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Friday
Aug202010

The New York Times bestseller list and other mysteries of the universe

As the NYTpicker kerfuffle dies down I’m left with this morbid curiosity about the New York Times—specifically their bestseller list.

The List, as it’s called, is the most iconic and well-known bestseller ranking we have and yet no one really knows how it works. Granted, I’ve been swinging from the lower rungs of the extended list for nearly a year, so I’m grateful for all the ink I can get, but still, I find it hard to find validity in something no one really understands.

By that I mean, as authors, we’re all playing this game that we know is rigged—the deck is stacked. We might win. We might lose. But no matter what, the house never reveals their hole cards.

Plus there’s the public misconception that the NYT bestseller list is a reflection of actual sales—ummm, kinda.

I get a Bookscan report of the top 100 fiction books each week (#73 this week, thank you) and the sales metrics sometimes correlate with the Time’s list and well, just as often they don’t. Occasionally you’ll see two books with similar weekly sales on Bookscan, but on the Times list one might be ranked #2, and the other #19.

How’s that happen?

Well, it’s speculated that sales reports of certain stores are weighted (loaded, like dice). In theory that makes total sense, since a small indie store’s sales data should be able to compare to, oh say, a giant like Target. But, I’ve also heard that the dice might be loaded the other way, discounting the sales metrics of large discount retailers. Why? No one knows. Perhaps the NYT feels the opinions of people that buy books at Wal-Mart are less valuable than those that buy books elsewhere. I’d hate to think it came down to stuff like that but in the absence of a real explanation we’re left wondering—trade secrets and all.

What we do know is that the New York Times Bestseller list is sales data + something. That something is a mystery. Therefore I submit for your consideration the following theories:

  1. Drunken chimp throws darts at a spinning wheel to augment sales data.
  2. Quija Board is used every full moon, contacting the spirit of Thomas Pynchon. Wait, he’s still alive. Sorry, my bad.
  3. über-librarian, Nancy Pearl, takes the list and rearranges it any way she damn well pleases. I for one welcome our new librarian overlords.
  4. Frustrated with their failed attempts to convert the United States to the metric system, the Illuminati have chosen to get even by unleashing their doomsday weapon: Dan Brown.
  5. Vampires (for real).
  6. Books with literary gimmicks—1000 pages with no paragraph breaks, chapters without any vowels, etc—get to pass Go, collect $200.
  7. NYT book reviewer hides secret shame, “I never learned to read.”

The New York Times Bestseller List. What do you think?

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Reader Comments (6)

I thought NYT also used some kind of volume or rate of ordering formula weighted heavily at certain secret bookstores or something.
Thanks for the Bookscan info. I did not know about this.
August 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret Dilloway
Like any ranking today, one must be cautious in the source of data in terms of how obtained and used. Thus, specific rankings is to be taken less seriously and the fact that you are on the list can be considered an achievement. No matter how placed, inclusion on the NY Times list means we like your work. You wrote a novel worth reading!
August 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBobby
I guess I assumed it came from actual data, just like everyone else. Thanks for giving us this enlightening glimpse. Oh, and great list of possible reasons. Those were good for a laugh or two.
August 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEric Stallsworth
Three more options:

Tell [the New York Times Bestseller List] you are going to the Junior's Deli on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn to pick up a cheesecake, and if [the New York Times Bestseller List] stays, it can have half. It will stay.

Tell [the New York Times Bestseller List] you want a momento of it and obtain a lock of its hair. Burn the hair in a dime-store incense burner with yin/yang symbols on three sides. Face southwest. Talk fast over the burning hair in a convincingly exotic language. Remove the ashes of the burnt hair and use them to paint a mustache on your face. Find [the New York Times Bestseller List]. Tell it you are someone new. It will stay.

Wake [the New York Times Bestseller List] up in the middle of the night. Tell it the world is on fire. Dash to the bedroom window and pee out of it. Casually return to bed and assure [the New York Times Bestseller List] that everything is going to be all right. Fall asleep. Tthe New York Times Bestseller List] will be there in the morning.”
August 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRosemary
Amusing, and yes I'd like to know too. Not that I could do much about it, but it would be nice to know if there was some mysterious number of sales + whatever that I could shoot for when I am eventually (hopefully) published. Wikipedia has an interesting note about a book's authors that purchased 10,000 copies of their own book from strategic locations to get it on the list.

Apparently it worked, but I wonder if it really helped. That's a lot of books.
September 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterClifton Hill
Your post inspired me. You can read my own post regarding the NY Times Post here: http://www.cliftonh.com/2010/10/one-list-to-rule-them-all.html
October 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterClifton Hill

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