The case of the missing bestseller
Folks, it just got stranger than fiction.
Seems the "public editor" (aka ombudsman or in-house maiden aunt scolder) of the New York Times Clark Hoyt has some issues with the way his newspaper compiles its vaunted bestseller lists. (I will recount the salient points here in case you can't access the Times online. And heads up to Galley Cat, where I found this link.)
First, Hoyt tells us that the NYT list is "powerful and mysterious" and quotes Larry Kirshbaum of Time-Warner as saying it is "the gold standard." Then, rather disingenuously, he goes on to say the list is "not a completely accurate barometer of what the reading public is buying, and it has generated controversy from time to time." This is common info in the publishing world -- even among authors. A Times' columnist is just now finding this out?
The latest brush-up is over Elie Wiesel's memoir "Night." The book has always sold well, and due to a new recent translation, it was enjoying a revival. At one point last year, it was simultaneously No. 1 on the nonfiction paperback list, No. 3 on the same list in its original edition and No. 7 on the hardcover list.
But last month, when the the Times introduced its expanded bestseller lists (breaking paperback into Trade and Mass Market) “Night” disappeared. This, after after a run of 80 weeks, after hitting No. 9 on the paperback list the week before.
“People called me to ask what happened, and I really couldn’t explain it,” Wiesel is quoted as saying. He said he still can’t, even after an explanation from The Times.
What happened? PE Clark Hoyt (as opposed to PI?) got on the case.
He unearthed lots of interesting side stuff:
The Book Review editor, Sam Tanenhaus, has nothing to do with compiling the list that appears in his section. It is done by the Times news surveys department.
The list isn’t tabulated from paper questionnaires sent to booksellers; it’s entirely computerized. The roster of outlets surveyed is not adjusted only once every five years; it changes constantly.
And it's a misconception that the Times surveys booksellers only about titles determined by publishers’ shipments thereby giving "sleeper" books no chance. Instead, some companies dump all of their book sales to The Times, while others fill out an online form based on the previous week’s best sellers and including space for unlisted books that have sold well.
And: The Wall Street Journal and USA Today name the booksellers they survey. The Times keeps its reporting booksellers secret.
Re: that last one, Hoyt tries to get an explanation from Deborah Hofmann, who is named as the "editor of the bestseller list." Sez Hofmann: "We are aware of certain publishers and certain authors, and we watch those publishers and authors for certain trends. People do try to game the list.”
Hoyt seems mildly perturbed by this, but again, the idea that someone might try to get on the list by bulk-buying at certain stores is pretty common knowledge in our business. I have heard my fellow authors admit their strategy is to do signings only at bookstores they know report to the Times. Such is the deseperation behind needing to get on that "gold standard" list.
But readers don't know any of this. Many of them depend (rightly or wrongly) on the NYT list to cull their book purchases. I've seen enough readers in B&Ns holding the NYT list to know this. The lists are posted at B&N, for heaven's sake. And readers are supposed to KNOW the lists aren't really reflective of what's actually selling?
Oh, but they would. If only they paid attention.
See, if you look hard on the NYT list, you'll see these little dagger symbols next to some titles. This dagger means, the small type below the list tell us, that "some bookstores report receiving bulk orders." Which means, someone might be "gaming" the book but it's on the list anyway so you readers figure it out on your own whether it's really a bestseller or not.
But back to Wiesel's book "Night." What DID happen to his disappearing bestseller?
Well, again, let's go to the fine print below the list, where next to the dagger clause, we find this phrase: "Perennial bestsellers are not actively tracked."
That means, acording to PE Hoyt, that someone arbitrarily decides a book is a "classic" -- or in the words of a Times editor "evergreen." And that book is taken off the list. No matter how many copies it is selling in relation to "The Kite Runner." You can add "evergreens" like "To Kill a Mockingbird" -- which also doesn't appear on the NYT list, even though it regularly outsells most the books that appear each week.
Why banish a book just because it has, ahem, such great legs? Hoyt quotes NYT editor Hofman again: "The Times wants a list that’s lively and churns and affords new authors the opportunity to be recorded.”
Or, to look at things more crassly: The Times wants its slots open to books that can generate advertising revenue. It's a lot easier to tap Viking for an ad in support of Garrison Keillor's "Pontoon" than it is to hit on Back Bay Books to tout "Catcher In the Rye." Even though the latter was recently No. 19 on the USA Today bestseller list, which reflects actual sales and doesn't ban "evergreens."
In a message to Wiesel’s publisher, Hofmann called “Night” a modern classic and said most of its sales are now driven by student reading lists. Said Hofman: “The editorial spirit of the list is to track the sales of new books. We simply cannot track such books [as Wiesel's] indefinitely.”
So, is Elie Wiesel a "bestselling author" or not?
According to USA Today he is. "Night" is at No. 129 this week, nine spots below “The Official SAT Study Guide.” (the USA Today list lumps all books, regardless of format or content, into one giant list).
Wiesel is nowhere to be seen on the New York Times list.
But hey, he's still got a chance. Hofman says the Times is considering adding YET ANOTHER bestseller list. It will be called the "Classics List."