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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:

  1. Projection - what editors think will or should be "best."
  1. Computerization - how big chain and online stores flag sales in their computer databases, thus raising certain book sale patterns to the forefront for notice.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

Originally posted to achilles on Sun Sep 13, 2009 at 12:59 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  So? (0+ / 0-)

    Bad crime novels own the fiction bestsellers list.  So the list is less about quality and more about who will shill out the money for an easy read.

    Clings to Music and Yankee baseball

    by Mro on Sun Sep 13, 2009 at 01:03:54 PM PDT

  •  Conservative groups bulk buy... (27+ / 0-)

    I believe there is an industry term for this...

    Republicans only care about deficit spending when a Democrat is in the White House.

    by Jonze on Sun Sep 13, 2009 at 01:09:14 PM PDT

  •  Does it even matter anymore? (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    dougymi, robertlewiws, farbuska

    If your not the author I don't see how it does ...  The Non-fiction Best Sellers list has been a repository for self-help drivel and ghost written biographies for years.

    "You Don't Do More With Less. You Do Less with Less. That's Why it's called Less." David Simon

    by Larry Madill on Sun Sep 13, 2009 at 01:11:50 PM PDT

  •  it is not a level playing field (15+ / 0-)

    Many right-wing think tanks and foundations actually support right-wing authors. They spend a good deal of money buying the books of these authors and getting their authors a great deal of publicity.

    The case I know the best is Charles Murray's book "Losing Ground", which argued that welfare was the cause of poverty in the US and that all welfare programs should be abolished. Despite the arguments of most scholars that the case was badly flawed and should not be taken seriously, the publicity generated for Murray's book by right-wing think tanks and foundations (the Manhattan Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation provided a great deal of support for Murray and for publicizing his book), made the book into a best-seller.

    "The mind that cannot philosophize, ossifies"- John Barth

    by steven pressman on Sun Sep 13, 2009 at 01:12:09 PM PDT

  •  But it is an amusing paradox - (6+ / 0-)

    Every time that paper is mentioned by the Levins and Hannitys, it's the "New York Slimes".

    Except when they mention the Best Seller List.

    The New York Times - All The News That Righties Don't Want Printed.  Except for that list.

  •  It's a wingnut cottage industry (4+ / 0-)

    Our side converses and speaks to each other in places like this. Their's prefers to get talking points without actually thinking about anything from books and AM radio. This ensures that outside influences which would play hell with their alternative reality plain are filtered out for them before they drink the Kool-aid.  

  •  this article is (9+ / 0-)

    informative Regnery Press who published Malkin's screed was sued for making mass sales to groups such as Pressman mentioned and giving as little as one thin dime in royalties to the "Author" when 4 or 5 dollars would be more the norm. Of course media "stars" like Beck, Malkin and Coultergeist don't care they have enough money what they want is the supposed cache of being touted as N.Y. Times bestsellers...

    "Fascism is attracting the dregs of humanity- people with a slovenly biography - sadists, mental freaks, traitors." - ILYA EHRENBURG

    by durrati on Sun Sep 13, 2009 at 01:23:20 PM PDT

  •  They have a lot of right wing groupies (6+ / 0-)

    out there in Bored Middle America.  Mostly dull guys between 55 and 75 who buy this crap (and actually read it) because it misexplains to them, via crude ego appeals, why their lives didn't work out the way they wanted and why the younger generations tune out their anger and frustration.

    At least that's what I get from the hardcover Pat Buchanan book I bought for a quarter from some bargain bin.  

  •  Yes, (4+ / 0-)

    and don't forget to notice that because of consolidation in the publishing industry (how many publishing companies are there?), there's not going to be serious competition from other writers.

    Sure, our lefty celebrities can compete with their celebrities (can you hear me, Al Gore?), but when you look at the list, isn't it remarkable what drek is on it (fiction and non fiction)?  The bottom line is the bottom line.

    Pardon me for being bitter about this.  I have a new, second novel I just finished the first draft of.  So I am about to experience the publishing industry up close and personal.  Again.  Let me put it this way: 20 years ago a great novel could get published because an editor liked it and wanted to get it out.  These days?  They want the sure thing.  And the sure thing, regrettably, is rightwing cranks and more drek.  Things guaranteed to sell in airports.  So it goes.  

  •  The NYT methodology... (4+ / 0-)

    is imperfect, but it's also worth nothing three other sources which come at the same question from different angles--the B&N bestseller list, which is based on sales at brick and mortar Barnes & Noble stores, the Amazon Hot 100, the current bestsellers at Amazon, and the USA Today list, which purports to use a "SoundScan" type methodology to track actual purchases.

    FWIW, political oriented books on the Amazon and USAT lists?

