The various New York Times Bestseller lists appear almost everywhere. But just how trustworthy are they? And why should you rely on them for your book buying decisions?
These lists date back to 1931, and by 1950 the Times list had become the leading bestseller list for book professionals to monitor. In the 60s and 70s, mall-based chain bookstores like B. Dalton, Crown, and Waldenbooks emerged with an emphasis on selling books with mass-market appeal. This, of course, put even more emphasis on the NYT list, as it helped create demand.
The list is actually composed by the editors of the News Surveys department of the New York Times, not the Book Review department as you might expect. It is a surprisingly narrow view of book sales, and not entirely objective or data-driven. The list depends heavily on sales figures voluntarily reported but not verified by book retailers AND book wholesalers. Until recently, the NYT did not have a list for Ebooks, or even trade paperbacks, and has been slow to embrace new technologies, formats and marketing channels.
Are the primary NYT fiction and non-fiction lists accurate? Well, no one really knows for sure, because the method for determining the placement of books on the list is considered a “trade secret”, thus is not verifiable by outside sources. A report in Book History found that numerous professionals in the industry “scoffed at the notion that the lists are accurate.” The author of The Exorcist, Peter Blatty, sued the NYT for not including his book Legion on the fiction bestseller list despite its high sales. The Times argued that the list was not mathematically objective, but rather editorial content protected as free speech (in other words, opinion) and thus .
The basic issues undermining credibility of the basic fiction and non-fiction lists are these:
- EXCLUSION OF EBOOKS AND ONLINE SALES. The main lists only include booksellers but exclude Ebooks and online sales—hardly an accurate picture of which books are bestsellers in an age of declining store sales and escalating online purchases. My novel The Shekinah Legacy was the #1 bestselling thriller on Amazon—outselling ALL the NYT bestselling thrillers for a time—but the New York Times never heard of it.
- DOUBLE COUNTING. Including data from both wholesalers and retailers probably leads to some double counting of sales.
- RETURNS. Booksellers are allowed to return unsold books to the publishers for a refund. Unfortunately, “returns” can can account for 40% or more of sales, the term “bestseller” should probably be changed to something like “best-ordered”.
- FAST-SELLERS. The lists focus on “fast sellers” — those that sell a lot of copies in a short time. There are many instances of books that have never made the NYT lists but have outsold books on the NYT Bestseller lists because they were steady sellers over longer periods of time.
- RIGGING BY PUBLISHERS. It is relatively easy for authors and publishers to rig the rankings by buying large quantities of a book in stores that are tracked. The authors of the business book The Discipline of Market Leaders organized the purchase of 10,000 books and wound up on the NYT Bestseller non-fiction list for fifteen weeks. Even one of the suppliers of data to the NYT, ResultSource, has offered “bestseller campaigns” in which it coordinates bulk book purchases to drive bestseller status. The Los Angeles Times reported that Pastor Mark Driscoll paid ResultSource $200,000 for a “bestseller campaign” the week of January 2, 2012, for his book Real Marriage; he wound up #1 on the non-fiction list three weeks later.
- MANUPULATION BY RETAILERS AND WHOLESALERS. Because the data reported by retailers and wholesalers is voluntary and unverified, it can be distorted. In past cases, books have become bestsellers before they have been officially released to the public! Go figure.
- SELF-FULFILLING RESULTS. Because the NYT lists are heavily relied upon for buying decisions, simply making it onto the list virtually guarantees a place on the list. This incentive can mean the cost of a “bestseller campaign” may be a good investment if you can afford it.
Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Close to 99% of the books published this year are not even eligible to make any of the New York Times bestseller lists no matter how many copies they sell because their sales data is unavailable to the NYT. And the relatively new Ebook bestseller lists, which rely on data from ResultSource (which offers “bestseller campaigns” to publishers) is based on data from less than 5% of Ebook sales and which is derived from only a handful of large publishers. Not exactly statistically significant or reliable.
Maybe this makes you want to explore some of the “other” books released each month, many of which are just as good as the NYT bestsellers, and some of which are selling even more copies!
I wish there was an app for that.