Author：Verbena C. W，Elaine Yang
In March of 2012, Chen Xiaohui, CEO of Beijing Cheers Books Co. Ltd., wrote in a microblog that “The King of Capital,” a book his corporation was planning to publish, should actually rank first on Amazon’s business and management books rankings list. He hinted that the book in front of it, “Spiritual Capital”, had bought its way into first place. Publishers sold the book at a low discount to Dangdang, and then Dangdang used a “Free books for 99 yuan” promo to give away “Spiritual Capital,” basing its fast rise to the top of the best-selling charts on the number of copies that had been given away. But industry insiders have revealed that buying a spot on the charts like this is the unspoken rule in the publishing industry. A senior editor from another publishing house did an analysis of the top 30 titles from Dangdang and Amazon; the book for which he was editor ranked 11th on Amazon, but only three of the books above it had gotten there via natural sales, while as many as 70% had bought their places there by the aforementioned method. This has put doubt on many online book rankings lists, and many readers, after having been deceived, are shouting that “you can’t trust any of the rankings.”
Mr. Li, who once worked for three years in a large-scale publishing house, has had a lot of experience with “buying a spot on the rankings lists.” The publishing house for which he worked mainly published urban romance books. “Using Dangdang’s buying a spot on the rankings lists as an example, the first a publishing house does is to look at websites and get an idea of how books that are in the same category as the book it wants to push are doing. The publisher then decides how many copies must be bought in order to guarantee that its book will be able to break into the ranks of best-sellers within one week. After that, people in the publishing house will register thousands of accounts with Dangdang, Amazon, and other online booksellers, and have its staff place daily orders for the book and madly write reviews of it to push it up the ranks. Within a week or two, this causes a surge in sales for the new book, causing a best-selling trend that further drives later sales. A book’s sales volume is directly linked to the performance of its editor, so editing cannot be skipped.” He also said that there was intense competition between editors to buy their books a place in the top rankings; if you want to break into Dangdang’s top ten overall book rankings list, you have to purchase more than 10,000 books buy buying several hundred per day.
With publishing companies this keen to buy spots on the rankings lists, then what does that do to their profits behind the scenes? Chen Xiaohui explained by saying that the costs of buying a ranking spot for a book is equal to the cost of purchasing the book minus the shipping cost, assuming a price difference discount. For example, a publisher sells a book at 50% off to Dangdang, and then buys the book back at 35% off. This 15% loss is born by the publisher. Publishers cause a lot of waste by buying their books back from websites; some books can only be bought for a week or so and then they lose steam, and they actually lose money. One publishing company’s circulation manager threw up his hands and said that they are well aware that the long-term sales of a book must rely on the quality of its content, and that buying a book’s spot on the rankings lists is just a way to earn it a name for itself to give the publisher peace of mind. It’s easy to get it into the weekly rankings, but only books that have been best-sellers for a few years or decades make it onto the monthly or yearly rankings, respectively, and they earn their way there on their own merits.
Though best-selling book rankings still have a lot of pull with Chinese readers, more and more readers are beginning to reflect that after browsing books in the top-sellers lists they sometimes find that the book they buy is not actually a very good read, and for that they feel disappointed. It is probably for this reason that the trend is that readers’ are becoming increasingly rational in their purchasing behaviour. One reader said, “For a book that has been selling for 1 or 2 years, it’s not hard to judge whether it’s flawed or of good quality based on the positive and negative reviews it has gotten.” And there are other internet users who only read reviews on Douban or other third-party entities that are not part of the profit chain, or first read the first two chapters of a book in it’s “preview” section provided by the online bookseller and decide whether to buy the book based on that. But editors in the industry generally understand that the rankings list provided by Beijing’s OpenBook.com is currently the most authoritative list of bestsellers. OpenBook’s data is all based on figures compiled from pose machines and terminal retail bookstores, covering more than 2,000 bookstores in more than 800 middle- and large-sized cities across China. But on the bestselling rankings lists of online booksellers and even some physical bookstores, how many spots have been bought?
At the moment, the realities of rampant piracy, books buying their ways into rankings spots, trend-targeted marketing, and so on have had a serious effect on the healthy development of the Chinese publishing industry. Industry insiders are looking forward to legislation that takes further steps toward regulation.