Business Musings: Bestseller Lists Again (Or Chicken Little Is Wrong. Again.)

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In the middle of February, I saw a tweet from Melville House, an independent publisher in Brooklyn, NY, linking to an article of theirs. I followed the link and saw this title: “Into the Bezosphere: The Washington Post will syndicate Amazon Charts.” I was surprised.

I had heard nothing about the Post’s new bestseller list. Granted, I’ve been busy and preoccupied this year. Still coping with lots of death and change, but you’d think I would have heard that the Post was going to use Amazon information to assemble its bestseller lists.

Then I saw an article on the Digital Reader, and felt a little better. Apparently, according to Nate Hoffelder, the Post made a stealth reveal. Eventually, they issued a press release, but given all the noise that’s going on about everything of late, this particular announcement seems to have gone by the wayside.

What’s important about the Post’s list? Melville House makes it sound like the Post’s list will make the world end. Here’s the final paragraph of the Melville House blog:

But, as is always the case with monopolies, no particular action taken by Amazon or Bezos is that scary or weird, viewed in isolation. Syndicating a bestseller list seems like a pretty normal thing for a retail conglomerate to do, and a newspaper owned by the same guy as said conglomerate seems like an obvious choice of venue. But in context, it’s clearly the opening of another front in Bezos’s decades-long quest to control absolutely fucking everything.

Let’s set aside that hysteria for a moment and try again. What’s important about the Post list is that, it seems, it is the first list based on real numbers for ebooks and for print books.

Other bestseller lists use Nielsen BookScan, which includes ebook data these days, from a variety of sources, but the Post list also includes information from the Amazon’s subscription services as well as their Most Read List.

Nate’s conclusion on the Digital Reader is this:

The Washington Post’s lists are probably the first to accurately reflect what people are reading, and not what some New York book editor thinks is worth reading.

It is still not a perfect view of the market, obviously; Amazon only accounts for 75% of the ebook market, which means this new list is still missing a small fraction of the overall book market.

But it is still better than a kick in the teeth.

And I agree. It’s interesting, and it’ll be interesting to follow…for the handful of us who still follow lists.

Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of list fatigue. Some of that comes from all those click-bait websites—The Top Five Locations For A First Kiss; The Top Ten Celebrities With The Most Children; The Top Thirty Best Fantasy Television Shows Ever!

But some of it comes from all the list bifurcations that I’ve discussed endlessly here in previous posts. Publisher’s Weekly has seven full pages of lists. I can never keep track of how many lists the New York Times has every week. USA Today’s list is pretty simple, but goes on forever.

And that doesn’t count the millions of “bestseller” lists on Amazon itself. As I started to write this, I went to see what books of mine were in the top 100 of any of the lists. I found several, all of which surprised me. Most were on lists like 45-minute reads/science fiction/space opera or something like that. But one surprised me: A Star Trek book, digital edition from 2002, that was on this list: #91 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > TV, Movie, Video Game Adaptations > Star Trek. Okay, then. That book is still selling.

That’s what I know (although I don’t know why the book is still selling after 17 years. I’m sure it has more to do with Star Trek: Discovery than it does with me). That’s all I know, in fact, because I can’t see the numbers on an ancient Star Trek novel. By the time the royalty statement arrives, I will have forgotten this entirely.

In this particular instance, I’m no better off than the average reader, because while I know the book is on a list, I don’t know what, exactly, the list means as far as numbers are concerned.

Still, those little lists must serve some kind of function for Amazon and for the consumers on Amazon, or Amazon, in its great wisdom, would have discontinued those lists a long time ago.

Lists make one level of searchibility easier, and this particular list does tell me—in an hourly snapshot—what Star Trek readers are buying. (Or, if I look at the Most Read list, what they’re reading.)

But I’ve been wondering for a long time what else these little lists tell readers. And finally, someone answered that question for me.

In a really neat, very short essay in Esquire’s December/January 2018 issue, Ben Ratliff made me feel better about lists. He’d been feeling awkward about them, just like I had, wondering what their purpose was in the digital age.

He was dealing with the year-end best-of lists. Esquire had hired him to compile a top-ten-best-album list. (Apparently he’s done that a lot in the past.) He buried the list—which wasn’t really a list in the click-bait way—in the final paragraph of his short essay.

Instead, he used the rest of the essay to call such lists a cultural plague, full of absurdities.

Yeah. Okay. Yeah. I agree. But, then, why was he doing it? (Besides the paycheck, of course.)

He was wondering the same thing. Hence the essay.

Then he came to a realization that the problem with a top ten list (or any list) is the numbers. He writes:

Take them off, and nothing is subordinate to anything else. An unnumbered list is a powerful statement that says this and this and this. Which is the rhythm of life, all of us sifting and considering while being aware that the world can’t be contained.

