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Getting Rank

Did NewsMax goose sales of its book to get on the bestseller list?

By Terry Krepel
Posted 9/17/2002

When NewsMax gets excited about something, beware.

And it was positively ecstatic about sales of its new book, "Catastrophe," which seeks to pin the blame on Bill Clinton for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"NewsMax's Catastrophe climbs more than 2,700 places within 24 hours on Amazon!" the top of its front page has proclaimed. Indeed, the book has gone as high as No. 16 on's bestseller list, according to NewsMax accounts. Stories, links and e-mails encouraged NewsMax readers to buy the book from Amazon.

We'll take the numbers at face value; we don't question Amazon's counting. (At the time of this article's posting, "Catastrophe" was on its way down with a No. 74 rank.) But let's take a closer look at NewsMax's operations for the how and why this may have occured.

The most important thing to consider is that NewsMax has its own distribution mechanism for its web site and online store. It operates a warehouse for the distribution for the products its sells through the web site, the rent on which is costing NewsMax more than $6,000 per month. More than half of NewsMax's revenue comes from product sales. Amazon's policy on dealing with independently published books like those by NewsMax is to keep 55 percent of the purchase price. The sale price of "Catastrophe" is $24.95, which means under the typical Amazon distribution deal, NewsMax is getting only $11.22 of that. (By Sept. 15, though, Amazon was discounting it by the standard 30 percent, to $17.47.)

Another thing to consider: Amazon doesn't have the book in stock. The page for the book lists a shipping time of 8 to 14 days. NewsMax, meanwhile, has the book for sale on its own site for $19.95, plus throwing in four free issues of its magazine. And that entire $19.95 belongs to NewsMax.

In other words: Not only does NewsMax not need Amazon to do its distribution, it's diverting business from itself at an cost of as much as $8 a book -- none of which can be impressive to potential buyers of the stock NewsMax wants to sell. (Though a closer look at the some of the URLs for the book link on NewsMax reveals NewsMax's name -- an indicator that NewsMax is taking part in Amazon's associate program, in which NewsMax gets a portion of the sales price (up to 15 percent) if someone buys the book using that particular link. Wouldn't it be more efficient to sell the thing itself?) Plus, book buyers are getting a bad deal -- it was selling at full price at its height on the Amazon list -- because many paid more at Amazon they they would have through NewsMax itself. Driving business away to a competitor and fleecing your customers doesn't seem like a recipe for staying in business.


In its first article Sept. 12 documenting the rise of "Catastrophe" on Amazon, NewsMax states that the book went from 2,743 to 673 in a 24-hour period (which puts the lie to its own later statement that the book "climbs more than 2,700 places within 24 hours"). But what exactly does that mean?

According to Morris Rosenthal, who has written articles on how to self-publish books, not much. In 2001, Rosenthal calculated exactly how many books must sell to reach a certain rank on the Amazon list. A book ranked 10,000 sells about two copies per day; a book ranked at 1,000 sells 13 copies a day. By Rosenthal's calculations, when "Catastrophe" was at 2,743, it was selling about 10 copies a day, and a ranking of 673 means sales of about 50 books that day.

There has to be a reason for a sales spike like that -- media promotion, a talk-show mention, etc. But NewsMax provides no evidence of such media exposure (and it almost certainly would proclaimed it loudly if it existed, being the self-promotion hound it is). Instead the article ends by stating, "And if you want to drive the liberal establishment crazy - go to Amazon and order "Catastrophe" simply by Clicking Here" on a link to Amazon. A story the next day on the rise to 26th cites only a plug from "legendary New York radio host Bob Grant," but no direct correlation to Grant's plug and the sales spike. The article repeats the "liberal establishment" goading and drops the link to the NewsMax store page on the book the first article had, leaving only the Amazon link.

Is the "mystery" spike, in fact, purchases of the book on Amazon by NewsMax itself or its agents, done in order to prime the pump and claim a sales boost it can then promote on its own site and urge readers to buy (and overpay) for the book at Amazon, thereby creating a cycle in which NewsMax's promotion of ever-higher rankings drives further sales of the book?

Don't expect NewsMax to admit it if it were true (not that we expect the full truth from NewsMax in the first place), but exactly this kind of stunt is reportedly not uncommon in the publishing industry. After all, buying 50 books in a day isn't that hard even for a money-bleeding concern like NewsMax, and Amazon best-seller status is something NewsMax can claim in perpetuity, even if its meaning is debatable.

If NewsMax is resorting to cheap publicity stunts in order to get a quick sales boost -- and the evidence seems to point that way -- is it brilliant or desperate? A little bit of both; brilliant because it seems to be working from a raw-numbers standpoint, and desperate because the stunt (if that's what it is) is just a way of trying to buy mainstream credibility for itself. NewsMax certainly hasn't earned it on its own; when you're using at least one lie to promote your book, you're going to have credibility problems, and it certainly makes the rest of the book suspect.

But don't tell the readers of "Catastrophe" that; they've been too busy paying five bucks more than they have to for the glorification of NewsMax -- which will probably never see most of that extra money.

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