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Does Anybody Know What a Bestseller Is?

10 November 2017

From Publishers Weekly:

Bestseller lists have long been powerful marketing tools for the industry. In short, they sell books. But they have proliferated, with more lists that group books according to different metrics, and industry insiders are wondering whether they wield as much power as they used to. When nearly any title can be called a bestseller, does becoming a bestseller still matter?

. . . .

Historically, bestseller lists were broken down along two major lines: format and category. The largest groupings were nonfiction and fiction. Those groups were then broken down by the three major print formats: hardcover, trade paperback, and mass market paperback. The introduction of the fourth format—e-books—disrupted the way bestseller lists are compiled, as it did many other parts of the industry. Because e-books are predominantly sold online and not in stores, their sales can’t be tracked in the same way that print sales are: by collecting data from physical retailers.

Further complicating the bestseller list landscape was Amazon’s introduction of multiple bestseller lists. The e-tailer, which tracks sales of its titles in real time, publishes a wealth of lists, broken down by format and also by multiple subcategories. There are “overall” print and Kindle bestsellers on the site, but also numerous subcategories like “Crafts, Hobbies & Home,” “Humor & Entertainment,” and “Law.”

. . . .

The New York Times famously pulls data for its lists from a select and secret sample of retailers, and Amazon, while reporting its print sales, does not, for the most part, disclose sales of e-books. The lists that are arguably the most transparent, like PW’s, rely on NPD BookScan’s point-of-sale data, which tracks 80%–85% of print sales in the country but doesn’t include data on e-book sales. Other news outlets, such as the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, run their own lists, and organizations like the American Booksellers Association produces multiple lists, including an overall list of bestsellers in ABA bookstores and regional lists.

The sheer number of lists and Amazon’s decision not to widely share its e-book sales figures (despite the fact that BookScan has for years asked the company to take part in its sales aggregation program) means that there is not a true national bestseller list that can definitively identify what the top-selling books are across all formats in a particular week.

. . . .

Ironically for booksellers, titles dubbed bestsellers aren’t necessarily popular with customers.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

First and foremost, as the OP indicates, bestseller lists are marketing tools, particularly for traditional publishers and meatspace bookstores.

But what good is a marketing tool if you can’t control it?

It’s an open secret that traditional bestseller lists like the Times and WSJ lists can be and are gamed to create artificial bestsellers.

Is there a downside for engaging in such gaming? Who is going to punish fakers and how is a respected independent authority going to know for certain that a book that made a bestseller list was not, in fact, a bestseller?

In this respect, the NYT’s well-known secrecy about how its bestseller lists are created is, for PG, an indication that the lists aren’t to be trusted. Transparency would permit an interested observer to examine the NYT methods for errors and biases. If we’re to trust the NYT lists, how about an audit by an independent outside accounting firm?

An independent audit will never happen because the NYT likes its black box. Numbers of unknown quantity and quality go in one end of the box and ratings come out the other. It’s the definition of obscurantism.

Why is a newspaper even in the business of compiling a bestseller list? Why does the NYT exclude some of the biggest-selling books because they’re “perennial sellers”? (see the NYT methodology below) Does that mean a book can be on the NYT bestseller list for three months, then drop off the list because it’s become “perennial” even though its sales have continued at the same or higher levels?

Further, PG isn’t certain what a bestseller is. Is it #1 in a category? #1 overall? Is it a book that makes it into the top 25 bestsellers on somebody’s list?

If a book is #1 for a day or an hour, is it a bestseller?

While this is not legal advice, PG suggests it would be difficult to charge and convict a publisher or an author for false advertising for using the terms, “bestseller” or “bestselling novel” or something similar.

Here’s the NYT’s current disclosure of its methodology for compiling its lists. PG found lots of wiggle room and many gray areas, but perhaps he’s overly suspicious.

A version of this Best Sellers report appears in the November 12, 2017 issue of The New York Times Book Review. Rankings on weekly lists reflect sales for the week ending October 28, 2017.

Rankings reflect unit sales reported on a confidential basis by vendors offering a wide range of general interest titles. Every week, thousands of diverse selling locations report their actual sales on hundreds of thousands of individual titles. The panel of reporting retailers is comprehensive and reflects sales in stores of all sizes and demographics across the United States.

The book selling universe is comprised of well-established vendors as well as emerging ones. The sales venues for print books include many hundreds of independent book retailers; national, regional and local chains; scores of online and multimedia entertainment retailers; supermarkets, university, gift and big-box department stores; and newsstands.

