Jilly: When is a Bestseller Not a Bestseller?

 BestsellerDoes the description Bestselling Author positively influence your book-buying decisions? Especially New York Times Bestselling Author?

I ask the question because as a non-American I’m trying to get my head around the furore over the recent decision by the New York Times to eliminate a number of categories, including mass-market paperbacks and e-books, from its bestseller lists. Click here for Publishers’ Weekly’s report on the changes. As far as I can tell, going forward only one list (Top 15 Combined Print and E Fiction) will include novels in e-book format.

Romance Writers of America, Horror Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, Sisters In Crime and Novelists, Inc. have released a joint statement condemning the decision and describing it as a “tremendous mistake.” Click here to read the full statement.

I have to say it seems rather counter-intuitive.

As you might expect, I follow all sorts of industry blogs and updates, and the big topic of discussion last month was a presentation on the state of the publishing market in 2016, given at the Digital Book World conference by an analyst known only as Data Guy. There’s a wealth of fascinating material in his presentation—click here to see the whole thing—but here’s one snippet:

Last year, seventy per cent of US sales of adult fiction were digital (67% ebooks and 3% audio).

Am I missing something? To focus on bestseller lists that ignore 70% of all fiction sales feels to me like swimming upstream. Does this not mean the accolade of New York Times Bestselling Author will become devalued or at least significantly changed?

Here’s another gem from the authorearnings report: romance is a huge subgenre.

In 2016 romantic fiction accounted for online sales of 156 million books, of which 98% were digital (96% e-books, 2% audio).

So I guess we’re going to be seeing a fewer romance names on the new-style lists? Just the few big hitters from the top houses who are published in hardback?

I’m assuming this change is a qualitative/editorial/intellectual choice, but then surely “best-seller” becomes a misnomer? Why not call them “curated lists of popular books we think appropriate to our readership?”

As a reader I never pay any attention to bestselling author tags anyway, so it’s going to make zero difference to my purchasing decisions, but I guess it’s important to some authors and maybe to some people making purchasing decisions, like librarians. If the readership of a library enjoys romantic novels, then I doubt librarians are going to stop buying them. I guess they’ll have to find another way to seek out recommendations.

Do you think the change is important? Does it make a difference to you, as a reader or a writer?

14 thoughts on “Jilly: When is a Bestseller Not a Bestseller?

  1. I’m not influenced at all the Bestselling Author tag on books and generally consider it to be pretty subjective and meaningless. It’s right up there with Award Winning Author and the quotes by other authors on the book covers.

    That being said, the change in the lists by the New York Times seems like it will be ignoring / minimizing certain genres / types of purchases, definitely making them more “curated lists” rather than “bestselling lists.” Since those lists do seem to drive decisions in the publishing industry, I can see why the various writer associations put out their statement.

    I’m curious about that “98% were digital” quote you have from the authorearnings report. I have a hard time believing that 98% of romance fiction purchased was electronic. Can you provide a link for that? I’d like to know how they came up with that number.

    • The authorearnings report is the Data Guy/Digital Book World report I referred to in the previous paragraph (http://authorearnings.com/report/dbw2017/). Incidentally there’s also a link on the authorearnings website to the report he did for last year’s RWA annual conference, which has a lot more romance-specific information.

      And thank you for pointing out the typo in my post (I’ll fix it as soon as I’ve added this comment). The 156 million romance novels I quoted above (of which 98% are e-books and audio) are online sales. My take on this nugget was that sales of dead tree format romance novels are therefore almost all happening in bricks-and-mortar bookstores, which means they’re likely written by traditionally published big-hitting authors.

      And crudely speaking, I think it means most of the new NYT lists will ignore about 150 million romance e-books out of a total US adult fiction market (all genres) of just under 500 million books.

      I believe Data Guy was the first person to capture the non-traditional/self-pub/online part of the market and add it to available information about traditional publishing to get a view of the whole industry and identify trends. It seems that his reports have come to be generally accepted within the industry, even by traditional publishing sources who were initially skeptical.

