What’s in a List?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Last week Publisher’s Weekly reported that the New York Times was going to revamp its bestseller lists (see article here) to include reporting on niche markets including travel, humor, family, relationships and animals as well as (on a rotating basis) other niche lists such as Politics, Manga, Graphic Novels, Food and Fitness. 

Now, I’m just as happy as the next person to see books I love listed on bestseller lists – but isn’t this all going a little too far?  I mean already have to read Facebook posts from authors about hitting every conceivable niche bestseller list for that day or hour on Amazon but now I have to puzzle over what it means to be a NYT bestselling animal book (which is, I assume, by topic  rather than author – though I suspect my collie Hamish would love to be on this list!). 

Isn’t our obsession with term ‘bestseller’ getting to the point where it is no longer meaningful?

Apart from the obvious kudos, I’m starting to wonder what many of these lists actually mean (especially since many don’t necessarily reflect what you think they reflect). The NYT list, for instance, has a fairly secretive methodology based on weekly sales from a sampling from selected retail outlets. Although this methodology been the subject of controversy, nonetheless, I think it’s safe to say that the NYT list is pretty influential!  The mantle of ‘New York Times Bestseller’ is a much coveted title – even though many of us aren’t exactly sure what it means. 

As I said before, I love seeing books from authors I admire on bestseller lists and I admit I can be influenced by said lists in terms of deciding which book to purchase. But I am getting a little jaded by these lists too – and the thought of having niche lists for topics such as fitness and family, seems too much. I would be far more interested in seeing a list that breaks down mystery, romance, science fiction genres – but even then it could get so niche market driven that that the list becomes less meaningful to me as a reader (though we could have as much fun as this Melville House blog post in coming up with our own possible lists)

So what about for you? What do you think about niche bestseller lists like the ones the NYT are proposing? Does it make sense to you?  Does the NYT bestseller list even resonate with you any more? Or do you think in the age of indie publishing, that Amazon or Nook sales matter more? 

As a reader, how much influence do bestseller lists have? As a writer I’m assuming, like me, you would have no qualms appearing on any of them…

18 thoughts on “What’s in a List?

  1. No qualms whatsoever. But when I pick a new book to read, whether or not it made the NY bestseller’s list means little to me. I look at reviews from other readers, or I go by recommendations from friends.

    Ergo and henceforth, not bothered about niche bestselling lists either.

  2. It’s also possible to buy your way onto the list. There was a scandal recently when a popular evangelical pastor hit #1 and tweeted how “humbled” he was….turned out $200k of church funds had been sent to a shadow company that strategically buys stock all over the country to get your book on the list.

    It’s certainly a nice thing to have (when it’s legit) but I also think the designation is more important to writers than to readers.

    • Yeah, here’s a link to the good pastor, Jim:


      The company he used has been around for a long time.

      The NYT list is like politics and sausage making: You don’t really want to know how it’s really done. Even the editors who work there don’t really know.

      Lots of problems with it:

      1. It doesn’t really reflect what is selling best just what is selling “hot” in one week. So books with “legs” might not even show up yet continue to sell well and make money.

      2. It can be manipulated by authors (see above) publishers, editors, distributors and reporting bookstores.

      3. It is based on retail data the NYT itself collects from their list of “reporting” stores and sources. NYT keeps a tight lid on their process for selecting best sellers. They sample their own list of reporting bookstores (a tightly guarded secret) and then use the data to decide who they think should be on the list.

      3. The NYT claims their “sampling” method is done to keep people from gaming the system, which is partially true. But it’s also done so that the NYT editors can affect books’s chances of being a best seller.

      Compare this with the Wall Street Journal bestseller list and USAToday. They build their lists based on the sales figures from Nielson’s BookScan. In general, if you sell the most books in a category as reported by BookScan, you will hit #1 in that category in the WSJ list. But there’s a caveat here, too: BookScan doesn’t include sales from some big box stores such as Wal-mart and Sams Club. Or sales from CreateSpace and other self-publishing platforms. But supposedly, it’s the most accurate, reporting about 75–85% of book sales.

      Which makes all of this about as pointless as trying to catch unicorns in soap bubbles.

  3. I read about that scandal – it’s going to get to the point where ‘the list’ is meaningless to writers as well as readers!

  4. Another thing to consider:

    Back in 2010, the New York Times announced with great fanfare it was going to start a new separate bestseller list for just eBooks.

    “It was clear that e-books were taking a greater and greater share of total sales, and we wanted to be able to tell our readers which titles were selling and how they fit together with print sales,” an editor said.

    So they did. And guess what happened? A lot of indie authors started to hit the lists.

    A year later, the eBook list is gone. Now there is only a Print and Ebook category and there are never any indie authors listed. Even if you go online to the NYT and call up “eBook only list,” it is purged of indie writers. You can’t tell me something isn’t fishy here.

    • I think there’s a shadow market of indie books which publishers don’t want to acknowledge, and which doesn’t fund advertising in the NYT. The paper consistently runs articles that are one-sided diatribes against indie publishing.

  5. That’s very true – I remember all the hoopla regarding the ebook list and then poof! it was gone. The combined list occasionally has an indie author listed but it’s pretty clear ‘someone’ exerted influence to do away with the ebook only list in the NYT book review!

  6. Great post–and good point, Steven J. Wangsness.

    As a reader I don’t care as much if a novel has hit the NYT’s list (but I do read some that have). As an author though, I’m old school. It remains a coveted goal, more so than appearing on any Amazon or Nook list (even though these probably mean as an author I’d be making more money!).

    • It certainly does remain a coveted goal! Though I have to admit sometimes a see “New York Times bestseller’ on the cover of books that I’ve never seen on the actual list (I guess they were on the extended list…??) and I have no idea what that even means in terms of making any money!

    • Yeah, that is all it means, Clare. And the size of even the “extended list” can vary week to week though I hear it’s usually includes about 35 titles in any one category. And once you get even on ONE extended list, you can (and should) put that NYT Bestseller tag on your cover. Despite all the controversies surrounding the list, it still has some cachet.

  7. An indie author friend pointed me to a very cheap ($5) mailing list service she used to promote her collection of short stories. Her one-time ad put her book in the Amazon top 100 paid horror short stories list. I tried the service, and I sold seven copies, which was okay with me. I’ll take whatever I can get. When I reported this to my friend, she replied that seven copies was what she sold, too. Seven sales to make a Top 100 placement??? Made me look at all those lists in a new light.


  8. The only lists I look at are about cars. I’m still car-crazy after all these years. I’m still wondering why “Gone Girl” is still on the hotshot list, much less how it got on there in the first place. Still, I’m absolutely thrilled for Gillian.

  9. As a writer, I would most definitely love to see my book on any bestseller list. But as a reader, it doesn’t matter to me because half the time I dont enjoy the books on the lists, oftentimes leave me asking, “This is what all the brouhaha was about?”

    In my opinion, for writers, the hype is good for sales, but for readers, the list doesn’t guarantee you good read.

  10. I no longer give credence to claims of best sellerdom. If a cover/blurb gets my attention, I go to the “look inside” feature at Amazon, and quickly know whether the book is worth considering.

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