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.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The case of the missing bestseller

This bestseller list thing just gets curiouser and curiouser. Recently, I blogged about how weird this business of compiling bestseller lists has become.

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."

10 Comments:

Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

I'm left with a mild headache (due to no fault of yours) and the conclusion that the NY Times bestseller list is probably meaningless most of the time.

There are days I wonder how it is so much of this industry doesn't make any sense.

4:12 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Sandra,

I am trying to reset my mind around that bromide about only worrying about things I actually have control over.

This is one of them. :)

4:43 PM  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

To make a list, that would be...

The writing.

I haven't forgotten anything, have I? ;) Seriously, it's a good reminder.

12:01 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

"The editorial spirit of the list is to track the sales of new books."

What a lovely, totally-full-of-shit quote.

I had already read this about Wiesel's book. Of course, it must be a "classic" now because the Times says so, right?

There are so many things wrong and disturbing about this I barely know where to start. Why don't I start at the end and leave it at that?

Bestsellers lists, particularly the New York Times Bestseller Lists, are not OBJECTIVE evaluators of books that sell the most. One, they don't choose all bookstores or even distributors, so they're about as accurate as the U.S. census. Two, the NYTBSL as they comment here, comes right out and says they're dropping books that regularly sell large numbers! Huh? Therefore as evaluators of most sales, they've become meaningless. Three, they've recently added a different category that has this slightly confusing and wishy-washy definition that, to all extents and purposes, suggests the New York Times is creating one list for books they deem "literary" and another list for books they deem "commercial" because, well... one suspects because if they didn't those books they deem "literary" wouldn't make it to the list at all.

Y'know what I'd like to see? (Besides my name on the list, bullshit or not?) I'd like to see when a book has the name James Patterson, Robert Ludlum, VC Andrews or any number of other authors who are either dead or selling-their-name-on-the-cover, that the bestseller lists don't actually place those authors' name on it except in tiny, teeny, itsy-bitsy print at the bottom next to an asterisk. For instance:

#1. Quadruple-Crossed by Frank Reynolds*

*Although this book has James Patterson's name on the cover, we have determined that less than 1% of the book was actually authored by Mr. Patterson.

You think that's funny? Consider how the Writers Guild of America handles multiple scriptwriters--the guild decides and only those who have the highest percentage get their names on the script!

12:53 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Mark,

Love the idea for the Patterson books...Especially since so few of his readers seem to know he doesn't write them anymore.

6:26 PM  
Blogger Joe Moore said...

"...Especially since so few of his readers seem to know he doesn't write them anymore."

And apparently, it doesn’t matter. Patterson’s 2006 North American sales topped 12 million copies. So whoever IS writing them is doing a hell of a job.

3:49 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

A perennial bestseller. Okay. Well. Then why did they leave DaVinci code up for so long? It was up there for longer than a year, wasn't it? Why wasn't that declared a perennial bestseller and taken off?

9:37 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Good point, spy.
It makes no sense, does it.

10:28 PM  
Blogger Josephine Damian said...

Spy, how about "The Bridges of Madison County?" That was on the list forever!

Kristee, the first time I visited your blog was after Elaine's stroke, right when you seemed to be walking away from blogging and re-grouping. Glad to see you're back at it.

Congrats to you and your sister on the awards you received this past summer.

9:47 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Welcome back Josephine!

Yes, I did decide to stop for a while. I was pretty burned out after a hectic year where I over-committed myself to book-related projects. I was worried about losing my focus, which is writing. But things sort of reshifted and I found I missed my "diary." There are many reasons for doing blogs, but mine has always been a little selfish...it gets my writer muscles warmed up and it's kind of therapeutic to sort things out here at times.

Plus it's nice seeing folks like you all show up.

10:39 AM  

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