      I know you’re Data Girl, so if you decide to take a closer look at any of his reports I’d love to get your take on them.

  2. As a reader, I’m with you guys. The best-selling author sticker only gives me warm fuzzies if I read and liked the book. Then I feel vindicated. I’ve read a lot of best-sellers that didn’t give me much reading pleasure at all, so going into the book, it means nothing.

    I don’t know what the New York Times thinks it’s doing. Going back to a simpler time, maybe? I do know they are competing against other best-selling measurements. I would think an Amazon bestseller would mean something (if it’s properly defined).

    Digital does seem to be the way things are going. I know that I personally bought most of my romance in 2016 digitally. I think all my “try some, buy some” purchases will probably be digital in the future, because I really love marking up my copy on the Kindle app, and I don’t have to find shelf space for it. Only the books that make the “want to re-read this every year” will really make the paper-buy list, I think. From what I’ve heard on a book list I belong to, most of the older people there are downsizing their collections and moving toward Kindle and other e-tools for their books.

    Certain sections of romance have traditionally been a very one-use type of literature. I don’t know how many times I’ve stopped by a garage sale and seen boxes and boxes of romances, lightly used and ready to give pleasure to the next person. I remember borrowing Harlequins from the library, and being able to read five or six in a week, sometimes more if I didn’t work on the weekend. That kind of consumerism adds up, and if you can’t return it to the library, the shelf-space tends to disappear. You don’t have to throw away as much with digital . . . .

    • It made me think about my purchases, too. In 2016 my fiction buying was entirely digital, or close to it. I download e-books for instant reading gratification (what do I want to read right now?), for availability of the authors I like, and for the fact that my entire library is on my kindle so I can carry it about with me, not just out of the house but from the sofa to the bath to bed. I have a few bookcases of old favorites, but I don’t tend to go back to them very often. If I love them that much, chances are I bought the e-book as well (like a full set of Georgette Heyer).

      I bought quite a number of physical books for research, and writing craft, and business, travel and memoir. Right now I only have a digital copy of Deb Dixon’s GMC (Goal, Motivation, Conflict) and that really bugs me. My brain seems to have decided that it likes digital for story and paper for the real world.

      • My “buying” was predominately digital in 2016 as well, but that’s misleading because all of the electronic books that I bought were free, with the exception of 2 books that I bought to support the authors (friends of mine). I use the digital books as a new-author test drive channel. If I really like the author/book, there’s a very good chance I’ll buy it in physical form (though there are some instances where electronic is all there is.)

        For reference and non-fiction, physical books are my preference. I find them easier to navigate through. I really like the fact that the last travel guide I bought in physical form, also gave me the electronic version at no charge – the best of both worlds.

        • This is how I operate, too, Elizabeth—I start out with the freebie digital versions, and then if I like the author, I’ll try digital or print, depending on how desperate I am and what’s available. But I find anything to be more navigable in print; all my research books that I use are print books, but it’s not really important to navigate fiction, so the digital version is fine. The two reference books I bought in digital (because of the low price) I have yet to crack.

  3. Like you, I’ve moved almost entirely to digital for fiction, but still buy craft books in paper. Not sure exactly why. I have Emotion Amplifiers in digital only. It’s convenient to use the digital index to look up the body language for the emotion I’m trying to portray, but I’d love to have a paper copy I could annotate, too. I’ve never figured that out on a Kindle.

    As for the bestseller lists, they are, in the words of someone I don’t much admire, “rigged.” Between readers’ tendency to stick with the familiar and the fact that 99.9% of marketing dolalrs are expended on sure things, it’s an oligopoly, with few players high entrance barriers. The same tired authors peddling the same, increasingly repetitive wares. If I see a brand-new author on the list, though, that intrigues me.

    The NYT said they were trying to free up print space for better in-depth coverage of books and trends, but it’s telling that they chose to do that by ignoring the vast bulk of the sales.

    • I like getting craft books and research books on my Kindle app for the computer because the search function makes it so easy to find something I remember reading — all I need is a somewhat unusual keyword. My notes are all searchable, too, so I can make a note if I think something will make a good blog post, or if a character would find that nugget of info useful.

