I'm not a publisher or in the book industry, so I don't pay much attention to the Amazon and New York Times bestseller lists. But today, I saw the current lists and my mouth fell open.... FOUR of the top 10 non-fiction books are Conservative screeds, written by the Right's biggest and most offensive mouthpieces. This led me to ask, wat gives in Best Seller Land?
I like books and I like to read. But a Best Seller kind of guy I'm not. I read what interests me: history, travel, classics, biographies, blogs and news. I'm not a publisher or in the book industry. So which books are "best sellers" isn't something I pay attention to, or even care much about.
However, that changed today. I got an email from Amazon, the kind I usually delete unread, with the latest best seller lists. I glanced from idle curiosity, only to receive a major shock: FOUR of the top 10 bestsellers on both the NY Times and Amazon Best Seller lists are what I consider to be Right Wing Trash.
Michelle Malkin, Bill O'Reilly, Mark Levine, Dick Morris.... the Four Stooges of the Right, all Best Sellers. Do people really buy and read this crap? Or is this just another example of someone gaming the system, like derivatives on Wall Street, or Bernie Madoffs "guaranteed" 8% returns?
Without the time to do genuinely exhaustive research, I tried to get a quick education in how Best Sellers are counted. Google is a researchers best friend, and after half a dozen differently cast searches, I came up with a general idea of how the system is, indeed, gamed. Here's how it works.
In nearly all cases, the First Printing of any book is 5,000 copies. If you sell most, or all, of those 5,000, you are technically a "best seller" because most books don't sell close to their full first run. However, selling out your first run does NOT put you on the Amazon or New York Times Best Seller lists.
The Best Seller lists themselves are derived from a combination of four things:
- Projection - what editors think will or should be "best."
- Computerization - how big chain and online stores flag sales in their computer databases, thus raising certain book sale patterns to the forefront for notice.
- Promotion - how the publishing houses "push" a book, that is, how aggressively they advertise the book, which can - and often does - include claims that are not true (but can become self-fulfilling), such as claiming it's a "best seller" before it actually sells anything.
- Discounting - lowering the price of a book so that it will sell more.
Given these four things, there is room to game the system. Is it illegal? Of course not. But it is misleading. A "Best Selling" designation does not mean that a book is genuinely popular, or even all that widely read.
Harry Potter was clearly not gamed and it was a phenomenal best seller. But Dick Morris? Michelle Malkin? Given the low bar for reaching "best selling" designation, it's very possible these books are gamed. Here's how it works.
Like all marketing campaigns and opinion surveys, the New York Times Best Selling list is based on a "representative sample" of bookstores across the nation. This means that the "representative sample" stores are held to stand for all bookstores in a certain demographic area. These "reprentative sample' stores almost always tend to be big chains: Barnes and Nobles, Borders, Dayton's, and so on.
The New York Times editors compile a list once a week of the books they think would (or should be) best sellers and poll the "representative sample" stores to see if their sales match. The confirmation of these "representative" numbers - like in an opinion poll - form a projection of actual sales. These are ranked, and the editors come up with their "best selling" list.
What gets a book on the NY Times list of projected best sellers, especially when the book is a new book? Almost always, this is based on the amount of advance advertising given the book. The more money spent, the more advance advertising and flack, the more likely the book is to added to the prospective list sent around by the New York Times. This, in turn, is confirmed for the best seller list by the amount of "advance sales" the book generates before its release.
Since most books released never generate advance sales, it doesn't take many advance sales to make a book look like a hot prospect. This, then, creates plenty of opportunity to game the "best selling" system. Publishers spending a lot of money on advertising a new book can simply go to the bookstores that industry insiders know to be the "representative sample" stores and make request to buy copies in advance. This then flags the book in the bookstores computer system, as "hot" and then flushes it up to the top of the list for prominent placement in the store.
Viola! Out of the gate, a book can already be marked for "best seller" status, simply by the publisher knowing where and how to go about seeking for advance copies.
Once a book receives this (actual or potential) best seller status, many other mechanisms go into play to drive it up the charts. For example, prominent placement in a store always assures greater sales. Put a stack of a single title right at the entrance to the store, with a prominent display of all the reasons it's such a great book, and more books will be sold. Once a book gets a "best seller" designation, it goes right into prominent placement, as book sellers all scramble to take advantage of the notice it's being given.
