Stickpeople United (Blog)

Are Bestseller Lists Worth the Chase?

Some call it voodoo, but editors trying to nudge a successful book onto the New York Times list are convinced that little things can matter. Staging author events that will generate sales, such as readings and signings, at stores reporting to the Times is an obvious step. Other tricks are more complicated. Conservatively reprinting a popular book so that orders build up at distributors who report to the Times can create the illusion of greater demand. This must be carefully finessed. Publishers don’t want to be caught empty-handed if the book really takes off, so they often print lots of jackets (which take a long time to make) and then carefully schedule small reprints of the books so distributors are always slightly short.

- Slate Magazine 1998

Ever wonder how so many authors shoot to the top of bestseller lists when their book has only been on sale for a week? Sometimes even before they’re in stores? Could such authors have been divinely chosen to lead us all to the path of righteous taste and culture or is some more earthly manipulation involved? Let’s say we find out.

As Slate will tell you, there is no industry regulation over the term “bestseller” so the weight behind it is subjective. There are all kinds of bestsellers: national, regional, chain store, independent, genre and on and on. That alone is pretty sketchy. Add to that that only books purchased from “reporting booksellers” will be counted towards such lists, the deceptive nature of this accomplishment tends to leave a souring on the tongue. But wait, there’s more. Bestseller lists are a numbers game, but not in the way you might think. Bestsellers rely more on speed of sales rather than quantities sold. Yes, speed, not quantity: you read that correctly. So if author A sells 25,000 copies of her book in its first two weeks on the shelves and little more later, she’s more likely to be a bestseller than author B who sells 100,000 copies of his book in two years (sorry author B, good try though). And what about the nefarious “returns” issue? Mass purchases of a book can push it toward bestsellerdom, but if they’re later returned, does that bestseller status go away? Heavens no. You can’t blame the book for a fickle readership, can you? Don’t be silly.

A logical assumption for bestseller compilations would be that the data are based on every book sold, but that’s not how the system works. Each list generates differently, but all are based on sampled book sales plugged into secret mathematical calculations that presumably the layman (i.e. you or I) wouldn’t understand and thus aren’t privy to. The New York Times takes a playful approach to their data gathering. Pre-listed forms get sent from the Times’ editors to their reporting agents based on what those editors think will sell. Sure, there’s additional space for write-in candidates, but why bother with that when it’s so much easier to rank what’s in front of you and get on with the day?

To be fair, coordinating precise, sale-by-sale data from thousands of stores each week is a daunting task: different stores have different systems of record keeping, there are delays getting the information to a central source, etc. But the thing is, if you’re going to portray your list as definitive, you’re obligated to step up and ensure this truth or state clearly to readers that what you’re presenting is based more on opinion than fact.

Manipulating your audience is unethical, period. The media/book industries love these lists because the PR pushes sales, but the lists themselves are woefully undemocratic. This harkens back to the industry being the gatekeepers to our published works. This is how it happens: big publishing houses pick their “it” books that they’ll throw money behind; this information is then given to the sales force. Sales people recommend (push) the hot picks onto the booksellers, emphasizing how much money’s going into the advertising/marketing campaign, how much media exposure is booked for the author, the size of the initial print run… All of this is done to whip booksellers into a frenzy and get them thinking they’ll be fools for not heavily stocking this cash cow. Once the books are in the store it’s in the bookseller’s best interest to continue the hype with their customers. The customers, trusting what they see and hear from people supposedly in the know, hand over their money and continue to feed the beast. And the stores with the “right” credentials influence what gets to be a bestseller.

From a business standpoint this could be seen as survival of the fittest; the best books will thrive in a hostile environment. From a philosophical perspective, however, this can’t be true because the defining factors of success aren’t the merits of a book, but its financial backing. Plenty of dreck shows up on bestseller lists for no better reason than it comes from a big name author or its core storyline is something that’s easy to market to the LCD (preferably something that can be morphed into a movie). How is this in the reader’s best interest? All of this lobbying on the part of the industry is elitist, like they’re running a political campaign each time they go to publish. The majority of authors get relegated to grassroots campaigning while the properly pedigreed get groomed for stardom. How can the industry leaders expect their self-appointed gatekeeping role to be taken seriously when their MO is nakedly financial, rather than intellectual or cultural? The stench of hypocrisy is overwhelming and unnecessary. If your interests are making money over serving the reader, fine, own it. Just stop putting on airs to try to fool people into thinking you’re something you aren’t. If you want to push certain books onto the public, drop the “bestseller” nonsense, make up your own lists and call them [Name of your organization]‘s Picks/Top 10/etc. Because of the aforementioned bankroll, such re-titling will likely still drive sales, but this way you’re showing your customers that you respect them enough to make informed decisions.

Wait, people are inundated with marketing every day. Everyone knows they’re buying into a story. Caveat emptor, baby!

Yes, but there’s no need to be smarmy about it by deliberately skewing the data. It is possible to be honest and make money at the same time. Caveat emptor, indeed!

Without a universal system of records in place, our bestseller lists are a joke. If your book doesn’t come from a goliath publishing house, or you aren’t “chosen” to be supported by their marketers, you likely won’t appear on such a list. Even if you sell 80,000 copies from your website or the trunk of your car in the first week of the book’s release, it’s not going to happen. Does that make sense? The way a book is purchased is a determining factor on its bestseller eligibility? Yes, there is a potential skyrocketing of sales attached to advertised bestseller status, but the odds are stacked against this happening for the average author. Before you pledge your life savings/what little time you have left for a personal life outside of your day job, know the facts. I’d be the last one to tell any author this dream is impossible, but as always, consider the cost before you commit to the quest.

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