Bestseller Lists Demystified: Readers, We Are Following the Wrong Leaders
Bestseller status means something. It is not only a publishing coup for an author, it can mean guaranteed sales. Let’s face it, we as a society haven’t moved much past junior high. We are largely driven by the herd mentality. If something appears popular, then we all want a piece. I certainly am not immune to the bestseller status of romance books. If a book is on there, particularly by an unfamiliar author, I find myself wondering what I am missing.
The bestseller lists are circular. Get on a bestseller list and you are likely to sell more books leading to more appearances on the list. But are the bestseller lists actually accurate? Are the books on the NYT list really the best selling or is that list really fiction just like the books it enumerates? According to Steve Wasserman, a former Book Review editor at the Los Angeles Times, the LA Times list is not scientific “one is almost tempted to call it [a] whimsical — compilation.”
The bestseller lists actually identify only the velocity of the sale of the book rather than cumulative overall sales. This is why lay down dates are so important to authors. If the authors can capture most of their sales in one week instead of two, the book has a better chance of achieving bestselling status even if another author outsells them overtime. According to Stanford professor and researcher, Alan Sorenson, bestseller appearance actual slows the deceleration rate of book sales. Books sell well soon after their release and then the sales taper off. For a bestseller, the sales taper off at a slower rate than a book not on the bestseller list.
In Sorensen’s research, the regular visitors to the bestseller list such as Nora Roberts or John Grisham receive very little sales boost than the newcomers. First time appearing authors might see an overall increase of sales by 57% whereas repeaters might average a 13-14 percent increase in first year sales.
All a bestseller list can do is imperfectly capture the state of bookselling for one week. The problem is that no one list truly represents the nation’s consciousness as to the most popular books. Every list has a different set of measurements. There is rarely overlap between the lists and if there is, it is generally a fiction book.
- The NYTimes method of compilation is considered, by them, to be a trade secret. There are 4,000 reporting bookstores across the country who provide data to the NYT. “The names of booksellers used for our lists are kept as secret as the keys to the crown jewels,” said William Adler in a 1991 interview with the International Herald Tribune. Times have changed as there are several known reporting bookstores. The Colgate Bookstore in Hamilton NY, Joseph Beth Bookstores, Powells are some major independents who provide data as well as the chain booksellers like Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books a Million and wholesalers.
The Times prepares a list of expected bestsellers (based in part on past performance and on wholesale preorders) and sends that list to the bookstores. The bookstores then rank the books and are provided space to indicate which books not on the list are big movers.
The data is reported for a selling week that starts Sunday AM and ends with the close of business Saturday night. Monday and Tuesdays are spent obtaining the data from the reporting sources and tabulating the data (based on statistical weights to represent a national average of sales) and preparing it for publication. On Wednesday, the NYTimes Book Review makes its final rankings available to the TimesDigest. For $30 per month, an individual can subscribe to the TimesDigest and get the NYT list rankings before they are published on Sunday. Because NYT is extrapolating data based on statistical measurements, its listing can be an inaccurate measurement of the most popular books. Further because of the time involved, the printed list is always two weeks behind.
- USA Today list is compiled from computer data from over 4,700 retail stores, both chains and independents, brick and mortar and online.
- Publishers Weekly uses data from over 3,000 bookstores, both chains and independents and then, like the NYTimes, uses statistical weights to determine the placement.
- The Wallstreet Journal uses data from only the chain bookstores (about 2500 hundred of them) and amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com and reports the 10 hardcover bestsellers in fiction and the top 15 non fiction bestsellers. (available online at cnn.com and others places).
- Booksense uses reports from independent stores only. This list is reprinted in newspapers such as U. S. News and World Report and on CSPAN.
- Bookscan’s list is a true point of sale measurement meaning that the actual sale of each book is tracked via ISBN from the reporting stores. Nielson claims to have captured 70% of the bookselling market as even warehousers such as Costco and Target report sales. Missing is the big one, Wal-Mart. My understanding is that Wal-mart sales cannot be tracked because Wal-mart doesn’t scan individual UPCs of book (which has the ISBN) but it’s own upc code marking the item as “book” or “Silhouette”. Unless Wal-mart can be convinced to change its scanning system, point of sale measurements including one of the largest retailers of romance books is elusive.
Besides Wal-mart, these lists are also missing sales from grocery stores, drug stores, and many other non traditional venues.
What about the bestseller placement spots at grocery stores? I believe that these are paid for by publishers through a “coop” publicity program where they pay a fee for a number of books to be placed at certain points on the racks. What does National Bestseller mean? My understanding is that it refers to any bestselling list other than the NYT or the USA Today list such as PW, Wall Street, and internal lists such as Barnes & Noble and Borders.
What does it all mean? It means that no list is accurate. That we readers need to rely on each other to find the best new books because the best new books aren’t always the ones on the bestseller list. The readers owe it to each other to talk more about our favorite books, not just on our blogs, but in the bookstore, to our neighbor, and at the ball park. Next time you are in the bookstore, pick up a midlist author’s book and share it with the reader standing next to you. You can be a better leader than the newspapers and trade magazines. Here’s a meme for your blog and if you don’t have a blog, leave your own list in the comments. List 10 books (not authors) that should be bestsellers but aren’t (or aren’t likely to be). Mine are as follows ordered by release date:
MEME MEME MEME
- Ilona Andrews, Magic Bites (Out now. As good as Patricia Briggs).
- Meljean Brook’s, Demon Moon, (Out now. What can I say? I love her writing like Karen S’s fat kid loves cake).
- Melissa Marr, Wicked Lovely, (Due out in two weeks, I think).
- HelenKay Dimon’s, Your Mouth Drives Me Crazy (Due out in July).
- Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Sharing Knife, Vol. 2 (July release)
- Joey Hill’s, The Vampire Queen’s Servant, (July release)
- Eve Kenin’s, Driven, (September release)
- Nalini Singh’s, Caressed by Ice, (September release and possibly the best book she’s written yet.)
- Elizabeth Hoyt’s, The Serpent Prince, (September release. It made me say “wow” at the close. I get shivers thinking about that book and would have re-read it but Jayne has my copy.).
- Sherry Thomas, Private Arrangements (Due out in 2008. Hey, I am trying to build buzz here.)
Let’s start our own bestseller list, a reader led revolution.