Boondoggle, n. Work or activity that is wasteful or pointless but gives the appearance of having value.

The term “boondoggle” first appeared in the 1930s, and typically refers to a publicly-funded social or civic project that doesn’t accomplish anything important, but is continued due to political favors or graft. In non-political contexts, boondoggles are projects that appear to confer value at first glance, but are pretty useless on a closer look.

The Amazon Kindle Store is crammed full of boondoggles.

How many times have you downloaded a “#1 Bestseller” on a topic vital to your business or personal growth, only to realize that the person who wrote it was just one more internet marketer with no actual value to give you?

How many times has a friend or colleague asked you to help them get their book to be a “#1 Bestseller” by downloading (and leaving a positive review for) a book you’ll probably never read?

How many times have you seen “#1 Bestselling Author” on someone’s Facebook or LinkedIn profile, or heard a speaker introduced that way, but then realized they don’t have anything original or helpful to say — only things to sell you?

And how many times have you seen a book with a childish cover, a clickbait-y title, and a text riddled with typos claim to be a “#1 Bestseller?”

That’s what I thought.

Standing against the flood

When he created Putting My Foot Down, Brent Underwood was protesting the boondoggles taking over Amazon. When she started The Author Incubator, Angela Lauria was setting up an anti-boondoggle book creation process. And when I put together The Master Wordsmith, I brought onto my team only those kinds of book professionals who would never attach their names to a boondoggle book. It is my fervent hope and long-range plan to take back Amazon from these BS boondoggles and reestablish it as a market for high-quality writing.

That’s going to take some time. These days, gimmicky self-publishing programs and slick book marketers are flooding the Kindle store with so-called “#1 Bestsellers” that either (1) have about as much actual content as Putting My Foot Down, (2) were written by first-time authors who were rushed through a one-size-fits-all writing and editing process, or (3) clearly prioritize a loud and flashy marketing campaign over adding real value to their readers. And they’ve been doing it for years.

So unless a great author is already a known quantity like a Larry Winget or a Hal Elrod, or already have a strong business following like an Honoree Corder or a Steve Kamb, their amazing insights can easily get shouted down, buried in the cacophony of self-promotion, their book lost in the shuffle forever. For many, self-publishing becomes a task of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ‘em,” where good authors feel they have no choice but to do exactly what everyone else is doing — even as doing so associates them more closely with the boondoggles they most want to differentiate themselves from. (As I begin my first book this month, this issue is one I’m already starting to wrestle with.)

For readers like you, the problem is a bit simpler. Short of judging a book by its cover (which, don’t lie, you know you do sometimes), how do you tell whether a “#1 Bestseller” is a legit bestseller or a boondoggle before you shell out your hard-earned 99 cents (or more) to download it?

By asking four basic questions about its bestseller status.

1. According to whom?

2. Compared to what?

3. By how much?

4. For how long?

According to whom?

There are four lists considered to be legitimate and reliable indicators of a book’s bestseller status:

  • New York Times
  • Wall Street Journal
  • USA Today
  • Business Week

Some of these lists have their own issues (publishing expert Tim Grahl recently uncovered some interesting inconsistencies in the NYT list, for example), and all four skew heavily toward traditionally published books over self-published ones, but in general, if a book appears on one or more of these lists, it can be considered a legit bestseller. Why? Because to make any of those lists, you need to sell about ten thousand copies in a month, and you need to do it across a wide variety of outlets across the country.

Amazon’s bestseller label doesn’t stack up to any of those four, for three reasons:

– Amazon counts its sales hourly, not monthly. If you sell a hundred books in a few hours, you can earn the bestseller title based on that, even if you never sell another copy.

– Amazon calculates bestsellership relative to other books. If you sell six copies in one hour and another book in your category sells five, you get to be the bestseller in that category. If that other book sells seven the next hour and you stay at six, it gets the bestseller crown. No matter that you both sold the exact same amount in the same timeframe (and that you only sold twelve copies apiece), you’re both bestsellers forever now.

– Amazon is only one outlet. Yes, it’s a gigantic one, but there’s a big difference between selling a hundred books out of one store and selling ten books each out of ten different stores.

So if the only place a book is a “#1 Bestseller” is Amazon, you might want to take a closer look at it. It’s very possible that means it’s only sold a few copies (or at most a few hundred). Which brings us to question #2:

Compared to what?

You may remember with Putting My Foot Down, Brent Underwood achieved bestseller status by picking two very small, very obscure categories to publish his book in. I think one was about inspired movement and the other was Masonic theory, something like that. Neither one had more than two or three other books in it. So selling more than those two or three, and achieving relative bestseller status, was easy.

There are hundreds of thousands of books on Amazon. This is why there are categories in the first place, to make it easier for readers to find the exact right book for them. If you’re looking for an ebook on time management, you won’t start looking through the entire Kindle store. You’ll search for that topic under ebooks. What comes up (you’ll see this on the left side of the Amazon page) will look like the illustration below:

Image source: Amazon.com

This is great for you as a reader, because it leads you right to a whole category of books about the topic you want. But there are two important things to notice here. One, Time Management is a fourth-tier category. There are three umbrella or parent categories above it before you get to the entire Kindle store: Business Life, Business & Money, and Kindle ebooks. And two, within Time Management’s parent category, Business Life, there are five other categories, likely of about the same size as Time Management itself.

