Do the Bestseller Lists need recalibration?
One of the recurring themes on bestseller lists today is the appearance of 99c box sets. A large group of authors put together older works that have had languishing sales into one large file and that file is sold as a box set, usually for the price of 99c. Indie authors have led the way with discount pricing to create volume purchasing and traditional publishers have caught on often pricing books at $1.99 and propelling a heretofore okay selling author into a high volume week. This will result in creating enough sales for authors to get their “letters”. “Letters” refers to the ability of an author to append USA Today or NYTimes Bestseller on the cover of their books and in their blurbs.
For many readers how a bestseller list is created and what methodologies are used are of little interest. For many years, the bestseller lists didn’t even include digital book sales. Both USA Today and NYTimes were forced to include those sales once digital books became a serious percentage of overall sales. But now you have to wonder what those lists mean anymore. Is it just a measure of “what America is buying?” If so, is that useful to readers? or have bestseller lists lost both their efficacy and importance?
As more and more 99c books appear on these lists, I have begun to wonder about both the meaning of the term “bestseller” and what, if anything, it does for readers. At most the lists for readers serve as a curation and discovery tool but while the Times list may have in the past represented what America is reading, it really only represents what America is buying because the great majority of readers aren’t actually reading those 99c purchases. They are buying and hoarding. 
For readers it seems that there is very little value in either the “letters” or the list itself. After an appearance on the list, rarely do you see a book’s ranking increase which means that readers aren’t using the lists as a buying guide. For print books, an appearance usually does include an increased print run and a bonus advance. A bonus advance is when an author gets additional money (but against royalties) for hitting the lists. The next time around, a bookstore might order more books from a bestselling author. Many stores have special prominent placement for NYTimes bestselling books.
But for digital retailers, the USA Today and NYTimes list (and the WSJ list and the PW list) get much lower placement or no placement at all. All the digital retailers are pushing their own lists. Appearance on the list at a low price doesn’t guarantee an author placement on the list a second time around or even a third time around. With print authors and their high priced books of $7.99 and up, it often takes several books to become a bestseller because with most books it takes time to build an audience. This is why series books are so popular. With each book you gain new readers which propel purchases of earlier works. With low priced authors you often see one book hit and then the author doesn’t appear again, regardless of whether the author is print or traditionally published. (in other words, this is not an indie only issue) Readers often buy at the discounted price and only at the discounted price.
Discount pricing is done with a two fold goal in mind – increase the volume of sales and increase visibility and ultimately an increase in readership. Given the downward trend of digital pricing perhaps it is of no real issue that the bestseller lists often include low priced discounted books.
I see a lot of talk about lists by authors and readers. Ultimately the question is whether we’re buying has anything to do with what we’re reading or what we’re enjoying. If the answer is not much, then the lists may just simply show how many units a .99 priced book is moving. For readers the lists have even less value than they did before and any usefulness as a curator of good books, if it was one, has been lost. And any meaning attached to the letters is lost as well. After all how do you know if an author earned it from a reader paying essentially .09c for their story or something else? I’m not sure if that is helpful for readers or authors.