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Strategy memo: Rejecting the New York Times bestseller list

January 14, 2011
by seth godin

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Every now and then, I’d like to share some of the strategic discussions we’ve had and decisions we’ve made as we’ve created this project.

The first one may surprise you. We needed to decide if we cared about having our books make the bestseller list. If you publish books (or write them) aimed at a mass audience, the Times list is never very far from your focus. 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.

But there’s a cost. The cost is that you have to write differently, promote differently and do business differently. Simple questions about rollout, promotion, pricing, packaging, titles and distribution sooner or later come down to, “will it hurt us on the list?”

The curious know that there are in fact two lists for non-fiction hardcover books. The first list, the regular list, is the list of ‘real’ books of the sort the Times would like people to read. The second list is a ghetto, a place for How To, Advice, and the always coveted ‘Miscellaneous’ books to reside. This list was invented by the editors at the Times because these books were crowding out the other, better, books from the list.

Of course, it’s always tricky to draw lines. So my friends Dan Pink and Malcolm Gladwell’s important books end up on the real list while folks like Jessica Seinfeld and the Heath brothers have to fight their way onto the other, better selling and more crowded but somewhat lesser list.

Careful which title you pick, because it’ll change where you end up.

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. I’m not sure it’s worth it any more.

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. The same thing happened to the Billboard charts once Top 40 radio faded in importance. New ways of selling (ebooks, multipacks, etc.) are more important than a label from a newspaper that knows it is publishing a list that isn’t accurate.

So we’re ignoring the Times with our books. Not worth the journey. We’ll take care of our readers first and let the bestseller list take care of itself.

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{ 24 comments }

Natalie Currie January 14, 2011 at 9:54 am

I’m glad I got the memo!

The thought of the Heath brothers not having the same treatment as my other gurus – Seth, Dan Pink and Malcolm Gladwell… troubles me…I can’t wait to see how the Domino Effect completely changes this antiquated paradigm.

To the movement!

seth godin January 14, 2011 at 10:25 am

Actually, Natalie, I’m on the same ghetto list as most business writers. Dan and Malcolm are the worthy exceptions.

Mike Hostetler January 14, 2011 at 10:32 am

I’m glad to hear that this project will be ignoring the list. Ignoring the list is the epitome of disruption in this market, and I’m very interested to watch what happens.

What I find more fascinating however, is what will happen with the vacuum that is created. Humans love lists, hence the popularity of the Times list. However, the problem with the Times list is that it’s somewhat curated, as you point out. It’s lost it authenticity to those in the know.

What will it be replaced with though? Amazon’s recommendation engine? Humans love discovering what others are reading. Will the domino project help answer that question, providing authors with channels for people to share good books with one another, and providing new people with a way to discover what’s rising to the top?

An authentic list, with a public algorithm for how that list is achieved, would be very very interesting.

LeeAnn Kendall January 14, 2011 at 11:02 am

Agree. As people have marketed their way on to the list, it has lost its cachet.

My 2 cents…the body font is too fussy/dated for this evolutionary project.

Ankur January 14, 2011 at 11:33 am

The concept of ‘List’ was created in times when mass communication & information flow was dependent on large media houses. Internet has flattened the world of communication & information flow.

Lists are anyways less relevant today as a serious reader selects a book based on recommendations & reviews available online rather than the ‘lists’.

But, finding all this info is still significantly difficult.
So, there should be some form of ‘Personalized Lists’.

Andy Pels January 14, 2011 at 11:37 am

C’mon. Ignoring the list would mean that you would not notice, nor feel the slightest bit of retributional joy when the Times’ proverbial canary suddenly peeps loudly and keels over. ;)

Mike’s point about the vacuum left is thought-provoking. Can we predict what thing(s) will fill the vacuum any more accurately than we can predict the GOP Presidential nominee for 2012? Probably less so. That what makes it so much fun.

Graham Strong January 14, 2011 at 3:52 pm

I imagine that the New York Times Bestseller List will eventually change to include “non-traditionally published” books, should the current trend continue.

If not, a new one will take its place (hmm, Amazon, anyone? Google?) I agree with Ankur to a certain extent that lists are less relevant these days in a practical sense. But the bottom line is that people in general love lists. They’ll continue to exist in some shape or form, methinks.

~Graham

chris grant January 15, 2011 at 1:32 am

Do people still bother with lists? Finding your own path to the good stuff is part of the fun! Recently its websites like TED and RSA where the authors speak about their book/ideas where i make up my own mind about a book.Then guess what? I go on amazon and buy it.

Jason January 15, 2011 at 1:37 am

Ignore the list, take care of your customers.

I like the sound of that.

Jos Donnes January 15, 2011 at 3:06 am

Agree and very inspiring. I think these kind of decisions frees up the mind to create the real good products. Then at the end you’re writing for your readers and not for lists. Just like the Gratefull Dead, they’re performing for their fans, not for charts or lists.

