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Rethinking the bestseller list

January 6, 2012
by seth godin

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A year ago, I explained why the Domino Project chose to reject the very broken, easily gamed New York Times bestseller list.

Many authors and some publishers bend over backwards, changing every element of their business just to get on the list, in the mistaken belief that it still matters. It doesn’t, because shelf space and discount decisions aren’t based on the list the way they used to be. Add to this the fact that recent additions to the list (it now takes up many, many pages each week) have made it almost impossible to read and understand.

The key question is this: what is the list for?

If you’re a publisher, what you care about is how many books you sold last week. This isn’t based on category or format, you just want to know how many. Bookscan and other data sources tell you that.

For the rest of us, then, the reason we care if something is a bestseller is because we want to know if our friends are reading it. We want to know this so we can stay in sync with them, not appear stupid, or, perhaps, because we trust their judgment. That’s why you don’t care a bit about what the bestsellers in New Zealand are.

The digital world opens a new window, something that was unknowable just five years ago. Tell me what other TED attendees are reading, please. Tell me what readers of Mother Jones or Newsmax are reading. Or what my Facebook friends bought last week. Or highlight for me what people who read what I read are finishing on their Kindles…

Suddenly, there isn’t one bestseller list. There are a million. And almost all of them aren’t relevant to you. Except the few that are, and those lists are the lists that matter.

This works for music, too, of course, as well as movies and even wines and restaurants.

No one has built this list yet, it is sort of showing up around the edges of a variety of sites and services and industries. A great opportunity if you can figure out the best way to source the data and then distribute it. The person who knows what’s hot right now, and has permission to talk about it, has earned an asset that will be valuable for a long time.

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