I had debated against writing this blog two weeks ago because I didn’t want it to come across as sour grapes. I actually wrote another blog for today, one about smart women in fiction vs. stereotyped femme fatales and bimbos. But as I was preparing my next “lesson” for the online group I’m teaching this month, I put together some statistics about bestseller lists and something jumped out at me. I may be making a few enemies, but at this point, I think someone needs to publicly talk about bestseller lists in general, and the New York Times in particular.
Nothing I say here is proof of anything. It’s just a comparison of the major bestseller lists for October 2007 and October 2008 and something in them that I think is odd. Coupled with the fact that the New York Times does not share how they compile their bestseller lists makes the whole process shadowy. We know, for example, that USA Today gets their numbers from very specific places, and we know that Walmart does not report to USA Today, for example. USA Today rankings most closely resemble the Bookscan numbers which is compiled from point-of-sale (POS) transactions weekly. Bookscan claims to track about 70-80% of all book purchases, and that may be true, but they certainly don’t track 70% of mass market sales. If you are a mass market author selling at Walmart, Bookscan reflects closer to 20-25% of your sales for the first quarter, and over a twelve month period maybe 35-40% of sales. Plus or minus. Because every author and distribution plan is unique.
In addition, different books and authors are released every month and every year so to do a proper analysis of the lists someone with more time and resources than me should pull together every list for the last three years with an algorithm to give an average % of books by genre that are released each month and when in the month. I’m sure some sharp statistician would know what to do; that would not be me.
I’m just looking at raw numbers. And I wasn’t going to write the article not just because of sour grapes, but because I know that publishing is fluid: there may be a glut of romance novels one month, and fewer the next month. But when I looked at the NYT, PW and USAT, something jumped out that made me think that I’m right. And JT’s “genre wars” rant got me thinking that if there was no genre designation, my theory wouldn’t hold any water because there’d be no genre designation in the files.
The New York Times and Publishers Weekly use roughly the same formula for figuring out bestsellers, and that formula is biased against romance.
Playing Dead is my second bestselling title based on the first eight weeks of sales (Killing Fear is the first.) Playing Dead (10/08) sold more than twice as many copies opening week as Fear No Evil (4/07) which debuted at #10 on the New York Times list.
We all know that the month of release is hugely important: who is the competition? So to go up or down on the list is not a problem because one month might have a glut of bestsellers. For example, March 07 was a heavy-hitter month and I told my agent that if I was going to hit the print list, I had to do it with my Feb 07 book (Speak No Evil) because See No Evil in March had much more competition-both the number of releases and the heavy-hitter authors. Speak came out #14, See #20. And See had higher opening week numbers. So the ups and downs of the lists is no surprise to me and honestly doesn’t bother me: as long as my sales are doing well and my publisher is happy, I’m happy.
Walmart is hugely important for mass market authors. First, Walmart customers buy a lot of books, but because they are cost conscious, they buy mostly mass markets. Walmart offers very few hardcovers, and those on their shelves are the mega-sellers like King, Grisham, Roberts, Rowling, and Evanovich. Mass markets dominate their book aisle, discounted by a dollar or more. At some point at the end of 2007, Walmart stopped reporting sales to the New York Times. I don’t know if anyone knows why, but it happened and everyone in the business knows it. Around May of 2008, Walmart started reporting again.
But the lists were not the same.
The New York Times does not share with anyone how it compiles its bestseller lists. The general consensus is that they send out a list with pre-printed titles that are most likely to sell well. (How they come up with that list I have no idea.) They send it to a large sampling of booksellers and other retailers where books are a major item in the store. These people fill it out with sales information and return them. (This may be done online now-again, I have no idea . . . maybe a bookseller reader here knows more than I do?)
They do acknowledge that they adjust the numbers to represent a statistical sampling of all such stores.
I had always felt, as a mass market original author, that the NYT weighted their lists and gave more weight to books sold at independent stores than to books sold at mass merchandisers like Walmart. And that may very well be the case-we don’t know because they won’t say.
But whatever they did in the past, they changed it. In the past, the system may have been weighted slightly against romance novels, but since romance makes up 50% of mass market sales, and 39% of all fiction sales according to the RomStat report issued by Romance Writers of America we all know the genre is strong. (Note: The RWA research firm has changed and the last RomStat report is looking at other factors so there is no good comparison in numbers, though they reported that Romance is the leading fiction genre and is growing as a percent of market share even with the slowing economy.)
Playing Dead, which sold twice as many copies opening week as Fear No Evil eighteen months before, debuted at #26 on the NYT list and #37 on the USAT list. I could dismiss the poor NYT slot as being released in a competitive month (October.) And I would have, except that I’m really curious and did a comparison of publicly available information.
