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The convoluted world of best-seller lists, explained

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Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Over the past few weeks, scandal has rocked the august institution of the New York Times best-seller list. And it’s happened not just once but twice.

On August 24, an unknown book by an unknown author from an unknown publisher rocketed its way to first place on the Times’s young adult hardcover best-seller list. But as a scrappy band of investigators who congregated in the YA Twitter community discovered, it wasn’t because a lot of people were reading the book. Handbook for Mortals by Lani Sarem bought its way onto the list, they concluded, with the publisher and author strategically ordering large numbers of the book from stores that report their sales to the New York Times. Shortly thereafter, the Times removed the book from its rankings.

And on September 4, Regnery Books — the conservative publishing imprint that publishes Ann Coulter and Dinesh D'Souza, among others — denounced the New York Times best-seller list as biased against conservatives. Why, it demanded, was D’Souza’s new book The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left ranked as seventh on the Times’s hardcover nonfiction list when Nielsen BookScan’s data, per Regnery’s interpretation, suggested it should be first? Regnery concluded that the New York Times was actively conspiring against conservative titles, and announced that it would sever all ties with the Times.

To understand how any of this could happen — how different lists can contain different titles, in a different order, how an unknown book could buy its way onto a best-seller list, how a best-seller list could have a political bias — and why any of these things matter, you need to understand how the different best-seller lists work, what makes the New York Times’s best-seller list unique, and the purpose best-seller lists serve within the world of book publishing.

Why is it such a big deal for a book to be named a best-seller?

There are multiple best-seller lists out there, and getting named to any of them is welcome for most authors, but the New York Times best-seller list is widely considered to be the most prestigious, and it’s certainly the most well-known.

Becoming a New York Times best-seller has a measurable effect on a book’s sales, especially for books by debut authors. According to a 2004 study by economics professor Alan Sorensen, appearing on the New York Times’s best-seller list increased debut authors’ sales by 57 percent. On average, it increased sales by 13 or 14 percent.

Besides the list’s effect on sales, it offers prestige. If your book appears on the New York Times list — even just for a week in the last slot of the Advice, How-To & Miscellaneous category — you get to call yourself a New York Times best-seller for the rest of your life. You can put that honor on the cover of all of your other books. If anyone ever insults you, you can say, “Well, have you written a New York Times best-seller?” (Strategy not recommended if the person who insulted you was Danielle Steel.)

And for the rare book that manages to establish enough of a presence on various best-seller lists, a self-sustaining momentum develops. Not everyone who bought a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey expected to like what they read, but Fifty Shades became such a ubiquitous cultural force that lots of people wanted to have an opinion on it anyway. That inspired them to buy it, and that meant the book stayed on the list.

The list’s prestige does have its practical limits, however. “I guess I’d have to say it’s a little easier for me to get deals now?” New York Times best-seller Hillary Monahan told BNTeen Blog. “Meaning it’s another gold star on my report card, but my work is still held up to a competitive standard against other midlist authors.”

At the end of the day, best-seller lists work as shorthand for readers: “Lots of other people liked these books,” they say, “so odds are good that you will too!” And at its most powerful, the best-seller ranking can make it easier to sell your book in different ways. The author and publisher of Handbook for Mortals reportedly hoped that gaming the New York Times best-seller list would make it easier for them to sell the book’s film rights down the road, which is presumably why they were willing to spend the money to get the book onto the list.

What does it take to be named a best-seller?

The general consensus is that if you want to make your way onto a best-seller list, any best-seller list, you have to sell at least 5,000 books in a week, or maybe 10,000. Beyond that, things get complicated depending on which list you’re looking to end up on.

That’s because the different lists don’t all use the same data. No one has access to all of the sales made by every single book published in the US in a given week. It takes months for publishers to assemble that data; it’s impossible to get it all in time to publish a weekly best-seller list. “At the end of the day, the publishers will have a hundred percent understanding of what was sold,” says Jim Milliot of Publishers Weekly, “but they won’t have it by the end of the week.”

So all of the different best-seller lists have established their own methodologies to gather sales data — and once they’ve got it, they break it down differently. They put the break between one week and another in different spots (ending on Sunday versus Saturday, for example); they use different categories to sort the lists; they weigh digital and print titles differently. Here’s a breakdown of how the five major lists — Publishers Weekly, USA Today, Indiebound, Amazon, and the New York Times — work.

Publishers Weekly, which Regnery has cited as the “benchmark” it will be following henceforward, pulls its data from the Nielsen service BookScan. BookScan is also the service that most publishers use to track their competitors’ sales, so it’s more or less the industry standard.

BookScan reports that it tracks 80 to 85 percent of the sales of printed books in the US, and although that claim has been contested, it certainly gets data from major sellers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, and Walmart, as well as a number of independent bookstores. (BookScan estimates that it collects data from approximately 16,000 outlets every week.)