His recommendation? Consume as many lists as you can and use them to discover everything you missed.

I love that suggestion. In fact, I follow that suggestion without even thinking about it. I glance at the top ten movies of the year list, dismiss a bunch of them, think Ick! I would never spend two hours on my life on that! or How did I miss that movie?

I have watched the top ten lists in the sf genre shift as the literati shifted away from the New Wave editors who preferred books without plot (idiots) to the younger editors who tentatively stuck plot into their recommendations (better) to the current spate of editor/readers/bloggers who unabashedly embrace plot (yay!).

This past year, the lists have (finally) included works from outside of the U.S., and writers of color, and people who aren’t part of the NY literary nexus. Although most of them are still the people who attend ReaderCon and go to the International Conference on the Fantastic and run World Fantasy Con and are SFWA members.

Generally speaking, they ignore all the fan-based lists, like the ones generated at the various comic-cons and at Dragon Con. But bloggers are stepping in there. So if you want a little less snobbery with your top ten sf/f lists, you can search for blogger recommendations.

There’s usually some crossover, but less than you’d think.

So…Ratliff’s suggestion works for year-end lists, but does it work for weekly bestseller lists?

It kinda does for me. I generally use them in my music playlist. I want to hear what came out that week, what everyone else is listening to. I prefer Spotify for that, since I use Pandora to refine my own writing-time lists.

But I also listen to the weekly chart-toppers on Sirius-XM radio’s The Highway and also on The Pulse. Sirius-XM uses their own method to figure out what the charts are and what tops them. I often find that those channels play songs that will become Billboard chart toppers months later (especially with The Pulse).

I don’t feel current with music—I don’t think I can be current with music any more—but I feel like I have a sense of what’s going on, at least in the musical genres I listen to the most.

Which is more than I can say for books. I have high hopes for the Post’s list. Because I’m acutely aware of the books that are missing on other lists.

The weekly book bestseller lists I mentioned above are de facto snobby. They rarely list books outside of traditional publishing because of the way they measure. Occasionally, an ebook from some indie publisher or self-published writer will sneak on. Sometimes, an ebook boxed set will appear. (Although the “major” lists try to prevent that. They consider it gaming the list. Sigh.)

Mostly, though, the established lists use Nielsen Bookscan and “reports” from “accepted” (curated, approved, pick your own wishy-washy word) bookstores. That’s brick-and-mortar bookstores, so that’s paper books.

For the longest time, Amazon did not participate in any of the lists. I had heard rumors that had changed, but I don’t know how it changed, exactly, because Amazon doesn’t like releasing numbers.

So I’m pretty sure the change came from distributors who shipped to Amazon, rather than from Amazon itself. Again, I don’t know this. I’m guessing based on Amazon’s rather tight-lipped policy.

The Washington Post lists are bifurcated too. The actual bestseller list says this about its methodology (typo theirs):

The Post compiles its bestsellers lists by combining hard cover, paperback and ebook sales data from Nielsen Bookscan and — including qualified borrows of books read through Amazon’s digital subscription program. The Post excludes non-narrative books at its sole discretion.

The Most Read chart is vastly different, and only relies on Amazon for the information. It only lists digital books or audio books, because those are the only ones Amazon can track.

Amazon Most Read lists rank titles by the average number of daily Kindle readers and Audible listeners each week. Categories not ranked on Most Read charts include dictionaries, encyclopedias, religious texts, daily devotionals and calendars. All data is supplied by Amazon Charts and not edited by The Washington Post. The Post has no editorial influence on these lists.

I love toggling back and forth between the lists. Because you can see where people are spending their money, and you can see where they’re spending their time.

Two very, very different things. The top 15 fiction reads the week I’m finishing this blog include six Harry Potter books, and a lot of titles that have been published for months—or, in some cases (besides the Potter), years.

People read books when they get to them. People buy books when they have the money.

Books live in To-Be-Read piles. Some of those piles are digital books, and some of them are paper. But many, many, many readers wait until they’re in the mood for a particular kind of book before plucking it off their TBR pile.

What’s fascinating to me are the books that are on both lists. Especially the really new books. Because that tells me that readers want those books and they want them now because they want to read them now.

This week, that’s Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone. About two months ago, that was Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer. It’s still on the Most Read chart. In fact, it’s #1 on the Most Read Chart, but it is no longer in the top 15 for most purchased books. Whereas Dan Brown’s Origin is on both lists, just in different positions.

The nonfiction lists reflect the national conversation, which makes sense, I suppose. If people are talking about a nonfiction book on TV, other people are reading it.

