Fake “Best-Sellers”: Can We Sue the Authors?

readers v authors (2)
Where there is a way to manipulate the system to sell books, a handful of authors will find it. We’ve had high profile cases of plagiarism and fake reviews (“sock-puppeting”), and now the Wall Street Journal has called our attention to authors who buy their place on “best-seller” lists by hiring a company that buys the books. By anointing themselves “best-sellers,” a label that lasts long after the book drops its rank, these authors mislead consumers into believing their book is popular and thus worth buying.

I can understand the author’s motivation: it’s hard to get noticed in a marketplace inundated with books. However, these authors should weigh their desire for attention against the drawbacks of obtaining it through dishonesty. If an author has oodles of money to burn buying his own books and does not have the mores to resist such behavior, then maybe the thought of legal problems and embarrassment will make a difference.

I asked Max at Litigation & Trial for his thoughts on potential legal claims. Here’s what he had to say:

Courts are sharply split on whether readers who are (allegedly) deceived by the marketing of a book can recover damages. Perhaps the most revealing cases involve The Beardstown Ladies’ Common-Sense Investment Guide, a book purporting to show how an unassuming investment club had made an extraordinary 23.4% annual return over a ten-year period. An audit revealed their return was more around 9.1%.

Several lawsuits were filed alleging deceptive trade practices, false advertising, fraud and unjust enrichment. Intriguingly, courts in New York and California reached directly contrary results. The court in New York found “the First Amendment protects even erroneous statements in the contents of the Book, and on its cover, flyleaf and in the introduction,” while the court in California found “the advertising, alleged in the complaint to be false, was commercial speech which was not, in the context presented, protected by the First Amendment.” Hyperion eventually settled the case by offering readers the ability to trade the books for any other Hyperion title.

Thus, while these suits can be filed and survive in some jurisdictions, particularly California, thus far they haven’t produced much beyond refunds or replacements.

So, we could file a class action (keeping in mind that it would be hard to prove that we purchased the book in reliance on its “best-seller” status) or we could just return the book. It seems both would get us the same result.

With or without legal recourse for consumers, perhaps the lesson for us is that the “best-seller” label is meaningless. If we ignored these lists and that label, authors wouldn’t have as much of an incentive to skew sales figures to their advantage.


  1. Maybe it is just my inner literary snob coming out, but a “best-seller” label is more often going to make me critical of the book before I even know what it is about. It’s not that I won’t read a best-seller, but my tastes tend to focus on either more experimental fiction or authors who are long gone (such as Henry James). An article like this is a further reason why I remain skeptical. As others have said, if a book is really great, I figure that I will hear about it through word of mouth.

      1. I can understand that point of view. A “best seller” label tends to have no effect on me. I don’t care whether others bought the book. I care more about whether others liked the book enough to recommend it through reviews.

        1. Plus, the truth is that I haven’t read that much. People think when you get your BA in English, worked in publishing, and write and teach for a living, that you’ve read everything in the English language. I’m actually a slow reader, and rather impatient. If a book doesn’t hook me quickly, I give up on it. There are just too many classics/recognized hits I’ve never read, so I tend to go to those, because I know they’ll be good.

  2. I have had the same feeling as Words for Worms: if this is a best-seller, “why have I never heard of this?” On a sort of related note, in the performing arts industry, I can’t tell you how many bios for performers and composers I’ve read that start off with some form of “hailed as the greatest artist of their generation…” and I’m like… really? THE Greatest (capital G)? Why have I never heard of you?

  3. The really unfortunate thing is that this is an issue across creative industries. I once interned for a record label where, along with two other interns, our only job was to make up fake accounts and write good band reviews.
    While this is obviously shady and a terrible unpaid internship, maybe it does get new people to see a band or book they really like and wouldn’t have seen otherwise?

    1. Thanks for sharing your perspective! On the continuum of dishonest behavior, I think that writing fake positive reviews isn’t quite as bad as writing fake negative reviews (trashing a competitor), but it would be nice if reviews were honest appraisals of the work.

