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The Problem With Bestsellers

by Wendy J. Woudstra   


Imagine a system where every book sold at every bookstore was tracked by a barcode at the point of sale, and that the resulting information was compiled into a neat, accurate list of bestsellers each week. Sounds good, doesnt it?

The truth is that such a system does not exist in the book industry. A bestselling book can mean just about anything. The term is not regulated, and the methodology of those compiling the lists leads to less than accurate results.

The New York Times Bestseller List

The New York Times Bestseller List, the most influential of the bestseller lists, is a prime example of the problematic methods used to collect bestseller information.

The Times gathers its information from approximately 4,000 booksellers and wholesalers each week. Rather than having those booksellers report on their top selling titles, however, the Times sends out a list of 'expected' bestsellers, mostly compiled from books submitted by the major presses. A book selling just as well as the ones on the list could be missed entirely by this system. While booksellers can manually add titles to this list, a recent column by Pat Holt of the Northern California Independent Bookseller's Association indicated that books added by independent bookstores rarely, if ever, show up on the list, and that booksellers take a less than serious approach to filling out the forms.

While there are advantages to being a New York Times reporting bookstore, not all bookstores participate. After the NY Times began linking from the list posted at their Web site to Barnes & Noble's online bookstore, many booksellers stopped reporting their sales in protest. Even those independents that do report have less clout than chain bookstores, whose results are given more weight. (The New York Times recently added a list comparing bestsellers at independents and chains to appease smaller bookstores.)

This system tends to result in a list of books with large PR budgets rather than true bestsellers. Publishers and authors with clout and money can easily subvert the system. In 1995, Business Week ran a story about two authors who successfully pushed their book onto the New York Times list by purchasing 10,000 copies of their own book, and convincing their corporate clients to buy 30,000 more. The New York Times has even included books in their bestseller list before they become available in bookstores.

Different Lists, Different Results

Of course, the New York Times is not the only publication that compiles a bestseller list. USA Today, for example, tracks book sales at 3,000 booksellers including the online bookstores. The USA Today list is notable in that it mixes all categories of books together, showing how different types of books (fiction, nonfiction, etc.) rank against one another.

Comparing the USA Today list of 150 bestsellers with the New York Times list can often be educational. Occasionally books in the top 10 of the New York Times list will not appear at all in the top 150 of the USA Today list. Which list is less accurate is up for debate.

Publishers Weekly compiles 9 different lists from stats compiled at 3,000 bookstores. PW's lists are meant to be useful to librarians, bookstores, literary agents and publishing houses rather than the general public, so the lists are compiled a little differently again.

And, of course, most daily newspapers have bestseller lists their city, region or state, online booksellers compile their own bestseller lists, and publishing associations often compile their own lists as well. A mention on even the most obscure of these lists can lead a publisher to call the title a bestseller. The consumer, after all, will never know the difference.

So the next time you see the words BESTSELLER in shiny bold letters across the cover of a book, grab a healthy dose of skepticism and remember that it sounds more important than it really is.

by Wendy Woudstra