Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Making The List

The news has finally come out that the New York Times is breaking its paperback bestseller list into two: mass market and trade. I had heard back in July that this was coming. Our latest book, A THOUSAND BONES, had come out and done well in sales, breaking onto USA Today's extended list but not making the Times, as everyone had hoped.

We were disappointed because expectations had been high for this one. But then our agent put things in perspective: the publisher was extremely happy with sales because the book had sold well for a long time.

In official publishing terms, it didn't have "velocity,"

but it did have "legs."

You'll have a better shot with the next book, our agent said. The idea being, of course, that once the paperback bestseller list got rid of perennial pests like Jodi Picoult, kite runners and crabby old Cormac McCarthy, good old fashioned genre books could retake their rightful turf.

The Times, in defending the split lists, said they did it to give more visibility to the literary fiction that is increasingly being published in trade format. (Nicholas Sparks is "literary"?) But the change is also bottom line-driven, considering that the Times's ad revenue has been declining and adding another page of lists might boost ad sales.

I suspect there's some plain old whining behind this as well. A couple years back, the Times added a children's bestseller list. This happened because some publishers were bitching that the Harry Potter books were hogging too many spots on the Fiction list and leaving no room for "serious" books. (In 2000, there were three Potter books in the Top 15). So children's books -- and Harry -- was banished to the kids table. And now that the trade paperbacks have been separated from the mass markets, all those "serious" novels won't have to go up against James Patterson and Nora Roberts et al.

So what does all this mean for us commoners, especially those of us who toil in the mass market ghetto? Well, just as the "literary" writers get more slots, so do we PBO folks have more chances to crack into the rarified atmosphere of bestsellerdom.

But does being a "bestseller" really have a big impact on your career? Some would argue no, that you can have a successful life as a genre writer without making it onto the Times list. Laura Lippman, for one, didn't do too shabby for herself before her latest, "What The Dead Know" finally made it to The List.

Making The List DOES matter, I think. First, on the simplest level, we are obsessed with all "best" lists. It's the ultimate game, one that we can all play, as we put our own tastes up against the official arbitors. Best movie? The critics have their favorites, with this guy leading the pack:

My vote would go for "Lawrence of Arabia" but I am a sucker for this scene every time I see it:

Best dressed? Vanity Fair says it is someone named Charlotte Gainsbourg.

But I think best-dressed guy Tiki Barber is a lot purtier.

Best hotel in the world? According to Travel and Leisure its Oberoi Udaivilas in Udaipur, India.

My vote goes to a little auberge in Bagnol-en-Foret, France, where I had fabulous frog legs in garlic, a memorable Meursault and a room with a view. I think I had great sex but it was a long time ago so I could be wrong.

It's all subjective, you see. But then again, so are "best books" lists. They are subject to all sorts of vagaries in our wacky business. Like which stores are reporting and which are not. Which lists are to be taken seriously and which are not. And, if you believe authors who have sued the New York Times, which editors like your stuff and which don't.

Although it is generally acknowledged that the New York Times bestseller list is the one and true list, there are others. And getting on any one of them can give you a toehold. There's the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly. Some think these other lists are becoming more a factor, especially the USA Today list because it publishes the raw data of actual sales from independent stores, chains and the dot-com dealerships. Liz Perl, executive director of publicity for the Berkley Publishing Group was quoted in Time Magazine recently: "A lot of people are looking at [the USA Today] list. It gets stronger and stronger."

And what about everyone's favorite whipping boy Its Hot 100 list, a reflection of sales over the web site, is updated hourly. (The Times Book Review, because of its long lead time, can publish only the very latest estimate of the books people were buying two weeks ago.) "The beauty of Amazon is the instant gratification," Perl says. "If you have an author who appears on, say, 'Rosie O'Donnell,' you can find out right away whether or not there's a bump in the Amazon numbers."

The Amazon sample can be misleading. Self-improvement books do better on Amazon, romance novels far worse. In one example, Nora Roberts' "Tears of the Moon" was the Times' paperback No.1 and USA Today's sixth top seller, but only hit No. 19 on Amazon. One of USA Today's best-selling romances, "Wild Child," didn't even crack Amazon's top 1,000.

