Some Observations on Bestseller Lists, December 2018

The first part of this will be a transcription of some tweets I made earlier today (transcribed to fix some spelling errors), and I’ll follow that up with some other thoughts.

First: The tweet transcription:

Watching some authors indulge in theories about why their stuff doesn’t make the NYT bestseller list and it’s the usual checklist of conspiracy, envy and aggrievement. One’s hinting his politics are keeping him out, the same week Bill O’Reilly and Tucker Carlson are on the list.

It’s certainly true the NYT lists have their own calculus which does not track 100% to pure sales. It’s also true that publishers do what they can to get their books on the list (for example, by sending touring authors to bookstores that report to the list). Obviously they do!

But these particular authors want to believe it’s something more than that; that it’s something about THEM that’s keeping them off the list. And, well. No. It’s not about THEM. They’re not that important. And even THAT’S not about them; none of us is that important.

The reasons they’re not on the list are almost certainly more mundane and disinterested: They don’t sell enough and/or they don’t sell enough in the manner that matters to the NYT and its particular list-making calculus. It’s neither complicated nor conspiratorial.

But of course they don’t want to hear that. They don’t want to believe that even if you sell “enough” to be on the list, there are other factors, like (for example) other books simply selling more that particular week. There has to be something MORE. Their ego demands it.

Which is bullshit. Here’s a thing: The Collapsing Empire sold more than 35,000 units its first week, and it also missed the NYT lists. Why? For several reasons, INCLUDING other books selling more in specific formats that week (like hardcover).

When Empire missed the NYT list, did I act like a pissy child and insinuate some grand conspiracy had kept me off the list? No; my reaction was “Huh, good week for sales all around I guess” and I got on with my life. Because I’m a grown-ass human, you see.

In sum: The NYT bestseller lists don’t care about you; no one’s trying to keep you off of them; you can sell a lot of books and never hit the list, because that’s just the way it is; if you insist there’s a conspiracy to keep you off the list, you might need some fresh air.

Second: Additional thoughts:

* One thing to keep in mind here is when we talk about “The New York Times Bestseller List,” we’re actually talking about several different lists. For example, I’ve made the NYT “list” in four separate categories: Hardcover Fiction, Combined Print & eBook Fiction, Mass Market Fiction, and the Audio Fiction. The NYT will also sometimes drop categories and add new ones — the Audio Fiction list started just a few months ago, for example, and the Mass Market Fiction list doesn’t exist anymore.

This is important because some authors do better in some formats than in others. The fellow above hinting that politics is keeping him from the list, for example, charted in the Mass Market Fiction list back in the day. If that’s where he sells the best, then it would make sense that he’s not on the current iterations of the NYT lists, because his prime sales avenue no longer has a list. And while indeed that may feel unfair if you sell well in mass market paperback and less well in other formats, it’s a) not about you personally, or b) about your politics.

* Another thing about the NYT lists these days is that in the last few years they’ve cut the number of slots on the list themselves; the lists used to go into the thirties (my first NYT bestseller ranking was #33 on the Mass Market Fiction list), and now they publish only the top fifteen in any category. There are fewer slots to go around, and thus it’s more difficult to hit the list at all. Again, that’s nothing about politics, and everything about the lists themselves becoming more selective.

* The NYT lists are targeted for complaint because they are the most famous bestseller lists, and also because, if you’re of a conservative bent, a bit of a bete noir, being that the NYT is all full of liberals and shit. But other publications track sales as well, and there does happen to be a correlation between the appearance of a book on the NYT list, and its appearance on other lists as well. It’s relatively rare for a book to show up on a Times list, especially these days in their shorter format, and not on another bestseller list somewhere else. For example, The Consuming Fire showed up on the NYT Combined Print & eBook Fiction list, the USA Today list (which covers all books in all print/ebook formats), the Wall Street Journal eBook Fiction list, the Publishers Weekly Hardcover Frontlist fiction list (and, separately, its Science Fiction list), the Audible weekly bestsellers list and the Los Angeles Times Hardcover Fiction list. This does suggest the book sold robustly, as many of these lists track different criteria, and each otherwise has its own formula for deciding what makes the list and what does not.

This is relevant for a couple of reasons. One, those who kvetch about the NYT lists like to suggest that the reason people they don’t like make it onto the list is some form of graft and/or corruption; for example, in my case they like to suggest Tor has bought my way onto the list in some nefarious manner. This leads one to wonder whether Tor has also employed graft/corruption to place me on all those other lists as well. Indeed, if Tor has the ability to bribe or influence not only the New York Times but also the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and Publishers Weekly, then I have clearly chosen the correct publisher, given the effort they’ve made on my behalf. However, Tor is not my audio publisher, so I must assume that Audible has also leveraged graft/corruption for my NYT Audio Fiction list appearances. How very lucky I am that both publishers are willing to extend me such a courtesy! Although as it happens The Consuming Fire didn’t make it onto the NYT Audio Fiction list. They clearly need to apply more graft; there was a breakdown in the process.

Two, I am curious whether these folks believe politics, etc are keeping them from all the other bestseller lists as well. The fellow I note hinting that politics has kept him off the NYT lists has a single appearance on the USA Today bestseller list, as an example, and the online database for the USA Today list goes back more than two decades. I would note other conservative fiction writers have no problem showing up on the USA Today list, including ones from this fellow’s own publisher: why, as recently as this very October, one of this author’s stablemates, who is known to be politically conservative, landed not only on the USA Today list but also the New York Times Hardcover Fiction list and the Publishers Weekly Hardcover Frontlist and Science Fiction lists (again, note the correlation of appearances there). I guess personal politics as a hindrance to sales only goes so far. Unless this other publisher is also participating in graft and corruption, just like mine supposedly are.

* Do publishers and authors try to game bestseller lists? Sure! Some do! A couple years back an author got onto an NYT list by placing orders for her book and then not coming to pick up those orders; earlier than that the Wall Street Journal had to deal with authors (or other interested parties) bulk ordering business books to show up on that paper’s business bestsellers list. In each case the paper in question dealt with the attempt to game the lists by closing up that particular avenue of list-gaming. It’s more difficult than you would think to game a reputable bestseller list; certainly more difficult than the people whining about it suggest it is.

* There is no special virtue in being on a New York Times or any other bestseller list — it simply means you sold a reasonable number of books relative to other books in a specific category in that particular week. Nor does your book being on a bestseller list mean it has inherent literary or cultural value; many brilliant books never get near a bestseller list at all.

But if you are going to make a big deal about bestseller lists, and why you are not on them, then a) have some idea what you’re talking about, b) be ready to be ridiculed if you darkly hint at conspiracies when in reality much more mundane factors are at play. You’re almost certainly not being kept off the New York Times (or USA Today or Wall Street Journal or etc) bestseller lists because you’re outspoken politically one way or another, and the people who do make it onto the lists aren’t there because there’s a grand cabal doling out slots for cash or influence. If you seriously believe either of these things, you’re silly, and visibly envious and insecure, and possibly also twelve.