Schumpeter in The Economist tells us somewhat cynically in their issue of 14 February, “The secret of such lists, the most prominent of which are those in the New York Times, is that they do not measure total sales, but their velocity. Books that fly off the shelves in their first week make the lists, and that in turn boosts their subsequent sales. Pre-orders of books all count toward the first week’s sales figures, so canny authors try to get people to buy copies in advance of publication. Eric Ries, a lecturer on entrepreneurship and innovation, went on a “pre-book” book tour to drum up interest before his work, ‘The Lean Startup’, even had a firm name, and started selling it online more than a year in advance of its publication. It worked. The book’s cover is now able to boast ‘the New York Times bestseller’ above the title.

Ruthless authors can go even further. The Times compiles its lists by tracking sales at a few thousand shops, wholesalers and online retailers. It is not hard for writers to find out which outlets feed their numbers into the rankings; indeed, there are firms that provide such information, for a fee. Wordsmiths can then route their book tours accordingly, and encourage buyers to place orders at these shops. Another way of working the system is to release a book in a quiet period– such as this month – when there is less competition for a place on the bestseller lists.  

It is easier than it used to be to get onto these lists. Last year the Times added 12 new bestseller categories, including travel, humour and spirituality. It has also expanded its main lists, to 20 books, which gives more authors a shot at making the charts. Shrewd authors have realised that ‘bestseller’ is a relative term: in some months and some categories they can make the bottom of the list by selling merely a few thousand copies.”

All those lists in the back of the New York Times Book Review seem just so much wasted paper to me. You can spend a lot of time reading them, and at the end you really don’t know anything much. I never bother looking at them. They’ve devalued the currency I think. Certainly this cynical video from Studio C would support this suspicion.

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