A Case Study on The New York Times Best Seller List

The New York Times Best Seller list has been one of the most prominent standards for publishing industry and book readers. According to Miller, when the Times list was published for the first time in October 1931, it was only published for readers in New York City with five fictions and four nonfictions. Gradually, the list was expanded to include more titles that reflected the interests of readers from multiple cities in America. By the 1950s, the Times list was considered as “the list for book professionals to watch” and “the national list mostly read by Americans” (Miller, 2000). However, with the emergence of other best seller lists, the disruption of Amazon’s introduction of customer reviews and the recommendation of celebrities, the prestige status of the Times list has been in question. In this case study, I would like to examine the influence of the Times list on book sales and to compare its influence to the impact of other book-sale-boosting factors. In addition, I will also review some criticisms and controversies around it.

In 2007, Dr. Sorensen, a professor of Economics from the University of Wisconsin had conducted an empirical analysis to examine the effect of the Times list on book sales. He selected 799 hardcover fictions that were released from 2001 to 2002 and collected their weekly national sales data from Nielsen BookScan. He categorized them by whether they appeared on the Times list or not. For those appeared on the list, he compared the sales data of the book before and after they showed on the list. He found that for both groups, sales were concentrated in the first few weeks and kept decreasing for the following time; however, compared with the control group, the sales of the listed books declined about 4 percentage slower (Sorensen, 2007). Sorensen also found that this effect was larger for books appeared at the bottom of the list. He explained that, if an established author such as John Grisham published a new book, readers would buy it no matter it was on the list or not (2007). Therefore, Sorensen’s study confirmed that the appearance on the Times list only had a modest impact on book sales and this impact was more significant for debut authors (2007).

In 1999, The Times sued Amazon for using its Best Seller list on Amazon’s website without permission.  After the lawsuit, Amazon could use the list with the condition that it would only display the books alphabetically, not numerically. In other words, from Amazon’s website, customers would only know whether the book was on the list or not (Carvajal, 1999). Researchers were interested to find out the interdependent relationship between the Times list and the customer reviews on Amazon. After collecting all 583 books that appeared on the Times list between 2000 and 2005 through the newspaper’s online archive, the researchers developed a simultaneous equation system to analyze the relationship among the appearance on the list, the customer review on Amazon and the sales rank on Amazon. The results demonstrated two indirect effects of the Times list. First, the appearance on the list would lead to a boost in customer reviews on Amazon and in turn increased the sales of the books on the website. Second, appearing on the list increased the customer reviews which would result in extending the book’s stay on the list and eventually lead to additional sales on Amazon (Bao and Chang, 2014). Like Sorensen’s findings, this research further confirmed the impact of the Times list on books sales, in an indirect way.

However, in a world that is currently abundant with reviews, recommendations and awards, the impact of the Times list may not be as profound as other book-sale-boosting factors. For example, using the sales data from Nielsen BookScan on the 25 books endorsed by Winfrey Oprah from 2001 to 2011, researchers found that, the sales of these books increased approximately 6,000 percent during the week following the endorsement by Oprah (Garthwaite, 2014). Furthermore, half a year after being endorsed by Oprah, the titles’ sales were still 390 percent higher (Garthwaite, 2014).  Besides the celebrity effect, winning a literary award also had a remarkable effect on the sales of the book. Collaborated with BookScan, BookNet Canada found that in 2013, the winner of the Nobel Literature Prize Alice Munro’s works increased by 4424% in Canada during the week following the prize announcement (BookNet Canada, 2013). In the same period, sales of English-language Munro titles outside of Canada increased by 369% in Australia and by 2625% in Ireland (BookNet Canada, 2013). One explanation would be that the literary awards such as the Nobel Prize or Giller Prize would carry more credibility than the Times list which was only relied on sales data. To summarize, comparing to celebrity recommendation and award-winning status, appearing on the Times list only had a limited impact on book sales.

In addition to the limited influence of the Times list, there has been a lot of criticisms and controversies around it. Since the beginning of the list, the Times has always been keeping the compiling process of the list concealed. On its website, it claimed that their sales data for printed books came from “national, regional and local chains representing tens of thousands of storefronts; many hundreds of independent book retailers; scores of online and multimedia entertainment retailers; supermarkets, university, gift and big-box department stores; and newsstands” (The New York Times, 2018). However, the Times newspaper had never disclosed which bookstores or online vendors had provided sales data to them or how the bookstores or vendors were weighted when being evaluated. People in the industry sometimes criticized the Times list for its discrepancies with BookScan sales data or Amazon’s best seller list. Some speculated that Times weighted independent bookstore more than wholesalers such as Walmart and weighted more print sales from traditional publishers than digital sales from non-traditional publishers (Grady, 2017). However, the Times newspaper never confirmed or denied any rumour around its list.

