What Counts as a Bestseller?

From Public Books:

Culture industries increasingly use our data to sell us their products. It’s time to use their data to study them. To that end, we created the Post45 Data Collective, an open access site that peer reviews and publishes literary and cultural data. This is a partnership between the Data Collective and Public Books, a series called Hacking the Culture Industries, brings you data-driven essays that change how we understand audiobooks, bestselling books, streaming music, video games, influential literary institutions such as the New York Times and the New Yorker, and more. Together, they show a new way of understanding how culture is made, and how we can make it better.

Laura McGrath and Dan Sinykin

In 1983, William Blatty—author of The Exorcist—sued the New York Times.1 His lawsuit alleged that the Times had incorrectly excluded his latest novel, Legion (a sequel to The Exorcist), from its bestseller list—the coveted ranking that purports to show the books that have sold the most copies that week in the United States. According to Blatty’s lawyers, Legion had sold enough copies to warrant a spot on the list, so its absence was due to negligence or fraud, for which Blatty was entitled to compensation. The Times countered with what might sound like a surprising admission: the bestseller list is not mathematically objective; it is editorial content, which is protected by the First Amendment. The court ruled in favor of the New York Times.

The Blatty case draws attention to a fundamental truth about bestseller lists, one that often gets forgotten amid the drama of their weekly publication: they are not a neutral window into what the public is really reading. Rather, they reflect editorial decisions about how and what to count. Changes on the list might reflect changes in counting procedure, rather than changes in the market. Despite their lack of neutrality—or, perhaps, because of it—these editorial and counting decisions can have a big effect on which books and authors get the honor of appearing on the list; in turn, they shape the public’s perception of what it is reading and what it should consider reading next.

In this piece, I want to explore one way such decisions have affected the Times list over its almost 90-year publication history: the separation of sales by book format (hardcover, paperback). In the 1950s and 1960s, the fact that the Times exclusively publicized hardcover sales meant that some of the most popular novelists of the time rarely appeared on the list, because they made most of their sales in paperback. Today, the Times publishes distinct lists for different formats, and the content of these lists often reflects status hierarchies associated with different genres and communities of readers.

It turns out, then, that “bestseller” is a more complicated category than you might at first think. Though its name seems to refer to something very straightforward, there are all sorts of weird historical factors and counting choices that affect whether a book might make the cut. Given the influence of the Times list, it’s worth examining the effects of the choices made when assembling it, and what they can tell us about the kinds of information about books we consider valuable.

Link to the rest at Public Books

PG notes lots of data follows in the OP.

2 thoughts on “What Counts as a Bestseller?”

  1. Unfortunately, it’s become meaningless unless you’re truly on the New York Times Bestseller list. That’s the only list the average reader knows. Anyone can say they’re a “bestselling author” because there’s no standard.

    A vanity press called The Author Incubator (although they now claim to be educators) will have their authors beg all their friends and family to download their free ebook on one specific day so they reach the top 20 in a fifth or sixth-tier category on Amazon. Voila! They’re a bestseller. The Author Incubator once claimed 99% of their authors are bestsellers and today shows over 800 authors with over 1000 bestselling books.

    When I see “bestseller,” I want to know the source. Don’t get me wrong, the USA list is strong or an Amazon tier one high ranking or lowered tier sustained ranking is strong. Boast away.

  2. Bestseller lists — and not just the NYT list — are just as honest, inclusive, and reflective of actual readership as commercial-publisher royalty statements. Or, perhaps, “only as” is more accurate.

    Really, now: An industry grouping renowned for chicanery in sales figures is now suddenly going to be honest and inclusive and accurate for another purpose arising from the same data?

Comments are closed.