Lynn Huffman January 15, 2011 at 10:43 am

Awesome! I’ve long depended on word of mouth (or word of blog!) recommendations over the NYT list. Whether it’s books, cars, appliances, restaurants, etc., people want to know what their real or virtual friends prefer.

Hugh MacLeod January 15, 2011 at 11:08 am

Every author wants to make the list irrelevant.
Yet every author still wants to be on the list.

Ah, the paradox of literary feuadalism. Heh.

PS I am a published, WSJ-bestselling author (Whatever the hell that means). Looking forward to seeing where Seth & Co take all this :)

Jack Macholl January 15, 2011 at 1:29 pm

Agree with your decision to ignore “the list.” Many market their way to the list and it has become less meaningful in recent times. Although many people will make a “buy” decision based on a TV talk show endorsement or a list, it will be interesting to see the new trail the Domino Project blazes.

Eric Chester January 15, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Until I attended Seth’s publishing seminar this past week, I was prepared to pay north of $50k to ‘game’ the list; and the team I was going to hire has had tremendous success getting books on the NYT lists.

Now I couldn’t care less about these goofy lists. I’ve had friends spend huge $ to buy their way onto these lists only to fade to obscurity a week or two after the launch.

It boils down to quality, folks. If you write a better book and spend a reasonable amount to promote it outsie of your tribe, good things will happen.

Bill Holmes January 15, 2011 at 6:05 pm

Seth,
As usual you are “on mark”
The NYT list is another example of a dinosaur with a coming ice age coming
Keep up the great work!

Mark Stiving January 15, 2011 at 8:18 pm

Focusing on the reader first. What an amazing concept. We write to have an impact. The only reason the list matters is that it gets our message to more readers, especially the ones who were not searching for our specific content. Can the Domino project have a similar effect? Maybe it will attract and aggregate enough authors with real content that the list becomes much less important in sharing the message. Something must replace “the list”. It won’t just fade away.

@Dinodinosaur1 January 15, 2011 at 8:21 pm

Great. Publishing 2.0 shouldn’t rely on Media 1.0 for validation. The great promise of the new media, including book publishing efforts like the Domino Project is mass customization, which will allow it to reach the silent numbers who would prefer to read their favourite author’s words written without self-censorship. Without having to self-censor to fit the template for a “bestsellers list”, the authors can be more authentically themselves. As someone else said, disruptive.

Robert J. Bannon January 16, 2011 at 3:25 pm

It is important to know that ALL bestseller lists create their data similarly and that authors need to proceed accordingly. After all, it’s really about the reader, not the reviewer.

Christina Ciani January 16, 2011 at 11:15 pm

This is the way many people like to be reached. Scamming the system by ignoring it – I think it’s great.

Shelley January 17, 2011 at 1:05 pm

The current/old system of publishing is just achingly, groaningly out of energy and integrity. It reminds me of the scene in Inconvenient Truth where the glacier cracks and collapses into the sea.

I’m not smart enough about e-things to understand a lot of what Seth Godin says; but I am able to get it that the ideas are vigorous and straightforward.

There may be a new home for good work.

Noah Fleming January 17, 2011 at 2:35 pm

I like this.

It’s been interesting to watch the gaming of the list over the past year or so. Many authors aren’t so quiet about their tactics. It’s also interesting to see which authors will do whatever it takes, at whatever cost, to make the list…

When is it about the idea, and not just about the status of having your name on the list?

Seth, you’ve also said (and I’m paraphrasing), “if the idea is “good” and “remarkable,” it will spread, and people will remark about it.”

As the dominoes tumble….

Tracy Thomas January 17, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Wow, and now I understand the genius behind Vivian Jennings and Rainy Day Books in KC. She is the bookstore that promotes traveling celebrity writers, eg Ina Garten, Steve Forbes, Joe Scarborough, thru a KMBZ radio station luncheon or talk at Unity on the Plaza. And now I see that that one little step, of Vivian selling the book, instead of the local station or foundation, is what COUNTS toward making the list. Follow the money.

I am a Doubleday author from 1976. Small books became obsolete then, because small bookstores pay a higher WHOLESALE price than Costco or Sam’s Club sells for RETAIL. That is what put the small bookstores out of business.

Chris Bass January 18, 2011 at 9:28 am

Follow your customers, ignore the list. What your customers are saying about you will help you grow your business. Wait, you already know that you’re ignoring the list. Well done.

Amod Munga February 14, 2011 at 7:26 am

Good call on eschewing the option of aiming for the list.
Besides, if Snooki from Jersey Shore can make the cut, it really doesn’t say much for the vetting process.
After all, you’re judged by the company you keep, no?

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