The Book Industry's Best-Seller Lists

Sept. 3 1998 3:30 AM

The Book Industry's Best-Seller Lists

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

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

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.

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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:

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

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."

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