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The Truth Behind Bestseller Books
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To very loosely paraphrase the Bard, what's in a bestseller?

That which we call a New York Times bestseller by any other name (such as "underground bestseller," or "Amazon bestseller") would smell as sweet-well, maybe not.

As the number of books published each year continues to skyrocket upwards, we face an onslaught of "bestseller" claims. We see the word on marketing materials and press releases, on book covers and websites, and, at Greenleaf Book Group, on many submission forms each week. If this bestseller crown has not been awarded by one of the major publications, such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or USA Today, what kind of bestseller is it? The publisher may be partaking in sensationalist marketing-or just a stretch of the truth.

Whether the claim will benefit them or not depends on whom the publisher is targeting with this information. If the publisher intends to woo the consumer with bestseller claims on the book cover, yes, there's some chance it could help-although once your happy customer discovers the "bestseller" isn't as well-known as she thought, there may be repercussions. However, and this is a HUGE "however," a trumped-up claim of bestseller status could seriously hurt that publisher's reputation in the eyes of wholesalers, distributors, agents, and other parties in the tight-knit publishing industry, and that harm could result in books not getting on shelves. Note to all small publishers making larger-than-life bestseller claims: you're not pulling the wool over the industry's eyes.

Industry types have access to such fabulous tools as Nielsen's BookScan to research your sales history, and they will certainly consult them (amongst other resources) to corroborate your claims before making a decision to support your title. BookScan is a point-of-sale reporting service thought to reflect sales from approximately 70 percent of booksellers nationally. BookScan uses weekly data from over 6,500 retail, mass-merchant, and non-traditional outlets in combination with a statistical weighting methodology to present the most accurate information on sell-through available to the publishing industry. Certain notable accounts are missing, including Wal-mart, Sam's Club, airport bookstores, and Christian book retailers. Still, BookScan is a great gauge of sell-through, and as such, it is becoming increasingly influential in how sales are measured and bestseller lists are compiled.

While BookScan offers great insights into overall sales numbers and trends, it is not used exclusively (or sometimes at all) in building the prestigious bestseller lists. The holy grail of bestseller lists is the one published by the New York Times. The methodology behind how this list is built is kept rather hush-hush.

But most reports on the subject agree that the New York Times sends out a list of preselected trade titles (meaning titles you would find in a bookstore, not the boring academic titles like medical and law books that generally outsell them) to a selected group of close to five thousand retailers and wholesalers for them to record the books' weekly sales numbers. There are allegedly blank lines for the recipients of this survey to write in titles not included on the form. That's a quaint thought, but from what I know about inventory managers, highly unlikely to come into practice often.

With any bestseller list, it's important to note that it's a measurement of velocity of sales, not life of sales. A book that moves five thousand copies in one week is likely to make some list in some capacity when that week's numbers are run; however, a book that sells five hundred copies a week for ten weeks straight probably won't make any list at all. Lists also differ in how they categorize titles. For instance, the New York Times sorts by category (fiction, nonfiction, children's) and format (hardcover, trade paper). On the other hand, USA Today's list lumps them all together, from 1-150 by sales numbers, period. This means that a book listed at number one on the New York Times hardcover fiction list could be ranking in the triple digits on the USA Today list. Amazon.com's ranking system is a whole separate article in itself.

Differences in list-building aside, the notable bestseller lists are meant as a barometer of American culture. No list is 100 percent accurate, and none purport to be. Still, bestseller status on a major list is highly coveted, highly profitable, and highly protected specifically so that the word "bestseller" does not become meaningless. Use your sales history to support your efforts to expand your publishing endeavors, but be wary of making unsubstantiated bestseller claims lest you earn the wrath of industry types. Star-crossed lovers or not, that kind of behavior can bring a plague on all your houses.

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