This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

July 23, 2001 — I could be wrong about this, but it's my contention that few people outside the book business pay much attention to bestseller lists. Most of us don't see reading as a competitive business, and, let's face it, the typical bestseller is a tacky book.

Not always, I know — right now, for example, "The Metaphysical Club" is on most lists. It's a 500–pager about the birth of the pragmatist school of philosophy in nineteenth–century Boston. Does that sound like a typical bestseller to you?

Probably not, because nowadays a "bestseller" is more normally one of three things: a how–to — usually, either about how to more efficiently grub for money or how to lose weight while eating without pause; a memoir by somebody really despicable; or a barely literate thriller where gruesome things happen to people while they're having sex just after drinking brand–name beverages.

God knows who buys those books in sufficient numbers to get them bestseller status, but there you have it: The typical bestseller list — and there are many — does not paint a pretty picture of literate America. Which is one reason I'd just as soon ignore them.

Another is I don't really believe them.

After all, do you know how they come up with, say, The New York Times Bestseller List, the most influential of them all?

Me neither. In fact, how bestseller lists are compiled is always a closely guarded secret, not just at The Times but everywhere. All the list–concocters ever reveal is that they call some local stores (they won't say which ones), ask what's selling (without asking for proof), and utilize a secret formula whereby they give more weight to sales from bigger stores.

In other words, they make an educated guess. And, especially given all the secrecy, there's no reason to think it's a very good one, either.

The concocters say that if they revealed more of their methods — what stores they called, why they chose those stores, what their "secret formula" was, how they verified stats — they'd be more open to manipulation. But of course, the secrecy in itself lends to rumors of such manipulation. As an article that appeared in The New York Times last month noted, "Rumors of games to manipulate lists are common." For just one example, the article cited a recent case where a literary agent in Los Angeles tried to get a client's book onto The Times's list by "arranging phantom purchases through local stores."

All of which is why, behind the scenes, there's always grumbling about the accuracy of the major bestseller lists by those with a stake in them.

So you would think that if there was a way to calculate which books were the real, honest–to–gosh top sellers, people in the business would be happy.

You would think wrong. Recently, the BookScan company announced it had a way to do exactly that, and the industry hasn't been particularly happy about it.

The company — owned by the same Dutch conglomerate, VNU, that owns SoundScan, which compiles sales figures for the music industry — announced it had put together a system for collecting sales data from bookstore cash registers across the country, including the nationwide stats of both the mega–chains — Borders and Waldenbooks, B. Dalton, and Barnes & Noble — a major online bookseller,, some other major outlets, such as Costco and Target, and even some independents.

Publishers, agents, or just anyone with sufficient cash (starting subscriptions run for $75,000) will then be able to buy some startlingly precise information gleaned from all that data, such as how many copies a particular book sold in a particular region. The president of BookScan, meanwhile, has announced the company will also collate data into its own bestseller list, which it hopes will replace all other lists — including that of The New York Times. Altogether, it purports to be a trove of precise, publicly available information the likes of which the book industry has never dealt with before.

"Sounds satanic," literary agent Jennifer Rudolph Walsh told The New York Times. "Something like that could actually be the death of some kinds of literary darlings — when you try to sell the next book, the perception of their sales would be, frankly, so true to life that it would prevent people from looking at the big picture, that a book is prestigious or has prize potential or is well reviewed or something."

Equally threatened are "publishers that have overpaid for books that bomb," noted Times reporter David D. Kirkpatrick.

And beyond the threat to authors, agents and publishers, he added, there's the threat to the institutions that run "the influential process of anointing best sellers" — i.e., publications such as The Times, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly.

But at least one publisher, James Atlas, who runs the "Penguin Lives" biography series, thinks BookScan is great. In a New York Times op–ed piece, he scoffed at those who said BookScan would "result in a flood of commercial titles . . . dumbing down a business already threatened by the proliferation of chains that encourage homogenization." He noted, instead, that "SoundScan helped open up the music business" to the realization that independent labels had big sales.

Of course, Atlas' piece appeared just days after The Los Angeles Times reported that "a coterie of consultants and merchants from Los Angeles to New York . . . have developed a system to distort sales numbers that are reported to SoundScan." Apparently, it wasn't too hard, either: the scheme consisted of "swiping a CD numerous times across a scanning machine to falsely boost sales figures."

None of which makes me feel more secure about bestseller lists of the future. But accepting the peer pressure of bestseller lists in the first place only reminds me of my father's long–ago advice: "You gonna jump off a cliff just because everyone else is?"

Last Week’s Column: Authorial Beauty Contest Do those photos of beautiful young twenty–something authors The New Yorker runs alongside "debut" fiction really sell magazines or books?


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2001 Dennis Loy Johnson.