The Agony & the Ecstasy of the Best-Seller List


Last month, there was a little hullabaloo about a book publisher "quitting" the New York Times Best-Seller list. Regnery Publishing publicly stated that they would no longer use the best-seller list in promotional materials or as a basis for bonuses. Their rationale seemed straightforward: the Times list is biased toward liberal titles and does not use hard data to generate their weekly list. Instead, they rely on sales numbers from a network of secret independent bookstores, and the majority of independent bookstores lean left. As a conservative publisher, Regnery claimed their titles weren't getting the appropriate rankings on the list because of liberal bias.

Wow. That is so much politics! And intrigue!

Let's start with the obvious. You can't really quit best-seller lists if you're a publisher. You can leave them, but do they ever leave you? If your titles are high-grossing, they will show up on these lists, even if you don't like it. It's like that non-profit you gave money to TEN YEARS AGO but the solicitations with the sheet of address labels keep coming even after you've moved five times. And you use the address labels because they're handy but not so handy you're going to give them more money. I'm sure I'm not the only one.

Literary agents, authors, editors, and publishers have been writing about how rigged the New York Times best-seller list is for a long time. Once you start looking, it's easy to find a plethora of posts on this topic. (See this one by Tucker Max for a great example.) After going down the deep dark rabbit hole on this subject, it's clear to me that there are three main questions to consider when trying to understand best-seller lists: where does the data come from, is the list "curated," and how can it be rigged. Let's look at them.

Data

The whole thing seems ridiculous until you think about the cachet the phrase "New York Times best-seller" has.

My favorite subject! I love data and so should you. I bet you assumed all this time that the New York Times "best-seller" list was actually full of best-sellers. Not so! There is one true place to find point of sales best-seller data, and that is the Publishers Weekly best-seller lists. This is the database all of the publishers use to see how their products are selling. The data is supplied by Nielsen, a company that tracks use and sales in a wide variety of industries. Nielsen is capturing at least 85% of book sales data, including physical books, eBooks, major publishers and self-published books, making it the most reliable source for this information. Regnery argues that the weekly best-seller lists supplied by Publishers Weekly are quite different than the New York Times best-seller list, which is true.

Curation

The New York Times, in contrast, does not use Nielsen data to compile its best-seller list. It is what's considered a "survey" list or a "curated" list. The Times has a list of vendors that it surveys for sales data. The problem is there's no way of knowing who those vendors are, since the Times keeps that information confidential. There is a wide-spread sense in the publishing world that those vendors are mainly independent brick and mortar bookstores and that there is great bias toward the major established New York publishing houses. I highly recommend comparing a PW list to a NYT list. For example, hardcover non-fiction at Publishers Weekly and the New York Times. The New York Times is not the only best-seller list in the publishing market. A few others of note include the Wall Street Journal, which mainly takes its information from Nielsen and IndieBound, which tracks sales data from independent bookstores. Amazon maintains a best-seller list, which is not quite the same as the others because it is based on hourly sales data, making it very possible to rig the system. But that can be done with all these lists, and often is.

Rigging

Who would have guessed an industry exists simply to rig best-seller lists? There's a name for this: it's called "leapfrogging." Leapfrogging is a highly strategized process of coordinating the right amount of sales within the first week of a book's release, and making it look like individuals are doing the purchasing. Multiple outlets have written about this process, including Forbes and the Wall Street Journal. The best-known company behind this practice, ResultSource, removed it's web presence after an investigation into an evangelical author who paid the firm $210,000 to get his book on the New York Times best-seller list. Good use of tax-free congregational money! The firm may have gone stealth, but it didn't go under. It's obvious that this practice has been utilized when a relatively unknown author suddenly "leapfrogs" onto the best-seller list and then sales drop off a cliff. But by that time, the author and publisher can rightfully claim they have a New York Times best-seller.


The whole thing seems ridiculous until you think about the cachet the phrase "New York Times best-seller" has. It opens doors to Hollywood, speaker circuits, and gets your title in front of more potential buyers. Just think about how many times you've been in an airport, and while cruising for distraction, picked up a title from the New York Times best-seller wall in one of the overpriced shops. The decision was practically made for you. In some ways, rigging a rigged system is pretty brilliant. I have a hard time faulting people for paying to get on it, especially since it's not firmly based on sales data anyway. But surely there's a better option, right?

Stephanie Bonjack

Column by Stephanie Bonjack

Stephanie Bonjack is an academic librarian based in Boulder, Colorado. She teaches the relentless pursuit of information, and illuminates the path to discovery. She has presented at national and international library conferences, and is especially interested in how libraries evolve to serve the needs of 21st century patrons. When she’s not sleuthing in the stacks, she enjoys chasing her toddler across wide open spaces.

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