In early April, Matthew Donnellan received a copy of Steve Poizner’s new memoir, “Mount Pleasant,” in the mail from Amazon.com. But the San Diego area college student, who is active in local Republican clubs, said he never ordered the book.
“I wasn’t too sure if the book came in as a joke from a friend who was a Whitman supporter or as a gift from a friend who is a Poizner supporter,” Donnellan said.
But Donnellan also noticed that his name and address were listed not only as the recipient but as the buyer on the invoice. Wanting to make sure his credit card number hadn’t been stolen, he called Amazon. The Amazon representative he reached told him the book was purchased with a gift card — and that card had also been used to buy copies of “Mount Pleasant” for 249 other people, all of whom had first names that began with “M.”
“It was like they were going down a mailing list,” Donnellan said.
Another person with an “M” name, USAA Insurance western vice president Mike Mattoch, also got a copy about the same time. A decline-to-state voter, Mattoch said he assumed the campaign sent it, until he saw the invoice that referred to “your order.”
“I thought, ‘Holy crap, not again,’” Mattoch said. “I’ve had my credit card stolen before and it’s a nightmare.”
Mattoch soon established that he hadn’t been ripped off, then forgot about it. But Donnellan kept asking Amazon questions. He was told the card was purchased under the unlikely-sounding name “Joe Shome.” But the actual card was paid for by one Mat Miller, of the San Diego-based firm Pink Moon Media. The same person told Donnellan that Miller bought “a number” of other gift cards.
The name “Mat Miller” also pops up on Google as a contact for ResultSource, Inc. This Carlsbad-based company bills itself as “The leader in book marketing and thought-leadership promotion.”
The company’s website offers to “Let ResultSource launch your next book as a New York Times Bestseller,” and goes on to say, “Having a bestseller initiates credible growth — exponentially increasing the demand for your thought leadership, skyrocketing your speaking itinerary, giving you a national (even global) spotlight.”
Then Donnellan started asking friends and acquaintances. Over a dozen other people, he said, also reported they’d gotten unsolicited copies of “Mount Pleasant.” This included multiple elected officials, he said, including members of the Assembly and Congress. None had a first name beginning with “M.”
When the New York Times released their bestseller list on April 10, “Mount Pleasant” ranked a lofty No. 5. When the Times updated that list on April 15, it had dropped to No. 33. By April 23, it was off the list.
This quick rise and fall, an unusual trajectory for the list, led to speculation that Poizner or his gubernatorial campaign bought up enough copies to boost the book, briefly, to the highest echelons of literary success. The idea is that adding “bestselling author” to Poizner’s long list of accomplishments would garner positive press coverage as he tries to come back from a 28 point deficit in this race for the Republican nomination for governor against former eBay CEO Meg Whitman.
Poizner’s campaign declined repeatedly to discuss the issue with Capitol Weekly. Calls to Pink Moon and ResultSources were not returned.
Interestingly, if Poizner or the campaign had bought “author’s copies” directly from the publisher, they would not have shown up on sales figures. But by buying them from Amazon, the copies would register on the Times’ figures.
According to the Secretary of State’s CalAccess website, there have been no payments by the Poizner campaign to Pink Moon or ResultSource. However, if payments came after April 1, they won’t appear until the Q2 campaign results are posted in July. If they were paid for by Poizner personally or some private party not officially affiliated with the campaign, they wouldn’t show up at all.
Michael Norris, who tracks the book publishing industry as a senior analyst for Simba Information said it is plausible that “Mount Pleasant” had a brief but notable run on the list. Poizner had more ways to promote his book that most writers, Norris noted. As a statewide official and candidate for governor in the country’s largest state, he can generate publicity “with a press release.” Then there is the marketing savvy of the conservative publishing imprints, such as Crown Forum, Regnery, Threshold and Portfolio, the division of Penguin the published “Mount Pleasant.”
“The Republican publishers are great when it comes to promoting a book effectively,” Norris said. “They don’t just know who their audience is, but what blogs they read, what radio shows they listen to and what they take in their coffee.”
Verna Dreisbach, a literary agent based in El Dorado Hills, agreed. The California reading audience is big enough to get someone onto the list, she said, but not to keep them there. Meanwhile, she noted, in the wake of Barack Obama’s success increasing his national name ID with a pair of popular memoirs, more and more politicians are trying to get into the writing game. But getting a bestseller remains very hard.
“Publishing is so incredibly tough right now, people are going to extraordinary means,” Dreisbach said.
So far, neither Poizner nor his campaign have addressed the question of whether he purchased copies, even when asked by host Ira Glass on the popular public radio program “This American Life” last weekend. That show has been trouble for the Poizner campaign, especially after Glass labeled Poizner’s version of events at the school as “obviously and provably untrue.” Students and teachers have also railed against his portrayal of the statistically near-average, majority-Latino school as poor and ravaged by crime.
An analysis of the New York Times list suggests that, statistically speaking, the rise and fall of “Mount Pleasant” doesn’t fit the norm. The Times cuts the bestseller list off at the top 15 books, then follows with an “also selling” list of the next 20 bestselling titles in that category.
A look at the 14 other books on the list at the time reveals a number of things. First of all, most of the authors are much more famous than Poizner. They include well-known writers like Michael Lewis, Malcolm Gladwell and Mitch Albom, and political figures like Karl Rove and Mitt Romney.
Eleven of the top 15 on April 10 were also in the top 15 the week before. These same 11 titles remained in the top 15 a week later. The median number of weeks on the list as of April 10 was four, with an average time of 10 weeks—a figure thrown off by the 72 weeks registered by Gladwell’s aptly-named “Outliers” and the 26-week run of Albom’s “Have a Little Faith.”
Only one other book on the list at the time dropped by anywhere close to the same amount. “The Best Kind of Different,” a memoir of raising a child with Asperger’s syndrome by Shonda Schilling, the wife of former Major League Baseball pitcher Curt Schilling, dropped from 15 to 34 and then fell off the list. The No. 16 book that week, “Lies the Government Told You” by Andrew Napolitano, dropped to 19th the next week before dropping off the list. “Obama Zombies,” a book about Obama’s “media assault on American you
th,” hit 30th on April 2. It was 14th on April 10, dropped to 35th April 15, then fell off the list.
Still, many who look at the industry have noted there is a huge difference between making it to No. 14-16 range and hitting No. 5, a realm usually occupied week after week by the likes of Lewis and Gladwell.
Without the cooperation of publishers or authors, it can be difficult to nail down actual sales numbers. According to Brent Sampson’s “Sell Your Book on Amazon,” a title can make it onto at least the lower reaches of the New York Times list by selling as few as 3,000 to 4,000 copies in a week, though hitting No. 5 probably required more.
Poizner certainly has the wealth, having sold his last company for $1 billion. If he paid the $11.69 asking price on Amazon, not counting shipping, 5,000 copies would set him back $58,450, or about 1/1,000th of what Whitman has put into her own campaign.