The Murky Path To Becoming a New York Times Best Seller

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From Esquire:

Anyone who’s worked for a major book publisher in recent memory knows the energy that crackles through the office at 4:59 P.M. on Wednesday afternoons, right before the preview of next week’s best seller list arrives from The New York Times. After months of pitching reviews, planning marketing campaigns, doing bookseller outreach, and begging for budget, this is the moment when you find out if it was enough to earn your author a spot on the best seller list.

The New York Times best-seller list debuted in October 1931, reporting first on the top-selling titles in New York City before expanding in 1942. Over the years, what’s known in the industry as “the list” has come to comprise eleven weekly and seven monthly lists, covering paperbacks, audiobooks, and e-books (combined with print sales), as well as separate lists for children’s books, business titles, and more.

No one outside The New York Times knows exactly how its best sellers are calculated—and the list of theories is longer than the actual list of best sellers. In The New York Times’ own words, “The weekly book lists are determined by sales numbers.” It adds that this data “reflects the previous week’s Sunday-to-Saturday sales period” and takes into account “numbers on millions of titles each week from tens of thousands of storefronts and online retailers as well as specialty and independent bookstores.” The paper keeps its sources confidential, it argues, “to circumvent potential pressure on the booksellers and prevent people from trying to game their way onto the lists.” Its expressed goal is for “the lists to reflect what individual consumers are buying across the country instead of what is being bought in bulk by individuals or associated groups.” But beyond these disclosures, the Times is not exactly forthcoming about how the sausage gets made.

Laura B. McGrath, an assistant professor of English at Temple University who teaches a course on the history of the best seller, compares The New York Times’ list to the original recipe for Coca-Cola: “We have a pretty good idea of what goes into it, but not the exact amount of each ingredient.”

Kathleen Schmidt, president of KMSPR, a book publicity and marketing firm, speculates that The New York Times’ main data sources are Amazon, ReaderLink (a distributor for big box stores like Target, Walmart, and Hudson News), individually reporting stores, and BookScan (one of publishing’s main data providers). The Times denies the use of any services that aggregate data, but according to Schmidt, those in the industry believe otherwise. “I can’t imagine they do not use BookScan at all. They can’t simply rely on the individual stores,” she said.

. . . .

Eloise*, a book publicist I spoke to who spent several years working within the Big Five (the five largest publishing houses: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan), theorized that The New York Times seems “to look for signs that a book is selling large quantities organically—that is, individual copies being purchased from a variety of booksellers… with an emphasis on independent bookshops and geographic diversity.”

She also believes that The New York Times uses data from BookScan, employing it to flag books with a large percentage of bulk orders that might detract from the paper’s mission to represent individual consumer purchases.

Although the list claims to be a numerical ranking with full autonomy from The New York Times Book Review, some of the sources I spoke with believe that an element of editorial curation must be at play. “To my knowledge, The New York Times tracks sales of books, and the sales are what is ‘supposed to’ decide where those books sit on the list. However, the truth is, it’s much more editorialized,” Sarah*, a book publicist who has worked at two Big Five houses, suggested to me. “There is quite a bit taken into consideration—i.e., are the book sales mostly bulk buys? Are they mostly indie bookstore sales? Are they mostly Amazon sales? Even which list the book would be considered for has a huge effect.” For example, whether a book is considered for the Hardcover Nonfiction weekly list or the Advice, How-To, & Miscellaneous weekly list might affect whether it becomes a best seller at all.

Sarah went so far as to suggest that the Times’s curation goes beyond a preference for books acquired at independent retailers—a theory posited by many I spoke to. “It’s frustrating when you get the actual numbers of what every book on the list sold and a book with lower numbers is higher on the list,” she said. “You know it’s because of connections or The New York Times preferring one read over another.”

Times spokesperson Melissa Torres denied in an email that any editorial judgments are involved in constructing the best seller list.

Tracy*, a freelance book publicist who used to work for a book public relations firm, also said that, in her experience, publicly available sales data doesn’t line up with what appears on The New York Times best-seller list. She said, “In the past, when I had access to BookScan, I sometimes did an exercise with authors where I’d show the sales figures for the books on the list in any given week. They often did not correspond to the position on the list—for example, the #5 book on the list may have sold fewer copies than the #9 book on the list.”

Asked why such a scenario might occur, Torres said, “As always, raw sales are only one factor in determining if or where a book might rank on our lists,” and directed Esquire to the best sellers methodology statement.

Like everyone I consulted, Tracy and Sarah both acknowledged that there’s no surefire way to know the list’s recipe. This is one of the reasons why those inside the publishing machine find The New York Times best-seller list so frustrating—it’s a data project full of contradictions.

Link to the rest at Esquire

(PG apologizes for his occasional digs at English majors. Be assured that PG’s undergraduate major was even less practical for real-world activities, especially income-generating activities than an English major would have been. After he went to law school to detox his resume’, no one ever asked him what his undergraduate major had been so he no longer had to tapdance around with his answer.)

PG wonders why anyone outside of The New York Times would think there were any rigorously objective underpinnings for the NYT bestseller lists. These folks are curators of culture, after all, and that self-generated role will not be seriously limited by something so tawdry as the actual number of books sold at places like Walmart.

Thumbs belonging to the right sort of people will always be applied to mere sales reports to generate a proper bestseller list.

2 thoughts on “The Murky Path To Becoming a New York Times Best Seller”

  1. Back in the 1980s, an author claimed that the NYT bestseller list had unfairly excluded his book, and sued them. The Times’s defense was that said list was “editorial content” rather than factual, and was thus protected by free speech.

    The courts accepted this defense.

    I see no reason to believe that NYT policy has changed since then.

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