      It’s certainly possible that fake hype could help someone find a product they love. But it could also convince them to buy a product that wasn’t worth their money. For example, I’ve seen many five-star reviews for objectively awful books (to the extent art can be objectively awful: high percentage of typos/grammatical errors, incomplete plots, plagiarism, etc). I can only assume the author wrote those reviews himself or friends did, and I’m sure I’m not the only person who has bought a book based on reviews like that.

      If it’s just about publicity, then advertisements would be better. It would get the band or book’s name in front of enough people to actually start getting organic reviews.

  4. I rarely look at best seller lists. I am more happy when I finish a great book and see others around me reading the same thing. I have authors and niches that I follow, mostly because they write great books that I enjoy. 🙂
    But I am glad I live in California because I tend to agree with their ruling.

    1. I love where I live, but I must say that you are very lucky to live in California! People often don’t realize how different our rights are from state to state (and even from town to town).

      1. I grew up in Massachusetts and moved to California as an adult. I think the two states are very similiar politically. I have lived/worked in some other states across the country and it is very shocking sometimes, because it is very easy to assume that things are the same as where you live, but they are not. One of the most obvious differences is when we travel to a state that has less stringent smoking bans. You pretty much can’t smoke anywhere in California other than your own property and some designated places outside. When we go over to Nevada, it’s a bit of a shock and really bad for my asthma. 🙂

  5. Best seller status doesn’t usually influence my buying habits. I think it’s a bit overzealous to sure someone for this sort of thing. People will figure it out, word will spread, and their books will get the disregard they deserve.

    1. Hi, Jae! I hope that’s what happens, but I imagine a fair amount of cheating is kept under wraps. Viable class actions may be the only way to check that type of dishonest behavior. The ability to sue is one of the more powerful consumer protection tools.

      1. I don’t disagree with it in principle. I just think sometimes our society gets a little too sue happy. That’s why I put more trust in word of mouth than what a person says about their product. I suppose for our part it’s important to always give a fair accurate review of those things we’ve used/read/etc.

  6. What a great post. I always knew those ladies in the financial club were up to no good! haha They should have just said they made 9% That is still darn good in my book…In regards to good reads–I agree with your reader above. There is nothing like a fellow blogger giving a good book review as many do on the blogosphere. I have taken that advice several times and bought books that were reviewed online. I must say I still look at the newspapers’ top sellers lists. I don’t know why. I guess habit from years gone by.

    1. Hi, Alesia! I can see the appeal of best-seller lists, but now I wonder whether it’s more indicative of cheating than actual sales (especially if I haven’t heard of the books before).

      1. I look at the WSJ. I would hope they would be truthful by the sells…But it is hard to know in a world that is full of distrust. I actually just downloaded Thomas Jefferson and Unbroken and I know both were on the best sellers, but they are both historical books of which I enjoy. The Jeffereson book is full of footnotes..Unreal. Unbroken is as I would expect –beautifully written….

  7. That’s super shady! Sometimes I’ll see something labeled “best seller” and I’m like… Why have I never heard of this? Most of the time though, if the synopsis sounds terrible, I won’t waste my money. A best seller sticker is just a sticker, you know? And, while I adore ACTUAL sock puppets, this kind of sucks. Boo for cheating the system.

    1. I’ve learned to ignore the “best-seller” sticker. It’s hard to know how widespread this type of cheating is, but I bet it happens quite a bit. Thanks for stopping by!

  8. We recently joined the local volunteer fire & rescue. Later this year we will be learning to drive the large vehicles from a senior member. He was going on about examples of accidents involving new drivers, how we were lucky to have him to teach us as he had been driving for 27 years. He’s an easy-going guy, so I told him it depended on how many accidents he had through those 27 years. Turns out 0.

    The point is that a label praising the ingredients (book or otherwise) doesn’t necessarily mean it is good. In the case of my VFR driving instructor, I am leaning towards believing the label. In books, I don’t’; I go to bloggers and goodreads.

    1. Yeah, I am very suspicious of those types of labels on books (when they might be more meaningful in other areas). I usually need to see reviews from book bloggers before I purchase a book.

      PS. It’s neat that you’re volunteering with your local fire company!

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