by Steven Zeitchik

March 1, 2002 — It's a mystery worthy of Robert Hanssen himself: Why did Pulitzer–Prize winner David Vise, author of Hanssen story The Bureau and the Mole, buy thousands of copies of his own book from only to return them?

There's the generous explanation — that he needed large numbers to sell off his Website and at live events. He was tempted by BN's offer for free shipping, and then returned the books when the Web site lowered its price so he could order them for less.

Then there's the cynical explanation — that Vise was attempting to smooth his way onto the bestseller list.

Either way, sources say the returned orders rankled B&, who went to the book's publisher, Grove/Atlantic's Morgan Entrekin, seeking reimbursement for shipping costs. spokesperson Carolyn Brown said it is her company's policy not to comment on customer purchases.

At this point, it may take a team of FBI interrogators to figure out the truth. Entrekin says he is still in the process of parsing what happened. Vise, a reporter for the Washington Post, was on vacation and unavailable for comment at press time.

A number of questions about the orders for what is now a Times bestseller spring to mind: For one, why didn't Vise buy the book from Grove in the days before the price was lowered? (The book was then selling for over $20, a poorer value than the $15 at which he could have bought it from his publisher, even after factoring in the royalty cut he would have received from B&N.) It's also unclear whether he re–ordered an equal number of copies as he returned, which goes to the issue of whether he really needed them or was simply trying to massage list numbers.

There are other quirks; for example, a weekly report of top sellers from Baker & Taylor at the end of January did not include the book one day, but the wholesaler made the unusual move of sending out a revised list the next day that put the book at #4. Even the number of copies Vise ordered from B& is a mystery. Some sources had estimated a figure as high as 17,000, but others said that while the figure was in the thousands, it was significantly lower than 17,000.

Publishing is no stranger to attempts at list–manipulation; one common trick is for publishers to keep supply low so wholesalers chart stronger demand. And every so often a story surfaces about an author who comes up with his own clever tactic. The idea, of course, is to sneak a book on to the list, and, once you do, let it ride on its own momentum. With the rise of online booksellers, it's easy these days for lay people to order copies in bulk, often without paying shipping costs. That said, the generous explanation has its merits: Vise has been extremely active in promoting and selling the book himself.

The B&N orders give fuel to private speculation about the book's success; some in the industry have been mystified at its rise to #4 on the Times bestseller list. Critics make the argument that despite plenty of media attention, it is one of three new titles on a subject which the public may be growing tired of, and that it has gotten some unflattering reviews (particularly a blistering group pan in the NYT Book Review last Sunday).

But whatever Vise's motive, it's somewhat unlikely the purchase would have a significant effect on the book's bestseller status. A spokesperson for the New York Times said that no alarms had been sounded and that the newspaper was very careful about scrutinizing bulk orders.

© copyright 2002 PW Newsline / Cahners Business Information.


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