Monday, October 22, 2007

Mysteries of the New York Times List

The Times's intrepid Public Editor descended into the Stygian depths of the Gray Lady this past weekend, to thread the labyrinth that is the secret process by which the Times creates a bestseller list.

He wasn't able to explain in detail how it works -- it's secret, got it? -- but he did attempt to reassure all we peons that the Times is, as always, the final and only true arbiter of what is selling and what isn't.

But that's balderdash.

We've now learned that there's yet another reason why a book can be gerrymandered off the Times list -- if it's "evergreen" rather than "new," it doesn't count.

So, to review, the Times list generally cited as "the bestseller list" actually contains the top 15 fiction books published relatively recently, aimed at adults, not meant for evangelical Christians, as sold in a list of stores that the Times will not reveal. (And they clearly reserve the right to drop other things off that list, if they feel the need.) Are we really meant to take this seriously in the age of Bookscan?

The Times needs to radically change its lists, and stop suppressing books they don't like because they're too old, too much for children, too "miscellaneous," and so on and so on -- the history of the Times list is a history of the Times relentlessly finding new and ingenious ways not to list books they don't want to list. Hardcover fiction needs to be a list of the top-selling books in a given week that are both hardcover and fiction, full stop. Similarly for non-fiction, and similarly for the paperback lists.

And, if they're not willing to do that, they need to admit why: they're systematically managing the lists to create the greatest number of possible new bestsellers, because that will maximize their ad revenue. It's not a "bestseller" list, it's a list of books whose publishers they desperately hope will advertise.

If they can't change to a honest list, it would be more honest to admit what they're doing and systematize that, calling the lucky publisher of the "#1" bestseller every week and declaring that the back cover is available...and, if that publisher doesn't want to take the ad, some other book could be #1 instead. Because they're halfway there already.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Try USA Today's best seller list. It doesn't separate stuff out by genre (not even fiction/nonfiction; pits trade paperbacks, hardcovers, and mass market paperbacks against each other. So readers can see how books actually sell.

Dan Goodman
dsgood@iphouse.com

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