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The Truth Behind Bestseller Lists

8 February 2016

From Observer.com:

It’s been just eight years since I worked on my first book launch campaign, but since that time I’ve worked with hundreds of authors in just about every marketing capacity you can imagine. I’ve played the role of publicist, community organizer, web developer, social media expert, and on and on.

In my various roles, I’ve bumped into The New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists many times.

I’ve helped launch two No. 1 New York Times bestsellers, and several top-five bestsellers. At one point, five of my clients had books on the NYT list at the same time. While I haven’t tracked The Wall Street Journal list as closely, I’ve had quite a few hits on that list as well.

. . . .

It’s true, bestseller lists are becoming obsolete. There are plenty of books that, despite never gracing the pages of WSJ or NYT, go on to sell thousands of copies, and have a great fanbase. However, the fact remains that having a New York Times or Wall Street Journal bestseller can greatly enhance your career.

Since the publishing industry still shows great deference to these lists, finding your name on them significantly impacts the advance on your next book contract.

If you’re a nonfiction author, and particularly if you write business books, bestseller lists mean more speaking gigs, higher consulting rates, higher visibility, and an enhanced reputation. They also mean more sales. If your book is a bestseller, it all of a sudden gets more copies on bookstore shelves and other promotions. It’s a self-feeding system.

Bestseller lists also mean more appearances in the media. NYT bestsellers get phone calls and emails from the media. And let’s face it: It matters because it’s pretty damn cool to be a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author. But the bottom line, especially if you have anything to do with the traditional publishing industry, is this: WSJ or NYT bestseller = more money for authors, publishers and agents.

WHAT EXACTLY IS A BESTSELLING BOOK?

If you ask a typical person this question—someone who has never descended into the muck of the behind-the-scenes reality of the bestseller lists—they’ll of course answer something like, “It’s a book that has sold tens of thousands of copies,” or, “It’s the book that has sold the most copies.”

How naive.

. . . .

WSJ builds its list based on the sales figures it gets from Nielson’s BookScan. In general, if you sell the most books in a category as reported by BookScan, you will hit No. 1 in that category on The Wall Street Journal bestseller list. Makes sense, right? Except that BookScan doesn’t track all purchases. It doesn’t include sales made through some big-box stores, such as Walmart and Sam’s Club, which doesn’t affect most of us. However, it also doesn’t include sales from CreateSpace and other self-publishing platforms, which affects thousands of authors.

But overall, BookScan is the most accurate data source, and reports about 75 percent to 85 percent of book sales, depending on who you ask.

. . . .

A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, as the saying goes.

NYT keeps a tight lid on its process for selecting bestsellers. It is known that NYT samples its own list of certain booksellers across the country—though which ones make the cut are a tightly guarded secret—then look at the data with wise NYTbrains, and decide whom they think should be on the list.

It’s said that this is done to keep people from gaming the system, which is partially true. But it’s also done so that The New York Times can have a say about which books get the extra credibility of being named a bestseller.

I’m certainly not the only one who sees potential problems with this system.

Remember: NYT and WSJ list = more money.

So a small group of people look at highly selective data to decide whom they deem important enough to be called a “New York Times bestseller.” At this point, we’ve come pretty far from “the books that sell the most copies.” We’ve laid some groundwork, so now I can share the really weird stuff.

. . . .

A friend of mine has access to the weekly Nielson BookScan numbers—that organization that tracks 75 percent to 85 percent of book sales. Last year, he decided to go back and compare BookScan numbers to the NYT bestseller list to see if he could find anything interesting.

Since NYT does its own secret reporting and choosing, he wanted to see if he could find any signs of bias.

Here are two conclusions he gathered from his own personal research, comparing real BookScan sales figures to the books deemed by NYT staff to be bestsellers:

  1. If you happen to work for The New York Times and have a book out, your book is more likely to stay on the list longer and have a higher ranking than books not written by New York Times employees.
  2. If you happen to have written a conservative-political-leaning book, you’re more likely to be ranked lower and drop off the list faster than those books with a more liberal political slant.

