March 01, 2012

Why Best Sellers Matter

by Alan Beatts

The New York Times Best Seller list has been produced every week since 1942.  Even with massive influence on book buying habits by Amazon, a Stanford Business School analysis strongly suggests that most book buyers look to the Times list for book purchase suggestions.  Although the effect of getting a book on that list is not huge for well-established authors, it can make the career of a new or previously mid-list author.  Making the list leads directly to larger advance payments, bigger print runs, and greater publicity expenditures for later books, not to mention much higher sales numbers for the current book and the consequent greater royalty payments.

Short of prestigious awards like the Pulitzer or Nobel Prize, there is probably nothing that can have a greater instant effect on an author's future and income.

The exact details of how placement calculation is performed for the Times list is a trade secret, kept by the News Surveys department of that paper.  Even the staff of the Book Reviews section, which publishes the list, doesn't know how it is calculated.  In general however, each week sales figures are collected from a selection of independent and chain bookstores (of which Borderlands is one), along with other sales outlets such as drug stores, supermarkets and gift shops.  Wholesalers are also included but the figures are weighted so that the final figure is based more on books sold to actual readers, rather than the number of books shipped to stores (which might languish on the shelves for a month or more before being returned).   A result is the Times list's reputation as one of the best, if not the best, measures of a book's immediate popularity.
Please note the words "immediate popularity".  Many, many books sell a huge number of copies over the course of their time in print and yet never end up on the Best Seller list because the sales are spread out over months or years.  As the name suggests, the list measures what sold best _in a specific week_.  Like many scales, it's useful as long as you understand what it is meant to measure.  It helps to look at the Times List this way -- any book on the list has sold a lot of copies -- but not all books that sell a lot of copies end up on the list.  It all depends on how many copies of the book sell in a short period of time, usually during the all-important first week that the book is on sale.

Which is a major portion of why the concept of a "strict lay-down date" exists.  Most book buyers have never heard of lay-down dates, but some of you probably remember hearing about how the later Harry Potter books were shipped to bookstores with an explicit, legally binding agreement that the seals on the boxes wouldn't be broken until 12:01 AM on the day that is was supposed to go on sale.  That was an extreme example of a lay-down date.  In the case of Harry Potter, the restriction on sales before the date was more of a marketing gimmick than an actual attempt to ensure that all the sales would take place during the first week of reporting to the Times.  After all, by the middle book, there was no doubt that it would hit the bestseller lists.  But it was an extension of the basic goal of publishers for mid-list and potential best-selling titles -- get as many sales as possible in the first week so that the book has the best chance of getting on the list.

All of this might seem like silly marketing games and, for the publishers, perhaps it is (though remember -- most book buyers at least look at the Times list every week or are made aware of the results through other channels).  But for an author?  It's no game because of how seriously the publishers themselves take that list.

For years at Borderlands we've taken on-sale or lay-down dates pretty casually.  Books come in.  We inventory them and put 'em on the shelves.  If they're out a little early, who cares?  Unless, of course, the publisher went to extraordinary lengths to enforce the date.  In which case we'd play along.

In part I felt that our attitude was justified in a large part because of the habits of big retailers, chain bookstores and Amazon.  The chains made it a habit to do the same thing we do -- as soon as books arrive, they go on the shelves.  Unless the publisher, blah, blah, blah.  Likewise Walmart and the other non-book retailers.  And, many of those companies would get their books shipped directly from the printer, rather than going through the intermediary step of the publisher's warehouse, because their orders were so large.  Which meant they had the book in stock as much as a week before we did.

And Amazon would often list a book as being for sale (as opposed to available for pre-order) a month before it even had shipped from the printer.  Customers would order the book, get told that it was "back-ordered" (despite it not having ever arrived in Amazon's warehouse), and patiently wait for it to ship.

In light of all that, it seemed only reasonable to me that I play the game the same way.  As far as I saw it, no one was getting hurt.  However, based on what I've told you about how the New York Times Best Seller list works, you can see how offering books for sale early has an effect on the chance of it being accurately represented on that list.

But recently something happened to an author who is both a friend of mind and a strong supporter of the store that changed my mind.

Their book, which stood a chance of getting on the Times list, was offered for sale at Amazon more than two weeks before the lay-down date.  The author noticed this and got in touch with both their publisher and Amazon requesting that it be removed until the right date.  Neither the author nor their publisher had any success in having the book removed until, finally and through back channels that I can't detail, the book was taken off sale.  It wasn't set to be pre-ordered (which is what the status should properly have been), but at least people could no longer buy it.

But, before that happened, a virtual flood of emails arrived in the author's in-box from a legion of very, very angry readers who preferred ebooks.  It seems that they had noticed that the print version of the book was on sale, whereas the ebook was not going to be available until the (correct) on-sale date.  The conclusion that these people had come to was that the author was deliberately delaying the ebook to force people to buy the physical copy.  In addition to the laughable assumption that an author has _any_ control over when and where their books are available, these ebook fans had completely missed the point.  But that didn't stop them from writing some really nasty things, including but not limited to a comprehensive survey of obscene pronouns and a range of physical threats.

But the whole thing wasn't done yet.  At almost exactly 5 pm, East Coast time on the following Friday, the book was put back up for sale at Amazon.  I suppose that it's possible that the timing was an accident but it seems strange to me that the status change happened right at the beginning of the weekend when no-one would be in the office at the publisher to do anything about it for over 48 hours.

Once again the author tried to get something done without success.  Even the back-channel route that had worked previously wasn't fruitful.  Then, on the following Monday afternoon, the publisher's calls had an effect and the book was pulled again.

It will be hard to tell how this all plays out until the Times Best Seller list comes out the week after the book's proper on-sale date.  But all those orders in advance of the on-sale date are certain to have an effect, if not on whether the book makes the list, then at least on the position that it gets.

After seeing all of this happen, I realized that putting a book on sale early can have an effect.  So we're not going to do it here any longer.  Granted, it may cost us some sales, but we see ourselves as being part of a larger community of readers, writers and publishers.  It behooves us to play by the rules and not take action that hurts the other members of the community.

Wouldn't it be nice if some of the largest and most influential members of the bookselling community thought the same way?

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