- by Jo Beverley
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.
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.
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.