Category Archives: New York Times

2

You’re the best

A propos of Michael’s very handy breakdown of the latest changes to the New York Times bestseller list, I’ve been thinking about just how many lists the Times graces us with these days: 23 on the 8/30 list, in various combinations of format, category, genre, and demographic.

Sports and Fitness. Food and Diet. Education. Relationships. Travel.  Business. Manga.  In August, there were bestseller lists for each of these specific things at least once, separate from the other lists they might fit under.

the-new-york-times-logoAs an agent, I’m thrilled for my and my colleagues’ clients to have the greatest possible number of chances for their books (and careers, frankly) to be tagged with that New York Times bestseller status, and there’s no denying that breaking out into narrower lists gives books that would never make the main lists a fighting chance.  With an Education list, you don’t necessarily have to compete with Felicia Day, Aziz Ansari, Ronda Rousey, Holly Madison, Jimmy Carter, Judd Apatow, and Amy Poehler, all on the main hardcover nonfiction list this week, to get a spot.

If we’re heading toward a day when there are more distinct New York Times bestseller lists then there are spots on the longest of those lists, I’d love to see them drill down further in fiction, too.  Literary Fiction by Women, maybe? (Or just Literary Fiction at all, for that matter.)  And what about one for Diverse Books? (If that’s the first time you’re seeing that phrase, here’s some context.) Or Debut Fiction!  People Who Aren’t on Twitter.  Authors Who’ve Never Been on TV. Authors Who Always Seem About to Break Out but Somehow Never Do. Books by Authors with More Starred Reviews Per Book than Zeroes in Their Advances.

Sure, it’s a little more subjective than Sports and Fitness, but if they need the help I’m happy to curate.  Which lists would you put in your fantasy New York Times?

2

The Times it is a-changing, part deux

Back in 2012, I blogged about the New York Times making a significant set of changes to their children’s bestseller lists. At the time, the picture books and series lists remained, but what had been “chapter book” and paperback lists were instead replaced with middle grade and YA lists. The bigger change, though, was that these lists would combine sales across formats, counting hardcover, paperback and e-book sales. My concern in that first week of the new lists focused mainly on the middle grade list, which was dominated by non-fiction—which includes all sorts of tie-in publishing. Frankly, we were all sick of seeing the list full of Lego books, and the shift only seemed to make that worse. What wasn’t clear in that first week, however, was just how bad combining sales of all formats into one list would be. Yes, I had questions about how ebook sales would affect the lists (and past-Michael: those ebook price drops are not weighted differently, so dropping the price does get books on the list), but what I hadn’t taken into account was how “new” backlist would go on to dominate the lists.

If there has been one steady complaint about the children’s bestseller lists for the past couple of years, it’s been John Green. Not that anyone begrudges his success—the man works hard for it. But with four of his books pretty permanently in the top 10, there were only 6 slots for other books. And, putting Green aside, it became clear that the list was mostly made up of “new” backlist. Paperbacks are cheaper than hardcovers, and they sell in greater numbers. The ebook editions of those same books also become cheaper when a book goes from hardcover to paperback. So, the list became skewed very heavily towards long-running bestsellers in paperback and ebook. And I think this frustrated just about everyone. It seemed nearly impossible for a new book in hardcover to hit the list, which meant less discoverability. On the adult side of lists, with formats broken out, the hardcover lists typically feature new titles that are just out, changing considerably from week to week, while the paperback lists show which books have long-term staying power. Readers, authors and publishers all benefit, with both new books being highlighted and backlist titles getting recognition for their ongoing sales.

Yesterday, the good news came down that once again, the lists would be changing. And this time around, the changes are huge. In this PW interview, Pamela Paul explains the changes, the rationale for those changes, and the reasons these changes didn’t happen earlier (though I am still curious what the “technical challenges” are that she refers to). Goodbye format agnostic lists, and hello hardcover, paperback and ebook lists—one each for both middle grade and YA. Yet again, the picture book and series lists remain the same. In general, I think this shift is a really good one. Each format will now only compete with other books in that format, which should create a more level playing field. As on the adult side, I think we’ll see a fair amount of change and movement on the hardcover list, while the paperback list will likely feature well-established bestsellers. The ebook list (which is oddly only five slots) will be an interesting one to watch. Will books show up there that aren’t on either the hardcover or print list? Will publishers game their pricing to get books onto that list, eager to have the “NYT Bestseller” on their book? Time will tell, but in the first week, the ebook list looks an awful lot like the paperback list, which reflects, I think, the price-sensitive nature of ebook sales.

Some interesting smaller items:

  • The paperback and ebook lists will be online only, not in print. This means that the books that have dominated the printed lists for the past few years have fallen off the printed list. Does that matter? Likely not, but it does feel like a demotion.
  • As with the last change, “Weeks on List” has been reset. The Book Thief is once again at week 1 on the list. I’m not sure what the solution is, but this doesn’t seem right to me.
  • While there’s some tie-in on there, the middle grade list seems to reflect the breadth and depth of the category. Exciting stuff going on in that space.
  • The paperback list does not feature a single female author. The hardcover list has eight. Will this new formulation feature more women? (Much has been said about the male dominance of the children’s bestseller lists.)

Overall, I’m quite pleased with the changes. The conceit behind these lists makes much more sense—the adult side has been doing it this way for an awfully long time, and it’s worked well there. I’m eager to see how this plays out over the next few years. Any thoughts on the changes, dear readers?

UPDATE: It turns out the series list has changed, albeit slightly. Erin Stein, publisher at Imprint, pointed out that tie-in titles for properties will now be combined and added to the series list. This explains why the Descendants moved over to the series list this week, which had been a point of discussion amongst us list-watchers on Twitter the other day. While I think this is a good move, as it’ll eliminate the MG list being dominated by Frozen tie-ins, it’s going to make the series list even more competitive than it was for authors. I’ll be keeping a close watch on this one.

1

Manufacturing a bestseller

There’s been a lot of hubbub recently about authors gaming the bestseller lists, spurred by this story in the WSJ last week. While the company mentioned in the article may be new, the phenomenon is not. Business book authors, in particular, have used similar tactics in the past, hiring companies that would have copies of their books purchased from stores that report to the New York Times to get onto their list. Publishers do their own version of this, sending authors out on tour to pump up first week sales in select markets in the hopes of getting on regional and national lists.

The ubiquity of Nielsen BookScan data has made gaming lists harder, since it’s no longer just newspapers calling around to certain stores and asking what’s selling. Sales are much more easily verifiable, so pumping up an underperforming book isn’t as easy. Then again, when you can order copies of your book online, you no longer need buyers in different cities to make yourself look good. All you need is a credit card!

All this talk reminded me of an amazing story I read on The Awl a while back about a radio DJ named Jean Shepherd who orchestrated an amazing media hoax back in the 50s. He enlisted the help of listeners of his late-nite show to try to get an non-existent book onto the bestseller list. There are a lot of twists and turns, and I’ll let you read the story instead of summarizing. It’s worth the time.

And, it just goes to show, nihil sub sole novum.

2

(Borrowing) By the Book

No too long ago the New York Times Book Review introduced a nifty new feature, the “By the Book” interview, in which the editors pick the brains of a celebrated writer–folks like Joyce Carol Oates, Ian McEwan, Karen Russell, Alain de Botton–on assorted literary questions.  It seemed to me that this is a feature worth replicating (read: stealing).

The questions vary slightly from one week to the next and depending on the interviewee, but I’ve lifted most of the core questions.  In the spirit of sharing, and with fingers crossed that I am violating no intellectual property rights–sorry Gray Lady–I’ve included my answers below.  Please share your own in turn.

 

What was the best book you read last year? I’m  awful at the business of anointing a single winner, but the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese and The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud were all wonderful.

Where and when do you like to read? In an ideal world, in the sunshine, when I can be uninterrupted for several hours. In reality, anywhere, anytime: on the train, in the car, to myself when my children are sleeping, out loud when they are awake, as a reward for accomplishing odious or challenging tasks, as a means of procrastinating odious or unpleasant tasks, as an aperitif, as a digestif…

Who are your favorite authors: Ian McEwan, Nadine Gordimer, Margaret Atwood, Naguib Mahfouz, Lorrie Moore, Jonathan Franzen, Roald Dahl, Philip Pullman.

Preferred genre—probably literary fiction

Guilty pleasures: Buying books at second hand book stores, garage sales, thrift stores, and other quirkily organized non-royalty reporting venues.

Best book about your home state (NJ). Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. Tom Perotta’s Election.

What were your favorite books as a child? Madeline L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series, The Chronicles of Narnia, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series, anything to do with King Arthur—Marion Zimmer Bradley to Thomas Mallory to Mary Stewart, L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon and Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, the Fairy Books (Red, Brown, Green) collected by Andrew Lang.

A book you wish the President would read: a memoir written by a client of mine, to be published by FSG this April called A FORT OF NINE TOWERS: An Afghan Family Memoir—a joyous, heartbreaking, eviscerating chronicle of a boy and a country in impossible times.

Author, living or dead, who you might meet:  I have a special place in my heart for the English Romantics—William and Dorothy Wordsworth, the Shelleys, Byron, Coleridge, Keats. I would also have liked to tag along with intrepid women travel writers like Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark.

Do you organize books in a particular way: I used to attempt to group roughly by category. I have since given up entirely  on a system and now shelve more or less by size and how best I can make them fit.

Paper or electronic? I prefer paper, but read a greater volume electronically.

What do you plan to read next? The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, Case Histories by Kate Atkinson, Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver.

 

7

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?