The Culture Culture

The Book Industry’s Best-Seller Lists

What are they, and why do they matter so much?

These days, it seems as if half the books in bookstores have the word “best seller” or some variant on the cover or the flap copy, as in “the best-selling author of …” But what does that mean? About as much as the phrase “original recipe” does on a jar of spaghetti sauce. Neither the government nor the publishing industry regulates the use of the term, and besides, there are many different kinds of best-seller lists published every week in the United States. There are the major national lists (the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly) and the major regional lists (the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and the Chicago Tribune). There are lists that compare sales at chain stores with sales at independent stores. There are romance lists, business lists, African-American lists, religious lists, health lists, and children’s lists.

What is a best-seller list? It is a ranking of the relative sales of particular kinds of books at certain groups of stores within a one-week period. Best-seller lists tell us not which books sell the most, in absolute terms, but which fiction, nonfiction, or advice books sell the fastest at the bookstores list makers think deserve attention. A how-to book that sells 20,000 copies in one week will shoot to the top of the best-seller lists, whether or not those are the only copies it ever sells. A novel that sells 200 copies a week for 10 years will never appear on the lists, because each week it will be beaten by faster-selling books.

Why do best-seller lists matter so much? Because they are the most convincing form of publicity around, which gives them the quality of self-fulfilling prophecies. If a book is a best seller, bookstore clerks will be more likely to put it in the front of the store and readers to buy it. Publishers will also be eager to publish more books like it, since best-seller lists also stand in for industrywide sales data. (Most book publishing companies are privately held and keep this information secret; even when the companies are publicly traded, it is nearly impossible to find out the unit sales of individual books.)

This helps account for the uniformity in the books that top all these lists–books by brand-name or celebrity authors, inspirational and self-help books. Some authors will do anything to try to break this vicious cycle. In 1995, Business Week ran a story about two authors who purchased 10,000 copies of their own book, The Discipline of Market Leaders, and got their corporate clients to buy 30,000 to 40,000 more, in a successful plot to get onto the New York Times list. (Click here to read about the legal tricks book editors employ to try to place their books on the Times list.)

These days, what best-seller lists are most likely to reflect is the amount of money spent to publicize the books that wind up on them. Superstores now allow publishers to pay to place a book up front or in the window or to display advertising. That, plus an author tour or appearance on national TV shows, can propel readers into stores fast enough to get a book on the list. Word-of-mouth or good reviews don’t generate the dramatic concentrated sales required.

Some lists gather sales figures from more stores than others do. The New York Times boasts the most stores reporting–4,000, plus wholesalers. The Voice Literary Supplement list, which tells you what the serious bohemians are reading, asks only about 25 high-end independent stores, including San Francisco’s City Lights; Washington, D.C.’s Politics and Prose; and the Harvard Bookstore. Some list makers rely on statistical sampling and extrapolation to provide an estimation of what is selling at the stores that do not report; some don’t. Some lists, such as the Wall Street Journal’s, only track sales in big chain stores. Others, such as USA Today’s, include online booksellers. Some follow only independent stores.

This may seem haphazard compared with the way the music industry’s main best-seller list–published in Billboard magazine–is compiled: It tracks every single album sold at every single music store in the United States. SoundScan Inc., the company that began tracking CD and tape sales with a barcode system, has in fact tried to get booksellers to employ a comparable system called BookScan but with little success. The problem is partly that BookScan is too expensive for many booksellers. But the real issue is that BookScan misses the point: Book industry people don’t want a single compilation of what’s really selling best throughout the country; they want a variety of lists that break down sales figures in ways beneficial to them.

Here are some of the most closely watched lists in the publishing industry:

New York Times

The New York Times list is the industry standard. It’s the most prestigious, appearing as it does in the premier book review in the country. And it’s the widest-reaching, based on data from the largest number of stores. Many bookstores sell New York Times best sellers at a discount, thereby generating even more sales for New York Times best sellers. Publishers regularly write bonuses into contracts to factor in the possibility that a book will makes the Times list. This clause is typically phrased “$7,000 for positions 1-5, $5,000 for positions 6-10, and $3,000 for positions 11-15.”

