The Un-Best-Seller List

The Un-Best-Seller List

The Un-Best-Seller List

The world of electronic books.
March 6 2001 3:00 AM

The Un-Best-Seller List

When I entered college in the early '90s, I scoffed at the pimple-ridden, scrawny young men who extolled the virtues of a hot new thing they called "e-mail." Today, it's these same young men who—with perhaps slightly clearer complexions and slightly broader shoulders—are now thought to comprise the market for eBooks. One would think, accordingly, that these early adapters' reading habits would skew the eBook best-seller lists toward cutting-edge treatises on Dungeons & Dragons.

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In fact, one eBook best-seller list indicates more diversity than my imagined stereotype would allow. Peanutpress, which markets downloadable eBook readers for Palms and Pocket PCs, has released a list of 2000's best-selling peanutpress eBooks that is 100-percent D&D-free. Science fiction accounts for only 10 of its 25 slots, although Stephen King claims the No. 1 slot on the list with what has come to be seen as the very quintessence of the eBook industry: Riding the Bullet. He also claims spots 13, 17, and 18. Thrillers (Robert Ludlum's The Hades Factor, The Omega Game) and a few business titles round out the list.

In the world of eBooks, however, one season can make an enormous difference. So, as spring approaches, it's worth having a look at which eBooks are selling well now. The only problem is that nobody produces an authoritative list. Neither the New York Times nor Publishers Weekly, the book industry's top list-makers, have tackled the task. And I can't say I blame them. Compiling a statistically accurate list of best-selling hardcovers and paperbacks is made fairly simple by the domination of the book trade by the big retailers. But no company dominates the eBook business yet, with the sales of the books scattered among a bunch of sites, both retailers (ebooks.com, Amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, Contentville, Powells.com, BooksaMillion.com, Borders.com, DigitalGoods.com) and even direct-selling publishers are getting into the game—(RosettaBooks.com, to name one). Naturally, these competitors are reluctant to share raw data with outsiders.

Mutually incompatible, competing eBook reader technologies also compound the difficulty of building a perfect list. In addition to the aforementioned peanutpress Reader for Palms and Pocket PCs, there are three other major eBook technologies: the Microsoft Reader for desktops, laptops, and Pocket PCs; the Adobe Acrobat eBook Reader for desktops and laptops; and the Gemstar eBook from RCA, a proprietary eBook-only device. Peanutpress can boast all it wants about the best sellers on its lists, but the list is irrelevant if it only includes eBooks formatted for the peanutpress Reader.

With those provisos, let's continue our survey of the eBook best-seller lists. Amazon.com produces a daily Top 25 eBook best-seller page, or should I say that it aspires to produce it daily. In late February, the list seemed to come and go from the site like the tides. Amazon.com may be one of the most reliable retailers on the Web, but despite heroic efforts, I could scarcely get anybody from the company to speak to me. The one woman I spoke with was decidedly cryptic about the reasons for Amazon's removal of the best-seller list. Anyway, I saw their most recent list; the only best-selling trend I could discern was that Amazon customers love reading the classics priced at $2.69 (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, The Phantom of the Opera, The Jungle Book). Why these customers pay even the price of a skinny latte for public domain titles when they can get them at no charge from the University of Virginia's eText Center is beyond me.

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barnesandnoble.com lists Top 5 titles for both Microsoft Reader and Adobe Acrobat eBook Reader, and in late February, the Microsoft Reader list indicated a discerning (not to mention devout) eBook readership: Michael Connelly's mystery A Darkness More Than Night; the self-help classic The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People; Holy Bible: New Testament, King James Version; The Veteran, a crime novel; Holy Bible: Old Testament, King James Version. But how accurate is this Top 5? A Darkness More Than Night, which is ranked as the No. 1 Microsoft Reader eBook, is ranked at 6,351 overall on the site. Meanwhile, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is ranked at No. 2 but takes the 1,698 overall spot. Plumbing the mysteries of the B&N list proved impossible when its good people refused to call me back.

The eBook industry is approaching the best-seller issue in precisely the wrong manner. Damn the competing technologies and their petty internecine competition: They should be absolutely candid about the numbers of eBooks being purchased. The buying public understands that the technology is new and that large numbers of people are not yet eBookers. People didn't see many cars on the road in 1905 either, but that didn't prevent folks from desiring them. Frequency, in other words, need not be a barometer for popularity—particularly when the product fills a need, as in the case of both eBooks and autos.

A reliable set of best-seller lists would both steer readers to the sort of books that other eBookers have enjoyed, which is what conventional best-seller lists do so well, and alert readers of the variety of titles available. If I were in charge of making the list of lists, I'd nominate these categories: New Fiction, Backlist Fiction, Science Fiction, Horror, Thriller, Nonfiction, Technical, Self-Help, and Humor.

How to make this happen is the question. The answer is simple: If the industry really wants to boost eBook popularity, it should found a consortium to share verifiable sales numbers with the press. Why, Slate's "eBook Club" would be honored to maintain a set of honest eBook lists if the publishers and merchants could be persuaded to feed us the numbers!

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eBook ellipses: This just in! People don't read all the eBooks they own. Len Kawell, the director of electronic book development for Adobe Systems, says, "What we see in software is that more people download than actually use it." How is this eBook behavior distinct from actual books? Seemingly everyone owns Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time, but has anyone actually read the thing? … Dick Brass of Microsoft predicts that the New York Times will print its last paper issue some time in 2018. If Brass is correct, that leaves just more than 6,000 editions before the paper of record becomes the pixels of record. … After resisting technological innovation for many years, The New Yorker has launched headlong into the recent cyberpast. In addition to maintaining an actual Web site, they've now distributed three eBooks: First Fiction, The Price of Everything, and In Sickness and in Health. What last month could have passed for an appeal to classic sophistication now more closely resembles the behavior of the last Luddites. … The following is, to my knowledge, the first ever eBook joke: If an eBook reader were to adhere to the title of Abbie Hoffman's famed Steal This Book, that person would be an "eBook crook." Ba-da boom! It's the first joke ever, so it's the best and the worst. Someday I'd like to be known as the "father of eBook humor." … Thoughts on the eBook industry? Got a better eBook joke? Reach me at jdebook@hotmail.com.

(Full disclosure: Slate is wholly owned by Microsoft Corp., the maker of the Microsoft Reader. This fact will neither deter me from vilifying the Microsoft Reader nor discourage me from praising it when I'm so moved. Likewise, I pledge to remain platform objective about the other eBook technologies. My only loyalty will be to you, my fellow eBook enthusiasts.)

Justin Driver is assistant literary editor at the New Republic.