WH Smith’s ‘bestselling’ book charts filled with titles publishers have paid to feature in rankings

From Inews UK:

Book lovers are unwittingly paying for titles which appear to be the top-selling releases of the moment, when in some cases a publisher has paid the retailer to feature them in its “bestseller” charts, multiple industry figures have claimed.

Rankings displayed at shops such as WH Smith, as well as those compiled by online retailers, are determined partly by whether a book has been boosted in a deal with publishers, industry insiders say.

The practice has come to light after a former WH Smith employee alleged that when he worked at the retailer, staff were instructed to display author and TV presenter Richard Osman’s novel The Thursday Murder Club in the number one slot in stores, regardless of sales figures, because publisher Penguin Random House had paid for the space.

“When the last Richard Osman came out, Penguin bought the number one spot on all WH Smith in-store bestseller charts so it had to be displayed as the bestseller in every single store, whether it actually was or not,” Barry Pierce, who worked at the retailer from 2020 to 2021, recently claimed on social media.

. . . .

[T]he chart comprised books that WH Smith wanted to “push”, and was treated as a “promotional space” rather than a “legitimate chart” based on which books were selling the most copies, he claimed.

“Often… our area manager would come in and rearrange the chart so certain books [would] appear higher,” Mr Pierce added.

True bestseller charts based on figures from Nielsen BookScan – which collects point-of-sale data from more than 6,500 UK retailers – are widely regarded as the most accurate reflection of the top selling titles and authors.

The admission has prompted astonishment from readers and authors, but industry figures, who backed up Mr Pierce’s claim, maintained that such agreements have long been part of the way publishers and retailers do business and should not come as a surprise to the book-buying public.

James Daunt, managing director at Waterstones, the UK’s largest bookshop chain, said it was commonplace for other retailers to exchange spots in their charts for money.

Waterstones itself previously accepted millions of pounds each year from publishers to position titles in its “bestseller” charts, but Mr Daunt said he put an end to these deals as soon as he was appointed.

“Since I took over in 2011, Waterstones has never taken one penny to place books [on shelves]. The year before, Waterstones took £27 million [from publishers],” Mr Daunt said.

Link to the rest at Inews UK and thanks to H for the tip.

The question that occurred to PG was, “If a publisher was ethical in its business practices, would it pay for phony best-seller rankings.”

PG is certain a publisher would respond that this was just a time-honored method to increase sales and, thus, profits.

Inquiring minds might ask if calculations of the amount of royalties owed to authors were ever subject to this sort of “publishing industry practice.”

7 thoughts on “WH Smith’s ‘bestselling’ book charts filled with titles publishers have paid to feature in rankings”

  1. I particularly love Claire Askew saying, “I’m amazed to find many people don’t know this.” Does this imply that she views her world as consisting of nothing but decisions made out of pure self-interest. Does she cheat on her lover and say, “You believed me when I said I would be faithful?”

  2. What? A retailer advertised items based on what people paid for prime shelf space? Shocked! Shocked I am! said no one in retail business anywhere.

    • Advertising is one thing. Claiming that a product is your #1 seller, which is either a fact or a lie, is quite another. There are truth-in-advertising laws in every jurisdiction I know of offhand, and this practice is a no-no by any of them.

      • I would tend to agree in layman terms, but in legal terms, I don’t think it is quite that clear-cut. Best-seller is not well-defined on any of the charts, and none of the methodology is shared.

        Amazon titles have misused this feature for years, for example — with titles being listed as best-selling in the subcategory of Mystery / Cozy / Talking Cats / Sexual fetish / TItles published in the last 2 hours / New author / Purple Covers.

        Best selling, after all, can be two adjectives or one. 🙂


        • Do you happen to know how to get a book into that slot? I could probably manage to produce one during a particularly sleep deprived night.

          Then I could slap “#1 Best Selling Author” on everything else, yes?

      • Almost every other clickbait ‘partner’ ad I see on the internet is worded as “These {product} are selling like hotcakes!” or “Why millennials are snapping up these {product}” or “The ten best {product category} you can buy right now!” or “This is the number one {product category} you can buy!” — Not to mention those stupid ads from the motley fool, such as “What to do with your money right now!” and on and on.

        Even without the patently false best seller wall display, bookstores lie all the time. I recall interviews with clerks who said they recommended certain books to anyone who came in because they had boxes of them in the back, even though the bookstore owners tout their ‘curation’ and ‘listening to the customer and meeting their needs’.

        Caveat Emptor.

  3. <sarcasm>

    Inquiring minds might ask if calculations of the amount of royalties owed to authors were ever subject to this sort of “publishing industry practice.”

    Inquiring minds would already know that such an inquiry — the “time-honored method to increase sales and, thus, profits” — has an obvious answer that inquiring minds would already have inquired into and definitively answered. See, among thousands of examples, Keiler v. Harlequin Enters. Ltd., 751 F.3d 64 (2d Cir. 2014); HarperCollins Publrs. Ltd. v. Open Rd. Integ. Media LLP, 58 F.Supp.3d 380 (S.D.N.Y. 2014); see generally, among dozens of examples, US v. Apple, Inc., 791 F.3d 290 (2d Cir. 2015).

    In short, no further inquiry is necessary or appropriate, just as no further inquiry into the flatness of this planet is necessary or appropriate.

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