I spent a fair portion of yesterday watching online amateur investigators look into an unexpected appearance on the NYTimes bestseller lists. Short version: a nerd-oriented site published it’s first YA fantasy, then identified bookstores that report sales to the New York Times and bulk ordered their own book.
It’s a time-honored tradition to try to scam your way onto the Times’s list, and for all the cultural cachet (not to mention the sales boost) that comes from putting “NY Times Bestselling Author” on the covers of your books, the process has plenty of flaws.
The Times itself curates it’s lists, leaving off the romance genre, for instance, because they would dominate any list that was truly fair. It’s a prestige thing, I guess. When the movie Julie and Julia hit the theaters, it bumped Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking back onto the lists several decades after it came out. When the Lord of the Rings movies came out, the Times decided they weren’t going to list the books, no matter how well they sold.
The list is fudged in other ways, too: it’s compiled from the sales figures of a number of bookstores around the country, a list that’s supposed to be secret. It can’t accurately chart actual sales, because only the publishers have those figures, and they aren’t sharing.
Plus, book-buying is stronger at some times of the year than at others. You can make the list with lower sales in February than you’d need in July or December.
But still, it’s not a big deal to say that bestseller lists are imperfect. Everything created by human hands is imperfect, and imperfect systems can be exploited.
See also this article by an author who hired a company to buy enough copies of his business book to put it on the NYTimes list. The news articles about it have been vanished or are behind paywalls, but the author spoke candidly about what he did and why he did it.
One thing you notice is that the author wasn’t simply trying to sell more business books. For him, writing books was a stepping stone that would lead him to 5-digit speaking fees. Buying three thousand copies of his own book would be cheap compared to what he stood to make.
And reading through the detective work from yesterday, it concludes by saying that the author was expecting to turn the book into a film, and that she would be cast in the leading role. Once again, it’s not success in the book world these people are seeking. For them, books are a stepping stone.
So, sure, the lists are imperfect, but they still matter quite a bit. Not only are they worth a lot of publicity, they give negotiating power to authors when they negotiate with their publishers. But if you’re going to scam your way onto the list, be more careful than these people.
[Added later:] the author speaks to Huffpo, insisting that she didn’t game the system and that she worked to build buzz at Wizard World Comic Con events. She also claims there’s a bias against “new voices” even though her book bumped a debut novel by a black author that has been getting widespread buzz for months. So, yeah.