E-book rankings reflect sales from leading online vendors of e-books in a variety of popular e-reader formats and are included in our combined fiction, combined nonfiction, advice, children’s series and monthly lists. Titles are included regardless of whether they are published in both print and electronic formats or just one format. In general, publisher credits for e-books are listed under the corporate publishing name instead of by publisher’s division or imprint, unless by special request.

The appearance of a ranked title reflects the fact that sales data from reporting vendors has been provided to The Times and has satisfied commonly accepted industry standards of universal identification (such as ISBN13 and EISBN13 codes). All identities, anecdotal, contextual, and other information about the retail sales of any title, as well as overall sales data, are provided with the expectation and assurance of confidentiality by every vendor and are protected by Non-Disclosure Agreements.

Sales are defined as completed transactions by individuals during the period on or after the official publication date of a title. Institutional, special interest, group or bulk purchases, if and when they are included, are at the discretion of The New York Times Best-Seller List Desk editors based on standards for inclusion that encompass proprietary vetting and audit protocols, corroborative reporting and other statistical determinations. When included, such bulk purchases appear with a dagger (†).

Publishers and vendors of all ranked titles must conform in a timely fashion to The New York Times Best-Seller Lists requirement to allow for examination and independent corroboration of their reported sales for that week. Sales are statistically weighted to represent and accurately reflect all outlets proportionally nationwide. An asterisk (*) indicates that a book’s sales are barely distinguishable from those of the book above.

Among the categories not actively tracked at this time are: perennial sellers, required classroom reading, textbooks, reference and test preparation guides, e-books available exclusively from a single vendor, journals, workbooks, calorie counters, shopping guides, periodicals and crossword puzzles.

The New York Times Best Sellers are compiled and archived by The Best-Seller Lists Desk of The New York Times News Department, and are separate from the Culture, Advertising and Business sides of The New York Times Company.

If you are a book retailer interested in reporting your store’s weekly sales to The New York Times Best-Seller Lists, send a request here.

Please direct other questions and feedback to nytbsl@nytimes.com.

Bestsellers

20 Comments to “Does Anybody Know What a Bestseller Is?”

  1. I noticed the exclusion for “e-books available exclusively from a single vendor” and assume that includes everyone signed up for KDP select.

    I’d be curious to know how often that exclusion causes KDP select books to not make the NYT list.

    • I know of at least one author who is all in with KU and made nearly a million dollars in one year. I don’t think she cares about getting letters when she’s got a fat bank account.

      I wouldn’t either!

      Making the list is an ego booster. It doesn’t always translate to making more $. At least I’ve never heard of someone making the list and then suddenly start making more money.

    • That clause would be more honestly worded “e-books available exclusively from Amazon”. I wonder if it includes ebooks of Amazon imprint titles, seeing as libraries and book stores can stock print copies but ebooks are available only through Amazon.

  2. Hmm, looks mostly like a whine because the publishers can’t game the lists like they could before.

    And does an overall ‘best seller’ really matter? Only to those keeping score – and of course those making the money on them. I myself am not into romance (a very big seller I understand!), so ranking of such don’t matter to ‘me’, though I am interested in how my stories rank with other sci-fi tales.

    And who’s even looking at the NYT list these days? Most people shop at and trust Amazon for some silly reason, and they have lists too.

    What Publishers Weekly and its overlords are very upset about is not being able to game those ‘selling best’ lists on Amazon. Sure, they could simply ‘buy’ their books back from Amazon to make the lists, but that costs money and they have to keep buying to keep those books anywhere near the top.

  3. As always, PG’s thoughts are more interesting than the OP’s.

    PG, I just sent you a new tip. Did you get it?

  4. As a discriminating reader, “Best Seller” on a cover is usually an indicator for “DO NOT WANT.”

    The same for “HUGO WINNER” and most other prizes. Too much schlock, too many times.

    • Dexter von Dexterdorf

      Glad I’m not the only one who has this issue. I love sci-fi and fantasy but it has been many years since a Hugo award-winning or nominated novel has caught my eye.

      • Check the Dark Side. It’s got puppies…

        Take care.

        PS: Sorry. It was just… there

        • Dexter von Dexterdorf

          You’ll have to explain Dark Side further. My knowledge of the puppy incidents are only in passing comments and a few accounts of the incidents on Wikipedia.

