The Business Rusch: Bestseller Lists and Other Thoughts
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
On Tuesday, in my morning business reading, I came across a rather startling statistic: the claim that it only took 20,000 sales of paper books to hit the paper bestseller lists. I’m also assuming the statistic means paper; it might mean that it takes 20K to hit any bestseller list, which is still shockingly low, if you think about it.
Now, I have no way to verify this statistic. It comes from a deliberately anonymous source in the middle of a PandoDaily article on the future of publishing. However, reading the entire post makes me think that Anonymous here truly is in publishing and truly does know of what he/she speaks.
It also confirms a sense I’ve been having for a while, but have only a handful of statistics for. My sense is this: because the book market has expanded so greatly, it takes fewer copies of one book to hit a bestseller list—any bestseller list.
Let’s talk mass market paperback first. When I sold my first novel into science fiction and fantasy, the novel shipped at 30,000 mass market copies—decent for a first novel in a genre that was considered the lowest of the low, but nowhere near what the bestsellers in the sf/f genre were selling. (Not the bestsellers period, but the names you’d recognize from the time—the folks at the top of the sf/f list.)
I don’t know what their hardcover numbers were, but their mass market numbers (from now on, I’m going to call mass market by its industry acronym: mmpb) were anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 shipped. In sf/f, the lowest selling genre (at the time) besides Western.
When my first romance novel under the pen name Kristine Grayson came out in 2000, the publisher shipped 35,000 mmpb copies, which was a middling to low shipment of a romance novel at the time. Romance novels from standard midlisters—not the top of the line books—shipped at 50,000 or higher.
So when I saw mmpb books hitting the New York Times mass market list or the Publishers Weekly mass market list—and I knew for a fact those books have a print run of 20,000, I got nervous. I questioned my own knowledge of the books. I figured that particular book was a successful outlier and shrugged it off—until I saw Anonymous’s number.
Now let me say for the record that not all books that sell 20,000 copies will make a bestseller list, nor will all books that sell 50,000 copies. It depends on the day and the time of year. It depends on the competition for that list. And it depends on who is reporting.
Hitting a bestseller list has more to do with velocity than it does total sales. Velocity is the number of books sold within a short period of time, which for paper books, is one week. (Amazon measures by the hour.) So if you sell 20,000 copies in one week and never sell another copy, you might make a bestseller list. But if you sell 20,000 copies slowly—1,000 copies every week for 20 weeks—you won’t make a list at all, even if the book continues to sell at that rate for the next twenty weeks. In other words, the second book will outsell the first by a factor of 2, but the first book’s author will be able to “bestseller” on the cover of her next book and you won’t.
Got that? Because it’s important to this discussion.
In about a month, Publishers Weekly will print its report of the bestselling titles of 2011, and it should include numbers. We’ll see how those numbers compare to, say, 2008 or some other year. Because I’m expecting the numbers in all formats except e-book to be down.
The numbers in mass market paperback will be dramatically down, because mmpb have lost most of their slots. (A slot is the place where a retailer put a book.) Borders is gone and Barnes & Noble has cut back shelf space. (I have no idea if the rush back into books at the end of the year has continued at B&N or abated.) The loss of independent bookstores is less important here because most indies didn’t carry a lot of mmpbs.
But Safeway, Albertsons, and other grocery stories did. As did WalMart, and other box retailers, truck stops, convenience stores, and airport bookstores. Most of those places have either cut back on mmpb dramatically or stopped carrying them altogether.
Some of this is price point. Traditional publishers realized a few years ago that mmpbs were becoming very costly. So publishers bumped up the price of a mmpb to nearly $10. With trade papers hovering around $15, it made more sense to publish more books in trade, which had a higher profit margin for the company. (Trade royalties are often lower, a remnant of the “odd” format thinking of the late 1990s. Plus many trades are sold non-returnable.)
With publishers moving a lot of the bestsellers to trade (when they normally would be mmpb), the retailers realized they needed trade shelves to accommodate the trade bestsellers. And book sales went down. Mass market readers want a cheap book, not a $15 book, so they either went to the library, or trolled the used bookstore for the same book. When retailers like Safeway looked at the book sections of the store, they saw a significant decline in overall revenue in the past few years. So the retailers did what any good retailer does—they reduced the size of the section commensurate with the interest in that section. No sense wasting space on something that doesn’t sell as well as it used to.
A book that would have shipped at 30,000 copies twelve years ago now ships for 5,000 copies today. Not because there’s less interest in that type of book, but because there are fewer places to buy the book. You can’t sell a book that isn’t on a rack, virtual or real. If the book isn’t on a real rack, then you miss the impulse buyers, the folks who stopped in for eggs and leave with a copy of the latest mmpb thriller by some writer they’ve never heard of, which they picked up because of its nifty cover.
If there are fewer books available, then it takes fewer copies to hit that magic velocity number which puts your book in the top ten or top fifteen sellers for the week. Books hit bestseller lists in comparison to other books published around the same time. So if mmpbs sell ¼ of what they sold ten years ago, then it will take ¼ of the copies than it took ten years ago to hit a bestseller list.
What does all this mean? Well, that’s the question, isn’t it. Bestseller lists have proliferated in the past two decades. When my first novel was published, there were four bestseller lists—hardcover fiction, hardcover nonfiction, paperback fiction and paperback nonfiction. Only a handful of places even published bestseller lists—The New York Times, of course, and Publisher’s Weekly (whose list, according to Michael Korda, is older than the Times’ list). The Wall Street Journal had a hardcover list, and USA Today’s list started around that point, combining every title into one—then considered a revolutionary concept, when really, it was an old-fashioned concept, the way things used to be.
Now, most (surviving) newspapers have bestseller lists. There are paid bestseller lists in chain bookstores. (I, as a publisher, can buy the number one slot for my favorite book for a certain amount of money. That puts my favorite book in the point-of-purchase part of the store; it’s advertising.) Amazon has bestseller lists galore, and so does B&N online.
A new list came into being a decade ago, courtesy of J.K. Rowling. The New York Times got irritated that the top slots on the hardcover, trade, and mass market bestseller lists were filled with that fantasy children’s junk, so they spun off the new “children’s” list, to take that nasty series out of their prestigious hardcover list to make room for “real” novels.
The Times tinkers all the time (pun intended) with the list. It added a trade bestseller list in 2007 to split trades out from other paperback books (those nasty mass market books that the Times didn’t want to review), and then the Times added an e-book bestseller list last year.
Amazon does the same thing. It delineates its list by genre, subgenre, and sub-subgenre. You can be an e-book bestseller for fiction or for romance fiction or for romance/contemporary fiction or for romance/contemporary/paranormal or for romance/contemporary/nosex/noswearwords/nokissing/catsanddogslivingtogether or whatever other combination the algorithm comes up with this week.
All of this makes for more and more bestselling book titles, and at the same time, it dilutes the value of having “bestseller” by your name. Not that the bestseller lists were ever a totally honest reflection of the state of sales within the book publishing world. The New York Times only uses “select” bookstores and keeps the names of those stores secret, with some “weighted” heavier than others, and they have done so from the beginning.
It was quite shocking, then, when USA Today started publishing their list based on raw sales data. When that happened, it became clear that the Times list didn’t reflect any sales reality.
But lists could always be goosed. Exorcist author William Peter Blatty sued the Times over inaccuracies in the list back in 1983. Authors tried to manipulate the list all the time by finding out what those Times stores were and buying 1,000 copies of their own books from each. Sometimes it actually worked.
Authors are doing the same thing now with the Kindle lists, trying to get their books up the list with a combination of free promotions and convincing their readers/fans to buy books at a certain time. For the sake of both Amazon’s list and the USA Today list, it’s better to have fans of a series preorder the next book so that the book ships on publication day, than it is to have them buy the book one week or five weeks after publication. The preorders goose the lists.
At a certain point, all of this list goosing and bestseller discussion becomes moot. It’s like grade inflation in school. If no one gets lower than a C, what’s an A worth? If everyone can be a bestseller, even if it’s just in one bookstore in the sub-sub-sub-subgenre list: romance/contemporary/nosex/noswearwords/nokissing/catsanddogslivingtogether, then what does the phrase “bestselling book” mean?
This is a question that Billboard is dealing with right now. For those of you who are musically challenged, the Billboard charts have been around since 1936. Back then, of course, there were fewer charts (country and my hit parade, I believe), and the charts were compiled by hand by member radio stations (who often got payola from record studios, and who would remove bestselling titles from their lists when the studios stopped paying). Anyway, the Billboard charts, like the bestseller list, only had a few subcategories way back when. I’m not even sure if the country charts differed from the pop charts back at the beginning.
Why am I telling you this? Remember that the music industry is ahead of the book industry on this change to digital. And the struggles the music industry has will come up in the struggles the print industry has.
So what’s happening with Billboard these days is this: Billboard is tweaking its list again because of—wait for it—free downloads and 99-cent album promotions. Billboard decided—as of last week—that any album sold for less than $3.49 does not count as an album sale. (The price point is not a random number; it’s about half of a retail price of most albums.)
By that standard, Lady Gaga’s chart topper Born This Way did not sell 1.1 million copies after its release last June. It only sold 660,000 copies. That would have meant that she did not have a million-copy debut. It would have meant that no album had a million-copy debut in 2011.
This policy will only be in place in the first month of the album’s release. After that, the 99-cent sale will count.
