A mystery perhaps worthy of the FBI has deepened as David Vise, the author of the bestselling The Bureau and the Mole, admitted he bought "somewhere around" 17,000 copies of his book from Barnesnandnoble.com, only to return many of them, upsetting the bookseller and confusing his publisher.

Some in the industry wondered if the Pulitzer Prize—winning journalist might have been trying to manipulate the bestseller list. But Vise, a reporter for the Washington Post, said he planned to sign and sell the copies of his book about Robert Hanssen to people who didn't live near a tour stop, or to give them away to fans. "I just wanted to create a community," he said. "I wanted to make it possible for people who live in a remote place to get a signed copy." (Amazon.com lists several copies of signed collectibles for sale by Vise for $25.01, the minimum price at which he is allowed to sell them.)

Sources say the returned orders rankled B&N.com, which went to the book's publisher, Grove/Atlantic's Morgan Entrekin, seeking reimbursement for shipping costs. Entrekin is now working with B&N.com to make a "final reconciliation." Entrekin wondered to Vise why he hadn't ordered directly from Grove/Atlantic. But Vise explained that he did it this way to get the best price on the books. He noted that he could buy them from B&N.com via his own affiliated site (as the site's administrator, he gets as much as a 7% cut). He received a further 10% discount as a Reader's Advantage member. Coupled with free shipping and a $3.50 per-book royalty fee, he said he ended up with a better deal than if he had bought the books at 40% discount from Entrekin. B&N.com spokesperson Carolyn Brown said it is company policy not to comment on customer purchases.

The story, first reported by "PW NewsLine" on Friday, March 1, gets stranger from there. Did Vise need tens of thousands of books to sell to readers? No, he said; he just wanted 3,000 or 4,000 copies. But he returned one batch after B&N.com lowered its price (he said he asked B&N.com for an accounting credit, but they told him he needed to return and reorder). Acting on B&N.com's advice, he refused another batch after the price was lowered again, this time while the books were in the mail. And in two other instances, batches were accidentally double-shipped. Vise said he ordered these books in relatively small bunches because B&N.com wouldn't allow him to order more than 999 at a time.

"The whole thing is a misunderstanding," Vise said. "Had I known up front Grove would sell it to me for less, I would have bought it from them." He said "it never even occurred to me" that his purchases might influence the bestseller lists. But some in the industry believe that his orders might indeed have been intended to do just that. Little, Brown executive editor Geoff Shandler, who edited a competing Hanssen book, The Spy Next Door, said, "We can't conclusively say Vise's purchases affected the list. But they sure didn't hurt, and they sure look fishy."

Shandler questioned Vise's need for so many copies, as well as the method by which he acquired them: "His explanation makes no sense to me. I find it about as credible as Bob Hanssen's." Shandler added, "If true [that he intended to manipulate the list], it's atrocious behavior. It hurts publishers and authors who play by the rules. It hurts the credibility of the list. And it hurts B&N.com."

Entrekin said that while he doesn't think the journalist's buys put the book on the list— "it was selling well across all accounts from day one"—he acknowledged the situation's ambiguities. "Did they [Vise's purchases] have some impact on the activity of the book? Yes, they did. Was that intentional? Only he can ever know."