    Ted Kennedy, "True Compass" (#2 Amazon)
    Glenn Beck, "Common Sense" (#10 Amazon, #13 USAT)
    Michelle Malkin, "Culture of Corruption" (#13 Amazon, #28 USAT)
    Glenn Beck, "Arguing With Idiots" (#18 Amazon)
    Max Blumenthal, "Republican Gommorah" (#22 Amazon
    T.R. Reid, "Healing of America" (Pro-HCR) (#33 Amazon
    Mark Levin, "Liberty and Tyranny" (#51 Amazon, #85 USAT)
    Ron Paul, "End The Fed" (#65 Amazon)
    Jeff Sharlet, "The Family" (#79 Amazon)
    O'Reilly, "A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity" (#86 Amazon)
    Dick Morris, "Catastrophe" (#132 Amazon)

    All of these are well behind what Dan Brown will sell in a single day later this week, of course.

  •  I was right there with you, until ... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    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.

    I hear more of a cowbell there, or maybe a glockenspiel.

    Regnery! Oh, lord. What an outfit ...

    Since 1996, Regnery has published no less than eight presidential exposés: Roger Morris's Partners in Power: The Clintons and Their America, Bill Gertz's Betrayal: How the Clinton Administration Undermined American Security, Edward Timperlake and William C. Triplett's Year of the Rat: How Bill Clinton Compromised U.S. Security for Chinese Cash, Ann Coulter's High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Case Against Bill Clinton, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard's The Secret Life of Bill Clinton: The Unreported Stories, Gary Aldrich's Unlimited Access: An FBI Agent Inside the Clinton White House, and R. Emmett Tyrrell's The Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton: A Political Docu-Drama and Boy Clinton: The Political Biography. To date, five of these books have made various best-seller lists.

    For all intents and purposes, the eight are interchangeable--with each other and, stylistically, with most of the other political books in Regnery's catalogue. Each posits a nebulous conspiracy centered around the Clinton White House, a murky stew that typically blends one or more of the following ingredients: shady banking and land deals loosely grouped under the "Whitewater" rubric; the murder--or induced suicide--of Vince Foster; Filegate and Travelgate; dalliances with prostitutes and nymphets; rampant drug use; treason via Chinese spies; and an Arkansas-based, Clinton-masterminded drug-smuggling outfit.

    Slap it. Shoot it. Kaboot it.

    by adios on Sun Sep 13, 2009 at 02:17:26 PM PDT

    •  It's a Tried and True Right Wing Formula (0+ / 0-)

      The Right Wing is using the same playbook against Obama that they used against Clinton.  The only difference is that the attacks on Obama are more overtly racial than with Clinton.

      The Right Wing playbook worked once, so the Right is keen to use it again. The four Conservative books on the New York Times best seller list are simplys nowballs in a coming avalanche....

  •  Wingnuts don't read. These people have the (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    fly, mimi9, LynChi, robertlewiws

    reading level of a seventh grader (and I am being generous).  These books are bought in masse by conservative goups then dumped.  This has been going on for years.  So what?  Since their base is too dumb to read and understand, and progressives don't buy them.  These "authors" make their money on the speaker circuit, on hate radio and TV.  

    Sure it's gaming the system.  How else could these idiots sell even 1,000 books when their readers can't read or critically think?  

    "The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled." -Plutarch

    by DEQ54 on Sun Sep 13, 2009 at 02:26:45 PM PDT

    •  I think you are right about this. (0+ / 0-)

      E-letters go out encouraging the wingbase to buy these books just so Limbaugh, et. al. can say "See, Sean and Beck are on the Time´s Best Seller List! Even Libruls read their books! Har Har. See, Libruls ain´t so dumb after all...they just hate to admit that we´re right! Har Har."

  •  Best seller (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    doesn't mean most read.  Oxymoran - conservatives read.

    "you can lock up a mouse or a man but you can't lock up an idea"....Tommy Douglas

    by marigold on Sun Sep 13, 2009 at 02:31:12 PM PDT

  •  Well, this is a bit muddled. (0+ / 0-)

    Quality and accuracy have nothing to do (and should have nothing to do) with the generation of a best-seller list: the only metric that matters is units moved, period.  I understand the desire to attack these books on all possible fronts, but it weakens your argument to attack them (for this diary) irrelevant issues.  

    The question of gaming the system is an interesting one, and it's a pity there isn't actual industry data to compare.  

    By the way, this issue as it relates to Amazon was covered recently by MSNBC.

    Speaking of which, where do you get the information about the metrics for the NYTimes list?  Everything I could, including the MSNBC story, suggests that the NYTimes list is late to the game because it mostly reflects sales of individual units moved.

    Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

    by pico on Sun Sep 13, 2009 at 02:42:52 PM PDT

  •  Oh, its worse than you think. . . (4+ / 0-)

    I did work in Publishing. One of the dirty little secrets is the NYTBS list is just that...BS.
    It has NOTHING to do with the value of the book as art or literature. It is a best "SELLER" list. It is based on projections and reports from publisher's on books shipped. It does not include returns, or unsold books. (Ironic, uh?) It is exactly what it seems to be, a type of marketing and advertising for publishers and the NYT.

