What Do Bestseller Lists Really Measure?
By Steve Piersanti, President, Berrett-Koehler Publishers
A recent Wall Street Journal article has focused attention on one of the ways that scores of authors with dozens of publishers have gamed the system to get their books on national bestseller lists.
The article misses, however, the bigger story. In many cases, bestseller lists don’t really measure how well books are selling, at least if one means real, ongoing demand and sales for books. Instead, for many books, what bestseller lists measure is how much authors and publishers are able to concentrate sales during a one-week window, using all manner of means that manufacture short-lived quantities of sales, often in artificial ways that have no relationship to actual demand for the books.
For example, Book A sells 10,000 copies in one week through one or more of the manufactured means described below, but then in following weeks Book A drops to its real level of demand of a couple hundred copies or less sold per week, until it is remaindered and put out of print within a few years. Yet, in its one week of glory, Book A would have made it very high up on many national bestseller lists and be considered a “National Bestseller.”
In contrast, Book B consistently sells 1,000 copies per week and over 50,000 copies per year for many years. Yet Book B would probably never make it onto any of the national bestseller lists.
These scenarios are not hypothetical. For example, Berrett-Koehler’s book, Leadership and Self-Deception, has sold over 850,000 copies in English since it was published in 2000 (an average of 65,000 copies per year), plus hundreds of thousands more copies in 27 foreign-language editions. Yet Leadership and Self-Deception has never made it onto the New York Times bestseller list or the Publishers Weekly bestseller list or any of the other national lists that are based on one week of sales. (Leadership and Self-Deception did regularly appear on the BusinessWeek bestseller list before that list was discontinued a couple of years ago, but that was because it was based on one month of sales instead of one week of sales.)
The Wall Street Journal article focuses on how a company called ResultSource helps authors split bulk purchases by the authors’ clients into hundreds of smaller sales that are spread out among retail booksellers. The article does not mention various other means that are used every week to get books onto bestseller lists without real demand for the books. Here is a far-from-complete list of other popular ways of manufacturing bestsellers:
I am not saying that the means above are wrong or bad. Instead I am saying that it’s time to recognize that books are not true bestsellers when their large sales in one week have been manufactured rather than being the outcome of ongoing real demand for the book; we need different measures of bestsellers. And I recognize that there are numerous books on bestseller lists for which there is indeed strong ongoing demand, week-after-week, including books that made it onto the lists without the means of manufacturing a bestseller described above or that continue on the bestseller lists for long periods of time. Those books deserve to be called bestsellers.
What I am advocating is developing new ways of measuring and naming bestsellers that give preference to books for which there is real ongoing demand over longer periods of time than just a week or two. One step in doing this would be to discontinue weekly bestseller lists and go to monthly bestseller lists (or, if weekly bestseller lists are continued, to base them on rolling monthly totals of books sold, which are updated each week, instead of on one week totals of books sold). Even better would be to focus bestseller lists on quarterly or annual or lifetime sales. Another step would be to compare the quantity of sales to the quantity of returns, which would help weed out books for which actual interest and demand were much lower than the widespread distribution of copies in stores (and would have the side benefit of lowering returns and helping the environment by reducing the incentive to print and distribute large quantities of books for which there was no proven demand and which largely end up being remaindered and destroyed).
But what is also needed is to simply give less prominence to bestseller lists. I have come to believe that, like fad diets, it is actually counterproductive for most authors to focus their publishing and marketing efforts on getting on bestseller lists. Such efforts often consume authors’ attention and resources, which distracts them from doing the things that would result in much larger book sales over a longer period of time. I counsel authors to instead focus their time, energy, and resources on making their books better, developing marketing strengths that are not gimmicks or quick fixes, and building real demand for their books.
To republish this article, contact Cynthia Shannon cshannon (at) bkpub (dot) com