So if a Time Management book says it’s a “#1 Bestseller,” does that mean it’s a bestseller just in the Time Management category? Or in the Business Life category, or even the Business and Money category? You can find this out by looking about halfway down the book’s Amazon page, at the section called Product Details. You’ll see something like this:

Image source: nichepursuits.com

You can see that the book in this example picture is #1 in Oceans and Seas, a fifth-tier category, and in Rivers, a fourth-tier category, as well as #2 in Human Geography, another fifth-tier. So by Amazon’s system, it is a “#1 bestseller.” But how many books did it have to outsell to achieve its bestseller status? How many books are in Oceans and Seas, or in Human Geography? Also, how many other categories are in the next parent categories up the chain — Earth Sciences, Nature and Ecology, or Social Sciences? How many books are in those subcategories?

If this is starting to sound like a lot of research to deal with, don’t panic. You don’t actually have to look up every other category around the book you may want to buy (unless you really want to!). The main thing to look for is: which tier(s) of categories is this book a bestseller in? If it’s only a bestseller in a fourth- or fifth-tier category, there’s a chance it didn’t have to sell many copies to achieve that status. This may mean it’s simply a very niche book topic, but it may also mean that it isn’t that good a book.

If it gets up to third-tier, it probably had to outsell many more books to get there, making its bestseller title potentially more legit. And if it gets to one of the top tiers (in these examples, Business & Money and Science, respectively) or even into the Nonfiction or Kindle ebooks categories, calling it a bestseller makes a lot more sense — it had to pass up hundreds, possibly thousands, of books to get there. It’s hard to do that with a boondoggle.

So if a book claims to be a “#1 Bestseller,” be sure you check which categories it got that label in — and where in the tier system those categories are. (And if you’re an author, do your readers a favor and be transparent about those categories.)

By how much?

This third question is partly a continuation of the second one, as knowing which category tier a bestseller is in will help you understand how many books it likely sold to get there. But there’s another element here: how much does the book cost?

Amazon runs on discounts. If you’ve ever seen a book launch there, you know that the way people boost sales over a short time period is by making the book either free or 99 cents, so that the barrier to entry on buying is basically nil. Even long after a book launches, many authors keep their book at a discounted price to encourage impulse buyers.

There’s nothing wrong with giving discounts to drive sales. Brick-and-mortar bookstores have books on sale all the time — most books on the bestseller shelves are always 20% or 30% off, for instance. But contrast taking 20% off a $30 hardcover book with reducing a $4.99 ebook to 99 cents or free. One of those tactics says “I’m making something valuable easier for people to access.” The other says “I’m gutting my own value in order to get more attention.”

Besides, when you download a book for free (or 99 cents, which is basically free in your mind), do you actually read it? Be honest here. I’ll tell you straight up, I rarely do. But if I pay $25 for a hardcover book, or even $4.99 for an ebook, I’m much more likely to make sure I read it. It’s called having skin in the game.

So is a “#1 bestseller” that only got there by charging next to nothing a real bestseller or a boondoggle? It’s worth thinking about.

For how long?

This is the most important question of the four, because it builds on the other three.

Because Amazon launches last for a few days at most, because they often start in small categories, and because they’re so heavily discount-driven, it’s very common for a book to sell pretty well for a little while and then completely disappear. If a savvy entrepreneur is using the book as part of their business growth, that may not happen — Steven Daar’s Profit Hacking, for instance, is still selling regularly two years after he wrote it. But for many “#1 Bestsellers,” that title represents the author’s entire fifteen minutes of fame.

In this situation, Amazon’s hourly recalculation of sales and bestseller status actively works against its authors. Authors feel they must write and publish as quickly as possible with as much marketing as possible to achieve bestseller status as fast as possible — and they are often encouraged to do this by the aforementioned self-publishing programs and book marketing consultants. Concepts like playing the long game, building up slowly and steadily, and taking the time to create high-quality content that adds a ton of value to its readers, seem to have no place in self-publishing’s manic schedule. So authors tend to do one of two things: either they resign themselves to a flash in the pan, or they double down and churn out five (or ten or twenty) often mediocre books in rapid succession instead of one or two solid ones. Any project manager worth their salt will tell you that when speed goes up, quality goes down.

So when you see this “#1 Bestseller,” look at two more things: when it was published, and what the author is doing now. If it came out three years ago and still has a third-tier (or even a fourth-tier) rank over a dozen other similar books, it’s probably a pretty good read, because people are still buying it. If it came out a month ago and appears to be doing really well, that could be because it’s a good read, or because it’s still coming off a big launch. Don’t be afraid to wait a bit and see if people keep buying the book after the launch hubbub around it dies down — that’s actually a pretty good indicator that it’s not a boondoggle.

Also, if the author clearly has a thriving business (which involves the topic of the book, and in which they use the teachings in the book), that’s usually a good sign as well. If the author is broke and not working in that field anymore, their book probably won’t help you much.

Can I get a recap?

Okay, here’s how to ask these four questions very quickly:

1. Is it a bestseller anywhere other than Amazon?

2. What categories is it a bestseller in, and how many tiers below the whole Kindle store are they?

3. How much does it cost, and how much is it discounted?

4. How long ago was it launched, how well is it selling now, and what is the author doing now?

There are a few other ways to tell if a book is worth reading (including just buying it outright, which you can certainly do), but asking any or all of these four questions will help you discern right off whether it’s a legit bestseller or it might be a boondoggle.

For more thoughts like this, plus free access to my 90 Day Book Creation Case Study, visit me at https://www.facebook.com/masterwordsmithjames.

** This blog was cross-posted from Medium.com **