The convoluted world of best-seller lists, explained

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From Vox (2017):

Over the past few weeks, scandal has rocked the august institution of the New York Times best-seller list. And it’s happened not just once but twice.

On August 24, an unknown book by an unknown author from an unknown publisher rocketed its way to first place on the Times’s young adult hardcover best-seller list. But as a scrappy band of investigators who congregated in the YA Twitter community discovered, it wasn’t because a lot of people were reading the book. Handbook for Mortals by Lani Sarem bought its way onto the list, they concluded, with the publisher and author strategically ordering large numbers of the book from stores that report their sales to the New York Times. Shortly thereafter, the Times removed the book from its rankings.

And on September 4, Regnery Books — the conservative publishing imprint that publishes Ann Coulter and Dinesh D’Souza, among others — denounced the New York Times best-seller list as biased against conservatives. Why, it demanded, was D’Souza’s new book The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left ranked as seventh on the Times’s hardcover nonfiction list when Nielsen BookScan’s data, per Regnery’s interpretation, suggested it should be first? Regnery concluded that the New York Times was actively conspiring against conservative titles, and announced that it would sever all ties with the Times.

To understand how any of this could happen — how different lists can contain different titles, in a different order, how an unknown book could buy its way onto a best-seller list, how a best-seller list could have a political bias — and why any of these things matter, you need to understand how the different best-seller lists work, what makes the New York Times’s best-seller list unique, and the purpose best-seller lists serve within the world of book publishing.

Why is it such a big deal for a book to be named a best-seller?

There are multiple best-seller lists out there, and getting named to any of them is welcome for most authors, but the New York Times best-seller list is widely considered to be the most prestigious, and it’s certainly the most well-known.

Becoming a New York Times best-seller has a measurable effect on a book’s sales, especially for books by debut authors. According to a 2004 study by economics professor Alan Sorensen, appearing on the New York Times’s best-seller list increased debut authors’ sales by 57 percent. On average, it increased sales by 13 or 14 percent.

Besides the list’s effect on sales, it offers prestige. If your book appears on the New York Times list — even just for a week in the last slot of the Advice, How-To & Miscellaneous category — you get to call yourself a New York Times best-seller for the rest of your life. You can put that honor on the cover of all of your other books. If anyone ever insults you, you can say, “Well, have you written a New York Times best-seller?” (Strategy not recommended if the person who insulted you was Danielle Steel.)

And for the rare book that manages to establish enough of a presence on various best-seller lists, a self-sustaining momentum develops. Not everyone who bought a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey expected to like what they read, but Fifty Shades became such a ubiquitous cultural force that lots of people wanted to have an opinion on it anyway. That inspired them to buy it, and that meant the book stayed on the list.

. . . .

At the end of the day, best-seller lists work as shorthand for readers: “Lots of other people liked these books,” they say, “so odds are good that you will too!” 

What does it take to be named a best-seller?

The general consensus is that if you want to make your way onto a best-seller list, any best-seller list, you have to sell at least 5,000 books in a week, or maybe 10,000. Beyond that, things get complicated depending on which list you’re looking to end up on.

That’s because the different lists don’t all use the same data. No one has access to all of the sales made by every single book published in the US in a given week. It takes months for publishers to assemble that data; it’s impossible to get it all in time to publish a weekly best-seller list. “At the end of the day, the publishers will have a hundred percent understanding of what was sold,” says Jim Milliot of Publishers Weekly, “but they won’t have it by the end of the week.”

So all of the different best-seller lists have established their own methodologies to gather sales data — and once they’ve got it, they break it down differently. They put the break between one week and another in different spots (ending on Sunday versus Saturday, for example); they use different categories to sort the lists; they weigh digital and print titles differently. Here’s a breakdown of how the five major lists — Publishers Weekly, USA Today, Indiebound, Amazon, and the New York Times — work.

Publishers Weekly, which Regnery has cited as the “benchmark” it will be following henceforward, pulls its data from the Nielsen service BookScan. BookScan is also the service that most publishers use to track their competitors’ sales, so it’s more or less the industry standard.

BookScan reports that it tracks 80 to 85 percent of the sales of printed books in the US, and although that claim has been contested, it certainly gets data from major sellers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, and Walmart, as well as a number of independent bookstores. (BookScan estimates that it collects data from approximately 16,000 outlets every week.)

Link to the rest at Vox (2017)

3 thoughts on “The convoluted world of best-seller lists, explained”

  1. One wonders what bestseller lists would look like if they were constructed the same way as their equivalents in the rest of the entertainment industry: Based upon third-party-conducted-and-auditable-analysis of payments for access to the entertainment products (purchase of copies, attendance at events). “Gold” and “platinum” records, for example, are not awarded through sampling of a few selected (if not publicly disclosed) bookstores convenient to the editors of Billboard. Even pro wrestling is more transparent.

    Actually, one shouldn’t wonder at all. Similar, third-party-conducted, auditable-and-verifiable ways of creating “bestseller lists” have been proposed about every seven or eight years since the 1920s. That all one can get from the ‘zon is a “sales rank” — despite multiple antitrust suits, several of which explicitly asserted “market dominance” (which requires actual sales numbers from both the ‘zon and others in the defined market) and got past the motion to dismiss phase, but were not rejected on the basis of market definition — is a big hint of the chicanery inherent in the system.

    And that’s the relatively unemotional, overly legalistic description. I’d ordinarily use the F word, but nobody in commercial publishing would ever use f___nt misrepresentations to either alter author compensation or mislead the public into incorrect belief in a work’s sales record, would they? Nobody? Buehler?

  2. With all the best seller lists Amazon has spawned, zillions of books can boast of being a best seller. Go for it.

  3. When wearing my book consumer hat, I put little stock into “bestseller,” a term that has no official guardrails. In the last five years, we’ve seen instances of the New York Times playing loose with their own rules, authors printing bestseller on the cover or their website because in one hour, of one day, they reached a top ten in some obscure Amazon sixth-tier category like, or services using bots to download thousands of free copies. The term has lost much meaning for me.

    One day, many years ago, I had a book in the top 20 for military fiction next to names like Clancy, Cornwell, Shaara, and Wouk.

    Darren Sapp
    Bestselling Author?

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