Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Laws & Sausages

I once had a professor of legal philosophy tell me that there were two things I'd never want to see made: laws and sausages. I can think of a third thing: bestseller lists.

A couple of caveats.

First, there are some bestseller lists, like that published by the New York Times, whose formulation are considered trade secrets. In the cases in which I'm privy to how these lists are created, I can't divulge that information; in the cases in which I'm not, I can't tell you because I simply don't know.

Second, it's not the case that all bestseller lists are concocted by publishers'/booksellers' resident mad scientists bent on establishing the literary equivalent of world domination by listing and discounting titles by megabestselling authors—they do try their best to list the titles that are showing the strongest sales figures in the marketplace. However, not all lists are created equal, and some are truer to the numbers than others.

For example: let's say Barrel O' Books maintains a store-wide "Top Ten" bestseller list, and they're overstocked on a particular title that isn't quite making that list. They may swap out the #10 title for the overstocked title, or may grant individual stores limited discretion when displaying the list, meaning it may differ slightly from location to location. (Book sales are surprisingly regionally varied in nature.) It's not exactly underhanded, since the action of adding the title to the list (and applying the appropriate discount, if applicable) will probably bump that title onto the list numbers-wise in short order. It is, however, something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Some bestseller lists also factor projected sales into the process, or will base the lists (at least initially) off how many copies are acquired by retailers from the publisher, and not how many copies are actually moved through the register. This is why some lists will reflect the bestseller-dom of titles that have gone on sale only that day, or a day or two prior. Granted, daily and even hourly sales figures can be and are available in our increasingly digital world, but it's not always the case that bestseller lists are produced with these numbers in hand.

In short: bestseller lists are good indications of how well a book is doing in the market, but it's not always the case that a book that makes the list is selling better than a book that doesn't, or even that #9 is necessarily outselling #10 across the board. It's not an exact science, mes auteurs, and so I wouldn't treat it as one if I were you—neither as a consumer nor a producer of the written word.


  1. This doesn't surprise me one bit. In retail, we compete for the top sales in our district on a daily basis, and sales figures are updated every half hour. If we happen to be running in a close second, you can bet your last banana that we'll come up with an idea to boost sales for our store.

    And, being a department store, much of what we do is factored by two things: holidays and local weather. For example, if it happens to be raining, we might front a display of umbrellas right by the check out. Or if it happens to be unusually cold that day, we might roll out a rack of hoodie sweatshirts to the main aisle. If it's the day before Valentine's Day, everything colored red, pink, or a combination of those (in addition to all the crap we received specifically for that holiday), and all the jewelry, candles, and flowery-type things we own will be right up front. Yes, the most effective way to get sales is, and always will be, to throw it in the customers' faces.

    People who don't have a background in sales might be surprised how easily the paying customers can be swayed. All it takes is a knowledge of your market and the *immediate* needs of your customers, and perhaps a promotion or two. I can see how this could be done in book sales as well, with a little imagination.

    (Okay, I may have strayed slightly from your point, but whatever. This is what the post made me think of.)

  2. It's not exactly underhanded, since the action of adding the title to the list (and applying the appropriate discount, if applicable) will probably bump that title onto the list numbers-wise in short order.

    No, no, that really is underhanded. If a lie later becomes a truth, that does not mean it was not a lie when spoken.

  3. This post makes me wish I could smoke a pipe inside.

  4. "It is, however, something of a self-fulfilling prophecy." things can be made into bestsellers by the bookseller?

  5. This is the very thing that POD and self publishing companies use as incentive for one to try self publishing over the traditional route. It scares me and disturbs me more than just a little to think that these untruths may be told in order to increase sales in a book people would not normally be inclined to buy. I don't think it is so much of "self fulfilling prophecy" as it is making an untruth into a truth.

    My question is, What happens to the book that was selling at number 10 when a bookstore removes it from a list to bring in number 11 in its place? Would not the sales of that book suffer?

  6. After having bought into that trap and my eyes bugging out at how uninteresting the "best seller" turned out, I no longer count on that marketing lie to entertain myself. TO JL Stratton, I do believe it is the original and in long time practice of "traditional route" publishing long 'afore the self publishers. The Spin Doctor sells empty packages to unthinking buyers.