What’s Billboard trying to do? Prevent a lower-priced (and, by implication, less worthy) album from goosing the list. In an editorial, Executive Editor Bill Werde, wrote “Billboard doesn’t want to control the marketplace. We just want to count it. But free or almost-free albums don’t represent a marketplace.”
(Note: I found this link in the LA Times. I was unable to find to find the original editorial on Billboard’s rather chaotic website without more digging than I was willing to do.)
He then adds that it’s probably “smart business” to get music to as many people as possible to “hook them on your songs,” which makes “the music a marketing tool. That’s fine, but let’s not call that an album sale.”
While Lady Gaga’s manager is angry about the shift, Jeremy DeVine of Temporary Residence Limited, a company that handles indie rock groups, said, “The sales are great for consumers and the artists, but from a chart perspective it treats a $10 album and a $1 album with equal legitimacy, which is dubious. You end up with albums by Animal Collective and Explosions in the Sky rubbing elbows with Katy Perry and Kanye West, if only for a couple of weeks before it swiftly slides off the charts. These kinds of quick sales paints unrealistic pictures of success for everyone involved.”
Or to put it Werde’s way, he has to make sure he’s “creating strong, credible charts.”
The Times has used similar arguments. When it decided to add the children’s list (just before the release of a Harry Potter book), Times editor Charles McGrath said, “We are also making room on the adult list for adult titles—not that what has replaced the Potter is exactly illustrious.”
What replaced the Potter title were romances by Danielle Steele and Catherine Coulter, which the Times clearly didn’t like either. Nor did the Times like it last year when it was forced to add Amanda Hocking’s indie-published titles to its new e-book bestseller list.
To the people who produce the lists, it’s all about the lists’s integrity. And I do understand that. Everyone who is managing a bestseller list right now—be it in publishing or the music industry or even in television—is about my age, fifty or so. We can all remember growing up with the book to read, the album at the top of the charts, the number one television show. If you had the #1 television show, millions and millions of people watched. If you had the #1 album, you sold millions and millions of copies, not just 1.1 million or 660,000, depending on how you wanted to count it. If you had the #1 novel—well, first of all, it was hardcover, and secondly, it sold millions of copies too. It was on every coffee table of every literate household in the nation, whether that household read the book or not.
We forty- and fifty-somethings remember when lists could have that kind of influence. We remember buying books because they were #1 on the Times, not because they were to our tastes.
The days of that kind of influence are gone.
Sure, some books will sell at astronomical numbers. This year, it’s George R.R. Martin (and personally, I love that, both as a fantasy fiction fan and someone who has known George for years). Last year, it was Stieg Larsson. Before that, it was J.K. Rowling, or maybe it was Dan Brown. I lose track.
But for the most part, the number of copies a bestselling title—and by that I mean a title that’s in the top ten of the Times list or the top 25 of the USA Today list—are way way down. You can see that reflected in the advances. Many, many bestsellers are being asked to take half or less when they sign a contract for a new book.
That’s what made me think Anonymous from PandoDaily is for real. In the middle of Anonymous’s anti-Amazon rant (which is what his (her?) post is really about) is this: “But in recent years, as book sales have declined, the advances for the biggest books have gone down proportionally, too. What used to be a $1 million book is now a $400,000 book. Publishers are thinking ‘OK, we’ll move less copies, but we’ll pay less for them so we’ll survive.’”
And that is how publishers are thinking. They’re running scared. Anonymous’s entire rant against Amazon is one big fearful shout into the darkness. Toward the end of his rant, he actually acknowledges something important. He writes that Amazon is trying to be “the only place where you buy books, but [also] the only place that publishes books too….Funny thing is that it’s actually better for authors.”
It’s actually better for authors to get rid of traditional publishing. He’s not alone in saying that. A quite shocking article (to me) by Faber chief executive Stephen Page appeared in The Guardian last week. (Read this essay. It’s a bit of sanity from traditional publishing, at a time when most traditional publishing execs aren’t sane.)
Page wrote, “In my view, while 2011 may have signaled the beginning of the end of the era of publishers-with-access-to-the-mass-market as the dominant model for book publishing, it did not signal an end to the opportunity presented by writing or publishing more generally.”
However, he says, in order to survive, traditional publishers have to start bringing value to the writer and to the consumer (the reader), rather than to “the book trade.” And that’s at the heart of all this fear.
Traditional publishers and the auxiliary businesses that have formed around them, from agents to bestseller lists, have focused on the book trade—focused on selling to bookstores and to wholesalers. Now the consumer can go directly to the author if either wants and cut out “the book trade” altogether. (I can sell books off my blog, if I want to, bypassing everyone from a publisher to Amazon.)