    What makes it worse than it seems is the Right Wing Corporate Universe manipulates the NYTBS list to increase 'sales' for its stable of Wacko writers, thereby paying them for services rendered above and beyond their reported sources of incomes. Just like all of those 'speaking fees'. Indeed this dirty industry of punditry works hand in glove with Corporate America, left-right, or in between.

    It is these Right Wing Corporations that purchase large sums of books from the Publishers, either directly or indirectly, to pay the pundits, and the publishers for printing this drivel. This practice is well know, has been going on for years, and the New York Time is completely complicit.

    So, just keep in mind that the NYTBS is not taken seriously by anyone with two brain cells to rub together. Ignore it. Just rest assured that most of these books reported 'sold' sit in warehouses waiting to be remaindered or recycled into new paper for print. The only people who are getting rich are the Right Wing nut jobs, and their publishers. As for the Right Wing Corporations? They get exactly what that want. Namely, your notion that the Wacko Right Wing is an intellectual force, and that their ideas are widely desired.

  •  #4 with a bullet is "BORN TO RUN" (0+ / 0-)

    In what I think is the only non-birther and non-reviewed best seller on the NYT non-fiction list is Born to Run, now at number 4 for the past 2 weeks and on the list for the past 11 weeks.

    An entertaining tale of seeking a cure for a running injury and finding it running barefoot with the Tarahumara indians in Mexico.

    Exercise - a fine way to decrease heath care costs, barefoot - good for some but not for all. Running - an inexpensive way to get fine exercise. Tarahumara seem to spend most of their time running or drinking.... and don't spend too much on health care costs.

    Buy the book, read it, get it to number one to beat those stooopid conservative book authors!

    And it is a fun read barefoot or shod! Let's do it!

    Run, Read, Tell it like it is and Change the world!

  •  Go To Any Conservative Rag And Find Out WHY... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    TN yellow dog, Words In Action

    Anything that requires a subscription. You will see something like "sign up now and we will send you every book any Conservative ever wrote free of charge." They can do that because they bought them all...

  •  Buy a liberal writer this week... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Words In Action

    Yes, conservatives game the system, buying in bulk and getting the books into the hands of semi-literate conservatives who'll have something to put on the shelves of their MacMansions.

    But it wouldn't hurt us to support our liberal writers.  Not one little bit.  This week I found a copy of Jeff Sharlet's The Family (in paper) near the checkout at my local bookstore and I am very much looking forward to reading it.

  •  It's just another arm of the "VWWEC"... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Words In Action

    The Vast Wingnut Welfare Echo Chamber.

    None of these "best selling" efforts are tomes or screeds by any sense of those terms - and they're certainly not paragons of intense research or deep, scholarly thought.

    Nope - they're more likely to be nothing more than the "extended remix" version of that author's "Outrage of the Month Club" column - yet virtually guaranteed a long, drawn out period of coverage and promotion on today's modern "Rubber Chicken Circuit" (essentially any Fox News show, second-string AM contalker, or more recently appearances at a conservative "think tank" or "Million Moran March").  

    On top of those outlets, scroll (if you dare) down the main page over at something like WingNutDaily.  It - like most other sites of their ilk - seem to exist primarily to sell absolute crap to half the folks and suck donations from the rest.  If it looks vaguely like organized religion then you're starting to see the ploy:  don't just grift the rubes, suck them so far into the con they'll fund the entire scheme from the bottom up.

    In short it's a perfect closed circle of religio-conservatism:  create crap, sell it to the intellectually needy, then use that money to create and sell more crap to the same poor close-minded folks.

    And it succeeds - much like Fox News and Fox Nation do - because it's simply assumed that their audience is as intellectually shallow as those who create and market the content.  They (the creators) know that virtually none of their consumers will even bother to read beyond the story headlines, so in fact there's no compelling reason to go much beyond bullet points and short paragraphs containing little more than rehashed, troop-rallying rants and broad "anti-liberal anything" generalizations.  

    In short, if everyone were as ignorant as today's conservatives - unwilling and uninterested in becoming better informed - then we'd ALL have a great shot at becoming "best selling" authors.

    Fortunately, the progressive audience is typically a much tougher nut to crack :)

    "We can't stop here - this is BAT Country!"

    by here4tehbeer on Sun Sep 13, 2009 at 04:15:49 PM PDT

  •  So should we temper our enthusiaism (0+ / 0-)

    when Markos' best seller hits the list?

  •  There are perhaps three categories of people (0+ / 0-)

    who buy books.

    1. One buys books to read, in whole or in part (critically).
    1. Another buys books he or she thinks important to give to friends or relations.
    1. Another buys books to support the author or the viewpoint of the author - not for the purpose of critical reading, but merely to affirm an existing opinion or viewpoint.

    Best sellers tend to fall into the 2nd and 3rd categories.

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