Business Musings: Tempest in a Bestseller List

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Last week, Dean and I went to see a movie in the theater. We do that sometimes—not as often as we used to—but often enough that we catch all kinds of advertising we wouldn’t normally see.

At that particular screening, the loooooong set of trailers included one for the upcoming film American Assassin. In the middle of that trailer was the phrase “based on the #1 New York Times bestseller.” The studio is using the #1 New York Times bestseller label as a selling point for what looks like a pretty generic film.

Turns out American Assassin is based on a novel of the same name by Minnesota writer, Vince Flynn. Flynn, who died of prostate cancer in 2013, hugged the bestseller lists for years, having books optioned and screenplays written. I don’t know if this is the first film from one of his works, but I do know that Flynn himself was a consultant on the fifth season of 24.

American Assassin appeared in 2010. It was the eleventh novel featuring Flynn’s hero, Mitch Rapp, but if you read the novels in chronological order, it’s the first in Rapp’s life. Authors often have a reason for making the origin story the eleventh novel in a series, but since Flynn died, his website seems intent on hiding the fact that this novel came out after 10 previous Rapp books. (Which explains my confusion. I read a Vince Flynn novel much earlier than 2010, and couldn’t understand how I had read a book in the series more than ten years ago when the first one came out seven years ago.)

In the days when American Assassin hit the Times list, the #1 bestselling book usually received anywhere from 50,000 to 250,000 sales in its first month. These days you can hit the list with 5,000 sales.

I kept thinking about this Hollywood advertising ploy as yet another New York Times scandal hit the Twitterverse. One of my readers sent me an article on Pajiba, a site I was unfamiliar with, but have since spent much too much time poking around on.  Lots of cool stuff here.

A book called Handbook For Mortals by Lani Sarem appeared as the #1 hardcover on the original mailing for the New York Times bestseller list dated 9/3/17. (You can get the list emailed to you early, if you want.) That mailing went out the week of 8/21. And I said “original” mailing because, by the end of day Thursday, Twitter detective Phil Stamper (publisher and YA author) with the help of booksellers across the nation (including Jeremy West of Broadwayish) discovered weird anomalies.

Handbook For Mortals didn’t follow the usual pattern of any bestseller, New York Times or otherwise. Considering that The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas has held the top spot on the list for many weeks now (thanks in part to the hardcover copy I bought—not unusual for me with a buzzy new writer), the fact that Thomas’s book fell fast seemed odd.

Click on the Pajiba link  and read how this all unfolded on Thursday on Twitter. It’s fascinating to watch a house of cards fall.

In the past, I’ve watched companies game the Times list. In fact, a lot of companies offered their services to nonfiction writers in particular to buy their way onto the times list. Articles about this particular gaming have cited a Wall Street Journal article about a San Diego company called ResultSource which was pretty blatant about its ability to put a book on the Times list, but they weren’t the first company to do so. Many others have as well.  When I revisited Pajiba to get the links for this post, I see that ResultSource is connected to this mess. Sigh.

There’s less reason to game the Times list now, however. The list has bifurcated so much that you can climb the top of one of the many lists with sales that my first novel (which didn’t even sniff at the list) blew out of the water in its first week twenty-five years ago. Big publishers don’t make a lot of money on 5,000 copies. Indies do, compared to expenses. But big publishers do not.

So, the amount of work that someone had put into placing Sarem’s book on the bestseller list made no sense to me at all. Where was the profit here? What was the point? Bragging rights are nice, but unless you have money to burn, ordering 18,000 copies of your own book is pretty expensive.

Although, in this case, the copies had to be back-ordered, so the upfront money would be minimal and then the person who ordered could cancel after the list came out. Which is, it turns out, what they were planning to do.

But again, why?

It turns out that the person placing the order claimed to be making a movie from the book. Which is a clue. Because, as Kayleigh Donovan at Pajiba speculated, “someone, whoever they may be, hopes to use the “#1 New York Times best-selling novel” moniker as a launching pad to a studio deal for this planned film.”

Probably. That might initially sell a project…in 2000, maybe. But now? Not so much. Studios have been burned. Studio reps who’ve contacted me have asked for documentation of sales figures before negotiating a deal. (Remember, they contacted me, so they already wanted the book. The Handbook people were trying to sell to folks who hadn’t heard of the book.)

Even normal book numbers from fifteen years ago are pretty small potatoes for major studios. Two-hundred-and-fifty thousand sales? Seriously? That’s a terrible opening weekend. The book wouldn’t help the movie at all, just give the movie a framework.

Today’s bestselling numbers are utterly ridiculous when viewed from the perspective of the mass entertainment industry. August is traditionally a low ticket sales month. The movie Dean and I saw on last week was The Hitman’s Bodyguard. (I never said we were seeing an art film.) It opened on August 18 in 3,377 theaters and was #1 for the weekend.

The Hate U Give, restored to its spot on the YA bestseller list for the Times, sold about 6,000 copies the week ending 8/21. That’s only 1623 more copies of a book than theaters in which the Hitman’s Bodyguard opened. See why #1 New York Times bestseller doesn’t mean much to the film industry any more?

