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The myth of the conservative bestseller

Late last month the release of Donald Trump Jr’s book “Triggered” led to some embarrassment for the president’s son when it was revealed that it’s inclusion as #1 on the New York Times Best Sellers list involved suspicious “bulk purchases.” 

The New York Times tracks this sort of behavior and puts a “dagger” symbol alongside any book it believes used institutional, special interest, group or bulk purchases, rather than earning a spot on the list the usual way: people going into stores and buying copies of the book.

One example of how a book earns this dagger is that FEC disclosures identified a single massive RNC payment of $94,800 to bookseller Books-a-Million this October, a few days before the retail release of Triggered.

At the list price of $23.09 online, that payment alone would buy more than 4,000 copies of the book, nearly enough to get it placed on the New York Times bestseller list by itself. New York Times reporter Nick Confessore also shared a photo of numerous boxes of the book being stored in the offices of Turning Point USA. 

Donald Trump Jr. is a perfect case study in how this works, but he is far from the only author to seemingly game the system. When I examined just the last year of New York Times bestsellers, it was difficult to go even one week without one or more spots being taken up by a political book labeled with the dagger.

Curious to know which books have benefited from this practice?

In just the past year: Jeanine Pirro’s “Radicals, Resistance, and Revenge,” Mark Levin’s “Unfreedom of the Press,” Mollie Hemingway and Carrie Severino’s Brett Kavanaugh profile “Justice on Trial,” Ben Shapiro’s “The Right Side of History,” Fox & Friends meteorologist Janice Dean’s “Mostly Sunny,” Cory Lewandowsky’s “Trump’s Enemies,” Jason Chaffetz’s “The Deep State,” Glenn Beck’s “Addicted to Outrage,” Dinesh D’Souza’s “Death of a Nation,” Howard Schultz’s “From the Ground Up,” former NRA TV pundit Dan Bongino’s “Exonerated,” and Fox News Contributor Andrew McCarthy’s “Ball of Collusion, have all received the dagger.

Feel free to go back further in the history of the list, and I’m confident even more authors will find themselves owners of a dagger.

Warning: As I’ve already experienced one of the above authors have a public meltdown over a tweet of mine identifying that the dagger was included with their book on the list, I would like to say in advance to those authors: if you believe your book received the dagger in error, take it up with the New York Times.

They flagged your book as benefiting from bulk purchases, not me.

There were very few non-political, nonfiction bestsellers that used bulk sales, with notable exceptions, including books by Gary Sinise and Ben Folds.

Aside from a half dozen or so, it was almost entirely books concerning politics, and nearly exclusively right-wing authors who were employing this practice. 

The standard response when these sorts of bulk purchases are revealed is that the books will be used to entice people to donate if the group doing the bulk buying is a non-profit, or perhaps attend an event, in the case of a student group.

It’s possible that some or many of those who will receive the book in those ways will read it and enjoy it, but I believe it isn’t unfair to point out that they apparently weren’t big enough fans to purchase a copy themselves when the book was released.

The dagger being applied to a book also does not mean it had no organic reach. We can’t say for sure what percentage of the sales were individual or bulk, and it is certainly possible that an author benefited from bulk sales that they had no part in organizing. Some authors might not even know that this is going on. 

The point is that bestseller lists provide an aura of organic, genuine popularity. Bulk buys ensure success regardless of whether anyone is remotely interested in the book. They allow those with the necessary resources to conjure up an illusion of grassroots popularity.

I want to point out that several of the most prominent conservative media figures that I went into this research assuming would be revealed to be frauds apparently have earned their spots on the bestseller list the hard way.

The most recent books by Tucker Carlson and Bill O’Reilly did not receive the bulk-purchase dagger designation. Michael Savage also avoided bulk buys, although his book only made it on the list at #11, and only stayed there for one week before disappearing.

You might be wondering why we should care about this sort of scam. I believe there are a few reasons. 

First, appearing on the New York Times Best Sellers list, through bulk purchases or not, has been estimated to increase actual book sales by 57 percent. There is real money being made through gaming the system.

Similarly, an author who employed this strategy could hypothetically use their status as a “bestseller” to nab appearances on talk shows, cable news, speaking engagements, and more. For $50,000 or less in bulk buys, a dishonest actor could quickly launch a media career by gaining the coveted label “New York Times bestseller.”

I would argue many have already pursued this strategy. Or consider how bulk buys could be used to buy influence with prominent politicians. The RNC spent nearly $100k on the President’s son’s book. Is it irrational to wonder if that could influence the President?

Third, allowing bulk sales to launch people onto the list artificially crowds out books that actually earned their spots. For example, Howard Stern’s most recent book, “Howard Stern Comes Again,” debuted at #1, but was pushed out the next week by Mark Levin’s “Unfreedom of the Press,” which maintained its position week by week, from week one, earning a dagger every week.

Now, Howard Stern isn’t going to go hungry as a result of Levine’s actions, but every dagger on that list pushes another book off the list. Think of how important even a #14 or #15 spot on the list could be to a first-time author who actually earned it through organic sales. We’ll never know who they are, of course, but that doesn’t make them any less real.

Fourth, this practice also devalues books people actually care to buy and read. For example, Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” is still at #11 after 46 weeks on the list, without ever once gaining the dagger symbol. To a person casually reading over this list, “Becoming” and any of the other books mentioned in this piece appear similarly popular. It just isn’t so.

But perhaps most importantly, the perpetual presence of conservative political books on the bestseller list creates an enduring myth — the myth of popular support for these conservative personalities.

I know of no survey that measures this, but it seems like common sense that conservative books seemingly dominating best sellers lists would lead people to believe that the authors have real fan bases and that they are more popular than liberal authors who show up far less often on these lists Perhaps they do. When it comes to their books, though, we have no idea how popular they are when the bestseller list is so easy to game.

The New York Times needs to think seriously about what it wants a spot on their Best Sellers list to represent. If it is intended to be a measure of which books are actually generating the most interest and purchases, then perhaps it is time to replace the dagger policy with more stringent requirements to make it onto the list in the first place.

Assuming that doesn’t happen, at the very least, people need to be made aware of what is going on, lest the myth of the conservative bestseller continues.

John Iadarola is the host and producer of the daily political news show The Damage Report on The Young Turks network.

Tags Brett Kavanaugh Donald Trump Jason Chaffetz Jeanine Pirro Mark Levin Michelle Obama Tucker Carlson

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