Kris Rusch: Bestseller Lists and Other Dreams

Very illuminating:

I slowly weaned myself off that bestseller dream by doing what I always do when I’m trying to understand something. I looked at the numbers. And I didn’t like what I found.

This was when I really learned that the lists were based on velocity—how fast a book sold—not on actual total sales. This finally answered my questions about the way that genre writers could earn a hefty living while literary (and critical darlings) often had to teach. “Sales” were based on books shipped, not on books sold, which really came home to me from traveling.

I went through O’Hare around this point, saw a book by a writer I knew, and the book was on every bookstand, at every checkout place, even at the restaurants. The book was there on Thursday, as I flew out, and in seemingly the same numbers on Monday when I flew home. At the time, I thought that the books had been replenished.

Nope. They hadn’t sold.

But for that week, my friend was on the bestseller list. And he couldn’t sell another book after that, because his sell-through was so abysmal as to make him untouchable under that name.

In other words, he had hit the list because the preorders were high, but actual book buyers never picked up a copy. Those books were sent back full copy and remaindered by the following year. It was a disaster.

So many institutions are turning out to be full of it. Why not the NYT Bestseller list?

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