A spirited discussion about bestseller lists is happening in the comments to New Year, New Hurdles & Opportunities.
One thing to remember is that best-seller lists, whether from Amazon or the New York Times, are marketing tools – focused on consumers – designed to help etailers or retailers sell more books. That, in turn, helps publishers and self-publishers sell more books.
Is a bestseller a book that sells the most copies, sells the most retail dollar volume, or generates the most profit for Barnes & Noble or Amazon? If you remember that bestseller lists are marketing tools, you’ll understand that the answer to this question may be different depending upon who is creating the list.
What time period is used to calculate the list? Are you looking at books sold in the last hour, since midnight, all day yesterday, during the last three days, this week, this month or since the book was first published? Do you give more weight to the number of books sold yesterday than the number of books sold two weeks ago? The answer will depend on the marketing decisions of whoever creates the list.
Do you consider the length of time a book has been published? PG remembers reading (he can’t remember where) that Amazon downplays the sales of certain classic books – Lord of the Rings, for example – to keep those books from always showing up high in the Fantasy list.
PG has no idea if this is true, but it raises an interesting question. If your bestseller list is a marketing tool, would you rather structure it to feature a new fantasy novel that sold 2,000 copies yesterday, the first day it was released, over Lord of the Rings, which sells 2,500 copies every day? From a marketing standpoint, since everybody already knows about Lord of the Rings, putting it on a bestseller list is unlikely to goose its sales much. Besides, it’s much easier to engage someone’s attention with a new product than it is with an old product, even a very good one, they already know about.
Amazon has boatloads of data, expensive analytics software and some very smart people who are watching, among many other things, the impact of best-seller status on book sales and the profitability of various types of sales.
PG suspects that, being able to combine customer purchase information across a wide range of products, Amazon has more genres or, even better, more customer segments than most of us can imagine. A romance reader who buys baby diapers is a much different sort of purchaser than a romance reader who buys adult diapers.
Amazon uses customer segmentation to recommend more products – books and non-book products. The ultimate goal of this sort of segmentation is to come as close as possible to being able to write a master shopping list for each customer and send pieces of that list when the customer is ready to buy whatever he/she needs next.
There’s also a dose of longer-term strategy in bestseller lists concerning matters like how to best deal with publishers who would like Amazon to disappear. Indie best-sellers at indie prices are nice little tools in the ongoing battle between Amazon and publishers about how much a book should cost.
I suspect Amazon is happier than the NYT with more volatility in its bestseller lists. The NYT lists only change once a week and not very much then, in part because they’re heavily based on physical bookstore sales.
Physical bookstore sales are influenced by where books are placed in the stores. If Publisher A has purchased space on a big table at the front of Barnes & Noble and directs Barnes & Noble to place 200 copies of Fifty Shades of Fly-fishing on the table, that book will sell more than if it were placed on the bottom shelf at the back of the store. There are issues with moving printed books around in the store once they’re shelved. Your employees can’t rearrange the Romance section ten times a day.
In Amazon’s online world, you like to have change happening so sci-fi junkies see new titles in the afternoon that weren’t there in the morning. That may make a lot of junkies check back in the evening as well. The more engagement any online store can generate with visitors, the more those visitors are likely to buy.
PG’s bottom line on this is that people who become upset about the perceived unfairness of bestseller lists don’t understand that there is no government standard for how a bestseller list should be constructed. New York Times, Amazon, USA Today – it’s a marketing tool, just like the sign spinners who try to persuade you to buy pizza. (If anybody uses a sign spinner to promote a book, send PG a link to the video.)