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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.