This kind of prominent placement can be achieved by buying a certain number of books from "representative sample" stores as soon as the book comes out. In many, many cases, new books may only sell one or two copies a week. Selling more immediately flags that book in the computer system, once again flushing it up to the top of the "hot" list for sales. A publisher who knows how this work can purchase as little as 10-20 copies of the book from the right "representative sample" bookstores in the first week to flag the book as a hot seller.
To be fair, the NY Times uses several hundred bookstores nationwide for its pool of representative samples. But because so few new releases sell sell more than even a few copies per store when it's first released, a pattern of sales in the right stores drives it immediately to the top of the list. This then gets assumed to "represent" sales nationwide.
Once a book gets designated a "best seller," book sellers often respond by not only prominently placing the book, but also by deeply discounting the sales price, hoping to capitalize on volume and further drive sales. This method is especially well-used in online stores like Amazon. Deep discounts mean stronger sales. So, any "best selling" designation is immediatly capitalized on by deep discounts, undercutting other books that a customer may also consider buying. This then confirms the "best selling" status by selling more books.
The bottom line is this: a book does not need to be a well-written book, or factually accurate, or even genuinely popular, to make it on to the "best seller" list. All it has to do is demonstrate the "right" pattern of advance sales and purchases in the "representative sample" stores used by the industry to measure these things.
Very much like an opinion poll - where the question you ask determines in advance the answer you will get, thus skewing the poll toward the results you want - how advance sales and initial weekly sales are managed can determine a book's "best seller" status. Only after the system has been gamed to get the buying public to take notice does a book actually start selling to the public.
In the case of Michelle Malkin's #1 New York Times Best Seller (six weeks on the list, five weeks at #1) "Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies," this management of the advance sales and purchases in the opening weeks almost surely contributed to its prominent place on the list.
I heard Malkin discuss her book on the radio recently, and she started writing the book the day Obama got elected. This means she had no idea when she began writing who would be in Obama's cabinet..... so how could she know that the people he would appoint would actually BE tax cheats and cronies? Of course, she didn't, because she's nothing but a Right Wing Flack, who started with a prearranged idea - and like her much adored Presidential god, George W. Bush - she simply arranged the facts to fit her preconceived idea.
As she said in her radio interview, her book was COMPLETED at the exact same time Obama took office, January 2009. However, the book was not released until several months later, after a lot of advance advertising by her publisher, Regnery Publishing. One can assume this advance advertising was also accompanied by some very clever advance purchasing efforts, which would have immediately pushed "Culture of Corruption" on to the NY Times "best selling" prospective list.
Out of the gate, Malkin's book was already on the path to be a "best seller" even though the book itself is little more than a pre-conceived attack on Obama by one of the Right's biggest trash talkers. Once the advance sales and initial purchase patterns were in place and "best selling" status attached, the book would have been flagged for prominent placement and deep discounting, both in the brick and mortar stores, and the online sites, too.
In a world where selling 3,000 books from a first run of 5,000 makes you technically a "best seller," and where selling more than 1-2 copies a week per store also makes you - relatively speaking - a "best seller," it's easy to see how gaming the system can put a pre-conceived, blathering, hack piece of work like "Culture of Corruption" on the top of the "Best Seller" list.
Although I'm not in this field and don't have access to industry data, I made a reasonable attempt to find the actual sales figures for "Culture of Corruption," and for the other books listed on the NY Times and Amazon "Best Seller" lists, but I was unable to find these numbers. So, how many copies does a "Best Seller" actually sell? Like a Gold Record, is it One Million copies?
I don't think so...... The standard doesn't seem to be a fixed number, but rather a relative one compared to the sales of other books. During a recession, where all sales - not just sales of books - are down, this only gives more credence to the idea that some clever gaming could drive a book like "Culture of Corruption" to the top of the list, without genuinely selling all that many copies.
Do the NY Times and Amazon "Best Seller" lists honestly reflect America's taste in books, and more importantly, America's taste in ideas? That's not the takeaway I get from looking at how the system works and how books get on to - and pushed up - these lists. Without actual hard numbers, it's difficult to say for sure what America actually buys and reads. But, I do believe these "Best Seller" lists are highly misleading, at best. There's simply too many ways the system can be gamed to get specific books to place prominently on these lists, regardless of their true quality, or their genuine public appeal.