If only that were true (but it sort of is)...
Seth Godin is very busy with his new publishing venture called, The Domino Project (in conjunction with Amazon). Yesterday, he published a Blog post titled, Strategy Memo: Rejecting The New York Times Bestseller List, in which he debunks the reality of hitting The New York Times all-important book list.
"It's not just an indicator (the proverbial canary, indicating what's going on in the mine) but it's also an amplifier, a spark that can lead to ever more sales, conversations and credibility. The list became truly important a few decades ago when the superstores started discounting bestsellers to near cost. That meant that if a book made the list it would certainly cost a lot less and be displayed far more prominently. Which of course kept it on the list for weeks or months. While this effect has faded, the prestige and attention that the list brings has only grown."
"It turns out that where your book is sold makes a difference as well. The Times is notorious for counting sales at certain stores (usually independent booksellers) more than others, and until recently ignoring some stores altogether. Selling books at a conference? Well, if you get them straight from the publisher you can offer them at a lower price, serving your readers better. Of course, those sales won't count for the list. Instead, contact a bookstore, route the sales through them (though they never touch the books) and you'll get credit for the list. Want to sell a five pack of your books? You can't easily do that if you care about the list, because the Times counts each pack as one book, not five. It goes on and on."
It has become a complex world.
You would think that a book sold is a book sold - regardless of it being an individual copy, a bulk buy, an electronic version or where it is purchased. You would be wrong. As an author, I can tell you that this is a constant source of frustration. The truth is that I am a New York Times' bestselling author, but I've never made the list. As just one example: One week a major US corporation chose my book to gift to a segment of their customers. This resulted in 20,000+ copies of my book being bought in just one week. That's no small number, and coupled with the regular weekly sales it would have placed the book at the top of the non-fiction list - without question. But, as Seth pointed out, this type of bulk purchase wound up not being counted to the list. Incidents like that happened a couple of times during this past year. To prove my point, 800-CEO-Read handles the majority of the bulk sales for my business book and it ranked at #13 in their The Bestsellers of 2010. I've been told on countless occasions that my book routinely outsells other books that sit atop lists like the New York Times Bestsellers.
There is a reason for this.
The other side of the coin, is that there are people who are constantly trying to game the system. I'm sure lists like the New York Times have rules like this in place because authors have purchased a mass amount of their own books simply to make the list (whether those books ever wound up in the hands of a reader or in a landfill somewhere is not the point). A bestselling book enables you to charge more for whatever services you offer. To that point, there are a handful of book publishing industry businesspeople who still know how to maneuver the system, so that every book bought does count towards a bestseller list. They charge a flat fee for their formula as well as bonuses based on how many lists and how highly an author ranks on it.
So, what does matter?
Seth says, "Readers have plenty of other lists (online and off) if we're curious what's popular. Smart people are realizing the list is easily gamed, and word of mouth ends up being more important anyway." As usual, he's spot on. If you really want to know which business book is best, all you have to do is ask. You can do this in your own networks in places like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. You can even try posting a question like this in a newer platform like Quora. Beyond that, there are Blog postings and other spaces (even 800-CEO-Read) who focus on specific niches of books, and the content in those spaces are filled to the brim with great recommendations.
What's your take on this? Do the lists still matter or is it more relevant to get a recommendation from someone you know and trust?