Donald Trump Jr.'s New York Times bestseller 'Triggered' sparks literary list controversy

The scandal may ultimately be more about the list itself then the authors scratching and clawing their way to the top of it.
Image: US-politics-books-Trump
Donald Trump Jr. holds his new book, "Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us," at an event in New York.Angela Weiss / AFP - Getty Images
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Elena Sheppard

In case you haven’t heard from a late night host, or the Republican National Committee, or President Donald Trump himself, Donald Trump Jr. has a new book out. It’s called “Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us,” and is an attack on the media, Trump critics and of course, Democrats. ‘Triggered’ was published in early November, and currently has the No. 1 spot on The New York Times’ coveted bestseller list in the categories of hardcover nonfiction and combined print & e-book nonfiction.

The elder Trump was thrilled when he heard the news, tweeting “Wow! Was just told that my son’s book, “Triggered,” is Number One on The New York Times Bestseller List. Congratulations Don!” Many others had a different reaction though, focusing instead on the tiny dagger that appeared next to the title on Trump Jr.’s top spot. That dagger indicates that sales of the book were influenced by bulk purchases.

The controversy has revived debate about the Times’ bestseller list, and perhaps bestseller lists more generally, dragging into the spotlight the question of how and who makes it to the top, and whether the system is, essentially, bogus.

Thousands of individuals did not go into bookstores and, one by one, buy Trump Jr.'s book; this is not in dispute. The New York Times reported that Trump Jr.’s enviable spot was, “thanks in part to a big order from the Republican National Committee.” The Times also reported that a financial disclosure form filed with the Federal Election Committee indicated that the RNC made a $94,800 payment to Books-A-Million, a bookseller whose numbers contribute to the bestseller list, for what is listed as “donor mementos.”

The RNC confirmed that amount had gone toward buying Trump Jr.’s book, but said the large purchase was merely keeping up with demand. The same day that the Books-A-Million purchase went through, Trump Jr. signed an RNC fundraising email, which promised signed copies of the book to people who contribute $50 or more to the party. The question then becomes, so did he buy his way onto the list or not?

The answer is not simple. To make any bestseller list typically requires selling at least 5,000 books within a single week. The New York Times is notoriously tight-lipped about its bestseller methodology, though it is fair to say that not all book sales count equally (or at all). Also, if $94,800 was spent by the RNC on $30 books, that accounts for around 3,160 books sold. Still not quite enough to make it on the list — but certainly a good boost.

Get the think newsletter.

On the other hand, such boosts happen more often than we may think. Indeed, many believe that the list is easy to manipulate. “It happens so frequently, I'm not sure I'd even call it ‘manipulation,’” Phil Stamper, publishing professional and author of “The Gravity of Us,” told me.

The New York Times is notoriously tight-lipped about its bestseller methodology, though it is fair to say that not all book sales count equally (or at all).

In 2017, Stamper and a few others in the literary world caught and flagged the novel “Handbook for Mortals,” which they believed showed up in the No. 1 spot on the Times’ YA bestseller list due to shady bulk purchases without the tell-tale dagger symbol to indicate that. The book was removed from the list after 23 hours. “I knew bulk buying and ‘rigging the list’ happened more often in business and memoir categories, but it was the first time I'd seen that technique used so blatantly for YA,” Stamper said.

“Handbook for Mortals” author Lani Sarem says there’s more to the story, however, maintaining that she bought her book through recognized retailers in order to fulfill pre-orders made at Comic-Con. She said purchases made at Comic-Con did not count toward the New York Times list, so she was merely trying to make her pre-sales count by buying the actual books through Times approved vendors. “What I was doing was to make my real book sales, that actually were occurring, count. What someone else could do, and what I got accused of doing, is just buying books and then lining their garage,” she told me.

“It’s a practice that a lot of authors do, which is if they have sales happening at an event, they will take the sales and push them through a bookstore,” Sarem told me, mentioning that there are services that also help authors get on the list. (Sarem has been accused of hiring one of those companies.)

Another person accused of rigging the list? Donald Trump Sr. Trump’s New York Times bestseller “The Art of the Deal” was, according to former Trump executive Jack O’Donnell, purchased in bulk by the Trump Organization to help secure the book’s spot on the list.

How many books did they buy? So many they were forced to find creative ways to get rid of them. “What we would do is use them as a turn-down service in a hotel,” O’Donnell told the New Republic in 2017. “You know how in a nice hotel, they turn your bedcover down and put a mint there? We were putting books on the bed.”

So who’s really to say which book sales count and which don’t?

Another person accused of rigging the list? Donald Trump Sr. Trump’s New York Times bestseller “The Art of the Deal” was purchased in bulk by the Trump Organization.

“Obviously, Donald Trump Jr. with the kind of money that he has access to and with the Republican party, yes, they could totally take money, buy the books in ‘bulk’ and then distribute them to people for whatever reason and yes, in essence, throw the list,” Sarem said. “But is it throwing the list? Does the fact that 10,000 people have your book not count? They have it.”

Stamper noted something similar. “At the end of the day, it's a list for bestselling titles, and whether 50,000 people bought one book or one person bought 50,000, it's still technically a bestseller,” he said. “That doesn't make it less icky, though.”

So really this controversy may be more about the list itself then the authors scratching and clawing their way to the top of it. As prestigious as it may seem, the New York Times bestseller list is not a reflection of the cream of the literary crop. It is, however, a metric of success for publishers, and a shorthand for consumers looking for their next read. It is also important for authors, who naturally want to sell as many books as possible. Essentially, it is a business tool.

As Sofia Majstorovic, a Masters in Fine Arts candidate in nonfiction writing at Columbia University, told me, the list is more about its Tom Clancy-esque thrillers and Ted Talk regulars than it is about naming next fiction luminaries. “The bestseller list is a literal short-cut for books about short-cuts,” she quipped.

The New York Times bestseller list is also not the only book list in the game. USA Today also has a popular list; “Triggered” is currently No. 5. Bookscan is another well respected list; “Triggered” is No. 3.

“To a certain extent,” Sarem said, “All the lists are bulls--t. There’s always an ability by anyone with money to influence what happens, and there’s no way to completely control that.”

This is all pretty fitting, when you think about it. "Triggered" may not win any literary prizes, but it is a good reminder of how easily and often influence is bought and sold.

Related: