The Times it is a-changing

For the first time since 2004, the New York Times has made changes to their children’s bestseller lists. Up to this change, there were picture book, chapter book, paperback and series lists, with ten titles on each list (see here, though you’ll have to scroll down and click on the link for each list individually). There were complaints about the list (there are always complaints about the list), and publishers had been pushing for more space, especially as children’s sales increased dramatically. For comparison, the adult hardcover fiction list has fifteen slots, plus twenty on the extended list, for thirty-five slots total. In addition, many of us in the industry have complained about non-fiction titles dominating the chapter book list, particularly some licensed, toy-based books. The bestseller list is an important sales tool, not just an indicator of sales, and we know that the “New York Times Bestseller” designation for a book and author mean more attention from stores, libraries and consumers. Those of us bothered by the inclusion of those books felt that there were other titles that would benefit more from the attention that making the list brings, whereas these branded books would sell the same number of copies, with or without the designation. It’s not that they don’t deserve to be on a list; the chapter book list just seemed an odd fit.

So, when I heard from a source that the lists would be changing, I was hopeful. Sadly, this is definitely a case of “be careful what you wish for.” In their statement that proceeds the new list, the Times says they’ve made these changes in the list to reflect the changes in the book world, i.e. e-books. So now they have a picture book, middle grade, young adult, and series lists. The lists are format agnostic, so all hardcover, paperback and e-book sales on a title are included in the count. In addition, the MG and YA lists now include a short, five-slot extended list.

This all seems like it should be positive. I’ve been arguing that e-book sales should count towards the list, and there are ten new slots. But looking at the results for the first week, it’s disappointing. In splitting the books onto MG and YA (I can’t wait for when the Times puts a book on the “wrong” list), all of the children’s non-fiction, including those licensed books that drive me nuts, moved to the MG list. As such, eight of the top ten are nonfiction, and only two of those are narrative. The YA list is free of non-fiction, which is great. And it’s nice to see the quality, depth and breadth of the books on the list. But digging into the sales numbers a bit, it’s clear just how disadvantaged MG books are. Without the non-fiction to compete with, the YA list features titles on the main list that aren’t selling as well as some of the titles on the MG extended list. I’m basing this on one list, but from what I can see, it’s going to be much more difficult to have a MG bestseller than a YA one.

Though we know the times is now tracking hardcover, paperback and e-book sales for each title, it’s also unclear how the sales are weighted (and the Times guards their formula closely). The biggest question in this regard are about e-books. Are they tracking self-published books that are categorized as YA or MG? Does the price of the book effect the weighting? Could a publisher put an e-book on sale and watch their book jump onto the list? Making the list has always had an element of gamesmanship (colleagues and I like to joke about which book will magically land in the #10 spot, oftentimes despite dismal sales), but I think we’re in for an intense period of experimentation to see how e-book sales impact recognition.

And, I have one last complaint. With the start of the new MG and YA lists, the Times has reset each title’s “weeks on the list” count to 1. That means that Markus Zusak’s THE BOOK THIEF went from 272 weeks on the list back down to 1. It’s going to make it awfully tough for the next few months to easily see which books have been successful in the long run. Over time, this would cease to be an issue, but I hope the Times figures out a way to restore those “weeks on” counts.

End of rant. Any thoughts about the new lists and their impact?

7 Responses to The Times it is a-changing

  1. Joanne Levy says:

    Doesn’t this make the list less relevant? I don’t pretend to understand a lot of how sales information is collected and used or how people determine ‘success’ of a book, but if you’re comparing apples and oranges and giraffes, what’s the point? It’s just one more thing to make authors feel inadequate, even though the bar is nearly unattainable. Or is is just to get that badge of honor to go on subsequent printings and new books?

    And wiping out historical data? Er, they couldn’t have found someone to update that, even if it needed to be done manually?

  2. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    I agree that it sounds like the worst of all possible worlds, (and the Book Thief refiguring sounds like when they recatagorized Harry Potter to save face for the so-called “serious fiction”) and it may be subliminally that they rather look down on juvenile lit as a whole. Dumping licensed junk in with the actual books used to always drive me nuts as a bookseller; it’s written by committee, often as not, publishers are paid to print the stuff out of the advertising budget of the movie studio, and the sales are jacked by buying their own books back out of the same slush fund. Not quite peripherally, did you know that Nick & Nora have their own clothing line at Target? Maybe we’re all in the wrong business!

  3. Joelle says:

    Thanks for explaining in detail. I was having trouble putting it together based on your tweets yesterday!

    Oh, what a muddle.

  4. Kim says:

    I read the Times list every week and I appreciate this new information. I could see where this could be very frustrating.

  5. Saundra says:

    I really feel like they need a non-fiction list. I felt that way when Chapter Books were all one borg of a list, and I feel that way now. Right now, it’s all Legos taking up the MG list.

    But next year, it will all be non-fiction movie tie-in picture books on the YA list when Beautiful Creatures and Mortal Instruments hit the big screen, just like it was with Twilight.

    Still, even removing the non fiction books from the MG list, that list is going to continue to be super-competitive. Between Rick Riordan, James Patterson, Jeff Kinney and Rachel Renee Russo, they just sell massive, massive numbers of books and almost always have more than one book a year. (In Riordan’s case, he sometimes has up to four!)

    I’m glad YA has its own list, finally. I think it’s interesting that they’re bundling all formats in Children’s, but not the rest of the traditional lists. But seeing as how competitive the MG list is, I don’t think it would have killed them to extend YA and MG to 20.

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