Category Archives: New York Times

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.

 

6

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?