What Bestseller Lists Really Tell Us About A Book's Popularity
AILSA CHANG, HOST: When Donald Trump Jr.'s new book first topped the New York Times bestseller list, it raised eyebrows and not just because of who the author is. Beside the title of the book, which is "Triggered: How The Left Thrives On Hate And Wants To Silence Us," was a dagger. That symbol meant a portion of the book sales were made in bulk, which led some to question whether Trump deserved the top billing. The answer, as NPR's Rose Friedman explains, is complicated.
ROSE FRIEDMAN, BYLINE: For anyone involved in writing or publishing books, the New York Times bestseller list is the holy grail.
DOMINIQUE RACCAH: I still remember the very first time that I got on the list. For an indie press in the middle of the Midwest, yeah, it was absolutely the most extraordinary moment of my life.
FRIEDMAN: Dominique Raccah is the publisher of Sourcebooks near Chicago. Nobody quite knows what goes into making a New York Times bestseller. The paper doesn't reveal its methodology, other than to say, in part, that it's based on a, quote, "detailed analysis of book sales from a wide range of retailers." So I asked the people who are in the best position to make educated guesses about a book's sales - publishers, who watch the list closely.
RACCAH: You expect that if it's rung up at a cash register, it's reported to the New York Times, and it's reported to the publisher. All of those things align equivalently. That is not the experience we have.
FRIEDMAN: That's because nowhere in the world is there a straight-up list of how many copies every book has sold. It just doesn't exist. Sure, publishers get numbers from Nielsen BookScan, which pays retailers to report their sales. And yes, publishers ship books to Amazon, Target and Barnes & Noble and get sales figures back. But some books go through middlemen - distributors who sell to many independent bookstores, and not all of them report their sales.
Dennis Johnson, co-founder of Melville House, says he only really knows for sure what he sends out.
DENNIS JOHNSON: I can look at each account in the country that has taken a book directly from our warehouse. And so I know how many books are out there. But that is not a sales reporting service, really. It's an ordering service.
FRIEDMAN: And then there are books that get sold to third parties. For example...
JOHNSON: If you do a book on health care and there is some kind of health care organization or hospital that wants to buy that book for its employees, that has a healthy business efficiency to it.
FRIEDMAN: Because the publisher is selling directly to the hospital - this happens all the time. An organization thinks a book would be good for its employees to read, so it makes a bulk order. Since the sale didn't go through a store, it wouldn't get reported to bestseller lists.
But here's where we need to make a distinction. If someone had instead bought the books from a bulk-buying arm of a big bookstore, that would get reported. And if the book does make the bestseller list, that bulk order would be noted as part of its sales, which brings us to...
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ladies and gentlemen, Donald Trump Jr.
FRIEDMAN: Donald Trump Jr.'s book "Triggered" was the subject of at least one bulk sale in its first week. According to a Federal Election Commission filing, the Republican National Committee paid Books-A-Million $94,800. That was likely around 4,000 copies. There have been reports of other bulk purchases by conservative organizations. That's why "Triggered" has that little dagger symbol on the New York Times bestseller list. But every publisher I talked to told me the same thing Dennis Johnson did.
JOHNSON: It looks like he might have made that list anyway.
FRIEDMAN: The RNC's one purchase was probably not what got the book onto the list initially. It was the rest of the copies - 71,000 in that first week, according to Nielsen BookScan.
RYAN SCHLEICHER: Given that every conservative organization was promoting it in their newsletters, on TV and tweets, that generates PR, and PR generates sales. And that's how it goes.
FRIEDMAN: Ryan Schleicher is special sales director at Porchlight Books, a bulk sales company which mostly supplies books to conferences or institutions. He says even if an author tried to make the bestseller list through bulk orders, it wouldn't work.
SCHLEICHER: Every author that has a platform of any kind wants to make a bestseller list. And they - a lot of authors will ask, how do we get these considered as individual? And we tell them, you don't because they're bulk.
FRIEDMAN: There is a way to game the system, says Dennis Johnson. But it's not with those big bulk orders.
JOHNSON: Probably the safest way to do that is to employ services that will calculate how many books you need to sell in given markets to get you onto the bestseller list. So they will call the leading bookstore in Atlanta that they know is a store that reports to The New York Times, and they will say, we want to buy 36 copies. And then they'll call the store in Miami. They will say, we want to buy 21 copies. And those will not appear to be bulk sales.
FRIEDMAN: This practice makes publishers like Dominique Raccah uncomfortable.
RACCAH: You care about the bestsellers list because you believe it to be an indication of what Americans are reading. The problem with this particular kind of system is that it's actually inflating numbers in such a way as to not be representative of what Americans are actually reading.
FRIEDMAN: Of course, once a book is sold, it's anyone's guess as to whether Americans are actually reading it or just letting it collect dust on the shelf.
Rose Friedman, NPR News, New York.
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