WHY AMAZON IS THE ONLY TRUE BESTSELLER'S LIST TODAY:
James Patterson is speaking out, specifically on bias, but what he's talking about is only very the tip of the iceberg on the bestseller conspiracy.
Here are a few things you may not know about author "BESTSELLER" lists.
1 - NOT ALL BOOKS ARE CONSIDERED
Did you know that, to get on some of the most known bestseller lists, a book manuscript must be submitted 6 to 18 months before its actual release? This means that a book which comes out without doing some of that pre-submission work (many times through exclusive channels not available to all books) may automatically be exempt from the bestseller list. Buzz (and sales) could be built up for countless excluded books during that time period and they could launch to far greater commercial success than some of the other titles featured as "Bestsellers." Furthermore, the titles that are included could go through extensive edits during that 6 to 18 month period and end up being completely different texts than what was originally submitted.
2 - ONE REVIEW HAS THE POWER TO EXCLUDE A TITLE
Some bestseller lists require a critical review process, from the list's on-staff critic, that is taken into account as part of the book's ranking. (I'm all for reliable and respectful reviews, but they should inform the consumer, not the ranking.) To put that into perspective, consider all of the movies that you may have loved that the critics did not. In other words, a book that may not be well-reviewed, because it doesn't agree with a select reviewer's world view or personal creative preferences, may not end up being ranked even if it is a success in terms of total sales and post-publication critiques.
3 - LISTS ARE PRESUMED AND/OR BOUGHT
When I was the general manager of a Borders, we would receive our books to put out Monday night after close for the weekly Tuesday new book release day. (I loved those nights, by the way - I'll save that for another post.) The weekly routine included updating the bestsellers display. Almost all of the titles that we put on that display were called, "automatic bestsellers." Many of those automatic bestsellers did not even have presales. So, in some cases, it was a release day for the book, with no sales data, but we were already being told it was a bestseller, sometimes in the #1 or #2 slot. This was shelf-space that was presumed based on the author, a trending topic, or (even more contrived) space that was purchased by a large publishing house, meaning that it would be THEIR bestseller because they had already determined the book was where they intended to invest their big publishing house budget. I won't call out the titles that went on this "bestsellers" shelving that ended up being returned to the distributors on a large scale, but I will tell you that such returns were routine practices when books that were presented as bestsellers to potential buyers were - in reality - flops.
4 - WHOLESALE PURCHASES DON'T ALWAYS COUNT
I don't know today's stats, but just a few years ago, the #1 seller of books in the U.S. out of brick and mortar stores (in other words, not online) was not Barnes & Noble - it was Costco and Sam's Club (and I don't remember in which order). Those large tables full of books are farmer's-market-shoppable to the many who pass through those stores. Retailers around the country pick up books for their inventory, but those books - at a wholesale discount - often don't count at all. Really? You're going to tell me that putting an author's book in front of literally millions of people matters less than a single publication's cautiously cultivated bestseller list? Furthermore, as those books sell, a chain of communication about those sales totals varies greatly. Each individual store, chain, and distributor may have different timelines and reporting requirements for those book sales and it may take months for the distributor to know if the retailer has returned some of the books unsold to offset the numbers sold. It's a deep pit of lost and confusing sales data that is not considered in many bestseller lists.
5 - BULK AND AUTHOR PURCHASES OFTEN DON'T COUNT
Some books have incredibly large built-in markets. Major real estate books for that massive industry are widely shared in coaching and conventions; children's and young adult books succeed immensely in schools throughout the nation, books used by various ministries are often featured at many churches, synagogues, or other houses of worship; and business and communication books funnel through chambers of commerce, corporate events, and live speaking tours. These books are often purchased in large bulk quantities at discounts approximately equal to those of wholesalers. This number, especially for a book with publicity, marketing, and planned events, can be huge. But it doesn't count toward those bestseller lists. (I promise that it counts to the author that all of those books are out there!)
6 - INDEPENDENT AND HYBRID PUBLISHERS DON'T COUNT
I wrote about the world of publishing in a blog recently to explain some of the differences between traditional and independent (and somewhere in between) types of publishers. Feel free to read that if you wish to comprehend it further. For the sake of discussing bestseller lists, let me truncate. The old world of publishing had what they called "The Big 6." These were the major publishing houses out of New York and London that were (and today continue trying to be) the gatekeepers to our literary options. For a long time, independent authors and hybrid publishers were looked down upon as lesser and, to the credit of the Big 6 at the time, early versions of indie publications (then called Vanity) had a lot of work to do in order to reach the quality of professionalism of a traditionally published book. That is no longer the case. Instead, the reality is that the Big 6 became the Big 5, and then the Big 4. Already known authors with decades of traditional publishing success have fled to independent publishing and the Big houses have all expanded into independent imprints. The product of independent publishing today - in most cases - is indiscernible from a book coming out of a traditional house. And - as it relates to this topic - those books are SELLING! They are selling in remarkable numbers. They are selling online, in person at live events, to bookstores, out of author websites, at conventions, and more. These numbers are nothing to scoff at. But they don't count. Not to those bestseller lists of which you've heard. Bestseller lists pretend that the single largest market of books in the world isn't even there. (Disclaimer, with 100ish titles--I stopped counting, I have published many times both traditionally and independently, but I do work primarily independently these days.)
LUCKY #7 - AMAZON - AN ACCURATE BESTSELLER REPRESENTATION
It is the #1 retailer for books in the world. I don't think anyone would deny that.
You can't fool it. Bots perpetually crawl the site tracking every bit of data available. Rankings are based on sales. I guess you could fool it by purchasing a few thousand books on release day yourself, but you've still made that purchase.
Amazon marks real-time sales of all books on its site, as well as keeps track of all-time sales in many categories.
Amazon tracks sales whether that book was independently published or from one of the Big 4; sent to critics and reviewers or only read by the author's mother; worked on for years or written in a month; propped up with advertising or put together on a starving artist's budget; bought by thousands of individual readers or picked up in bulk by an organization.
It's not perfect in its inclusion. I know my share of independent anti-Amazoners who have successful author careers and no books available either traditionally or within the world's largest retail site that is Amazon. They are still excluded here. No perfect system exists.
Within the Amazon bestseller lists, there are a lot of breakdowns - was it an overall bestseller, a categorical bestseller, best only amongst the newest releases? This is minutia and it matters some. Here's the thing, if a reader cares, he or she can discover all of those details! It's transparent and the information is available unlike the practices from other "prestigious" bestseller lists.
At the end of the day, with all of the other considerations on the table, Amazon's bestselling lists are as accurate and trustworthy a tool as exists in today's book market.
It's a shame it's taken this long for a mainstream author to recognize what many of us have known all along, but I'm glad he's speaking up, nonetheless.
Thank you #jamespatterson
Be Gloriously Human,
I'm a 14-Time #1 Amazon Bestseller, and I've been a contributing editor on another 17 #1 Amazon Bestsellers.
But my favorite book did not go to #1.
That's okay. I just want it to be on your shelf for you to enjoy!
Look for the special edition soon!