As I write this on 2 October, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower is the bestselling fiction book in America according to New York Times Bestseller List. This is the first week King’s new novel has been on the list, entering it at number one. The number one non-fiction book also entered the list at the top position this week, America (The Book) by Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.1 The New York Times also maintains separate lists for advice/self-help books, for children’s books, and for paperbacks.

The New York Times Bestseller List is probably the best known and most influential of numerous such lists. A place on the list is a guarantee of even greater sales and scads of profit. But how does the Times compile the list? Besides the questionable placement of America (The Book) on the non-fiction list, is the list accurate? Does it actually reflect which books are truly the best sellers?

A quick check of the sales rankings and the Publishers Weekly bestseller lists shows some discrepancies. King’s book is number eight on the Amazon list (Amazon does not divide its list into categories). There is one fiction book that is ahead of The Dark Tower, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code which is in seventh place on Amazon and in third on the NYT fiction list. Trace, by Patricia Cornwall, which is number two on the NYT list is twelfth on Amazon’s with two other adult fiction books ahead of it. The Publishers Weekly top five fiction books are the same as those on the NYT list, except numbers four and five are reversed in order. Stewart’s America (The Book) is number two at Amazon and the highest-ranking non-fiction book on the online list. So the two lists agree on that score. Publishers Weekly and the NYT agree on the top sellers in this category.

Further discrepancies can be found in the advice/self-help category. The NYT lists Phil McGraw’s (TV’s “Dr. Phil”) Family First as number one. But it is number three on Amazon—behind He’s Just Not That Into You, by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo, which is Amazon’s bestselling book at the moment, but only number two on the NYT advice list. Again, Publishers Weekly and the NYT agree here as well. One significant outlier is the Guinness Book of World Records 2005. The NYT lists this as number five on the advice list. Not only is the categorization odd, but USA Today lists it as number 138 and Amazon has it as number 365.

The biggest difference is on the children’s list. On Amazon, the bestselling children’s book is Lemony Snicket’s The Grim Grotto—number eight on the Amazon list. It does not appear on the NYT list at all—but this is because it was just published this week. I suspect that next week’s list will include it. Publishers Weekly compiles its children’s book list on a monthly basis, so the current lists are not comparable. (The NYT children’s list was created in 2001 because of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which was driving all the “adult” books off the list. Never mind that a large percentage, if not a majority, of Harry Potter readers are adults.)

So the three lists, while not exactly the same, are largely in agreement. The discrepancies are accountable to slightly different methodologies and different survey dates—the Amazon list, for example, is adjusted hourly and while the NYT and Publishers Weekly are weekly lists, they appear on different days. So, how do these groups compile the lists? On what are the rankings based? All three are based on surveys of booksellers (Amazon “surveys” itself). The exact methodology and which bookstores are surveyed are closely guarded secrets.

The New York Times sends a weekly survey out to some 4,000 booksellers across the United States. The survey form lists the books that the NYT expects will be the week’s bestsellers. Booksellers can add titles to the list, but it is not known how many actually do. This gives the edge to books that have large marketing budgets—they will almost certainly be listed on the survey and will be reported upon. It is very possible for a book to sell extremely well and never appear on the NYT list.

The major problem with this methodology is that it ignores several important outlets for sales. Online resellers are typically excluded. Book clubs, a major source of sales for publishers, are also left out. Specialty booksellers are also underrepresented. This is apparent in the category of Christian books. Christian books are about a quarter of all book sales in the US and are routinely ignored by the bestseller lists. The academic market is similarly ignored. While most academic books will never be bestsellers, textbooks are competitive with commercial markets in total sales. Publishers Weekly employs a similar methodology, surveying some 3,000 stores.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s list is often relied on by the publishing industry to identify these sleeper books. The Chronicle samples some 50 Bay Area bookstores. While not national in scope, it includes a high percentage of independent booksellers and captures many up-and-coming books which are chiefly marketed by word-of-mouth. Snow Falling on Cedars, Cold Mountain, and The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood all appeared on the Chronicle’s list months before they made it onto the NYT list.

The odd-man out is the USA Today’s bestseller list. That paper surveys some 3,000 booksellers, but relies solely on actual sales figures. There is no statistical sampling or ranking by each bookseller. Furthermore, it lists the top 150 sellers—a deeper list than the others and it does not divide the list into categories. It mixes fiction, non-fiction, hardcover, paperback, children’s, advice, etc. all together. Because of this eclectic mix and the deep list, often classics make it onto the list. This week Animal Farm (145) and The Great Gatsby (146) make it into the top 150—buoyed no doubt by students buying them for their fall classes. The Catcher in the Rye is number 95; To Kill a Mockingbird is 68. Fahrenheit 451 comes in at an even 100. But before you become too encouraged by the discernment of the American reading public, note that How To Make Love Like A Porn Star, by Jenna Jameson, is at 88, down from 66 last week.

One firm, the Dutch market research firm VNU, runs a service called BookScan, that electronically records point-of-sale data on book sales from major chains, some independents, and from discount and department stores. While this is probably the most accurate list of what is actually sold, the data is not available to the public—unless you have $75,000 to spend for an annual subscription.

But perhaps the most interesting of the bestseller lists is Amazon’s. The Amazon sales rankings only include sales by the giant internet bookseller, but it has, by many orders of magnitude, the deepest list, rank-ordering over two million different titles. It is based on actual sales figures, but the rankings are adjusted to take into account sales trends. For example, a book that is currently selling 100 copies this week, sold 50 last week, and 10 the week before will be ranked higher than a book that consistently sells 100 copies each week. If the ranking were simply based on total lifetime sales, the list would quickly become stagnant with books like The Bible, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and To Kill a Mockingbird topping the list. The exact algorithms are not published, but one can make some reasonable deductions about how they work. This allows the general public to track the progress of mid-list and back-list titles that will never reach the bestseller lists of the NYT or Publishers Weekly.

The chief caveat with the Amazon rankings are that these are results from one bookseller, and an online one at that. As such, its sales figures can be skewed. Books sold primarily through other outlets, such as university bookstores or at self-help seminars are underrepresented. (This is true for almost all the bestseller lists.) Books marketed to those in demographics that typically do not have online access will similarly be underrepresented in the rankings. And books that are chiefly impulse buys will typically be absent entirely.

The Amazon ranking is relative to all the other books in the online giant’s catalog. The top 10,000 rankings are re-computed every hour. The rankings of the top 10,000 to 100,000 are re-computed once a day. Rankings over 100,000 are re-computed once a week. But what do the rankings mean in terms of actual sales? The top ten Amazon books sell over 100 copies a day—that’s just at Amazon and doesn’t count sales through other booksellers. Amazon accounts for about 5% of all book sales in the US, so that means a top ten Amazon seller is probably selling around two thousand copies a day total via all outlets—a very lucrative book.

Those books ranked 11 through 100 sell around 30 copies a day, while those ranked 101 through 1000 sell about ten. Those ranked through 10,000 sell about two copies a day, and those ranked through 100,000 sell about a copy each week.

Below 100,000 the rankings are extremely fluid. The sales of one or two copies can significantly affect a book’s ranking, sometimes jumping several hundred thousand places from week to week. Comparisons of books at these rankings are not terribly meaningful.

1 For those readers in the US, I encourage you to check out The Daily Show on Comedy Central. It is a parody of a news broadcast (self-described as “fake news”) that has some of the wittiest and most trenchant social and political commentary on American television. For those overseas, a weekly version can also be seen on CNN International.

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