Brent Underwood made headlines last month after uploading a photo of his foot to Amazon Books to prove how easy it is to become an Amazon “bestselling” author.
He executed the stunt after he became fed up with individuals putting up obscure content on Amazon in order to get the site’s bestselling author status and then using it demonstrate to others how to achieve the same. He told NextShark:
“They use the bestseller title to position themselves as experts, get better speaking gigs, more money from potential clients, sell products, etc. My main issue isn’t making money off their crappy book. My problem is them creating courses, guides, schools, and webinars all designed to show you how to become a ‘bestselling author.’”
“One of the guys I called out in the original article wrote me an email two months ago bragging how he had made over $1 million on his publishing course last year and was giving away a Lexus and a smart car to his top affiliates. That would be fine if he or any of the others in that category had any idea what they were talking about when it comes to book marketing or production or if their product was of any quality. Instead, they’re making this money off deception and preying on an aspiring author’s desires for status and success. They make it seem like an Amazon bestseller is an actual achievement because they stand to benefit financially and professionally.”
Underwood broke down just how easy it is to game the system and achieve a “bestselling author” status on Amazon:
“It’s pretty easy. Amazon has a self-publishing platform where you can upload almost anything and have it appear within a few hours as a ‘book’ on the site. In my original experiment they approved just a photo of my foot as a book, for instance.”
“On Amazon, they have their own ‘bestseller’ rankings for books based upon categories. If you’re in the top 100 in your Amazon category, you will see a ‘bestseller ranking’ below the title. A book at the No. 1 spot in any given category will get a ‘#1 Best Seller’ banner featured next to the title. This ranking is updated hourly, so it doesn’t take much to sell the most in some categories, especially since Amazon has over 500 categories for books, down to things as specific as transpersonal movements and freemasonry studies (which I chose for my experiment). You also get to choose the category your book tracks in, as well as the price, down to $0.99.”
“So given all that, if you wanted to become an Amazon ‘bestseller’ you could just choose an obscure category, price your book very low, and sell a copy or two. In my case, three copies was enough to hit No. 1 in ‘transpersonal psychology’ and No. 2 in ‘freemasonry studies.’”
“My frustration with this is that as Amazon has become the big dog in the book world, the ‘Amazon Bestseller’ status has come to be synonymous with being an actual bestseller. People hit the top of a category for an hour and throw ‘bestselling author’ into all their bios and claim the title for the rest of their life. It devalues the term and disrespects generations of authors who got there with a ton of hard work.”
It only took Underwood three sales to achieve bestseller status, which proves his point of how overrated the coveted title is. He wrote a blog post detailing his stunt and his story was widely reported by the media. It didn’t take long until Amazon took his book down.
“After the original experiment received a bunch of media attention, Amazon removed the book from their site on the grounds that it was not a real book, which is hilarious given some of the titles Amazon allows to remain in their catalog.”
Shortly after, Thought Catalog reached out to Underwood and offered him a book deal.
“Chris Lavergne, the founder of ThoughtCatalog, Noelle Beams, and the whole team there worked really hard and helped get the book out in a week or so. We used some press clippings from the first book for blurbs, along with some new quotes from some author friends including Ryan Holiday, Tucker Max and Matt Kepnes, who are all actual bestselling authors that have sold millions of books combined. I wrote up a short introduction, took 30 more photos of my foot, and we had a new ‘revised and expanded’ edition of ‘Putting My Foot Down.’ It is available now on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle.”
Underwood will be donating all royalties made from the book to 826 National, a nonprofit organization founded by Dave Eggers that helps kids from disadvantaged backgrounds develop their writing skills.
Asked what advice he has for aspiring authors looking to become successful, Underwood said:
“Way too many authors get wrapped up in bestseller lists, sales numbers, speaking fees, and all the ephemera in the publishing industry. Success has somehow become hitting the top of an Amazon category for an hour, instead of total number of copies sold or creating something that lasts for decades.”
“It happens across all the creative fields. People get wrapped up in secrets and shortcuts. They measure success in social media shares and milliseconds. How many copies did ‘The Great Gatsby’ sell the week it came out? I don’t know and it doesn’t matter. It still sells today and that is what is important.”
“Focus less on what your amazing online marketing scheme will be and building your Twitter followers and focus more time on creating an amazing product. Why have all those followers or plan if you’re going to deliver unremarkable work?”