Sunday, September 23, 2007

List Inflation

You’ve heard of grade inflation. Well, now we have list inflation.

As of this week, the New York Times will split its paperback bestseller list into Mass Market Paperbacks and Trade Paperbacks. Their reasoning is that splitting the list will enable them to focus more attention on literary novels that are typically printed in trade paperback and that don’t usually have the velocity of sales necessary to put them on the standard bestseller list.

Yet there’s a boon here for genre paperback writers, too, since removing those rare but powerful literary novels that stay on the list for years, such as THE KITE RUNNER, will open up more slots for genre writers. Of course, many non-literary novels are also printed in trade paperback. Nicholas Sparks, for instance. Trade paperbacks have also become the form of choice for houses chasing the success of Philippa Gregory’s THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL. So I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot of books with period paintings of headless women in fancy dress on their covers making the new trade paperback list, despite their actual mediocre sales.

The New York Times did this once before. When publishers complained that HARRY POTTER was gobbling up almost half the spots on the list, the Times created a separate list for “children’s books.”

Does all this really matter? Well, yes. Recent studies have shown that while the sales of established writers such as John Grisham are unaffected by their appearance on the list, “hitting the Times” gives a huge push to new, lesser-known writers. Michael Korda actually wrote an entire book on “Making the List” (although I think he used the PW list, since it's been around longer). So making the Times is a Big Deal. Many writers even have clauses in their contracts that call for them to receive a bonus of from $2-20,000 for every week they’re on the NYT.

There are lots of other lists, of course. There’s the PW list, the USA Today list, the Ingrams list, the list, etc. There are even lists for regions or individual cities. This is why you’ll sometimes see a writer referred to simply as “bestselling” without the NYT added. I, for instance, can rightfully call myself a “bestselling” author because my romances regularly used to hit the Ingrams (distributers) list, even though I’ve never been near the NYT list. But despite all the grumbling that the methodology used by the Times is flawed and that the USA Today list is really more accurate, no other list has close to the clout of the Times.

The official List used to be the first fifteen slots. Recently, the Times has also been releasing what they call the extended list, which is slots 16-30. Just making the extended list is a big deal, although not as big a deal as making THE List. Traditionally, a writer needed to hit the real List to be dubbed a “New York Times Bestselling Author.” But lately some publishers have been cheating and bestowing that coveted title on writers who “only” hit the extended list (leading to predictable snide whispers).

For reasons I’m not real clear on (but which probably have much to do with sales and marketing), the Times has now decided to expand THE List from fifteen to twenty. Which means that every week, if you add all the lists together, an extra thirty-five authors will now be able to officially style themselves as a “New York Times Bestselling Author.”

Of course, my opinion of bestselling fiction has never recovered from an extensive study of the List I made several years ago. To the general public, “New York Times Bestselling Author” means “good author.” Once, that may have been (mostly) true. Today, however, it generally (but not always) means “commercial, selling-out-to-the-lowest-common-denominator author.” And no, this isn’t sour grapes. I recently saw a list NYT authors from a date in the 1950’s (Hemingway, Lawrence, Pasternak) compared to a list from the Nineties (Patterson, Cromwell, Steele). Things had definitely changed, even before the Times started proliferating and expanding their lists. As for now?

Am I the only person who thinks that what is inflated is diminished?


Chap O'Keefe said...

This is the third blog where I've seen comment on the NYT changes. Clearly public reporting of sales is very influential, but I wonder why it is the public is apparently more willing to buy a book that has been listed by a newspaper as a bestseller?

It all smacks of emperor's new clothes. Though I'd be delighted to have a book's success announced by any organization that has the public ear (or eye), I'd be more pleased to think I was building up a readership because people had personally enjoyed the last!

Jaime said...

Diminished, indeed.

Angie said...

Both splitting the list into several and displaying more places is pretty clearly just lowering the bar. It's like when they made the SATs easier; it doesn't actually change anything, but it lets a few more students (and parents) brag and looks good to the people who aren't paying attention.

When I was in college I worked for the lady who ran the Honors Program and one of my jobs was to go over to Admin once a week or so and go through the high school transcripts submitted, looking for people who qualified for an Honors Program invite. Back then I knew the date when the SATs had changed, and if the SAT score reported on a student's transcript was dated after that point, they had to have a higher score to qualify. The SAT corporation adjusts, so the colleges adjust; it works out the same but it looks better on the surface.

It's pretty clear that the other publishers were just feeling pissy about Harry Potter. "We're not making the list and that's not fair!" Umm, why? Your books aren't selling as well as the HP books -- deal. But instead of telling them to get stuffed, the Times started handing out more ribbons. Oh, yeah, that's impressive. Maybe they should just bulk mail every writer in the world an NYT Bestseller certificate or something -- would that be more "fair?"



Lisa said...

A few months ago, I did the same thing you mentioned in your post and I Googled the best selling books of the 60s and 70s to see how they compared to books now. The NYT Best Seller list lost its cachet for me as a reader a long time ago, but I guess it's because I'm a book snob. There I said it. If everybody else in the country is reading it, then it probably sucks. If it's the #1 TV show in the country, I'm positive it sucks. I know my perspective as a consumer is quite different than it would be as a published author, but there it is. Yes, I suppose it just waters down the significance of making the list, but if it gets more people in this country reading anything, I suppose there's an upside.

Charles Gramlich said...

Lists work because there are a lot of "sheeple" out there (Lana's word). They buy books because they are popular and not because they are necessarily good. I suspect many of them don't even read the books, good or bad ones.

Steve Malley said...

Watch out, Candy, or you may be deluged with protests from the makers of Twelfth Place ribbons and Certificates of Participation... :-)

goatman said...

It would be interesting to do a survey on why people read the books they do. Ads, television or radio interview, recommendation from a friend, genre-specific interest, or other. I know this has been done to the extreme by booksellers but I have never been privy to results; another column of possible reads by the Times cannot hurt.
Personally, I started reading Margaret Atwood because I saw her on Charlie Rose one night!

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