Sunday, August 07, 2005 Bestseller List - For The Last Time I Hope

John Kremer from Promoting Your Books who was partly the target of wrath about the bestseller list manipulation scheme/scam left a comment in my previous post about the subject Bestseller List - Again (the original post was Your Book Can Be Bestseller Too).

I never took the whole thing too seriously, and the last thing I wanted was to be part of the debate. I put the stuff on my blog for people to read and make whatever they want out of it. But then John left me this comment and when I started answering, I saw that there was no choice and that more than opinions should be said here, some facts were missing from this debate.

First off let me start by saying that I come from the business world and I too know marketing. One can tweak anything to his/her advantage in marketing and the question is how far one would go in doing that. When it comes to big corporations that have very dubious commercials and ad campaigns, there's not much we can do about it.

But writers are different. The marketing campaign promotes them, an individual, after all. And if they feel dishonest about it, how could they do it?
So while from a pure marketing point of view, the bestseller tweaking promotion would make sense to a business person promoting a company, it wouldn't to a writer. A writer would not (or most writers would not) be able to have a whiff of dishonesty about them. And if people don't feel the whiff of dishonesty, then they've been in the marketing world far too long. I know using the list is using facts, but the question is how.

The word bestseller implies that the book has sold more copies than other books, usually over a period of time such as a week/month/year, and not over an hour. The fact that Amazon is computerized and is able to calculate bestsellers on an hourly basis, means squat to those who read "Amazon bestseller" to simply mean bestseller. One can claim then that it is Amazon who gets it "wrong" in the first place, and we are left with the option of using that fact or not. And why shouldn't we, one might ask - we are trying to market our books after all. But when we start using the word 'bestseller' in other meanings, then the original meaning loses its meaning. If you know what I mean.

So then I went and did some research and found this most comprehensive and fine article from The Washington Post - Making Books - The Bestseller Lists: Totting up book sales is not as simple as one, two, three.
The article focuses on major bestseller lists: Publishers Weekly, the N.Y. Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and Nielsen BookScan. The latter being a point-of-sale data compilation with more sources than any other mentioned list.

Periodicals that create their own national lists, [...] typically collect data from only a sample of stores that they believe represent all domestic booksellers, and each tries to infer total sales rankings from its own sample.
Steve Wasserman, the Book Review editor at the Los Angeles Times, doesn't even pretend that his staff's process yields reliable results. "It's a deeply unscientific -- one is almost tempted to call it whimsical -- compilation, which has a veneer of a certain kind of science," he says.
If incomplete information is a fact of life, what's more troubling is that some of the listmakers could be working with a biased sample, one that systematically omits certain types of sources and gives inordinate weight to others.
To varying degrees, all the publications refuse to "show their work," especially specifics about weighting schemes and data sources.

The article is most interesting and recommended, but once again it boils down to the following:
Some secrecy makes sense, of course. If readers knew which independent bookstores were sampled -- particularly if these smaller stores receive extra weight in a calculation of rankings -- authors or publishers might be tempted to buy up books from those sources in an attempt to boost their rankings on an influential list. It's been tried before and, says Greco, may be why the N.Y. Times is particularly wary of bulk orders, marking such bestselling titles with a dagger symbol.
Publishers, who get much more than a list, find the service invaluable. "We've found many fabulous uses for it," says Simon & Schuster's Reidy. When signing an author from another publishing house, acquisitions editors can see the author's actual sales track record, whereas before BookScan the publisher had little more than the agent's word to go by.

So there you go - no one wants their lists tweaked with and at the end of the day, after one book has been marketed with " bestseller" statement, the author still has to live with it and deal with it when trying to sign the next book deal.


unpapier said...

It appears their sales rank data may not be reliable either. However I found perfect correlation between rankings and sales numbers from earnings report. For instance iPod numbers are perfect match. However others have expressed concerns

Jean said...

The Amazon Besteseller scheme reminds me of someone involved in a multi-level marketing scheme and buying enough of their own product to reach the next achievement level. It's an artificial success that cannot be sustained in the long run.

Jean said...

NOTE: Under no circumstances should that last post be constued to imply any correlation between Amazon and multi-level marketing.

Melly said...

I haven't been around for a while so I'm not sure if there was more to the debate, but thank you un papier for the different angle to this. That's a very interesting tool you've developed.
And Jean I totally understand what you mean. It sort of reminds me also of the fiasco with L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology that presumably kept buying his books thus creating an illusion of a bestseller.