      On the minus side, what happens if my computer crashes? What happens if there’s a minor disaster and the power goes off, but I have time to read and research (my old battery only holds a charge for a couple of hours)? What happens if Amazon pulls some shenanigans? I have lost notes before. I also find it easier to open a print book in some situations than I find it easy to “fire up the old computer”. Plus, if the computer stays off, the internet is far less tempting.

      Then again, if I need to fact check, clarify or supplement something in my reading, Google is only two clicks away.

      I like physical books still for my pleasure reading. (-: If I drop a book when my cat attacks while I’m reading and riding the exercise bicycle, I might lose my place. If I dropped a Kindle, I might lose $75 or however much it is for a cracked screen or whatever. Still, it doesn’t stop me from exercising while entertaining myself with my phone. Thank goodness, the phone bounced, but I still have a few lingering scabs from the cat scramble in December.

  4. A very quick two cents here. “Best selling author” doesn’t really catch my eye unless it’s specified “NY Times Bestselling author” at which point that may make me take a closer look at a book, but it doesn’t ultimately influence whether or not I actually buy it [I’m a believer in reading excerpts before purchase]. The perceived cachet of “NY Times” may be more of an emotional habit for me because I grew up with my family reading those lists. My parents still pick up books they enjoy from the NY Times lists and reviews; not sure how the change will affect them yet. I definitely don’t agree with the NY Times list changes since it will reduce awareness of a greater variety of genres and authors than its readers might enjoy, but now may never hear about if they don’t even know to go looking for them.

    • I’ll pick up a book if the cover says it’s a NYT best-selling author, because I take that to mean that an editor worked on it, and a lot of people liked it. I find that to be good information to have. That tag isn’t a factor in buying decisions, though.

    • I’m sad about the list changes. Perhaps the powers-that-be at the NY Times feel that including a wider variety of genres and authors is somehow undermining the cachet of their lists, but it feels like an opportunity missed. Having attended a few RWA conferences now, I know that romance authors include surgeons, doctors, lawyers, academics, cops and members of the armed forces, to name but a few. I’m sure some of them are NYT readers.

      I agree with you about ‘try before you buy,’ Eliza. I never used to bother, but changed my mind after a string of dud purchases. One thing I miss about buying online is that I can’t open the book at random and read any sample page I choose (I always used to do that before buying physical books). The ‘look inside’ sample is a showcase for the book and often reads as though it has received considerably more re-writing, editing and polishing than the pages that follow.

  5. Yeah, the “bestselling author” tag doesn’t mean much to me, either. In fact, I rarely notice it at all unless I’ve just read a book that is awful and have taken a closer look at the author’s bio so I can remember to avoid her books. Then I see the “bestselling” tag and roll my eyes. Not to suggest that bestselling=bad. It’s just then that I notice it.

    I buy one-time-reads in ebook and keepers in paper. If I misjudge, a paper book gets passed along or given to charity. An ebook that turns out to be a keeper is worth buying again to have the paper. Sometimes I’ll see that the price for paper is significantly lower than for ebook (why is this?) and then if I’m not in a hurry I’ll get the paper planning not to keep it.

    • Hm. I’m not good at remembering awful books/authors. I have a number of single titles on my kindle that I have no memory of reading. I just know that if I’d enjoyed the author, I’d have gone back for more, immediately. Seeing an author’s name just once as I flick through my kindle library is a kind of negative reminder.

      I think the paper book/e-book pricing thing is/was a result of the contractual wrangling between some of the big publishers and Amazon. There’s a slide in the authorearnings presentation saying that 2015 “agency” contracts prevented retailers from discounting ebooks from large traditional publishers, so in mid-2015 Amazon raised discounts on their print books instead. In the second half of 2016, Amazon decreased discounts on print books back to “normal” 2014 levels, so you probably won’t see so much of that discrepancy going forward.

  6. Pingback: Elizabeth: Measuring Joy – Eight Ladies Writing

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