A murky engine of influence
November 15, 2023 2:18 AM   Subscribe

The list is as much a cultural signifier as it is an accurate index of what the public is reading. The tagline makes it easier for readers to find a book within today’s info glut and makes it easier for an author to convince a publisher to let them write another one ... “It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she says. “It has a cumulative, rich-get-richer effect, if you’ve managed it successfully.” Sales come and go, but a NYT bestseller bio line is forever. from The murky math of the New York Times bestsellers list
posted by chavenet (6 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

Definitely previously covered on the blue, but glad to see the added discussion in this piece of new/updated grifts. Sorry, "author services firms." :-D

Aside from the "everyone already knows this" gripe, the most common complaint about this article on my socials was the wonky stats. The "3 million books" figure, for instance, isn't precise, accurate, or useful when it comes to calculations of a book's chances of making it to the NYT. ChatGPT-generated trash on Amazon, the 7th edition of an organic chemistry textbook, a self-published romantasy, a local history book with 100 total potential buyers -- none of these are going to make it to the NYT list, either because of formal barriers or inherent sales caps, but all of them are published books. Counting them in makes the odds seem more dramatic.
posted by cupcakeninja at 3:48 AM on November 15 [3 favorites]

How many Regnery published books made the list?
posted by nofundy at 5:05 AM on November 15 [2 favorites]

How many Regnery published books made the list?
Interesting that you should ask!
posted by TedW at 6:23 AM on November 15 [4 favorites]

The first time I hit the list, my editor said to me, "Congratulations, you have a new first name: 'New York Times Bestselling Author John Scalzi.'" This was his way of noting that a) in the world of authors, it's the one accolade everyone, even (especially) people who don't read books, understand as a mark of achievement, b) as a consequence, it would open doors previous locked.

And that part, at least, was accurate. My sales went up generally (along with my advances), I got better and/or more regular placement in book stores, I became more desirable for conventions and literary events, and my books got more attention from film/tv folks, who are always on the hunt for properties they can pitch - and "NYT Bestseller" comes with cachet that suggests to studios there is already a market. As noted in the article, once you're a "NYT Bestseller," that's a tag you get to keep for the rest of your career - which is why, among other things, there are so many NYT Bestsellers in bookstores: Survivorship bias is a real thing.

Given all that, it's no surprise that both publisher and authors try to game their way to bestsellership - and why the NYT list makers have to continue to tweak their formula and keep the details to themselves. The list tracks sales but not only sales, otherwise the lists would be clogged with backlist titles and books assigned at schools, and anyway there are bestseller lists for that (USA Today and various Bookscan lists - which is one reason why James Patterson's gripe rings a little hollow, especially coming from him, the pre-eminent book packager in the country). I get how it annoys people that at least some of the basis of the NYT lists are, essentially, vibes.

With that said, this is a different argument than the one that the NYT list (or any bestseller list that's not merely tracking all sales of all books) is fundamentally dishonest or rigged. It's not that; the NYT is pretty rigorous in how it applies its secret sauce, and attempts to game its system are flagged or disallowed. When a conservative author or publishers whines about how the fix is in with the NYT list (which, by the way, this week has four books out of fifteen by or about conservatives for 15 slots), what they're really saying is "my sales and/or distribution model is not congenial to the NYT bestseller model." And indeed it may not be! So many book sales by conservative authors are bulk buys by organizations, for example, or are a contractual condition of appearing at an event. These types of sales are often overlooked or disallowed.

I can't say that my publisher doesn't play the NYT bestseller game with me when I have a book out: Tor almost always tours my books when they come out and the bookstores I tour to (particularly in the first week) tend to report their sales to the New York Times for list consideration. I can say, however, that ultimately, if the books don't sell, they don't show up on the list; you can't get there on vibes alone in this era of the NYT list. Likewise, sometimes you don't hit even if you do sell the books: The Collapsing Empire and The Consuming Fire both sold almost exactly the same number of books in their first week, and only one of them showed up on the list. Because it's not just about how many books you sell, it's about how many books other authors are selling, too.

Finally, I will note that the book of mine that has sold the most, Old Man's War, has never once been near a New York Times (or indeed, any other) bestseller list; it just keeps consistently selling the same decently-sized amount, year in and year out, for almost 20 years now. Likewise, I had published seven books before one of mine so much as scratched the bottom of the list (that book: The Last Colony, which was #33 on the Extended Mass Market Bestseller list, a list which no longer even exists).

You can have a perfectly good career not ever getting anywhere near a bestseller list, and of course, many authors do. Does "New York Times Bestseller" on the cover of your book have value? Yes it does. But there are more ways to be successful as an author than just that.
posted by jscalzi at 7:28 AM on November 15 [51 favorites]

Mod note: [btw, jscalzi's comment and this post have been added to the sidebar and Best Of blog]
posted by taz (staff) at 2:15 AM on November 19

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