Words Mean Things: Bestseller

Words Mean Things: Bestseller

This morning, I was reminded about the fact that the NYT bestseller list (and most bestseller lists, actually) are nothing more than giant hoaxes. I’ve known about this for a while—from when I was a wee editor back in editing school in days of yore—but basically, the term bestseller means nothing in booklandia.

Why? Well, it’s not that it’s necessarily a worthless designation that anyone can slap on the front of their book. It’s more that the system—including the prestigious NYT bestseller list—is rigged.

Gaming the System

In fact, the NYT bestseller list is so rigged that you can actually just buy your way onto the list. Sure, you can’t just walk up to the editorial team and hand them $500, but you can game the system. There are companies that will help you do it—for a fee, of course.

A badge declaring "Instant New York Times bestseller."

Oh yeah. You can smell the sales already.

So how is it rigged? Well, first and foremost, there’s no actual sales data involved. No Nielsen scans here telling you how many boob-tubes were tuned in to AMC last night. It’s not even that the NYT staff asks certain booksellers to report or guesstimate their sales in the last week or month or whatever. (Some indicate the NYT is trying to incorporate point-of-sales information, but yesterday’s YA list kerfuffle indicates older practices are still prevalent.)

Nope. They just look at how many units of a particular book are stocked at a select few bookstores. Ship 10,000 books to Barnes & Noble and land yourself on the NYT bestseller list! That is literally how the system works.

Now, publishers know this, and they have a decent idea of which bookstores the NYT is gathering their data from. So publishers game the system by working harder to get more copies of particular authors and books into particular stores. The companies that help authors achieve NYT bestseller status simply go about buying up copies of your book from these selected retailers, disguising it to make it look like the sales are “organic.” They don’t drop their business card and buy 20,000 copies of your book from B&N. They send people in, have them pick up your book. That triggers the retailer to order more copies. (In the most recent case, it seems there was someone calling retailers and asking them to place orders for any number of copies, from about 30 to an alleged 1,200-copy order.)

A Problem of Data

Here’s the mega scam part of this: In the book industry, books shipped/ordered/stocked has nothing to do with units sold. Booksellers and publishers have worked on a bit of a gentleman’s agreement since the 1930s. Since very few people had extra cash to throw around on buying books, stocking almost any new book was a huge risk for retailers. To entice them, publishers offered the retailers a deal. They could order as many copies as they wanted, ship back copies that didn’t sell, and only pay for the copies that did sell. If a book never sold, the retailer could send it back and pay nothing.

Retailers haven’t really looked back since. So a big entity like Barnes & Noble could theoretically order 20,000 copies of J.K. Rowling’s latest and, if none of those copies sold, send ‘em all back without paying a dime.

Stacks of books at Costco.

Somewhere, a publisher is cheering because none of these copies are coming back from Costco.

There’s been some adjustments on this agreement—for example, publishers might make a certain percentage of the books non-returnable (i.e., final sale), and there are “special sales” to places like Costco and Wal-Mart that are final sale—no returns. Publishers like those a lot more. The internet has also allowed publishers to sell direct with a lot more ease, and POD publishing ops make it easier to have “just in time” production and stock. Amazon, for example, doesn’t really keep stock of a lot of books on hand, but instead will ask for the rights to print the book themselves so they only have stock for units they sell.

The Data Is Corrupt

Back to the problem of bestseller lists: They use the units shipped data instead of units sold data. Since retailers can return stock, units shipped is not units sold, and therefore what the NYT reports as being “bestsellers” aren’t necessarily selling at all. There may be a ton of copies in stock, but is anyone actually buying and reading the book? In a lot of cases, no!

However, because being featured on the NYT bestseller list is good publicity, it still matters. People read the NYT bestseller list in order to find out what other people are reading. They see the book listed there and think, ‘Well, if it’s here, everyone must be reading it! I’d better get a copy and see what it’s all about.’

So being on the NYT bestseller list can actually turn books into bestsellers. You can see why the publishing industry is content to let this lie.

Defining a Bestseller

There’s another small problem with bestseller lists, and that extends to the actual quantification and definition of “bestseller.” Earlier, I tossed out numbers like 10,000 or 20,000 copies. Those aren’t that far off. The actual definition of a bestseller in Canada was 10,000 copies when I was in school. If you “sold” (or shipped) 10,000 copies to particular retailers, you had a bestseller on your hands.

In a population of approximately 35 million, 10,000 is a drop in the bucket: It’s less than 0.003 percent of the population with a copy of the book in their hands. The number is larger in the US, but then again, so is the population.

So, at the end of it, “bestselling” and “bestseller” don’t really mean all that much. For a lot of self-published authors, 10,000 copies is a dream. But it’s ultimately not a huge or impossible number—especially if we’re not considering copies actually sold, but just copies shipped.

[NB: I wrote this post a while ago, but in light of the kerfuffle about the NYT’s YA list yesterday, I thought it might be pertinent to the discussion about scamming bestseller lists.]

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