And another point:

Why the separate lists for digital and print copies? 

From an author’s standpoint, this is maddening. I’ve been involved with book launches that have sold more than enough copies to hit the bestseller lists, but because the numbers were split between digital and print, they didn’t make it. How arcane, and antiquated. In what world does it make sense that it matters whether I buy the book in paper or in digital format? I still bought the book. I still thought it was worth the money. But for some reason, the NYT and WSJ lists think paper counts as a sale more than digital.

Arcane and antiquated are the only nice words that can be used here. Readers aren’t concerned about modality, so why are bestseller lists?

. . . .

I think we can all agree that while we want the bestseller lists to reflect the bestselling books, we don’t want people to be able to buy their way onto the lists either, right? So the bestseller lists try to put some checks and balances in place to make sure people can’t do this.

So what happens? Book launderers start popping up. And how does book laundering work?

Let me explain:

Step 1. Find a book laundering firm. There’s a handful of them out there. ResultSource is the most well-known.

Step 2. Write them a check to cover their fee. They don’t work for free, after all.

Step 3. Write them another check—for your books. This check is to buy copies of your book. It depends on the campaign, but it’ll always number in the thousands. We’re trying to hit the bestseller lists here, after all.

Step 4. The firm launders the sales. It hires people all over the country to buy books through various retailers one at a time, using different credit cards, shipping addresses and billing addresses. This allows the sales to go through and show up as individual sales, instead of bulk purchases. These sales then get reported to Nielson BookScan.

Step 5. Pop the champagne corks. You’re now a bestseller.

. . . .

The New York Times samples different stores across the country and weighs book sales based on where they are purchased.

What does this mean?

It means that a hardcover copy of your book purchased on Amazon.com is counted differently than the same hardcover book purchased at indie bookstore X.

Link to the rest at Observer.com and thanks to Barry for the tip.

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12 Comments to “The Truth Behind Bestseller Lists”

  1. “But overall, BookScan is the most accurate data source, and reports about 75 percent to 85 percent of book sales, depending on who you ask.”

    “Except that BookScan doesn’t track all purchases. It doesn’t include sales made through some big-box stores, such as Walmart and Sam’s Club, which doesn’t affect most of us. However, it also doesn’t include sales from CreateSpace and other self-publishing platforms, which affects thousands of authors.”

    Um…

    • Yeah. The first part of that statement may be true (“most accurate”) but the second part (75% – 85%) is looking increasingly shaky. Several observers, not just uppity indies, have looked at BookScan’s methods and suggested the actual figure may be below 50%.

      As the article says, it depends on whom you ask.

  2. I like this part the best.

    As authors, what can be done with this?

    Yes, WSJ and NYT list = More money.

    And it’s hard to ignore that, but we must. The only answer to this debacle is to stop worrying about hitting the major bestseller lists.

    At this point, the results are so far outside of an author’s direct control, that it doesn’t make sense to make these lists a goal anymore.

    Instead, focus on the reader.

    Make your book available at the stores or websites your readers buy books from, in the formats they buy in. Make it easy to buy and easy to read.

    Don’t make the lists your customer. Keep the reader your customer—the people you’re really writing books for.

  3. In other words their gamed system is so gamed you can’t game it — unless you have the money to throw around (and if you have that type of money — why bother gaming it — or caring what gamed books are on it this week?)

  4. All fine as long as they are honest about the nature of their “bestseller” lists.

  5. The truth behind the NYT bestseller list is that there is no truth behind the NYT bestseller list.

  6. Graft, corruption and absolute cronyism is all these lists are. What interests me is people who KNOW this, because they know the truth but still turn to the front page of these newspapers and believe the news section is being handled in any different way.

    Its a form of cognitive dissonance. A thing is what it is. If the Bestsellers list is wrong, corrupt and a bastion for manipulation, so is the rest of the paper. It does not exist in a vacuum.

    But journalists became activists years ago. It’s just that most people haven’t noticed yet.

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