This change is unbelievably huge, and it makes us all leery, especially those of us who’ve been around for a long time. We’re searching in the dark for a handhold because we’ve never ever looked at a world without “the book trade.” We don’t know how to proceed.
That’s what’s behind the bifurcation of the bestseller lists. The lists are there to give legitimacy to certain titles among “the book trade,” but it’s getting harder and harder to do that. Billboard is acknowledging that when it tries to distinguish between an album bought for ten dollars and an album bought for a dollar (which has to be marketing, ignoring all of us who would have bought the album for $10 and were happy to discover it was $9 cheaper than we expected).
Some old systems don’t really work any more. Is it legitimate to call someone who was #1 on Amazon’s Kindle Free list for one hour a bestseller? I don’t know. And I write that as someone who was in the top ten of the Kindle free list for days last October. I’ve also had books on the Times extended list in the 1990s—before anyone thought to count the five below the top ten as important. I’ve had bestsellers in paper all over the world, and here in the States. But I’ve never had a #1 New York Times, and of course, like any writer, I would love one.
But, with the very important exceptions of the writers who are on the Times top ten for weeks and weeks, the folks who slid onto the list and then off aren’t making as much money as they used to. If Anonymous is right (and I think he is based on those royalty statements I saw from other bestsellers), then 20,000 copies does a bestseller make (in the right week, with the right competition). That means that the author is making significantly less than he would have as a bestseller fifteen years ago.
Of course, he wouldn’t have been a bestseller fifteen years ago. Or would he? Would that same book have sold 80,000 mass market copies in the first week of release back then?
The book certainly had a greater chance of doing so. There were thousands if not hundreds of thousands more slots to stick those mass market books into back then.
And even if the book didn’t hit the lists at 80,000 sales, the author would have made a lot more money on that mass market than he’ll make today.
So, here’s the rub, the real question that I found myself asking this morning after I read Anonymous’s rant.
If a writer is going into traditional publishing to have a shot at the New York Times bestseller list, is that shot worth the loss of income? Is it worth the risk of going out of print (paper) in a year or so with no ability to get those rights back because of a perpetual ebook publication?
If the bestseller list means millions of copies and millions of dollars, then the risk might be worthwhile. But if books are getting on respected lists like the Times with only 20,000 copies sold, then that changes the equation, in my opinion.
Because that same writer could sell 20,000 ebooks 500 copies at a time over 3.3 years (40 months), and continue to earn without hitting a list at all. And make more money—70% of the cover price instead of 8% of cover for the mass market edition.
Is that 20K number unrealistic? No. Look at this screen capture that Joe Konrath posted on his blog. Ignore that 11,000 sales of one title that he managed in one month and look at the sales of the other titles. There are writers and titles selling much better than his on a monthly basis. These numbers aren’t because Konrath is “famous” (see his argument about this). These numbers came about because people found the books and are reading them. These numbers are because the books are available.
Some would argue that bestseller lists on Amazon and in other places have advertising value, and I would agree with that. Readers do look at the lists when they’re not certain what to buy.
But again, is that minimal and momentary advertising value worth the longterm loss of income and the longterm loss of use of the copyright? I don’t think so. There are other ways to bring your book to the attention of readers. (See my piece on promotion for that.)
This tradeoff, this loss of revenue, in order to become a bestseller might be a purchase of something with historical value, not current value.
Most of us—beginning and established writers, traditional publishers, agents, booksellers—are working off old models, the models we grew up with, and we’re not questioning if those models still have value.
Once upon a time, you had to sell hundreds of thousands of copies to hit a bestseller list. Now you don’t. So, in my opinion, the bestseller list has less value than it had ten years ago.
We’re operating in an old paradigm. And it makes me sad, honestly. Because old goals die hard. I’ll still be ecstatic if something of mine hits the Times list. I’m going to be thrilled if something of mine is #1 on the Kindle paid e-book list.
But I’m not going to trade long-term revenue to achieve those goals. When a traditional publisher tells me, like one did today, that he can get me on a bestseller list and that’s one reason to sell a book to his company, I will agree with him. He might be right. But he might only be selling 20,000 copies of my book to get me on that list.
And that’s very different from the way it was when I came into the business.
We all have to remember that as we choose how to publish our books. What was important when we started might not be important now—no matter how much we want it to be.
Fifteen years ago, if you told me I would blog every week, I would have laughed at you. If you told me I would do so with a donate-button on my site, asking readers to finance the essay, I would have rolled my eyes. Things have changed dramatically. I’ve been doing this blog in one form or another for nearly three years now, and you readers have funded it. I said then, like I’m saying now, I’ll continue doing this as long as you continue to support it.
Thanks for the support, the discussion, the links, and the funding. I appreciate it.
“The Business Rusch: Bestseller Lists and Other Thoughts” copyright 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.