Going it Mostly Alone: the Publishing Path of A Perfect Blindness
The last member of the list making quadrangle are the list makers themselves. No one does this as a public service. They are trying to attract people to their publication/business, be that a newspaper, periodical, blog, bookseller or what-have-you. Now, if all the list maker did was get raw numbers, rank the top X titles and publish it, all the bestseller lists would be essentially the same, differing—if at all—only by how the numbers were grouped: broadly as fiction vs. nonfiction or more narrowly into genres like mysteries, or subgenres like drawing-room whodunits. But if this were all a list maker did, it wouldn’t matter much if a reader went to the NYT or WSJ, or this blog, or that column: Same number of books sold. Same titles. Same ranking, same old same old.
How would that attract readership? Why buy XYZ newspaper if I can find the same thing in that one, or some other one or free in a blog?
The fact is that the lists in the NYT and WSJ are in NOT the same. Certainly, there are books that appear in both of these two most important lists, but there are books that are unique to each, and much of the time the shared books show up in different order. Clearly, the list makers cannot simply be reporting straight sales numbers but must be massaging them somehow, and it’s the somehow that makes these lists different, and thus more or less attractive to specific groups of readers. This is the list’s raison dêtre, to attract specific groups of people to buy their papers to ultimately sell advertising space for access to these specific groups of people. To do this, each bestseller lists need to appeal to their own desired groups.
The same can be said of blogs or any other lists: they are honey to attract certain bees to a blog, a site, a mailing list, a FB group. Doesn’t matter. Now think about lists like “The 10 books everyone should read by 25”, and Listopia’s “Best South Asian Fiction” or “Best Woman-Authored Books.” These lists are soaked in opinion by nature and unusually have nothing to do with sales at all: As long as they’ve sold some.
“Best selling” lists aren’t, not really. None of these lists simply report straight sales figures: first, because any sales numbers have already been adulterated; and second, raw numbers are mostly useless for attracting specific groups—they reflect the tastes of the total population of whatever region. Perhaps a particular subgenre attracts a specific kind of person, and if that person is a desirable target audience, simply offering a straight sales rank list might be useful in spite of these numbers already having been manipulated. But bottom line, these lists are a business and act like a service sold.
Returning to the power lists specifically, the “bestseller” lists that can catapult a book and an author to stardom, or at least more lucrative book deals and speaking gigs, that bolster credentials as an expert and ladle on many other perks: NYT & WSJ. In addition to all the kinds of books already excluded from Neilson Book Scan by the scan itself are the specific manipulations of the numbers by the list maker. Now, why would The Times or the Journal exclude even more books than those already shunned, or nudge some upwards, and others downwards?
The answer unfolds if one takes the point of view of an author getting on one of these lists. Landing on one of these lists means money, a considerable amount more, whether directly as sales or through reputation augmentation and hence earning power in other realms. So if an author has money, and wants to snag all these perks of being a NYT bestselling author, why not buy one’s way onto it? The benefits are likely to be greater than the costs, which are one time. Benefits last a lifetime, even ending up in one’s obituary.
Thus both of these lists exclude large buys, including from big box retailers, and try to keep their eye on numbers of individual buyers. This seems a fair prophylactic against someone simply buying status. But there are places one can go to evade this protection: book launderers. A writer pays a company to pay individuals to make single purchases of books: akin to the smurfs buying pseudoephedrine medication in amounts small enough not to alert the DEA. These individual—yet coordinated and author financed—purchases end up in the Neilson Book Scan—that starting point for the manipulations of numbers. Yes indeed, book buying smurfs. The idea seems looney until one understands the value of getting on one of these lists.
So these influential Best Seller lists need to protect themselves from such fraudulent purchases as well as make their list unique and attractive to their readership. Such as for the more liberal-leaning readership of the NYT, one finds conservative-leaning books ranked lower, and falling off their list entirely more frequently than the WSJ. This makes perfect sense—they’re appealing to their readership. How they protect themselves from book buying Smurfs is mysterious.
Bottom line—bestsellers lists are not lists of books that move the most copies, but lists of books that do sell well but also appeal to the desired audience, nor are Top X books of/from/by/etc. anything more than an editor’s or writer’s opinion, possibly based on some research or other.
But what about Amazon, and their “pure” big-data model—they know every book sold on their site, by whom, to whom, when, in some cases how many pages of a book has been read, and so Amazon’s trending books/top sellers in this, that, or the other category must be, well, the actual top-selling books, right? What does Amazon say:
These lists, updated hourly, contain best-selling items in books. Here you can discover the best books in Amazon Best Sellers, and find the top 100 most popular Amazon books. What’s hot in books today? Take a look at the Amazon Best Sellers in Books list and find the best books in literature, fiction and nonfiction. Explore best sellers in books for mystery and thrillers, romance, science fiction and fantasy, biography and memoirs, art and photography, and the best books in cooking, food and wine.
The Holy Grail of true best selling lists found, right?
Not exactly. And, next time, we’ll take a deep dive into Amazon’s lists, which have plenty of their own quirks.
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