So is the Amazon list important? Again, in Time magazine: "In terms of actual sales, somewhat," says Bill Thomas, the editor in chief of Doubleday. "In terms of author psychology, very important. Authors check it like daytraders keeping track of the NASDAQ."

Nooo....authors checking their Amazon rankings? None of MY friends do that.

Then there are the major regional lists: the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and the Chicago Tribune. The regional lists are valued as "predictors." The bestsellers "Snow Falling on Cedars" and A.S. Byatt's "Possession" among others were bestsellers in northern California well before they made it onto the Times list.

Getting on the Independent Booksellers list carries weight, as does the Mystery Bookstore list. 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.

As I said, making a list these days is not really a matter of sales so much as velocity. A book that sells 20,000 copies in one week may shoot to the top of the bestseller 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 bestseller lists matter so much? Well, because they create buzz. If a book is a best seller, bookstore folks are more likely to give it prime placement; some stores even discount NYTimes bestsellers. And readers are more likely to buy bestsellers. Alan T. Sorensen of Stanford Business School, who studied sales of hardcover fiction, found that the majority of book buyers use the Times’ list to see what is worth reading. Therefore, according to Sorensen, relatively unknown writers get the biggest benefit from being on the list, while for already best-selling authors such as Danielle Steel or John Grisham, being on the list makes virtually no difference in increasing sales. Most authors -- us included -- have a contract clause that provides a bonus for making the Times list. Typically, it is $7,000 for postions 1-5; $5,000 for postions 6-10; $3,000 for positions 11-15.

But no one seems to understand exactly how bestseller lists are compiled, especially the Times's list. Its exact methodology seems to be a trade secret. According to Edwin Diamond in his book "Behind the Times," the list is based on a survey of over 3,000 bookstores as well as "representative wholesalers with more than 28,000 other retail outlets, including variety stores and supermarkets." The list is based on weekly sales reports obtained from a selected sample of independent and chain bookstores, as well as wholesalers, throughout the United States. The sales figures represent books that have actually been sold at retail, rather than wholesale figures, in an attempt to better reflect what is actually purchased by individual buyers.

But guess what’s missing? All the mass market outlets like Wal-Mart, KMart, Target, Costco, and Sam’s Club -- and Christian bookstores (some 2,300 stores or so). This is a big piece of the market. As a result, the Times completely misses the number of units that are moving through some very significant sales channels. At best, they can claim that their bestsellers list represents sales through only one specific sales channel.

At the other end of the spectrum is a bestseller list like the one compiled by The Voice Literary Supplement, which polls a mere 25 indie stores, places like 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.

Quel mess, huh? You can compare this with how it's done in the music biz. Billboard magazine tracks every single album sold at every single music store in the United States. There has been talk about using BookScan in a similar way for publishing lists, but BookScan is very expensive for booksellers. And frankly, if there were only one legitimately tabulated national bestseller list, well, where would that leave the kingmakers of The New York Times et al?

For all its weight, the Times was slow to the bestseller business. Bestseller lists have been around since 1895 when novel sales were tracked by a trade publication called The Bookman. Nonfiction bestsellers didn't arrive until 1912, when Publishers Weekly began its own list. The New York Times didn't get into the act until 1930. If you want to read a juicy overview of this whole thing, get a copy of Michael Korda's book "Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller, 1900-1999."

One of my favorite observations from Korda's book is his assertion that there is no way to tell what books by unknowns will make it big, given that readers are so unpredictable. He gives the example of the biggest selling book of the 1920s -- "The Specialist." It sold more than 1.5 million copies and was on display next to cash registers for years. It was about building outhouses.

And I can think of no other wisdom to add to that. So just for fun, I leave you with a sampling of lists from our past. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose!