(Note, too, those of you who read my piece on negotiating a TV/Movie deal two weeks ago, how long it took Flynn’s book to hit the silver screen. Rights were optioned in 2010, when the book was released.)

Any closed system can be gamed. John Popper of Blues Traveler weighed in on the Handbook controversy, because, at one point, Lani Sarem used to manage Blues Traveler. On Twitter, in a tweet later deleted but reported and discussed with Entertainment Weekly Magazine, Popper said that the band had fired her “for these kinds of stunts.”

All of this, though, is somewhat ironic, in my opinion, because traditional publishers have worked very hard to game the New York Times bestseller list for decades. That’s why they complained so loudly when USA Today’s list came into being about twenty-five years ago. USA Today’s list is based on actual sales figures, mostly compiled by Book Scan.

At first glance, the Times list seems to be based on sales too. Only if you read the fine print you see this:

Sales are defined as completed transactions by individuals during the period on or after the official publication date of a title. Institutional, special interest, group or bulk purchases, if and when they are included, are at the discretion of The New York Times Best-Seller List Desk editors based on standards for inclusion that encompass proprietary vetting and audit protocols, corroborative reporting and other statistical determinations. When included, such bulk purchases appear with a dagger (†)…

Among the categories not actively tracked at this time are: perennial sellers, required classroom reading, textbooks, reference and test preparation guides, e-books available exclusively from a single vendor, journals, workbooks, calorie counters, shopping guides, periodicals and crossword puzzles.

Note this phrase among categories not tracked: e-books available exclusively from a single vendor. In other words, if your title is only available on Kindle, as in part of Kindle Select, the Times won’t count it even if your book outsells every other book in the nation.

The reason the Times combined the ebook bestseller list with the print list is to maintain control of the titles on the list. Indies are less likely to be #1 bestsellers in ebook and print than traditionally published authors are.

One of the reasons that Handbook For Mortals’ sales caught everyone’s attention in the first place is because no one had ever heard of it. Maybe had the book hit the USA Today list, there would have been less concern. Because indies do that all the time.

But the Times. Everyone knows it’s heavily weighted toward the Right Sort of Bookstore (meaning Not Amazon) and Our Kind Of Literature (imagine all of these capitalized words said with a cull-shurred East Coast accent, a sniff, and an upturned nose).

The New York Times list is the equivalent of those A-list Hollywood parties. In order to make the list, your book needs to been seen in All The Right Places.

Or as Michael Bourret, a YA literary agent with Dystel, Goderich & Bourret, explained to Entertainment Weekly: 

[It takes] a coordinated effort from a publisher to get books onto the Times list. It isn’t something that happens by accident. They have to make sure that the reporting stores have books so they can be sold, then you have to do publicity in those markets, like doing an author tour that goes through those towns, to make sure there are sales in that place. You have to print a certain number of books to have them out in the stores (which these people were apparently able to circumvent by ordering them themselves), which is an investment in money, printing enough books to be out there. So to sell 5,000 copies in a week, you need a lot more copies than that in the stores – we’re talking tens of thousands out in the marketplace to sell 5,000 in a week. And then you need the marketing and publicity efforts to back that up so there’s an awareness of the book. Usually those efforts start taking place a year before a book comes out, and sometimes I feel like it starts even before then, when people make news out of the sale of a book, and having a really long runway up to the launch.

If you pay attention, you can always see which books are being “positioned” for a Times launch. The publicity starts six months in advance. There are write-ups or excerpts in the Right Sort of Magazines (Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, The New Yorker) and the Right Sort of Newspapers (The Washington Post, The New York Times) and the Right Sort of Not-Print Media (NPR, particularly Fresh Air). You’ll hear that “everyone” is talking about a particular book, and by “everyone” we mean that the publicity department at the publisher is doing a full-court press, so “everyone” is asking what’s so special about that book, anyway? And then “everyone” has to look.

Mediocre books with a lot of push either don’t make the Times list or they last for a week or so. Books like The Hate U Give have buzz, good writing, and—in the case of Hate—timely subject matter.

What I want you to note, though, is a toss-off sentence from Bourret. Making the Times list “isn’t something that happens by accident.” He flat-out admits that publishers are putting in extreme effort to game the system.

Word-of-mouth books don’t make the list, because there aren’t enough paper copies of the books in the Right Sort of Bookstore. Slow buzz doesn’t work for this list, plus…the Times weights its list, so that a buzzy but Not Our Sort of Book doesn’t make the list unless the sales are so overwhelming it would be embarrassing to ignore the book. (I’m looking at you, Fifty Shades of Grey.)

So all of this complaint this month has been because an outsider gamed the system blatantly, not playing by the same rules as everyone else.

Longtime readers of this blog have known for years that the Times list is based on nothing but air. But this incident should make it even clearer.

What struck me from all this (fascinating) noise was my very first thought as I read Pajiba’s article on the entire mess. I wondered what anyone would gain from all that effort to game the Times list.

Apparently, my subconscious has written off the list as worthless.

Which is a bit of a surprise to me, since once upon a time, one of my writer dreams was to be #1 on the Times list. And by now, I have come to the place where I idly wonder why anyone would even try to game the system.