With the exception of my debut novel, The Prey, which had one week on the extended list, all my books have enjoyed 3-4 weeks on the NYT list. Until Playing Dead. It fell off after one week.
Week Two: Playing Dead was still in the Top 50 of USA Today (46), so I was optimistic that I’d stay on the NYT another week. Since USAT tracks point-of-sale I figured the book was doing well, even with the slight opening week drop from Killing Fear. (After all, our economy is in the tank.) But I fell off the list–and I’ll admit, I was surprised.
I think what really irked me is that the titles that bookended me on USAT (at numbers 45 and 47) were numbers 4 and 11 respectively on NYT. This was the first real clue that something wacky was going on. Full disclosure: #4 was a romance title that I know sells very well at the major chain bookstores and online. I don’t know if it was at Walmart-I sent my mom out to investigate and she didn’t see it at two Walmarts, but that doesn’t mean much because sometimes buys are regional, or it could have been sold out. I don’t know.
But just looking at the raw numbers told me that something was off. The following week, seven titles that were lower than me on USAT (I was at #55 that week) were on the print NYT list. I wasn’t even on the extended.
So, until tonight, this was all I had. And I looked at the facts and knew that it sounded like sour grapes and complaining. And it’s not. Seriously, every author that hit the NYT list deserves it and I’m honestly happy for them. It’s like entering a contest. All the finalists are great and deserve it-but we all know that there are other great books out there that didn’t make it for one reason or another that’s more subjective based on judging than anything else.
But the NYT claims to represent the bestselling books in the country. At the minimum they should tell their readers how they compile the list, and what has changed in the past year.
Why do I think something has changed?
In October 2007, romance novels (based on RWA membership-there could have been additional romance novels that hit who weren’t RWA members, such as Nicholas Sparks) enjoyed more weeks on the NYT and PW bestseller lists than in October of 2008:
NYT OCT 07
1 – 24
2 – 28
3 – 26
4 – 22
PW OCT 07
1 – 9
2 – 9
3 – 8
4 – 6
5 – 4*
NYT OCT 08
1 – 16
2 – 14
3 – 21
4 – 16
PW OCT 08
1 – 3
2 – 6
3 – 8
4 – 6
* PW tabulates differently than the NYT and had five weeks for October. To make it as fair as possible, I didn’t count week 5 for PW in the numbers-but it doesn’t seem to affect the numbers. If I did include it, it proves my point even more.
* Also, these numbers reflect hardcover, trade, and mass market bestsellers-the NYT and PW lists tabulate book release formats separately; USAT has all books-fiction and non-fiction, hardcover and paper, adult and children-on the same list. To be fair, I included all formats tracked.
* FYI: The NYT list comprises their top 35 bestsellers by format in h/c, trade, and mass market; PW is top 15 by format; USAT is top 150 ranked across all formats and genres.
* While this may not include ALL romance titles, it’s comparing apples to apples, ie RWA members for all lists.
There was a 33% reduction in romance list weeks in the NYT and a nearly 30% reduction in PW (if I’m doing my math correctly. And if I add in the 5th PW week because they use different days, then it’s almost dead-on the same percentage as the NYT reduction.)
Looking at this means nothing, really, because like I said above the lists are compiled from books selling that week. If there are fewer new romance releases, then the numbers will go down.
But when we look at USA Today, we see something completely different:
USAT OCT 07
1 – 24
2 – 15
3 – 10
4 – 13
USAT OCT 08
1 – 25
2 – 25
3 – 21
4 – 20
This is a nearly a 25% increase in romance title weeks on the USAT bestseller lists in these same months.
All I want is to know how these lists are compiled. Is the USAT list a true POS comparison? Can it be if they don’t include Walmart? And is the NYT intentionally, or through their statistical methodology, discriminating against romance novels?
And does it matter?
I would argue it does matter, but perhaps not as much once you can use the NYT bestseller designation on your books. Most readers don’t know or care how the lists are compiled. My sales may continue to increase and I may never hit the print list again, but because I have hit it in the past I can use NYT on my books. Yet, the industry perception may be that my career has hit a stumbling block. It won’t matter that my sales are strong and increasing, I’m not hitting * the * list. It may down the road affect distribution with vendors and wholesalers who look at the stats and wonder what’s up.
Honestly, the only thing that really matters is the bottom line. I know many authors who have consistently sold well over a long period of time, outselling many of the bestselling authors while they themselves have never hit a list.
But who it really hurts are the midlist romance writers trying to breakout and touch the holy grail . . . to be able to call themselves a New York Times bestselling author.
I just want to know what that means.