1. Exodus by Leon Uris
2. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
3. Hawaii by James Michener
4. Advise and Consent by Allen Drury
5. Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence
6. The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene L. Burdick
7. Dear and Glorious Physician by Taylor Caldwell
8. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
9. Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico
10. Poor No More by Robert Ruark


1. The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien
2. The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
3. Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, by Richard Bach
4. The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carré
5. Oliver's Story by Erich Segal
6. Dreams Die First by Harold Robbins
7. Beggarman, Thief by Irwin Shaw
8. How to Save Your Own Life by Erica Jong
9. Delta of Venus: Erotica by Anaïs Nin
10. Daniel Martin by John Fowles


1. The Partner by John Grisham
2. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
3. The Ghost by Danielle Steel
4. The Ranch by Danielle Steel
5. Special Delivery by Danielle Steel
6. Unnatural Exposure by Patricia Cornwell
7. The Best Laid Plans by Sidney Sheldon
8. Pretend You Don't See Her by Mary Higgins Clark
9. Cat & Mouse by James Patterson
10. Hornet's Nest by Patricial Cornwell

This week

1. Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen
2. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hossein
3. At First Sight by Nicholas Sparks
4. The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards
5. The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud
6. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
7. Dear John by Nicholas Sparks
8. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
9. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
10. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See


1. The Collectors by David Baldacci
2. 74 Seaside Avenue by Debbie Macomber
3. Killer Dreams by Iris Johansen
4. Innocent in Death by J. D. Robb
5. Act of Treason by Vince Flynn
6. Beyond Seduction by Stephanie Laurens
7. The Mephisto Club by Tess Gerritsen
8. Inferno by Troy Denning
9. Exile by Richard North Patterson
10. Silver Master by Jayne Castle


Blogger Joe Moore said...

This is quite a comprehensive post, Kris. Thanks for sharing so much info. The biggest impact it had on me was not the mind-numbing gymnastics and sometimes goofiness of how all the lists are compiled but the actual sample lists you included. Although there are household names and memorable books on them all, the massive weight of the monster classics listed in 1959 is nothing short of overwhelming. It makes me wonder if there are any authors writing today worthy to be associated with the same bestseller list that once contained names like Uris, Pasternak, Michener, Lawrence, and Nabokov? There must have been something in the water that year.

11:35 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Great post, Kris.

I hope to make The List some day.

But, like everything else in publishing, I think a lot of it boils down to luck. Dennis Lehane, for example, never set out to be a "bestselling" author. Then one day someone handed a copy of Mystic River to Clint Eastwood. The rest, of course, is history. Blockbuster movie=instant bestseller. The same thing happened with Silence of the Lambs--and many other books, I suppose.

Huge advances and co-op placement have a lot to do with making The List as well. Like the saying goes, it takes money to make money.

I think The List, in some ways, hurts those of us trying to break in. An acquisition editor at a big house might love your novel, but if s/he can't convince the publisher and marketing team that the book has NYT bestseller list potential, then into the shredder it goes. It's a shame, I think, and I bet a lot of great manuscripts never make it into print because of The List.

That said, I did get some very encouraging news from my agent this week. Fingers crossed.

5:41 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

This is sure a thorough post. THanks.

I've often thought the best thing that could happen to me was to be accidentally listed on the NYTBS List. It's probably the best advertising you can get.

On the other hand, I'm a bigger fan of the US Today list. I like that they just throw all books on the list, don't split them up into categories. That way you can get a sense of what categories of books are selling--typically one or two blockbuster authors at the top then a whole slew of nonfiction, as well as that annual climb by What To Expect WHen YOu're Expecting, which I think probably goes on the list every summer when new OB/GYNs start practicing and give it to their patients.

20,000 per week, by the way, would be unusually high. Tess Gerritsen wrote at length about this on her blog and found that 5000 copies in a week would get you on the list.

6:37 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I think the numbers Tess came up with were for new release hardcovers. The figures for PBOs to make The List are probably higher, since more units are printed and sold on average.

9:05 PM  
Blogger Allison Brennan said...

Great summary of the lists. Walmart doesn't share it's numbers with any lists, but I know my sales numbers and they are bigger than any other individual outlet. Especially when you're in mass market. Walmart carries limited hardcover and trade, but fills it shelves with mass market largely because of the price point. Bookscan reflects 25%--or less--or my sales largely because they don't have Warmart and other mass merchandisers.

No system is going to be completely fair. I'm not in a lot of indie mystery stores because they don't as a rule carry romantic suspense titles. Yet indie stores are weighted more heavily in the NYT list. It's out of my control so I don't stress about it. (There are many more things I can stress about!)

11:46 AM  
Anonymous Elaine Flinn said...

What a post! I doubt there are many writers out there as knowledgable about the biz as you.

Thanks for all your hard work...and for sharing this...

1:32 PM  

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