Thursday, November 16, 2006

Bestseller Lists, Take 2--Part 4


Here’s the best I can figure as to how secular bestseller lists are put together, according to my research. If anybody out there can add something, or certainly if you see something I’ve gotten wrong, please let us all know. You can’t just go to some site and see all this info. You have to look around and piece bits of data together.

There is no one secular list that covers all data. Each gathers from different sources, and as a result, on any given week, you’ll see different books as #1 on different lists.

The most inclusive data-gathering device is Nielsen’s BookScan, started in 2001. BookScan compiles point-of-sale data, and boasts that it can account for nearly 70 percent of all book sales in the United States. (Some would put this figure closer to 65 percent.) "Point-of-sale" means when a customer in a store buys the book. Each week, participating retailers-- online sellers such as Amazon.com; chains such as Borders, Waldenbooks and Barnes & Noble; independents; and some discounters like Costco and Target--send Nielsen a sales file of data scanned during purchases. However, these places do not report to BookScan: Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, smaller independents, drugstores, supermarkets, and all Christian bookstores. (Obviously, BookScan is therefore not a good source for sales of Christian books.) As you can see, these nonreporters can make a huge difference. For example, a certain kind of book may do real well at Wal-Mart, but those sales won’t be counted.

BookScan data is reportedly very expensive—although nobody’s allowed to say just how expensive. (Secrecy abounds.) BookScan's subscribers are mostly publishers and distributors who use the data for sales and marketing purposes, inventory control, author acquisitions, etc.


But these data are not being used to make most of the bestseller lists. Newspapers and magazines prefer to gather their own data, based on differing criteria.

Periodicals that create their own national lists typically collect data from only a sample of representative stores, then extrapolate that data. Some of these lists are national, some merely regional. An example of the latter is the Los Angeles Times, whose list is based on a sample from about 30 Southern California booksellers. Obviously, what sells in Southern California isn’t necessarily going to be selling equally throughout the country. And even for their regional focus, the LA Times’ extrapolation of data apparently isn’t all that accurate. Steve Wasserman, the Book Review editor at the Los Angeles Times, is on record with the Washington post in saying the Times’ data is a “deeply unscientific … compilation, which has a veneer of a certain kind of science."


USA Today says it uses data from 4,700 sources across the nation, including online bookstores, which many other lists don’t include. This list is different in that it ranks its 50 bestselling titles together, without breaking them into categories. Publishers Weekly lists are based on data from 3,000 chains and independents, which also is then extrapolated. Thing is, no list will tell you how the data are extrapolated, or who their source booksellers are. They say this secrecy is important, so no underhanded author can go to some bookstore that reports data and buy 10,000 copies of his/her own book. Maybe so, but it also leaves a lot of questions as to how these samplings are weighted.


What stores are used can also make a huge difference. Independent bookstores, for example, may tend to sell more literary novels than the chain stores like B&N. This fact is why the San Francisco Chronicle’s list, which uses data from many independents, looks a lot different from other newspapers’ lists.

The New York Times list draws from almost 4,000 bookstores nationwide, plus wholesalers. The NYT divides its best sellers into hardcover and paperback lists and then divides each of these into fiction, nonfiction, and a third category called "Advice, How-To, and Miscellaneous." But the NYT ignores certain types of books altogether. For example, it doesn’t track “primarily religious” titles. (There’s that Christian thing again.)

Here’s the stunning news on how the NYT—the most prestigious bestseller list in the USA—is made. The Times sends a form to bookstores that includes titles they are "tracking" as potential future best sellers. Whoever fills out these forms (perhaps a clerk or assistant manager) records the number of books sold of that title. There’s a place to write in names of books that aren’t on the form. But you have to wonder how many of these folks will take time to do that. The Times says this tracking form is drawn up from information from bookstores, but publishers say they routinely call up the Times to tell them about selling with increasing momentum so that they can be added to the form.

In other words, the NYT list is driven at the very outset—before sales are even recorded—by titles the Times thinks will become bestsellers. This prognostication apparently is derived by the sell-in numbers of a title (how many copies a bookstore buys up front). These sell-in numbers can be supplied by stores and publishers (the latter of which certainly have a vested interested in supplying titles). And what books have high sell-in numbers? Those written by big names, or those with high marketing budgets.

You can see how hard it is for a “regular” book to appear on the NYT. A lot of diligent clerks are going to have to enter its title onto the tracking form. And even then, a spokesperson for independent stores has complained that titles indies write onto the forms are routinely ignored.

Of course, all of these periodical lists merely rank books. They don’t tell how many copies a title sold. (Wouldn’t we all love to see this!)

None of these lists gather data from Christian bookstores, just as Christian bookstores don’t gather data from secular stores. The closest thing to accuracy is BookScan, but most lists don’t use their data. Plus, 70% accurate means almost one-third not accurate. And as I’ve pointed out, BookScan has some huge holes in its gathering of data, (Like our entire industry of stores.)

So. Bottom line, the Christian book industry may have a difficult time with data-gathering and lists, but we’re sure not alone. At least our lists aren’t driven up front by write-in-the-number-sold forms sent to the bookstores. And I don’t think the data are extrapolated, either. Nothing but straight sales, recorded at the cash register. It’s just too bad those stores reporting are such a small number.

These articles were used in researching this post:

The Book Industry’s Bestseller Lists
Making Books (Washington Post)
The Problem with Bestsellers
Book Clubbed
BookScan: Acceptance and Questions Grow (Publishers Weekly)

5 comments:

Tina said...

Thanks Brandilyn. Fascinating!

Jerome said...

Interesting and informative stuff, Brandilyn. I've enjoyed reading your research on this subject.

Air Force Family said...

Great research! I look forward to reading more tomorrow. Have a great day!
Since you were born in India, do you speak any of the dialects from over there?

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Sorry, folks. The comments are loading mighty slow at times today.

Eden, I have to laugh. You and I keep carrying on a conversation between my comments at your blog, and your comments here. To the rest of the BGs, we must seem a little whacky. :]

To answer your question, for the first 3 years of my life, although I understand English, I refused to speak anything but Kanarese. When we came to the states and the other kids didn't understand I word I said, I figured it was time to make the change. Now I remember nothing of Kanarese. My father now--he spoke Kanarese, as well as Tamil and Hindi. Even preached in those languages.

D. Gudger said...

Wow. I had no idea how subjective best seller lists really are when you break it down like you did for us.
Wouldn't be a good witness to the world if CBA could get an objective, comprehensive system down to measure book sales from as many POS (points of sale) as possible?
I'd get a kick out of watching the secular publishing world "need" the Christian publishing world b/c we have a better system.
Thanks for taking the time to research all this stuff. I'm sure you had to hit the Advil after reading stats and other tedious facts!