          • The Puppy side got straw-maned as a dark conspiracy of white supremacists. And sort of responded painting itself as The dark Side (TM). Personally, the ones that I found funniest were Larry Correia’s comments on his blog, and even him ended up having some posts that were a tad over-snarky.

            Take care.

    • Political catfights aside, the problem with the hugos has been developing since 1977:

      First, the field has become too big and too broad for anybody to read enough of the yearly output to credibly annoint any work as “best”. There are entire subgenres that are bigger than the entire field was in the 40’s and early 50’s.

      Second, as big and broad as the output side has become, the reader side has grown much faster and even broader in tastes and habits. It’s no longer just a tiny urban subculture banding together and celebrating when they happened upon a fellow traveler. There’s way more to the reader base than the cliquish fen.

      Numbers tell the story:

      Before the catfights (and even after opening up the process to the internet) Hugo nomination votes ran to a total in the mid hundreds. Final total vote tallies ran in the mid thousands.

      The largest of the genre fandom conventions, DragonCon, runs in the 80,000 range.

      By contrast total reader and viewership of the field is spread across millions of followers. The vast majority of whom care nothing for the annointed winners or even hear of them.

      And then, on top of all that, you have the mainstreaming of ebooks, bringing the classic genre backlist into reach for everybody. No more hunting ABEbooks or used bookstores for decades looking for an readable and affordable copy of the likes of Chad Oliver, Fletcher Pratt, or Zenna Henderson. Or an out of print copy of the early works of a suddenly popular author. SF&F is one field that values its history and backlist. Often more than new releases.
      And to top it off, pile on the Indie revolution allowing free market access to even the most dangerous of dangerous visions the establishment would never allow through their gates.

      All that combined has spread readers’ interest and purchases far wider than ever and away from the tradpub titles favored by the hugo clique. Leaving less money for the tradpub titles. Leading to a scramble for even the smallest of marketing edges.

      Now, mix in a dose of politics atop the economic interest.

      Boom.
      Catfight!

      • The recent concern over multiplicity and the (unstated) gaming of bestseller lists owes much to the same dynamics as the irrelevance of the hugos. Except the market for bestseller fiction isn’t growing significantly but rather it is stagnant.

        The result of readers spreading their purchases across the backlist, used books, and Indies is the increasing cannibalization of the tradpub front list. Hence the lowering of the bar for “bestseller-dom” and the marketing value of the lists to new release titles.

        None of those trends will change anytime soon. Nor will the establishment angst over the lists.

  5. Indies game the lists too – its not solely a practice by trad pub. You just have to look at the 20+ author boxed sets and the tactics used (which resulted in a promoter having their KDP account banned) to land themselves on the lists. Then ALL participating authors get to call themselves USAT/NYT/NYJ bestsellers. Interesting to note that Bookbub will now disregard bestseller labels that were gained through multi-author boxed sets.

  6. I never took much note of what went on behind the curtain w/ the NYT lists until they got their nose all out of joint because the Harry Potter kept dominating the list (the nerve!) When they shuffled things around to exclude the books from their main list, that’s when I realized what a joke their lists were. That tarnished the dream. Haven’t cared since.

  7. It’s tough when we can no longer agree that what we pretend to be true really is true.

  8. While I’m a USA Today and WSJ bestseller, the NYT curated the book off because it was an ebook only. They’re doing what they can to close gaming loopholes, but at the same time, it closes off much of the indie world.

    Amazon’s Charts are looking like their take first effort to become the new authority on what’s a bestseller. By breaking it down not just by sales, but also by a chart that shows “most read” they’re breaking that game to some extent. Of course, click farms can probably create a whole lot of bestsellers.

  9. Author places new book in obscure category.

    During their allowed time to offer for free, begs hundreds to download.

    Hits number one for about ten minutes.

    Markets themselves as a bestselling author.

    • That’s pretty much how Simon & Schuster made “The Rosie Project” a “NYT best seller” — by launching the ebook edition at $1.99, leaving it that way for a week, and categorizing it under “Science Fiction” (which it wasn’t even remotely).

  10. My book is consistently in the top 50 of 3-6 Amazon categories that contain 8,000 – 12,000 books. I figure if I’m in the top .6% that should qualify me as a bestseller. In many respects hitting the top 100 on a large Amazon category is harder than making the top 10 in a bookstore, where you’re competing with dramatically fewer books.

    Yet “Amazon Bestseller” has been so overused that I feel it’s basically meaningless so my top .6% static is worthless from a marketing perspective.

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