The Times divides its best sellers into hardcover and paperback lists and then divides each of these into fiction, nonfiction, and a third category called “Advice, How-To, and Miscellaneous.” This last category has led some to accuse the straight nonfiction list of being a “useful fiction,” designed to give publicity to books that would otherwise fail.

One significant but little-known fact about the Times best-seller list is that it does not follow every single book published each year. Instead, the Times sends a list to bookstores indicating which books they are “tracking” as potential future best sellers and asks for sales information on those books (and any others the bookstores want to report on). The Times says this tracking list is drawn up from information from bookstores, but publishers say they routinely call up the Times to tip them off to books selling with increasing momentum so that they can be added to the tracking list.

The Times Web site publishes another list: “Chains vs. Independents,” which compares how books in all three categories are selling in these two different types of outlets. This list was a concession to independent bookstores, many of which were outraged when the Times created hot links between every single book on its Internet best-seller list and Barnes & Noble’s online bookstore, which then gave a 30 percent discount to all the listed books. Some independent bookstores were so angry about this that they boycotted the list and, early in 1998, about 100 bookstores in Northern California refused to report their sales to the New York Times list. The Times claimed that the number boycotting never reached a “critical mass” that would have threatened the integrity of its list.

San Francisco Chronicle

The San Francisco Chronicle best-seller list tracks sales at about 50 stores in the Bay Area, gathering data from a larger percentage of independent stores than the New York Times list does. This doesn’t mean the Chronicle list doesn’t contain traditional, mainstream commercial titles–it does–but it includes books too esoteric for the chains and books that people are willing to pay full price for. Occasionally, books thought of as backlist titles or classics will pop up on this list, and many less flashy books that are quality reads start out on the independent-heavy lists such as the Chronicle’s.

The Chronicle list is most valued by publishers for what is considered its predictive value. Recent national best sellers such as Snow Falling on Cedars, Cold Mountain, and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood appeared on the Chronicle list long before they made it to the New York Times’. A.S. Byatt’s Possession was on the Chronicle list for six weeks before it appeared on the Times list.

USA Today

USA Today’s list is the most inclusive one around. It lists 50 books (150 on its Web site) and mixes all categories: fiction, nonfiction, hardcover, trade, and mass market paperbacks. Its authors gather data in a straightforward fashion: They record actual sales (no statistical sampling) at 3,000 bookstores and include online booksellers, which many other lists don’t. This results in an unusual list that pits the paperbacks of successful literary novels such as Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things against hardcover celebrity health books such as Marilu Henner’s Total Health Makeover and inspirational titles such as Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover’s Soul. The list even includes the occasional children’s title. Literary books rarely appear in the first 20 positions.

USA Today’s list shows how different types of books that are separated on other lists rank against one another. For example, Ron Chernow’s Titan, a biography of John D. Rockefeller Sr., held the ninth position on the New York Times nonfiction list the week of Aug. 17. On the USA Today list, it was not even in the top 150. The often ignored murky bottom of the USA Today list also makes interesting reading. It is peppered with literary books such as The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird, which are probably selling well because of their inclusion on every high-school English syllabus. The week after the movie version of Nabokov’s Lolita aired on Showtime, the book jumped from 204 to make a surprise appearance at 121. Continuing publicity from its publisher pushed it to 85 for the week starting Aug. 17.

Publishers Weekly

These nine lists are designed for people in the book industry: booksellers, libraries, literary agents, and domestic and international publishing houses. Thus PW’s lists are divided into subcategories relevant only to people in the publishing world. Fiction and nonfiction are kept separate for hardcover books but mixed for trade paperback and mass market. Also listed separately are children’s, religious, computer, and audio books. These lists are compiled at 3,000 chains and independents and are enhanced by statistical sampling. Nora Rawlinson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly, sees the proliferation of lists as a way to give publishers information on the different types of books they specialize in. But she also admits the plethora of lists gives more books “best-seller opportunities.”