Monday, May 19, 2008

I Know A Cat That's Rocking the NY Bestseller List - But What Does That Actually Mean?...

I've been chatting with Patrick Rothfuss for about a year now. I dropped him an email after The Agony Column reviewed both our books way back in spring 2007. We've corresponded ever since, and got to hang out on a few occasions - World Fantasy, Fantasy Matters Conference. He's a great guy. He wrote a rocking book, The Name of the Wind, and it's sold really nicely as a hardback. And now it's a NY Times Bestseller in mass market paperback! For a while he was in the teens of the list, but a couple weeks back he cracked the top ten. Yowsers.

He's too nice a guy to hate on, so I can say that I am honestly happy he's done so well. It does make me wonder, though... Hmm... So how many books did Pat sell last week? I mean, really, what does it mean to make number ten on the Time's list? Think this question could be easily answered? Think again. It seems like there are so many factors that go into it that it's near impossible to come up with an answer - and it seems like the publishers of the list themselves aren't offering any hard numbers either. I do remember that when I lived in the UK the Guardian published a bestseller list that included copies sold that week. Now that was informative, but I've seen nothing like it over here.

And I'm not alone. Seems like authors, bloggers, editors all share in common the inability to find hard figures - or accurate ones. A few links as examples...

Tess Gerritsen had some thoughts on it.

And Slate had a rather more complex article on the subject.

Gawker had some thoughts... Well, mostly questions, actually, on how the Times comes up with it's titles.

Midwest Book Review has a few other things to say.

Here's one from the New York Sun.

Here's a NY Times article about Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep - mostly included because my Editor in Chief chimes in with some thoughts.

By the time you're finished reading all these you'll probably conclude that you've learned nearly nothing. Sounds like there are some pretty questionable methods employed - at least if you're thinking of any one list as definitive. With that in mind, I said, "Okay, lemme take a look at Publishers Weekly's bestseller list for the same week. That's another national publication. They likely pull from similar sources. I wonder how Pat's doing over there?"

Well, here's how he's doing - take a look.

Okay, you're back? Good. So if you are you noticed that The Name of the Wind wasn't anywhere to be seen on the PW list. I don't doubt that he's sold many units, so why isn't he in a comparable place on this other list? The lists don't even look much like each other... The Times #1 is PW's #6. Their #2 is PW's #7. Their #3 is #13. On the other hand, PW's #1 is the Times #5. PW's #2 is the Times #... Uh, well, actually it's not there at all. Nor does PW's #3 or #5 make appearances on the Time's list. Or something like that...

Why can't anyone give a straight answer on this? That's kinda a rhetorical question. I know why - because it's a funky, complicated business in which it's impossible to measure all units sold and - for that matter - hard to know when you can actually really call a unit sold even when you can track it. I've been asked quite often how a particular book has sold, and people seem surprised (or incredulous) by my claims that it's really hard to know. But it's the truth. I could tell you how many copies my publisher shipped out to bookstores, but that wouldn't mean a thing. (Any bookstore that orders a book can send it back.) A book - for royalty purposes - isn't really sold when a person walks out of the store with it. (Remember that anyone that buys a book can return it - and then the store can return it...)

It seems to me, from combing through several years of royalty statements, that a sale really only becomes a sale when the publisher is confident the book can't be returned to them anymore. That may seem weird, but if they didn't do it that way the publisher could find themselves paying an author royalties that they later discover the author never earned - once the returns roll back in. So, it's complicated in the long run, not to mention in the quick turn-around of ascertaining a weekly bestseller list.

What is concrete about all this? Pat has sold a lot of books. That's clear. He's sold a lot more books because he was on the list. And he will sell more books because of it for a long time, since he now bears NY Times bestselling author tattooed on his forehead. I have no such tattoo. I thought about putting "Briefly made the BookSense Extended Bestseller List" on mine, but it doesn't quite have the same effect. I've been known to say, "One week I sold more copies than any one JK Rowling title in Chile!", but people just look at me funny when I do that. I can also proudly declare that, "I'm big in Sweden!" That's pretty cool, admittedly, but if I told you how many copies I sold (maybe) over there it might take the shine off... Anyway, I'm rambling.

I do know this, though: if I see Pat at WisCon next week I'll not say no if he offers to pay for the coffee...

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Blogger John Scalzi said...

Some reasons for the confusion:

a) Different bestseller lists use different criteria for their listings, not necessarily relating to total sales;

b) Total sales are hard to track because BookScan (which tracks weekly sales)doesn't include some high volume sales channels (like, say, Wal-Mart).

This essentially means that on actual sales, no one knows anything until the publishers tally up sales at the end of each royalty reporting period. When they are tallied up, there's often a disconnect, based on sales from non-reporting retail.

For example, the BookScan numbers for my 2003 book The Book of the Dumb stand at 36,000 or so (or did the last time I had a friend of mine who has BookScan access check for me). My publisher, however, reports sales of more than 80,000. The reason for the discrepancy? They sell tons of the book (literally; they're shipped in bulk) at Costco and Sam's Club. The discrepancy with my Tor work is not as pronounced, but it's still there.

The NYT list is based on some equation that as I understand it factors in both BookSense sales and also reporting from specific bookstores. If you want to know which bookstores, follow the stops of the book tours of famous authors and see where they land in each city. It also works this way for Locus bestsellers, which is why SF/F tours tend to stop at certain bookstores as well.

Hope that helps.

9:14 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Hi John,

Yeah, that does help in that it adds a few more personally confirmed pieces to this puzzle.

Nice sales for The Book of the Dumb, by the way...

12:41 PM  
Blogger Corby Kennard said...

First off - Scalzi posting on your blog? Very cool. When you, David, posted on MY blog, I was over the moon. I know you admire Scalzi, so I can only imagine you feel similarly whenever he does it. It's nice to know someone as busy as he is takes the time to lend a hand and a comment to those on the way up. (I, of course, speak of popularity, not talent. You have probably written as many words in Acacia as he did in the whole OMW/TGB/TLC series. And I'm sure Acacia did/is doing very well in hardcover and foreign markets. But Scalzi is, well, Scalzi. We should all be lucky to have Sclazi level of popularity.)

Second, these are interesting links I will peruse later at my leisure. Working at a book store, I often asked about how books could be on the bestseller list before they were released. It apparently had something to do with the number of units ordered or some such. Personally, I think it is a title that the agents wrangle for to position the books better to make more sales, but then, I AM a conspiracy theorist, so there you go.

Lastly, you will be at WisCon? Very cool. I am going for the first time, with the wife and baby. She has been going for a while, and talked me into it. I have to admit to being a bit nervous because I find myself at odds with many feminist views (or rather, they find themselves at odds with me, even when I think I am agreeing) and don't want her to be ostracized by her friends for marring "That Guy."

Anyway, I'll see you there. Maybe, just maybe, I'll buy a hardcover and get you to sign it. But I probably won't read it till I get the MM. I've had a number of books in hardcover for years and never cracked them open, including Scalzi's own The Androids Dream.

8:36 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...


Yeah, I'm always siked when he posts here. He's done so a few times, and each time I'm surprised to discover HE reads MY blog! Of course, he's so connected and wired that he must read tons of blogs. But it's cool to be one of them.

Conspiracy theories in publishing? You bet.

Very cool that you're going to WisCon. I'll see you there!

OK, gotta go. I'm off to San Francisco (with family) to meet up with my French publicist (with kid)! Family and business and San Francisco and things European... Nice way to spend the day...

10:14 AM  

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