Cooking the Lists

November 16, 2004
Category: Uncategorized

Hey Ellen,

Earlier this month, Marina Krakovsky, in an article for The Washington Post Book World about how bestseller lists are compiled, asked a simple question: If more reliable and more timely data can be obtained from Nielsen BookScan, which accounts for nearly 70 percent of all book sales in the United States, why do various newspapers, including The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, and magazines, like Publishers Weekly, continue to create their own? 

Her question arose after she read about a recent study by Stanford business professor Alan Sorensen, who compared The Times figures with data from Nielsen BookScan. The professor investigated what effect an appearance on The Times bestseller list had on subsequent sales of hardcover fiction, and he used the lag time between the two sources — Times data is not as timely as BookScan’s — to prove his point (that the list does affect sales, but not by much).

To answer her question, Krakovsky interviewed various newspapers and magazines, asking them about how their lists were compiled. Steve Wasserman of the Los Angeles Times was the most forthcoming about the nature of his list: “It’s a deeply unscientific — one is almost tempted to call it whimsical — compilation, which has a veneer of a certain kind of science.” But no one was willing to reveal their precise methodology in compiling such “whimsical” lists — or reveal the bookstores from which they derived their calculations.

Of course, that’s not surprising. There have been well-documented incidents of attempts to manipulate the lists (to prevent such tinkering with its list, The New York Times, as we have discussed before, marks books that have had bulk orders with a dagger symbol.) But it is enlightening to see how much editorial judgement goes into these lists. Each publication seems to have its own way of arriving at the final countdown.

The L.A. Times and The New York Times presumably give more weight to independent bookstore sales and divide out fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. USA Today throws all types of books in the mix. Even The Washington Post, which uses the more accurate BookScan’s top 50 list for the Washington area, divides it into a general list and a monthly advice/self-help list.

So which bestseller list really tells us which books America is buying? It would seem none of them. Even BookScan can’t convince Wal-Mart to disclose its sales, for example. BookScan may provide the most accurate list for the whole country. But for now the public buys into the more “whimsical” lists because they carry some sort of branding allure, without thinking about how these lists reflect the tastes and philosophies of each publication as much as they do actual sales. Instead of bestseller lists, perhaps we should call them Lists of Books We Think Our Particular Readers Are Buying. What’s your take?

Hi Margo,

Beware the big clomping feet of BookScan. Sure, the data-meister doesn’t clock Wal-Mart, nor, for that matter, does it measure sales to libraries or assigned reading on college campuses. But, in the four years since it was started, BookScan has turned itself into a force to reckon with. Where newspapers and magazines used to offer the best that was available in customer advisories on what was selling, now BookScan can do it better. Cultural lag and tradition accounts for why the reading public is still addicted to The New York Times bestseller list. But BookScan’s Jim King makes it clear that his outfit would like to become the standard inside the industry — and outside, as well.     

BookScan’s advantage is that all it does is collect the numbers that reveal winners and losers (as far as sales go, anyway). It surveys national chains, regional chains, discounters like Costco, and independents. The information is helpful to publishers, who now can make decisions based not only on how their own books are doing, but with fair measure of the competition. 

Still, calling the other lists whimsical seems a tad unfair.

Sure, they’re marketing tools: Just as literary prizes give publishers a promotional hook, hot sales are hard evidence that an author has found an audience — no small feat these days! — and publishers want to crow about it. There have been many attempts to stack the lists so that books could look more popular than they actually were. But in spite of all this, the traditional bestseller lists still have atmospheric value. They give a snapshot of what’s happening in a region or among readers of a certain sensibility. I especially appreciate the BookSense list, which isolates what’s selling at the independents, a self-selected crowd. 

But The Washington Post’s decision to use some BookScan data is one small indicator that change may be coming. BookScan wants to be a household name. Imagine, a few short years from now, a whole crop of books on the “new arrivals” table that have “Bookscan bestseller” bannered across the front. Brace yourself, Effie, as editors hash out whether they want to maintain their pride of place — or bow to the newcomer’s ability to marshal the facts.        

Hey Ellen,

Actually, I’m hoping the book list that catches on will be the Library Journal‘s Most Borrowed Books in the Library. The magazine’s “Best Seller” list, as Library Journal calls it, is compiled from data on books borrowed and requested (placed on hold) at urban, suburban, and rural libraries across America. Looking at the list for November 15, you will find that it mirrors many of the other lists. Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”  tops the fiction list, and Bill Clinton’s “My Life” tops the nonfiction list. But also included are books like “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” which is a popular book club read, and Rick Warren’s “The Purpose-Driven Life,” read avidly in prayer circles in churches around the country. It is a list that can track the legs a book has well after its initial sales. It may even be an interesting way for book editors to compile regional lists, if local libraries would cooperate.
When I first became book editor at the St. Petersburg Times, I tried to put together a Tampa Bay area list by surveying local bookstores, but I was told by one bookseller, who declined to reveal his bestsellers, that the book business was notoriously secretive about sales. He also warned that I couldn’t really rely on accurate data from distributors because people in the business of selling books might be tempted to champion books they had in stock. I don’t know if that’s true — BookScan seems to have in most cases cracked that secrecy — but it seems to me that librarians would be the least likely to “cook the books.” And wouldn’t it be a hoot to see a label on a book that simply said, “Most Borrowed Book”?