- by Jo Beverley

Today’s the day my latest book, An Unlikely Countess, shows up in the New York Times mass market paperback bestseller list at #17.

As they wrote in 1066 And All That (still an amusing book if you know a bit about British history) this is a Good Thing. Publishers send congratulatory flower and/or other gifts. Sometimes there are bonuses attached.

But I found myself wondering when bestseller lists began, and where, and why?  There’s a long and interesting article on Wikipedia here. Another Wikipedia article says the New York Times list began in April 9, 1942.

The Times in Britain came late to the game, in 1974, and they claim, without detail, that Americans had bestsellers lists back into the 19th century.  The article includes this fascinating paragraph.

“On April 21, 1974,and in this place (The Sunday Times Review, as it then was), the UK’s first definitive weekly national bestseller list was published. Keeping a finger on the nation’s reading pulse in this way had been routine in America since the 1890s.  Americans loved their bestseller lists. Why? Because US society is organised around winners and losers. The UK loathed bestseller lists. Why? Because they were unEnglish. Books, we believed, did not compete against each other. Paying attention to a book not for its quality but for the quantity it sold was Yankee philistinism.

Fascinating. I wonder if you agree with that.

The whole piece is here,

In it, you’ll see that bestseller lists have always stirred emotions, and thus have been manipulated. There are quite a lot of people who want bestseller lists to be best lists, with “best” being their own judgment and prejudice. One books page editor wrote without shame that he regarded the lists as recommended reading, so didn’t hesitate to leave off books he thought unworthy.

Leaving aside that kind of thing, gathering the data was an uncertain affair until bookstores had check-out systems that recorded the information, and even then the worthy versus unworthy thing lurked. You know, “real books” as opposed to the other sorts.

Then the USA Today list shook up the whole system by getting electronic sales data from a wide range of book outlets. Not just the independent booksellers, not just the chain booksellers, but the places where people buy books along with groceries and shoes. And guess what, popular fiction really was popular. Surprise, surprise! The other bestseller lists had to shift into counting sales in a similar way.

And now, the dynamic popularity of e-books is stirring things up all over again, because the USA Today list has continued its policy of counting sales without filters. Thus, some self-published e-books are showing strongly on that list, and other lists are following. The NYT has started an e-published list, but I don’t know how they’re tallying for it. The titles there at the moment are all e-editions of print books from major publishers.

And of course, it’s already stirring controversy, this time about price. Should cheap — say .99c books — be tallied alongside those with more regular prices. If yes, how low can the price go and still be counted? If not, where to draw the line?

That issue isn’t affecting me as yet, and I think I can assume that the readers who’ve bought my book will read it. (If you want to try before you buy, you want to sample An Unlikely Countess, chapter one is here.) One bestseller problem from the outset has been the number of prestige titles that are purchased just because it’s the thing to do, but that are never read. They’re bestsellers, but not “best read.”

From the Wikipedia article above. “In 1985 members of the staff of The New Republic placed coupons redeemable for cash inside Strobe Talbott‘s “Deadly Gambits: The Reagan Administration and the Stalemate in Nuclear Arms Control” and none of them were sent in.”

Have you ever bought a book just because it was on a bestseller list, and have you ever done that and not read it?

If you want to look over the current lists check these links.

The New York Times mmpb list. This will take you to a particular date, but there are clicks to take you forward or backward.

Publishers Weekly

The USA Today list

And if you want to see bestselling romance listed all in one place, visit RWA’s website here.

The Times in Britain charges for online access, but here’s a page for an old paperback bestseller list. It gives number of copies sold.

Happy reading,



  1. I haven’t bought a “best seller” and never read it, but I’ve checked out a book or two from the library and not been able to get through them, for many reasons.

    Bestsellers could be determined by tallying sales in several price ranges and formats, then pamplets wouldn’t compete against tomes.

    As far as the British never tallying a best sellers list, I’m sure booksellers/publishers weren’t shy about touting the latest book they thought would appeal to the masses and I’m sure Dickens kept close watch on how many books or magazine subscriptions he sold.

  2. Good point about Dickens, Bonnie. And Jane Austen was very interesting in selling well.


  3. I don’t use Best seller lists to pick out what I read. I do love to check to see how my favorite authors’ new book is doing, so I can send them a “Good for You, Way To Go.”I don’t believe that any author, past or present, writes with the hope that their book doesn’t sell.

  4. I rarely look at the bestseller lists. If I do, it’s only to see if any of my favorite authors are on it. Sometimes, this can be a place I find books by my favorite non-fiction authors.

    But do I buy books I haven’t read yet? Definitely! My appetite for books always seems to exceed the time I have to read, or to “eat” them.

    That latter thought surfaced because I remember that our library is soon having the fourth “Books to Eat.” For this, local bakers are baking cakes and decorating them as covers of books. I’ve never been to such an occasion, but I understand someone (or someones?) will be explaining what each cake-book is about.

    I don’t yet have “An Unlikely Duchess.” I want to catch up on the others in the Malloren series before I read it. I’m using one of my book challenges to do that this year.