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Susan Miles Gulbransen: How Are Bestsellers Chosen?

Every author dreams of getting published, then making the bestseller lists. The New York Times list is among the oldest and most prestigious, although today other lists are out there, such as those from newspapers including the Wall Street Journal, magazines such as Publishers Weekly, blogs such as Goodreads or individuals such as Oprah's Book Club list.

For years, I assumed bestseller lists represented the 10 to 20 most sold books in the industry. At the same time, I was aware that big seller books such as the Bible, popular romance genre books or Jane Austen's classics were rarely if ever listed. These books often have high numbers of sales, so why aren’t they and others among the chosen books? No simple answer or, as the saying goes, it's a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

Questions have come up. What is the difference between individual and bulk sales? Which books have the right literary quality? Does it take money to get a book listed? Or, which bookstores get counted? When I researched what it takes to make the NYT bestseller lists, it became obvious that the system is complicated, secretive and not based on straight sales calculations. I found few clear answers.

The term "bestseller" goes back to 1891 when a London-based literary magazine, The Bookman, included monthly sales rankings, although statistics were not easy to come by and often incomplete. That same year, the International Copyright Act was passed, which slowed down the sales of pirated copies of British novels. By 1895, The Bookman ranked American books, too.

Thirty-six years later, the NYT came out with its first bestseller list, rating sales within New York City. A month later, in 1931, it expanded to eight cities with a list for each. Data were collected not from publishers but booksellers in those cities.

By the early 1940s, the NYT lists had grown to covering 14 cities. In 1942, they created a national bestseller list, drawing data on fiction and nonfiction sales from those same cities.

In the years after, the number grew to bookstores in 22 cities, indicating the most sold books across the nation and suggestions for what to read next. The NYT rotated these reports from bookstores each week, and still does.

In the 1950s, data were expanded to include major chain bookstores such as Crown Books, B. Dalton and Waldenbooks. Meanwhile, how the NYT chose each book for their lists remained a trade secret and has so over the decades.

The number of bookstores counted in 2004 was up to 4,000 plus an unstated number of wholesalers. A NYT Bestseller Watch List of 50 to 70 books was given to the retailers for each week. Store reports contained sales for these books, too. The NYT then decided which books go on the lists.

In 2013, NYT Book Review staff Gregory Cowles explained why: "[It] is a secret both to protect our product and to make sure people can't try to rig the system. Even in the NYT Book Review itself, we don't know the precise methods."

Local resident Fred Klein worked for 30 years as vice president of marketing for Bantam Books and then executive editor before retiring in Santa Barbara in the 1990s. He recalls how Bantam tried to "rig" the system.

"In the 1960s, my Bantam boss wanted a novel we were publishing to make the NYT bestseller list. He found their list of 36 stores, which would report that week the number of copies they sold to recommend them being on the list," he said. "Bantam sent salesmen to go into those stores and buy the novel. In those days, you could return the books and they would then be returned to the publisher. That meant when Bantam employees bought the books, Bantam would get them back and put them on sale again."

Klein started laughing as he told the rest of the story: "Bantam did all that for a week, but the novel never showed up on the list. It turns out that stores recommended the novel to the NYT with their high sales, but those numbers did not qualify it for that week's bestseller list. I still don't know just how they do it."

Over the years, the categories of bestsellers have increased. Today, they are broken down by fiction and nonfiction, hardcover, paperback, electronic and various genres, a total of 11 by my latest count.

Other lists such as Barnes & Noble use actual sales numbers to qualify for their lists. Publishers Weekly also tries to use top bestsellers to make its lists.

The Wall Street Journal builds its list based on the sales figures it gets from Nielsen BookScan, according to Tim Grahl (Your First 1,000 Copies). In general, if an author sells the most books in a category as reported by BookScan, that book should hit the top in that category in the Wall Street Journal bestseller list. Like the NYT bestseller list, not all purchases are tracked.

BookScan does not count sales made through big-box stores such as Walmart and Sam’s Club, and other resources such as self-publishing, which affects thousands of authors.

Amazon has opened a whole new source of confusing data.

Overall statistics from the information gathering source called Bowker provides annual information on book sales. The latest I could find showed a Publishers Weekly report.

"Approximately 50 to 55 thousand new works of fiction are published every year," according to the report. "Given the increasing number of self-published e-books that carry no ISBN (International Standard Book Number), this is a conservative number. In the U.S., about 200 to 220 novels make the NYT bestseller lists every year. Even with conservative numbers, that’s less than half a percent of works of fiction published. Of that half a percent, even fewer hit the bestseller lists and stay there week after week to become what the industry calls a 'double-digit' book. Only handfuls of authors manage 10 or more weeks on the list, and of those maybe just three or four will sell a million copies of a single title in the U.S. in one year."

So, what does it take for an author to get his or her book out there in the bestseller lists? According to self-publishing guru and late local resident Dan Poynter, the number starts at 35,000.

"A book," he said, "might come out and make a huge hit and sell a million copies in a year, and then be forgotten. Other books, like the Bible, A Tale of Two Cities or Pride and Prejudice, never appear on bestseller lists, but they continue to sell steadily and have far outsold most books, making the bestseller lists simply by their quality, word of mouth and acceptance as great literature. To sell 35,000 copies of your book is a big task."

Poynter wrote that studies show that 500,000 books in all genres and printing methods a year are being published. About 98 percent of those will sell fewer than 500 copies. Think of it — if you sell more than 500, you’re among the top 2 percent.

All of these numbers point out that being an author is far from easy, and dreams don’t often come true. Despite all this negativity, there are more authors than ever these days, and their dreams cannot be dashed. Hope remains eternal.

Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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