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Bestsellers?

Well this is a lovely present :D. I have been reading past LJ posts (in lurk-mode because really, who wants comments on entries that are months old?) in a vain attempt to catch up on everything, but I've also been reading my friends list -- and tnh, at making light, has posted a comment about misinformation and the publishing industry.

She is, as usual, right, but one of the things that strikes me about the article -- and the questions she poses in her response -- is this: How do most people know what a Bestseller is?

It's an interesting question. In a chain store, you, as the stocking or sales clerk, know chiefly by the number of copies you receive and the place you're instructed to put them. In a specialty store, such as ours, you actually don't have that as a guide. Oddly enough, one of the questions we don't ask our sales reps when ordering is "How much did your company pay for this?". Or "how much is your company spending on this book for placement?" or even, generally, "How many (net) copies of this author's previous book did you sell?" (The latter would be a reasonable question to ask, but as it's not relevant – the relevant information would be how many copies of this authors previous book did we sell – we generally don't ask that one either.

The obvious names that parade before us – Norah Roberts, to take one – often parade past as well (although we do sell a small quantity of the J.D. Robb books); when we peruse the various catalogues, we come to know who the publisher is pushing, and who the publisher expects will outsell everyone else in the catalogue. But as these things are again not as relevant to a specialty store, we don't paper the store with information about the latest book by so-and-so.

This gives many (but by no means all) customers who tend to specialize in their reading tastes an odd view on what constitutes a bestseller. They are not, by and large voracious NYT readers, or USA today readers (which, given geography, is not surprising). They are often not writers, and many feel no pressing need to clutter their mind with trivia about the various publishing houses; they want something to read. They want something they like to read. They're willing to spend money to get it. More than that is superfluous.

If the claims of the respected paper tnh cites were true, our bookstore would pretty much cease to exist tomorrow, or perhaps in a few weeks, when we suddenly failed to get any new books to sell. Because very few SF/F books qualify as genuine bestsellers.

And when tnh asks people who buy only bestsellers to raise a hand… I'm not sure how she'd verify the truth of the supposition when taking a count. Because I've personally been told which books – often OP – are "bestsellers"; which books should by reason of good reviews, or popularity during the Golden Age (I'm not making this up), be bestsellers; which books obviously come under that heading because, you know, they're garbage written for the teeming, moronic masses just to make money.

Which is to say: I'm not sure that half of the people raising their hands would actually be raising their hands in a statistically meaningful way. This actually holds true for writers in some cases as well. I remember one writer was astonished to learn that another writer was considered midlist, given the amount of noise said author made about his bestselling status.

However… the paragraph to which tnh takes particular exception must come from somewhere. That paragraph is clearly a belief which has been around for a long time, and which does not seem likely to go away any time soon.

I have a few ideas on why this persists. Ummm, I know I've been gone for a while, but that absence doesn't seem to have cured me of a tendency to ponder, with digressions, at length – and I'm sort of terrified of boring people to tears so soon. I've been in the middle of a more writerly post about accessibility, partly because of the Luna restructuring, so there might be two years worth of posts pent up behind a very reedy little dam.

Should I finish the first post, or just leap off the cliff?

ETA: I want a Dire Legal Notice!
ETA (In reference to the copyright notice on Making Light itself, just in case some of you think I'm asking to be sued)

Comments

( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
magicnoire
Oct. 19th, 2006 11:10 pm (UTC)
Your entries are always so interesting! I don't really think you have anything to worry about when it comes to boring people. Post whatever you like, I say.
drenilop
Oct. 19th, 2006 11:34 pm (UTC)
It's very interesting for me as someone who writes in non-fiction to compare the dynamics you discuss in fiction writing with the things that happen on my end. We don't for example HAVE bookstores, specialty or otherwise, in which publishers might compete for space to place their wares. (A large Barnes and Noble or Border's *might* have four shelves [not shelf units] of my entire field, and most of them come from quasi-academic/popular presses.) The closest we have are fieldwide conventions in which 200-300 academic publishers will set up booths in a convention hall, each selling only its own products. 'Bestsellers' in academic writing sell, at best, about 2,500-3,000 copies total (in a lifetime) unless it gets adopted as a text by some people or it's a reaaallly hot topic. (Comparison: The minimum threshold the publisher wants to sell to decide to print a book is usually around a thousand.) The books publishers are willing to actually *spend* money on marketing are ones by authors whose names people recognize - to heck with the content. This is where 'spend money on marketing' means maybe print a stack of bookmarks for people to take from your convention booth or print a poster of the book cover saying "New for August 2005!" to hang in said booth. Textbooks and books that are already showing signs of doing reasonably well might get into an ad in a relevant journal along with a dozen other recent titles.

So yeah, NONE of us are best sellers, none of us READ best sellers, and the whole concept is kind of odd to me. I don't use that as a source of reading at all, and never really thought to.

But I'll read any posts you make. :-) It's good reading anyway.
rolanni
Oct. 19th, 2006 11:49 pm (UTC)
ETA: I want a Dire Legal Notice!

You do? I dunno. I've gotten Semi-Dire Legal Notices in the past and they weren't too much fun. Maybe the Full Bean is headier?

Should I finish the first post, or just leap off the cliff?

Why not tell us why you believe that particular belief keeps sticking around and finish the first post?

Not that I'm greedy, or anything...
(Deleted comment)
jonquil
Oct. 20th, 2006 12:46 am (UTC)
The readership of Making Light is so self-selected an audience as to be nonrepresentative of anything you'd care to mention except, perhaps the greater Nielsen-Hayden fandom.

I think you should write your own Dire Legal Notice.

Those who annoy The Proprietrix will discover their underwear infested by Dire Crustaceans, their books by Dire Larvae, their thoughts by Dire Musings, and their nights by Dire Manifestations.
(Deleted comment)
mmarques
Oct. 20th, 2006 04:28 am (UTC)
Thanks for returning with your fascinating posts on the industry.
(Deleted comment)
msagara
Oct. 21st, 2006 03:29 am (UTC)
Short of having numbers, no, not reliably. I have a very skewed perspective of what sells, because if we were to go by what sold for us, Terry Brooks (who is the nicest person you would want to meet) would no longer be published. In a brass tacks sort of way, the only thing that's relelvant to us is what does sell for us, and the various lists, etc., are about 50/50 in terms of hit and miss.
rowyn
Oct. 21st, 2006 02:56 am (UTC)
Learn to fly!
Or enjoy the fall. =) Welcome back to LJ! I've quite enjoyed reading your writings on the publishing and selling industry in the past, and I'm sure I shall do so in the future.
tnh
Oct. 21st, 2006 02:58 am (UTC)
What entitles a book to be called a bestseller? The answer is dumber and more arbitrary than you'd guess. A bestseller is a book that has appeared on one of the major bestseller lists: NYTimes, Publishers Weekly, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and damned little else. A genre bestseller has appeared on a genre bestseller list -- say, Locus. A bestselling author is one who has had his name on the cover of a bestselling novel, even if it was a red-hot media tie-in, and his current work has no resemblance to it.

Sales velocity is very important. You can have an attested bestseller by selling a decent number of copies very very fast, but not be a bestseller if you sell far more copies over a long period.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )