Friday, November 12, 2004

The making of a bestseller list

The Washington Post (registration required; try BugMeNot) wonders why newspapers and magazines continue to compile their own bestseller lists, which often are weeks out of date by press time, instead of using the more accurate and timely Nielsen BookScan data.

BookScan's information is taken directly from the cash registers of participating retailers, which include online booksellers such as, chain stores, independents and some discounters. Publications such as The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, on the other hand, use a sampling of stores they feel represent all national booksellers.
In sampling, true randomness can be a strength, but each periodical's specific mix of reporting booksellers is decidedly non-random, determined by a combination of editors' and booksellers' choices. At Publishers Weekly, executive editor Daisy Maryles -- who has been working on the trade weekly's bestseller lists for almost 30 years -- says she is still trying to crack Wal-Mart as a source, as is, for that matter, Jim King at Nielsen. Steve Wasserman, the Book Review editor at the Los Angeles Times, doesn't even pretend that his staff's process yields reliable results. "It's a deeply unscientific -- one is almost tempted to call it whimsical -- compilation, which has a veneer of a certain kind of science," he says.
So, given that questionable reliability, why aren't publications turning to BookScan? The New York Times' Richard Meislin thinks the answer is obvious: "The question is sort of like, 'Given the existence of the Associated Press, why does the N.Y. Times or The Washington Post continue to field its own reporters?' "

The Post points out that BookScan, for good or bad, gives each book equal weight, which doesn't sit well with some editors, who often like to tailor their lists to the tastes of their readerships:
"To Nielsen BookScan, as far as I understand, a book is a book is a book," Meislin says, whereas the N.Y. Times makes some editorial judgments -- most noticeably in its decision to put certain nonfiction titles into the periodic "Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous" category, which cuts off at five titles each in hardcover and paperback. This decision gives a title like Maureen Dowd's Bushworld at least as much prominence as The South Beach Diet, although the former may sell far fewer copies. And it's possible for a how-to title that sells phenomenally well not to make the list at all.

... Jacqueline Blais, who supervises the USA Today's bestsellers, explains the benefit of self-compilation this way: "We're able to archive the information with the sensibilities of people who are book readers, with librarians' instincts, so we can look at a richer pattern of book sales." In March of this year, for example, USA Today ran a story highlighting changing trends in book sales since the list's inception in October of 1993, noting, for example, that religious titles like those in the Left Behind series of apocalyptic thrillers have broken out of the Christian bookstores and into mainstream outlets. (If the N.Y. Times were to report this trend, the data would presumably have to come from somewhere other than its own list, which, according to Meislin, doesn't track "primarily religious books" at all. The Washington Post does list religious titles and, in fact, ran a separate story on the Left Behind bestsellers in a recent issue of Book World.) USA Today also takes pride in having raw numbers, not just weekly rankings, enabling editors to see that over the years a classic like The Elements of Style has sold more copies than a flash-in-the-pan new release.
It's worthwhile reading. (Link via Locus Online, because I don't read The Washington Post like I should.)