appear on the New York Times’s bestseller list—the doyen of lists, of which there are now around 40 in America alone. In 1990, four years after Hubbard’s death, billboards in Los Angeles proclaimed him as the author of ’22 national bestsellers and more to come’.”
Even Sarah Palin got in on the act. Three years ago she used her PAC to spend more than $63,000 for copies of her memoir Going Rogue: An American Life on what the organization described as “books for fundraising donor fulfillment.” The book became a New York Times #1 bestseller in its first week of release, and remained there for six weeks.
So does this mean that Tommy sent his minions around to some key booksellers and bought their entire order then gave them away to Grammy partiers a few days later, who, by the way, were the most likely people to actually buy the book? Unlike the example above, Tommy Mottola is not a well-known figure to the general public. According to several authors of NY Times bestsellers I spoke with, it wouldn’t take much to pull it off. “A guy who thinks like Tommy Mottola and had his kind of money could easily influence the list by buying a thousand or so books from some big-name bookstores and enter in the Times’ Top 10. It could run as little as $27,000, which is peanuts for him”, says one author. Another bestselling author said, “It’s pretty much common sense to pick the stores that are most likely reporting outlets. But what’s rare is to see efforts to rig the charts that don’t have legs. Sounds to me like this is a good case of gaming the system.” Yet another author said “Something’s wrong with this book [Hitmaker]. It’s just not a subject matter that the book buyers are interested in. Tommy Mottola hasn’t been relevant for 10 years. Why would anybody care now? In fact, Mariah Carey’s not relevant either.”
Other than boosting sales, as this chicanery clearly didn’t, what is in it for Tommy? Even though Hitmaker was on the Times list for merely 1 week, he’s now able to refer to himself as a “New York Times bestselling author” …forever.
And they say you can’t buy credibility.