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Best-Seller Lists

Best-Seller Lists

Time was when making it to the “Best-Seller List” was quite an accomplishment, but when it comes to the list, or more properly “lists,” plural, these days, the bloom is off the rose.

Why? For two reasons. One I alluded to above: a proliferation of lists. And the other is recent alleged manipulations of lists to land a book on one of the best-seller lists through devious means.

There was a time when “the Best-Seller List” referred to the list in the New York TIMES. That was it. Other media might also have their own best-seller lists, but the TIMES was king of the hill.

Arguably second to the TIMES in importance was PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY’s best-seller list. But the TIMES reigned supreme.

With the rise of the internet, and particularly the advent of Amazon, the landscape changed. More and more people bought books—e-books and paper books alike—from Amazon, and Amazon developed its own best-seller lists. Lists—plural. There were general best sellers, Kindle best sellers, romance best sellers, and so on. And people paid attention. The TIMES was still king of the hill, but other lists, and especially Amazon’s lists, were quickly advancing up that hill and getting closer.

And of course, the lists didn’t always agree. The book that held the top spot on one list might not be in that position—might not even appear anywhere at all—on another list. All this non-accord degraded the importance of being on the best-seller Llist.

But what about the manipulation? That played a big part too. A recent book landed suspiciously high on the TIMES list even though hardly anyone had heard of it. Skullduggery was suspected and an investigation begun. It appeared that someone had uncovered the closely guarded secret of which bookstores the TIMES sourced for sales figures and had placed bulk orders with those stores for the book in question to drive the reportable sales figures up and land the book on the TIMES’s Best-Seller List.

Now, bulk orders are not in and of themselves suspicious. In advance of a book-reading and –signing, the author or the hosting venue, if it’s not a bookstore itself, will often order in bulk. But a little checking around failed to match up some of these bulk orders with any upcoming events.

It appeared that someone—the author, the publisher, or the publicist—was gaming the system.

The TIMES removed the book from its list.

The Amazon system can be gamed, too, and much more easily. How? In a number of ways. One is to do something like the example above. Rather than place one order of 100 copies, an author might give a large number of friends the cost of the book and have them each order a copy. However it’s done, though, the result can be the book at least landing on one of Amazon’s best-seller lists—possibly even in the #1 spot.

Then the author advertises, “#1 Best Seller,” and because it was true, however briefly and however much manipulated, nobody can accuse the author of lying. And, because of the “Best-Seller” claim, the book’s sales increase.

Another dodge peculiar to Amazon is this: An author writes a book that either is in a genre that isn’t very popular or can be listed in several genres—say, gay historical romance. On a list with little competition, the book can rise to the top of one of the genre lists, at least for one day, with just a few sales. Maybe the author sold only three copies, but if he or she can get the book eligible for a category-specific best-seller list on which there is little competition, the book can easily make the top spot with just those three sales.

And once again, the author advertises “#1 Best Seller,” thus making the book seem more popular—and better—than it really is.

As a result of all this, the reality is that while it’s great to be able to say, “My book made the best-seller list,” the statement just doesn’t carry the weight or cachet it did before.

And that’s a shame!

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