What it doesn’t track are books sold at independent bookstores that use older systems incompatible with BookScan’s tracking, or books sold outside of the general bookstore ecosystem, at conferences or gift shops or toy stores, or even sales to libraries. It also doesn’t track the sales of e-books, so anything you buy from Amazon’s Kindle store doesn’t count.

Publishers Weekly divides its BookScan data into categories by format (hardcover, trade paper, and mass-market paperback), age category (adult and children), and genre. Some of its genre lists appear every week, but others are published and updated more sporadically.

The Publishers Weekly week goes from Monday to Sunday, which can affect where a book ends up on its list. For example, while Regnery interpreted its BookScan data as meaning that D’Souza’s The Big Lie should have been the No. 1 best-seller on all the lists published in the week of September 3, the book’s sales were distributed across the week such that on Publishers Weekly’s list, it was No. 2 in hardcover nonfiction.

USA Today, meanwhile, compiles its own data from both a handful of independent bookstores and many of the usual-suspect big sellers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, and so on. It doesn’t make any claims about what share of books sales it tracks, so it’s not aiming to be comprehensive, but it does aim to assemble a broad sampling of the books being sold every week at different types of bookstores. (Again, like BookScan, it does not track books being sold outside the bookstore ecosystem.) It doesn’t divide its list into any specific categories, but instead reports the top 150 titles sold across all genres and in all formats except for audio. On the USA Today list, D’Souza’s The Big Lie has never risen above No. 17.

Then there’s the Indiebound list, compiled by the American Booksellers Association, or ABA. The ABA uses sales data drawn from about 550 independent bookstores to create its list, but it doesn’t rank titles by overall sales volume. Instead, it weights the books on its list according to the sales rank each one reaches at each individual store.

“If a large store sold 30 copies of their No. 1 book, and a smaller store sold five copies of their No. 1 book, the fact that it’s the No. 1 book is what’s reflected,” explains ABA CEO Oren Teicher. That means that the Indiebound list tends to reflect what independent booksellers are excited about and aggressively recommending to their customers, which, Teicher says, “is often some midlist stuff that’s less well-known.” D’Souza’s The Big Lie does not currently appear on the Indiebound best-seller list.

Amazon offers two different best-seller lists: Amazon Charts and Amazon Best Sellers. Charts comes out once a week, tracking the books that have sold the most copies in any format (on Amazon, and in its Kindle store, Audible store, and brick-and-mortar storefronts), and the most read or listened-to books on Kindle and Audible. It’s not broken down by category or format, and it only reflects what’s happening on Amazon and its subsidiaries. (Since Amazon has a 65 percent market share, that’s actually a pretty decent sampling.)

Amazon Best Sellers, in contrast, is updated once an hour, and it is broken down by categories. On September 7, D’Souza’s The Big Lie was ranked at No. 21 in Amazon Best Sellers’ Politics & Social Sciences category, and not at all on Amazon Charts. On September 12, it was down to 37 on the Best Sellers list (Hillary Clinton’s What Happened, which debuted that day, knocked it down significantly) and was still nowhere to be found on Charts. (Update: The Big Lie did appear on Amazon Charts earlier, however. It was ranked at No. 6 on the Most Sold list on August 6, and it remained there for four weeks.)

All of this brings us to the New York Times, and to a process that is notoriously cloaked in secrecy.

What we know for sure is that the New York Times pulls its sales data from a sampling of independent bookstores — although we don’t know which stores — and presumably also from the big players like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. We know its figures don’t agree exactly with BookScan’s figures, because there are usually discrepancies between what the Times publishes and what publishers see on BookScan from week to week.

The New York Times tracks the sales of both print books (in its own list) and e-books (combined with print in a different list; there’s no digital-only list). Like BookScan and USA Today, it doesn’t track sales from channels outside of the traditional bookstore markets. Its week goes from Sunday to Saturday.

Like Publishers Weekly, the Times divides its list by format (hardcover, paperback, e-book, and combined sales across all formats), by age (adult, children, and young adult), and by genre (fiction, nonfiction, business, science, sports, and advice). Following a major restructuring earlier this year, it’s dropped some of the more specific lists it used to maintain, like those for mass-market paperbacks, e-books, and graphic novels.

“The Times’s best-seller lists are based on a detailed analysis of book sales from a wide range of retailers who provide us with specific and confidential context of their sales each week,” said New York Times spokesperson Jordan Cohen in a statement to Vox. “These standards are applied consistently, across the board in order to provide Times readers our best assessment of what books are the most broadly popular at that time.”

What we don’t know is how many bookstores the New York Times talks to, how it weights different kinds of sales, or how it interprets its data. It’s widely rumored that independent bookstore sales are weighted more heavily than Walmart sales, for instance, but the Times has never confirmed this. Some observers have also suggested that it weights print sales from traditional publishers more heavily than it does digital sales from digital publishers or self-publishers, because books that do very well on Amazon’s in-house imprints seem to rarely show up on the Times list: Amazon Charts No. 1 best-sellers like Beneath a Scarlet Sky may never make their way onto the New York Times list.

