Publishing/Writing: Insights, News, Intrigue


Are Best-seller Lists Accurate in the E-book Age?

An interesting question. Hell, I wonder how accurate best-seller lists were BEFORE the eBook age. I’m very skeptical about these lists…I feel they are just paid lists (mostly through celebrity or notoriety) without any REAL connection to artistic-worthiness! Yep, I think money behind marketing is what lands a book on these lists…Have you ever read a so-called best-seller? Some really stink!

Maggie Galehouse of the Houston Chronicle wrote this insightful piece:

Best-seller lists help readers decide which books to buy by ranking books readers have already bought.

So is the tail wagging the dog?

To complicate matters, e-book sales are still fighting for representation on most of these lists, even though 30 percent of fiction sales could be electronic by next year.

For now, securing a spot on a best-seller list is like winning a literary jackpot. Best-selling titles are sold at a discount and enjoy prominent placement in bookstores.

“Hitting the lists gets a book and author noticed by producers, booksellers, critics and reviewers who may have overlooked it or passed the first time around,” Dawn Davis, vice president and editorial director of Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins, noted via e-mail.

“When I published Steve Harvey’s Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, many producers passed when we tried to book him on various morning shows,” Davis wrote. “But once he debuted at the top of the list, our publicist was able to get so many more bookings for him. The content hadn’t changed, but the perception of the book had.”

In some instances, though, how a book lands on a best-seller list is a bit of a mystery.

With Amazon, which updates its list hourly, authors and readers get a real-time sense of book sales.

But the sacred New York Times best-seller list is based on book sales from a full two weeks earlier, a huge lag time in a digital age. Although the Times’ weekly rankings are culled from sales at thousands of venues — including independent retailers, national and local chains, and online entertainment – they are hardly a comprehensive tally of book sales across the country.

At best, the rankings are educated guesstimates.

“I don’t know what the secret magical formula of the New York Times list is, and I don’t know if anyone knows,” said David Hale Smith, who runs a literary agency and creative management firm in Dallas. “It’s not necessarily about the numbers. It’s about velocity – rate of movement of certain titles related to other titles.”

Publishers recognize the importance of the Times list and its limitations.

“Nowadays a great number of publishers don’t rely on the New York Times list at all,” said Lorraine Shanley, a publishing consultant and principal at Market Partners International. “But as it is with many things, the more you’re perceived to have sold, the more you sell. The New York Times list is the ultimate in terms of being able to tout your success, but it’s not used as a yardstick in creating marketing because you want to be able to respond more rapidly.”

Industry insiders pay more attention to Nielsen BookScan rankings, which cast a wider net and are more up-to-date. But these rankings aren’t comprehensive, either.

New e-book lists

And e-books are making the picture even murkier.

Last summer, USA Today started including Amazon Kindle e-book sales in its best-seller list. Last month, Kindle split its best-seller list, creating one for paid titles and another for free titles.

And e-readers are more affordable than ever.

Two weeks ago, Barnes & Noble slashed Nook prices (the WiFi version is now $149), and Amazon dropped the Kindle to $189. And last week, Amazon subsidiary Woot sold nearly 5,000 Kindle 2s for $149.99 in about eight hours.

Although e-books make up just 5 percent of book sales, that number is much higher in certain genres.

“I think fiction is going to be 30 percent e-book sales by next year,” Shanley said. “If you look at a given title, you can see that some books have reached almost 40 to 50 percent e-books penetration. … I know the most recent Stieg Larsson book sold hundreds of thousands of e-books very early on.”

Though digital book sales offer more data, unpacking the numbers is tough.

“I’m in a unique spot to talk about this,” said Smith, the founder of DHS Literary. “I have a client named Michael Koryta whose book, So Cold the River, was released by Little Brown a few weeks ago.”

Print and e-books sales for this new title are exploding, Smith said. So Cold the River reached the top 100 in Amazon hardcover and hit the top 50 on the Kindle best-seller list. It was also featured in Parade magazine.

“But we’re trying to figure out whether e-book sales have added to overall sales or whether they’ve taken away from bookstore sales that might have gotten him on the New York Times best-seller list two weeks ago,” Smith said.

Marketing oppor-tunities for e-books are different. Last month, for example, readers who brought their Nooks to a Houston Barnes & Noble where author Justin Cronin was appearing to promote The Passage were offered “exclusive free content” from the author.

Owners of Kindles, iPads, Nooks and Sony e-readers represent different demographics, and each e-reader has apps available on other devices.

“What I think will be really interesting is where you start seeing the correlation between the device, the platform and the reader,” Shanley said. “Is the 17-year-old boy buying graphic novels on an iPhone? Is the 50-year-old woman buying romance novels on a Kindle?”

Sharing is an issue

Sharing e-books is another thorny issue.

“Only the Nook has dealt with the question of being able to pass along and share books,” Shanley said. “You can share a book with another Nook user, but basically what happens is it gets turned off your Nook and turned on somewhere else. The other person has two weeks to read the book. Libraries are also starting to offer e-books, but publishers are worried that it’s going to be like the second-hand book market and eat into their sales.”

Shanley is excited about the digital possibilities for cookbooks, children’s books and illustrated books, which have been slow to enter the e-book market because of their graphic nature. With sophisticated e-readers like the iPad, she says, there’s a potentially robust market with huge opportunities for interactivity.

Smith shares her enthusiasm.

“We’re just beginning to see the power of the digital delivery,” he said. “It’s a great tool for authors and publishers. And what I think we’re all hoping is that someone will figure out a way to combine the number of e-book sales with print sales.”

That way, there would be a definitive best-seller list, one that offers a clearer picture of which books people are buying.

Of course, one of the peculiarities of books — as opposed to most other merchandise — is that the more successfully a book sells, the better the discount.


  1. Good article. I have observed over the years that my favorite authors are seldom represented on best sellers lists. Celebrity, Notoriety, over-night scandalous personalities grab the spotlight. Guess it's too bad I didn't bother to have 8 babies in one day, or catch Karl Rove's wandering evil eye as a dingbat like Palin who stands as a derogatory insult to all women who do possess the brains and expertise to be just as effective as any male running for the presidency!

    Comment by Frances Jeanne Scott — 07/06/2010 @ 10:38 am | Reply

  2. Yes indeed!

    Comment by John Austin — 07/06/2010 @ 10:40 am | Reply

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