I’ve felt that way for a long time. WMG discussed doing the full court press on my upcoming Kris Nelscott book A Gym of Her Own,  and decided against it. We’d rather have a lot of sales, built by word of mouth, than a bunch of early sales matched by a lot of returns.

Because that’s the other thing buried in Bourret’s comments. He said it takes tens of thousands of paper books to sell 5,000 copies. Tenssss of thousandssss. Paper. Which means an upfront investment of hundredssss of thousandssss of dollars to do so.

To get…what, exactly? Bragging rights? On a list that no longer matters as much to readers as it used to?

Readers have found other ways to buy books. They look at word of mouth on Goodreads and other online sites. They listen to their friends and family. And, most important, readers expect a book to be available when they want it, not when they’re told to buy it.

So a bunch of folks are probably going to make a note about Vince Flynn’s American Assassin novel. I’m sure the sales are up from where they were a year ago. But a whole bunch of people aren’t going to read the book this year. They’ll have it on their wish list, and when they feel like reading an assassin book, they’ll order the book at that moment and not a second sooner.

The industry is changing—or at least, those of us outside of traditional publishing are changing.

Those who are still living inside the bubble…they can see when an interloper has entered. That’s what happened on Thursday. That the interloper was a bumbling idiot who was blatantly trying to con everyone only made the invasion become public that much faster.

The reaction we all saw to the Times ebook list a few years ago, that reaction was caused by that same sense of “Who is this? We don’t know this person. Who invited them here?” It was just a bit more subtle.

My attitude about all of this? Let them play in their little sandbox and worry about who takes the prize this week. Me, I’ll build my readership over time. Throughout the world. And through word of mouth.

The nice thing about that attitude is that I don’t have to go to all the right parties. I don’t have to travel all over the country to shake hands at all the right bookstores. I don’t have to chat up all the right people.

I can publish my books and find the real right people—readers, who will be interested in the same things I’m interested in.

And that makes me much happier—both as a writer, and as a person.


For those of you new to the blog, it’s pretty interactive. As I mentioned, I found out about this Twitter-storm from a regular blog reader (Thank you!). I learn a lot from you folks. I love how much information I get from you all.

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“Business Musings: Tempest in a Bestseller List,” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / andrewgenn.


11 thoughts on “Business Musings: Tempest in a Bestseller List

  1. I wonder where the money came from for all this gim-crackery. I’m sure ResultsSource adds a hefty premium to the cost of the books, and even plagiarised made-to-order artwork isn’t cheap. Lani Sarem’s finances, given what I know of her CV, are probably marginal at best. I hope her mother didn’t take out a second mortgage on the house. Someone is not going to get their investment back.

  2. It’s this kind of thing that makes me not even register things like ‘best seller’ ‘best seller list’ etc etc There are so many services out there now that seem to know the tricks on how to get any book on these lists that they hardly matter anymore. I hate that the world has become so cynical and that writers are contributing to that.

  3. The point with the ‘Handbook for Mortals’ NTY list scam was that Sarem and her cohorts were convinced that with a bestseller they would get a movie deal for the ‘series’. She was so confident, that she even set up an IMDB page for the movie. I agree, a lot of organization went into the scam, but, thankfully they made fatal errors, like plagiarizing the artwork of Australian artist Gill Del Mace, and trying to buy pre-orders of their own book. I hope all involved get sued into a black hole.

  4. The problem I’ve found with most of the books that end up on the New York Tiimes Bestseller list are… Books I have no interesting in reading. They don’t fit into what I read or what I write. I, like most people I think, read genres — Mystery, Sci-fi, Fantasy, to name a few.

    “The Great American Novel” ideal holds no interest for me as an author, so I am not going to write one. On the other hand, I’ve had some success with action thrillers and Military Sci-Fi/Space Opera and currently have some Urban Paranormal stuff in the first draft stage. That’s because I read those genres and liked them enough to write in them.

    What the NYT and those other press outlet mention is that most people who read want to forget about their own lives for a while, go flying through space being chased by hordes of TIE fighters, sit in a room as the detective with the “Little Gray Cells” explains how Lord Henshaw was killed, or sling spells against a demon trying to take over Cleveland. Yes, people do read those highbrow novels the NYT is so proud to promote, but most of don’t.

  5. One of the things I learned working computer security is that the purpose of rules is to be gamed. The only thing that surprised me in this was that it had taken so long for someone to buy their “NYT #1” dream.

    But the real reason I’m posting:

    “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” is my favorite movie of the year thus far. So much damn heart for that kind of flick. It really was lovely. I’m rather jealous of it.

  6. Hi Kris,

    Great blog post.

    You said, “Studio reps who’ve contacted me have asked for documentation of sales figures before negotiating a deal.”

    Do you share your confidential sales data with movie studios? Or what should be done in such circumstances?

    1. Generally, the folks who ask are the ones connected with big studios. I provide in general if (and only if) I want to work with them. When I provide the general numbers, I “remind” them that most NYT bestsellers “only” sell a million copies or so the first year. When they hear that, they really don’t care to get the authorized figures. Hasn’t stopped a deal yet.

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