Also, in 2017, the Times list decided to remove several categories from its list, including the graphic novel/manga, the mass market paperback lists, the middle-grade ebook and young adult ebook lists (Reid, 2017).  It claimed that the reason behind the change was “to devote more space and resources to [their] coverage beyond the bestseller lists” (Reid, 2017). Charles Kochman, the editorial director of Abrams’s graphic novel imprint ComicArts, said comics publishers were concerned that they would not be able to prove the success of their books within the company and in the marketplace (Reid, 2017). Agent Laura Rennert from Andrea Brown Literary Agency commented this restructure decision as “a step in the wrong direction” (Maher, 2017). Karen Auerbach from Kensington Publishing also regarded the Times’ decision to cut those lists as “a serious business error” and predicted that it would create opportunities for other bestseller lists to fill in the gap (Maher, 2017).

Moreover, the Times list was criticized for its system’s inability to filter out the books that bought their way to the list. In 2012, a Christian advice book Real Marriage written by Mark Driscoll, the pastor of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church, appeared on Times list in January for one week. However, a reporter from WORLD magazine found that Mars Hill Church paid ResultSource Inc., a marketing firm claiming to build bestsellers, “at least $210,000 in 2011 and 2012 to ensure the book made the New York Times best-seller list” (Abrams, 2014). To achieve this, ResultSource would purchase bulk sales and break them into multiple individual purchases that would bypass the detecting systems of the list. When questioned by a reporter from Forbes, a spokeswoman from the Times said that they would not comment on their methodology (Bercovici, 2013).

From this case study, I found that the appearance on the Times list had a direct but modest impact on the sales of the books. It would not help to boost the sales of the books but to slow the sales decline after the first few weeks of the publication. Also, the Times list was used on Amazon because combined with Amazon’s customer review, the list would increase the book sales on Amazon indirectly. Research further confirmed that for book sales, being recommended by a celebrity or winning an award works more efficiently than appearing in the Times list. Besides, the Times list has been criticized for its secrecy on evaluating the process, its major restructure on its list and its inability to detect cheating titles. In my opinion, nowadays, instead of a sales-driving force, the Times list functions more as a platform that provides information on what books are in the trend for readers. It does not have a prestige status anymore and this may provide chances for other bestseller lists, book reviews and recommendations to contribute to the book sales. However, as the world’s most dominant best seller list, the Times list should be aware of its drawbacks, especially for those that may affect its credibility in an adverse way.

There are only a few studies focusing on the Times list and this may limit the scope of this case study. Further research may examine other best seller list and may compare the lists posted by traditional media with lists posted by book reviewers on influential websites such as Goodreads.

 

 

 Bibliography

“About the Best Sellers – The New York Times.” The New York Times. 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/books/best-sellers/methodology/.

Abrams, Dennis. “How to Buy a Top Spot on the New York Times Bestseller List.” Publishing Perspectives, March 10, 2014. https://publishingperspectives.com/2014/03/how-to-buy-a-top-spot-on-the-new-york-times-bestseller-list/.

Bao, Tong, and Tung-lung Steven Chang. “Why Amazon Uses Both the New York Times Best Seller List and Customer Reviews: An Empirical Study of Multiplier Effects on Product Sales from Multiple Earned Media.” Decision Support Systems vol. 67 (2014): 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dss.2014.07.004.

Bercovici, Jeff. “Here’s How You Buy Your Way Onto The New York Times Bestsellers List.” Forbes. February 22, 2013. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffbercovici/2013/02/22/heres-how-you-buy-your-way-onto-the-new-york-times-bestsellers-list/.

BookNet Canada, “Alice Munro, At Home And Abroad: How The Nobel Prize In Literature Affects Book Sales.” BNC Research, 2013.

Carvajal, Doreen. “THE MEDIA BUSINESS; Times Co. and Amazon Settle a Legal Dispute.” The New York Times, August 10, 1999, https://www.nytimes.com/1999/08/10/business/the-media-business-times-co-and-amazon-settle-a-legal-dispute.html.

Garthwaite, Craig L. “Demand Spillovers, Combative Advertising, and Celebrity Endorsements.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics vol. 6, no. 2 (April 2014): 76–104. https://doi.org/10.1257/app.6.2.76.

Grady, Constance. “The Convoluted World of Best-Seller Lists, Explained.” Vox, September 13, 2017. https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/9/13/16257084/bestseller-lists-explained.

Maher, John. “Does Anybody Know What a Bestseller Is?” PublishersWeekly.com. November 3, 2017. https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/75290-does-anybody-know-what-a-bestseller-is.html.

Miller, Laura J. “The Best-Seller List as Marketing Tool and Historical Fiction.” Book History vol.3, no. 1 (2000): 286-304. doi:10.1353/bh.2000.0012.

Reid, Calvin. “‘New York Times’ Cuts a Range of Bestseller Lists.” PublishersWeekly.com. January 26, 2017. https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/comics/article/72605-new-york-times-cuts-a-range-of-bestseller-lists.html.

Sorensen, Alan T. “Bestseller Lists and Product Variety.” The Journal of Industrial Economics vol. 55, no. 4 (2007): 715–38.

 

 

 

 

 

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