So if you want your book to be a best-seller, you should try to sell at least 5,000 copies in a week — from Monday to Sunday if you want to be a Publishers Weekly best-seller, and from Sunday to Saturday if you want to be a New York Times best-seller. You should make sure your book falls into a very specific category if you want it to be an Amazon Best Seller, and that people are really engaging with it on Kindle if you want to appear on Amazon Charts. You should make sure that independent booksellers feel really passionate about your book and are ready to hand-sell it if you want to be an Indiebound best-seller.

But most importantly, you have to make sure your sales are happening through the channels that the best-seller list you’re eyeing tracks. That’s where each list lives and dies — and it’s the major vulnerability for the reputation of each list. Especially at the New York Times.

Is it really possible to game the New York Times best-seller list?

Buying your way onto the New York Times best-seller list is not all that difficult, although it is, as noted beacon of morality Tucker Max points out, “basically ‘cheating.’” The most widely accepted version of this play is to identify independent bookstores that you believe report to the New York Times and go to those specific stores on tours. Slightly more crassly, Mitt Romney boosted the sales figures for his 2010 book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness by requiring his book tour hosts to buy between $25,000 and $50,000 worth of copies of his book.

The publishers of Handbook for Mortals made their way to the top of the New York Times list via the expedient measure of calling up various independent bookstores and asking if they reported to the New York Times. If the stores said they did, the publishers placed a large order for copies of Handbook for Mortals with the knowledge that the order would go directly toward the book’s ranking on the Times’s list. (Update: Lani Sarem, the author of Handbook for Mortals, insists that her sales were valid and that she intended to resell all of the books she purchased at events. But as industry publication Publishers Lunch points out, booksellers have traditional mechanisms in place that allow you to drive pre-orders to existing sellers. The only upside of placing your own pre-orders and then reselling the books is that it allows you to artificially boost your sales numbers.)

The New York Times is aware of this vulnerability in its methodology, and it has systems in place to counteract it. If a book’s sales appear to be artificially inflated by bulk orders, the Times will usually place a cross next to the book’s appearance on the list to alert readers to the fact that something hinky might be going on. Sometimes it will delete books from the list altogether if it thinks there’s reason to doubt that a book’s sales are legitimate.

In the case of Handbook for Mortals, the book’s publisher appear to have circumvented the Times’s protections by always placing an order just a little too small to count as a bulk order. At indie stores, that’s 80 books, so the publisher placed orders of 78 or 79. At Barnes & Noble, that’s 30 books, so the publisher placed orders of 27 and 28. That’s what it took for Handbook for Mortals to fly under the New York Times’s radar all the way to the top of the YA hardcover best-sellers list, until YA readers started to investigate.

It’s possible to game most of the best-seller lists in this fashion, since most of them make the list of stores they track publicly available. It’s even possible to game your way onto Amazon Charts’ “most read” list by purchasing a bot that will constantly read your book on Kindle, boosting your engagement numbers — Amazon just filed a number of arbitration demands against companies it claims are doing just that.

Is the New York Times best-seller list really biased?

All of the major best-seller lists have blind spots that serve certain genres poorly, especially genres that don’t flourish in the traditional trade book market: gift shop books and toy store books. In that sense, all the major best-seller lists are biased, including the New York Times’s.

However, the numbers do not back up Regnery’s claim that the New York Times has constructed its best-seller list to penalize conservative books. According to data provided by the New York Times, of the 137 books that have hit No. 1 on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction list since 2008, 16 have come from Regnery, or about 11 percent of the list. For a publisher that doesn’t belong to one of the Big Five publishing houses that dominate the industry, that’s a huge number of best-sellers. And conservative authors who don’t publish at Regnery, like Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Dick Cheney, and George W. Bush, also frequently appear on the list.

And as Callum Borchers and Kevin Uhrmacher point out at the Washington Post, the Times’s list is actually sometimes kinder to Regnery than the Publishers Weekly list is. D’Souza’s 2016 book Hillary’s America made it to No. 1 on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction list but peaked at No. 2 for Publishers Weekly.

It’s fair to say that the New York Times best-seller list is biased against books that perform best outside of traditional sales channels, but those don’t include conservative books. Conservative books do very, very well in traditional sales channels, and the Times’s list reflects that fact.

The Times’s list also reflects the fact that, like all best-seller lists, it is a desperate attempt to impose order and meaning on a chaotic, amorphous system. Everyone who works in the publishing industry agrees that it is physically impossible to account for every book sold in the US in a single week, yet regardless, we demand that major publications try to do just that, week in and week out — and then we use the results to decide which books to buy and make into movies and turn into big cultural events.

All best-seller lists are compromises and guesses and interpretations of fuzzy data, including the New York Times best-seller list. They’re just very important, very prestigious, hotly debated compromises.

Update: This article has been updated to include links to opeds by Handbook for Mortals author Lani Sarem, and with more information about the Amazon Chart ranking of The Big Lie.

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