I recently read in the daily online newsletter Publishers Lunch about a cavalier cheat that landed UK thriller writer Mark Dawson on the Sunday Times bestseller list. The author not only admitted he bought hundreds of copies of his book so that it would hit the list, but he also expressed no shame in having done so.
By purchasing a mere 400 copies of his book, he bought his way onto his country’s most important bestseller list. In a Twitter thread he wrote he only cheated a little, not a lot: “If I was intent on ‘gaming the system’ I would have bought 10k copies, sat on them forever and been number one. (I wouldn’t have discussed it on a popular podcast, either).”
As a result of his admission, Nielsen Bookscan recalculated the Top 10 chart to remove Dawson’s book, and the Sunday Times issued a correction. Nielsen reported that they initially believed the purchase was connected to a virtual book signing. On Dawson’s Twitter page he still promotes his “top 10” listing.
Not a New Idea
Bestseller lists are meant to reflect readers’ purchases; so, when an author makes a significant purchase of his book to assure it will a appear on a list, that skews the list’s rankings. Making the list also drives more sales to the title. It truly is gaming the system.
It isn’t as if Dawson, a successful self-published author, broke new territory. We don’t know how regularly it happens; we only know when an author is found out–and that does happen more often than you would think.
Several years ago, the pastor of a megachurch suggested the church buy copies of his newly-released title for all the parishoners–with the intent of assuring its appearance on the New York Times bestseller list. When the Times discovered the pastor’s meddling with the list, his book was removed. He lost his position at the megachurch he had founded.
What’s the Big Deal?
So why all the punishment? Because there really is no such thing as cheating “a little.” Either you cheated, or you didn’t. In both Dawson and the pastor’s cases, they did so knowingly.
Not every author realizes buying hundreds of copies of their book from retailers that report to the bestselling lists is cheating. I recall one of my clients mentioning to me she was thinking about buying copies of her book from retailers so that she could make the list. Author friends of hers had done that.
When I explained to her that it’s against the protocols established by those who maintain the lists, she immediately backed away from such a move. The idea that buying those copies was cheating was news to her.
Ways We All May Have Cheated a Little
- Using photos from a Google search. It’s easy to Google the type of image you want to use on your blog, or as the perfect background for a meme. So many images pop up that you can efficiently find just what you had in mind. But the photo you’re choosing is copyrighted, even if you don’t see a copyright symbol associated with it. As a matter of fact, every photo you’ve ever taken is automatically covered by copyright law as soon as you snap it.
- Borrowing some great copy from someone else’s blog post. So much material is available to us, and it’s simple to copy and paste verbatim from their post to yours. Or in your newsletter. Laura Christianson, a website designer and online marketer, wrote an excellent blog post about why it’s illegal to copy and paste someone’s blog post into yours–and also what to do if someone pilfers your post or a part of it.
- Using more than one line of a song and two lines of a poem. That is, unless said song or poem is especially short. Then using a line or two might push the limits of whether the quotation is within the fair-use clause of the copyright law. Some poems have slipped into the public domain if they were published before 1923, but estates can renewed copyrights so this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule.
Or Cheated a Lot
- Borrowing someone’s great copy from their book and inserting it into your manuscript without appropriate attribution or permission. And, yes, this is done. Sometimes unintentionally.
I recall several years ago, Doris Kearns Goodwin, a presidential historian, bestselling biographer, and political commentator, was found having lifted hefty amounts of copy from one source for a manuscript of hers. After the discovery of the duplicated copy was made public, Ms Goodwin explained that she hires many researchers for her work, and one of the researchers had committed the plagiarism. Ms. Goodwin said she had unwittingly included it in her book.
Whether Goodwin knew the content wasn’t original, we’ll never know. But she was the one who paid a hefty price for it. News shows on which she regularly appeared as a commentator banned her for life. And her reputation in the publishing industry was tarnished.
How to Avoid Absconding with Others’ Material
A rather simple rule to follow is, when in doubt, ask for permission. Or ask if your behavior is appropriate, such as buying copies of your book at full price. Yeah, I know, that’s a pain. But considering the social censor, not to mention possible legal action, that you could face, it’s worth it.
What other actions could find writers saying, “I only cheated a little”? Have you ever found some material of yours being used without your permission?
How writers can end up in legal hot water–and how to avoid it. Click to tweet.
When an author ends up saying, “I only cheated a little” and other writerly pitfalls. Click to tweet.