Is Kevin Small the biggest player in business-book publishing?
Kevin Small isn’t your typical powerful book publishing veteran. He went to ultra-conservative Liberty University and gets excited when a Chick-fil-a opens near his office. But he does bring a certain newcomer’s fresh creative thinking to book marketing. Call it business sense, since his clients are mainly business book authors that write variations on the theme of ”thinking outside the box.”
In 2011 on Twitter, his saavy outsider’s perspective turned to incredulity when he was confronted with book publishing’s antiquated process of selling-in books to chains in a rapidly changing e-commerce marketplace. On September 1, he tweeted “Publisher just said there are 2 players in retail now (BN & Amazon) & they need 10 months to build ‘excitement’ to sell-in the book. Really?” and then a few seconds later, “Since when did Amazon need 10 months to ‘sell-in’ a book by a publisher? They buy 1,500 copies & get refilled by Ingram if they run out?????”
The man has a point.
On February 22, the Wall Street Journal published a report about how some business books are hitting the best-seller lists by hiring a marketing firm—ResultSource, Inc, led by none other than Kevin Small—to take them to the top. The article, ”The Mystery of the Book Sales Spike: How Are Some Authors Landing on Best-Seller Lists?”by Jeffrey Trachtenberg, explains that wealthy authors essentially buy the books needed to reach the bestseller mark, and pay ResultSource a marketing fee to ensure that the sales don’t count as a bulk purchase (bestseller lists often count bulk purchases as an individual sale). But the article doesn’t really explain exactly how Small works his magic:
ResultSource’s principal, Kevin Small, declined requests for an interview. On its website, the company outlines its ambitions: “‘We create campaigns that reach a specific goal, like: “On the bestsellers list,” or “100,000 copies sold.’”
Precisely how it goes about that is unclear, though, and there is discomfort among some in the publishing industry who worry that preorders are being corralled and bulk purchases are being made to appear like single sales to qualify for inclusion in best-seller lists, which normally wouldn’t count such sales.
One clue about how he pulls it off is the case of Steve Poizner’s memoir Mount Pleasant, whose suspicious meteoric rise to a number 5 position on the bestseller list was mentioned in a 2010 episode of This American Life. A subsequent Capitol Weekly article with smart investigating by Malcolm Maclachlan, connected the mysterious book mailings to “gift cards” purchased by ResultSource. In response to Maclachlan’s findings, This American Life posted a follow-up blog post on their website:
Maclachlan reports that the gift card appears to have been purchased under a fishy name by someone affiliated with a book promotions company called ResultsSource. [sic]
The implication is that the company may have disguised a large promotional purchase of the book by using gift cards to buy copies for large numbers of individuals on a mailing list.
This is interesting because leading entities that rank book sales make an effort not to count bulk sales in their rankings. The idea is to prevent promotions companies and authors from buying a bunch of copies and forcing their book onto best-seller lists. Sales that appeared to go to individuals through a retailer like Amazon, however, would be counted. Those are the kinds of sales that determine a book’s sales figures and ranking.
In Trachtenberg’s article, examples of books from smaller presses are mentioned, including a book called Leapfrogging by Soren Kaplan, which was published by Berrett-Koehler. But it’s obvious from his client list that books published by the big six use ResultSource too. Literary Agent Christy Fletcher linked to the WSJ article on Twitter, and suggested that everyone in book publishing is aware of the practice of buying one’s way onto bestseller lists. ”The worst kept secret in publishing,” she said. “Controversial nonetheless.”
However unethical it is, it’s apparently controversial enough for Amazon to decide that they will no longer do business with ResultSource, a fact reported in the WSJ article. But Trachtenberg doesn’t mention special deals with airport booksellers or other suspicious sounding strategies like “lumpy mail,” “the seven channels of influence,” and “Authorship™ commitments” that ResultSource lists on its website.
At least one publisher has the moral outrage to justify the tawdry lengths book publishing is being forced to go in order to make a sale. Riverhead publisher Geoff Kloske tweeted the WSJ article, declaring “Haven’t been this disappointed since I learned Pistorius juiced.”
Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.