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November 07, 2008

15 Years of Bestsellers per USA Today

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

USA Today's Bob Minzesheimer takes a look at the last 15 years of USA Today's bestseller list. What would such a thing be without J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, and Dr. Atkins?

USA Today's list may be the most trustworthy bestseller list in the country, by the way. It mixes up paperbacks and hardcovers as well as fiction and nonfiction, and it includes the genres (self-help, baby-raising tips, etc) that many other lists ignore. If you want to see what the U.S. is really reading -- or at least buying and intending to read -- look at the USA Today list. FWIW -- and make of this what you will -- there isn't a lot of contempo "literary fiction" to be seen on it.

Back here, I reviewed some of the failings and quirks of bestseller lists. Did you know that it's possible for a book to sell millions of copies yet never appear on a bestseller list?



posted by Michael at November 7, 2008

The lists you encounter in general-interest newspapers and magazines measure the sales of what are known as trade books -- ie., the kinds of books you might buy in a typical bookstore. That skips all other books -- textbooks, medical books, and law books, for example.

Well, those books are assigned, not chosen.

It's generally thought that the reason the Times massages its lists in the way it does is to give books that the Times deems to be respectable a better chance of appearing to be bestsellers.

One result of which being Candace Bushnell’s book rating #5 on the New York Times’ list while ranking #47 on USA Today’s. That seems a rather counterproductive result of the Times’ attempt to boost classy books’ sales, unless they think Bushnell’s book is some kind of literary underdog deserving of a boost, which I rather doubt.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on November 7, 2008 10:12 PM

While thinking about the whole subject of success and sales, it occurs to me that bestseller lists of any kind invariably reflect publishers' expectations for their books and their corresponding efforts in promoting them.

The publishers are putting their thumbs on the scale before the books ever reach the stores. The commercial fates of books are already decided by publishers when they choose their "frontlist" titles for a season. There are no accidental bestsellers.

The bestseller lists merely serve to ratify the publishers' choices.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on November 7, 2008 10:43 PM

PLW -- Point by point ...

* Most Americans have no idea that the trade book (ie., typical bookstore) part of the bookbiz is less than half of the overall bookbiz business. Worth pointing out, no?
* So Candace Bushnell, NY insider, looks more important on the NYTimes list than she does on the USA Today list. That would seem to confirm my point, no? But the point is a general one anyway. Look at the Times' bestseller lists and you'll come away with one impression of what books Americans are buying. Look at USA Today's, and you'll have quite a different impression, and a much more accurate one.
* You're even more cynical than I am.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 8, 2008 1:30 AM

As I said before, if all we wanted was a numerical list of the books that sold the most, we could get the Neilson BookScan numbers - end of story. And, to be honest, completely boring. Might as well read a column about the best selling auto-parts. It would last just as long as well.

No, as a newspaper, you craft a best-seller list (giving it the frisson of commercial appeal as well), that is going to be relevant and interesting to your readers. Thus you would expect the USA Today and NYT to have two very different best-seller lists.

I can never get over why people who produce (or are fans of) commercial literature are obsessed with 'being taken seriously' by the literary press and why the literary set is obsessed with commercial success (of more accurately, the lack there-of).

It makes both sides look terribly insecure, which is never attractive.

Posted by: Tom West on November 8, 2008 9:17 AM

Tom -- I find your argument here bizarre. To me it's like arguing that every publication should tailor election data to their audience. Not just as in giving it a particular spin in their editorial matter, but as in monkeying with the figures and percentages in the lists. Because what the hell, why not, it makes the world more cozy and audiences happier. I suppose. But there's also the factual-accuracy argument, no? After all, the NYT lists don't just give a biased snapshot of what's happening in book purchasing in the country, they give an inaccurate and misleading one. Yet they're taken very seriously not just by an influential bunch of readers, but by the publishing industry itself. But I'm assuming that what most people who look casually at a bestseller list are expecting to get is factual accuracy ...

I know what you mean about commercial people wanting more respect and lit people obsessing over money. I'm more sympathetic to the complaints of the commercial people. After all, many of them have tons of talent and do impressive and enjoyable work -- it's annoying that they get so little recognition and respect from the intelligent press. (There's a lot of informed and intelligent discussion of popular movies and pop music around. Why not books?) As for the lit people obsessing about money and the Injustice of It All ... I dunno, I'm pretty burned out on sympathy for them. Righteous, tedious, high-minded, and often not very entertaining -- not a very winning crowd, I find. And far too "take your medicine, I know it's good for you" for me.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 8, 2008 9:32 AM

Look, there's a reason for why the best-seller list is in the Entertainment section :-).

From a simple numerical point of view, the numbers are just not all that interesting. If "Chicken Soup for the Pekinese Lover's Soul" has 8 of the top 10 slots, month after month, the column would disappear from the newspaper. (Books aren't important enough to appear in the business section...)

The reason that the NYT Best-Sellers list is important is because it's *not* just the numbers. It's an alluring amalgam of literary merit *and* commercial success. If it's not, no-one cares and the column dies.

Gross generalizations follow --

One thing that comes to mind is that the vast majority of consumers of commercial fiction *don't care* about whether it's taken seriously. The only metric that counts is whether *they* enjoyed it. (And, to be honest, if they're looking for commentary, they'll go to the net to find their peer's thoughts.) It's only a pretty rarified group (mainly the creators and those closely involved) that actually care about how the 'real world' views them because they have a foot in both worlds. Essentially, being taken seriously doesn't have any impact at all except to salve a few egos.

In the literary scene, the actual book is only part of what counts. You don't have the dollars to console oneself, so what the mainstream literary establishment thinks of it is critical. Without the literary community, how are people to know what to like and what is high enough status to keep publishing? Without the community, you're reduced to the status of poetry (i.e. more or less dead).

(Yes, I did say over-the-top generalizations followed...)

I have to say that while I'm thoroughly part of the populist camp (my wife writes fantasy novels - only romance is further down on the status list), I'm happy enough to let the literary side have their pleasures. Luckily for me, my wife is even more well grounded than I am. Her response on her first appearance on the NYT best-seller list (extended version) was "so?". Her editor was horrified :-)

Posted by: Tom West on November 8, 2008 10:15 AM

As a person without a religious bone in his body I guess this shouldn't concern me, but what the USA Today best seller list shows is that in the absence of or weakening of traditional religion people turn to the occult, which - the occult - by its nature slides into the demonic. That's my reading of the list.

Posted by: ricpic on November 9, 2008 9:32 AM

Just rereading the thread and I thought I should clarify. My wife's "So?" reaction was because you don't actually need many sales to make it on the extended list (at least in the sub-sub-sub-division list that she appeared on). From a sales point of view, it means nothing (well, okay, it means you've got enough sales that they'll publish the next book, but that's it.)

However, her editor thought it was a big thing, even though her editor already knew the sales numbers. Proof that the NYT Best-Seller list has meaning far beyond sales for those in the book industry.

Posted by: Tom West on November 10, 2008 7:26 AM

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