Kinda sorta. Because, again, if you look at the Most Read list, you find Dale Freakin’ Carnegie’s stupid How to Win Friends & Influence People, which my ex-husband used to freakin’ quote all the time, which is why I look at that book with great loathing.

(Whew. Sorry about the rant.)

There are also two biographies on the Most Read list, and none on the bestseller list. This week, anyway.

Sometimes the Most Read lags behind the bestseller list, which makes sense. I’m so busy this month (with other reading that Amazon would never be able to track) that it took me two weeks to read a 300 page novel. I can usually read something of that length in a single evening.

Didn’t mean I hated the book. Actually meant I was loving the book. Just meant I had about ten minutes maximum to read something that wasn’t connected to my work in one way or another.

I am hoping the Most Read will show writers other than those published traditionally, and that, in turn, will have an impact on the Post’s bestseller list. Because I’m very aware of the fact that there are a lot of bestselling writers online, writers I haven’t heard of, but who are making tens of thousand if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, but who aren’t showing up anywhere except the Amazon rankings.

I also know that there are writers who have a large following in Kindle Unlimited, racking up all kinds of page-reads (which I’m only beginning to understand). Those writers won’t appear on the “bestseller” list at all since, technically, their books aren’t for sale. They’re being read, as they would in a library.

Unlike Chicken Little at Melville House, I like these new lists. They’re going to tell us a lot about how people read. They won’t tell us everything—nothing does—but they’re a cool piece of data in a data-driven world.

I don’t think I’ve ever celebrated a new kind of bestseller list before. In the past, those lists have always blatantly tampered with the information they received. This isn’t…pure…exactly, but seems more informational, at least to me.

Or maybe I just like using the lists along with everything else, exactly the way Ratliff suggests. Because if I combine the Post’s bestseller list with the promotion I see for “big” books in the accepted literary markets along with the most-read lists, I’m seeing a lot of book purchases based on that promotion, but not a lot of fiction reads. (It’s different for nonfiction.)

Which fascinates the heck out of me as someone who thinks about promotion a lot.

Someone else might toggle the list with some other pet project of theirs. And this list is eminently combinable.

And a bit fun.

I am in the middle of an intense workshop right now. I had hoped to get ahead on my blogs before the workshop started, but best laid plans and all that. So if I respond a bit more slowly to comments and such, it’s because I’m sitting in front of people and discussing fiction, which is something I love.

I also love writing this blog. I love your feedback. Last week, you might have nagged me into a new series. We’ll see how I’m feeling.

In addition to being reader inspired, this blog is also reader supported. So, if you feel like leaving a tip on the way out, use the PayPal link below. If you feel like doing longer-term support, then head on over to Patreon. And thank you!

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“Business Musings: Bestseller Lists Again,” copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog © Can Stock Photo / andrewgenn.


7 thoughts on “Business Musings: Bestseller Lists Again (Or Chicken Little Is Wrong. Again.)

  1. For those of us who aren’t consistent bestsellers (yet), “best of” lists are a godsend.

    I was thrilled that CBC Books recommended Human Remains alongside Maureen Jennings and Louise Penny ( and that CBC’s The Next Chapter spotlighted both Human Remains and Stockholm Syndrome.

    It’s a bit like high school. I may never become Homecoming Queen by popular vote, but it feels good to be recognized by intelligent, discriminating readers. It helps discoverability, but mostly, I’m grateful because it motivates me. Yes! Someone wants me to keep going!

    Melissa Yi

  2. I just remembered I bought Origins and haven’t read it yet. LOL My TBR pile, both paper and digital, can be seen from space.

    I have to admit I never look at bestseller lists as my tastes are a trifle unique (though, obviously, I do read many of the big bestsellers, too). I tend to get many of my recommendations from the books my Goodreads “friends” read and/or review or mark “Want to Read.” And I read a lot of what I guess you could call classic literature, or at least older books from the 19th century and early 20th century. I’m also being introduced to a lot of the typical mainstream bestsellers with my book group at work–we seem to read a lot of Reese Witherspoon-recommended books. One of the women who formed the group was so worried I wouldn’t want to read them because I read fancy-schmancy literature, as they know I am a Jane Austen fan, but little do they know John Grisham is an auto-buy for me (and we work at a law firm!). Some of them I like (Eleanor Oliphant was WONDERFUL) and some not so much, which makes sense.

    I guess my point is that I have so many ways to discover books, and not enough time to read all that I want to read! But I think everyone has that problem.

  3. I actually like How to Win Friends and Influence People – but, I’m from a Aspberg-y family, few of whom had a clue how to socialize with regular people. For me, it was a how-to that helped me integrate into regular society, start making friends – and getting boyfriends – and, eventually, marry and raise a family.

    You’re probably more naturally sociable. Don’t discount the book because you didn’t need it. It was a lifeline for me.

    1. I’m not discounting it for that reason. I was verbally bludgeoned with its aphorisms for 7 years from an ex=husband. I think of him every time I see that book and associate it with him. Hence the tiny rant.

  4. Bezos of Amazon also owns the Post, so I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the publishers who caused this list to come into being. It might be great for us, but it’s also free advertising for Jeff.

    There are so many good writers whose entire career is on Kindle (and other platforms), so I’m glad to see that they might have a chance to get more notice.

    The Top 100 lists are pretty useless (Not to disparage your Trek book, which I’m sure is fine). A friend once had the #1 book in Genre>Subgenre>Language>etc. on — because someone in Germany had bought ONE copy that morning. She took a screenshot and then ignored it. Pretty much egoboo, and the reason why so many terrible writers have “Amazon #1 author!!!” slapped on all their books.

    The WaPo list isn’t going to have these problems — I’m sure it’ll use real stats averaged over more than a day or an hour.

    The Post’s slogan is “Democracy dies in darkness”, so I guess they’re shining a little light on what We the People are actually reading.

    I gave up being up to date on music when I turned 50. Although having MTV Live as our TV default background noise has kept me more savvy. I watched the MTV Music Awards and knew who just about everyone was, thanks to their concerts and videos (Yes! Videos! Like the old days. Brad Paisley’s 2015 “Crushin’ It” is a cute animation where he and all his country pals are knock-offs of Marvel superheroes, and Macklemore’s “Glorious”, where he takes his grandma out for the day on her 100th birthday is funny and sweet.)

  5. “His recommendation? Consume as many lists as you can and use them to discover everything you missed.”

    Since I don’t have as much time to follow my fandoms as I used to, that’s the way I’ve been using those, indeed. In fact, for example, I’m sort of coming back to a fandom I’d barely seen from the distance these past 25+ years (missed it, but simply couldn’t afford it, on several levels), and I’m slowly going through the lists (best of 2017, best of the 2000’s, best classics… Of course, now, the 2000’s are considered classics, but I digress [*])

    “[…] to the current spate of editor/readers/bloggers who unabashedly embrace plot (yay!).”

    What I seem to see is a mix between adventure stories and “progressive ideas”. Quote marks, among other things, because I’m not sure some of the things I’ve read shoehorned into that are actually progressive. Then, I’m really not the best judge of it.

    “There’s usually some crossover, but less than you’d think.”

    Oh, Hell. Indeed!

    “So I’m pretty sure the change came from distributors who shipped to Amazon, rather than from Amazon itself. Again, I don’t know this. I’m guessing based on Amazon’s rather tight-lipped policy.”

    Which, sorry if I’m captain obvious, excludes ebooks. I don’t see how it could include those, unless those distributors are also in charge of handling ebook income.

    On your quotes from the WaPo… Two points. One, is that the difference between “qualified” borrows [WaPo] and “accepted / curated” stores is [Nielsen]… iffy. Second, “excludes non-narrative books” could use some focus. While I do understand that a blank book (a honest to God really blank book) and an essay on VIIth century migrations is different, as worded it leads to confusion and accusations of abuse. The third and extra one is quirky… Are “daily devotionals” not considered “religious texts”?

    The wording of that last paragraph seems a tad sloppy. For example, the WaPo DOES have influence on the lists it publishes (it may publish them out of order, or not at all, for obvious examples). It may not EXERT that influence, but it does HAVE it. I’m not sure what that choice of words actually means.

    Which Potter book didn’t make it? Just curious. Or are you including other Potterverse books?

    “Just meant I had about ten minutes maximum to read something that wasn’t connected to my work in one way or another.”

    I’ve stooped trying to read books in such short bits of time. I read but I don’t grok.

    “This isn’t…pure…exactly,”

    As driven snow. Or at least trod upon. But at least it’s originally pure water, not horse residue.

    “the promotion I see for “big” books in the accepted literary markets”

    Hm… If those lists don’t match, then maybe they’re not as “accepted” as that… Or, in other words, “accepted” by whom?

    Last, off-topic, bit. Which was the thing that originally decided me to post, jocularly (then, I digressed):

    Chicken Little… Made me think a lot of these guys. I think I mentioned them here some years ago. Time goes fast. (NB: If anyone tries to follow / search them and gets confused, the front transitioned some time ago)

    Take care.

    [*] See? This made me search into a column I remember from the late 90s, apparently by Peter David. I barely remembered that. I’m going to try to follow him, but I can’t seem to find a newsletter subscription or anything like it.

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