Toward a Better Bestsellers List

In a previous post, I said that most of the other bestsellers lists are inaccurate. The reason for this is that they only list what is selling best through a single sales channel.

Row of Books

To understand the significance of this, you have to understand the definition of a “sales channel” and how it applies to the publishing industry. I define a sales channel as,

A conduit by which books make their way from the publisher to the ultimate consumer. A channel is defined by the type of distributors and resellers that make up the channel. Distributors and retailers typically focus on a specific kind of end-consumer. It is the consumer—and the way he or she prefers to shop—that gives the sales channel it’s unique character.

For example, the General Market Bookstore Channel (sometimes referred to as “ABA stores” because of their affiliation with the American Booksellers Association) consists of bookstores intended for the general public. These stores include the major bookstore chains such as Barnes & Noble, B. Dalton (part of Barnes & Noble), Borders, Walden (part of Borders), and Books-a-Million. It also includes regional chains and local independent stores.

The Christian Bookstore Channel (sometimes referred to as “CBA stores” because of their affiliation with the Christian Booksellers Association) consists of bookstores intended for Christians. These stores include the major Christian retail chains such as Family Christian Stores, Lifeway Christian Stores, and Berean Christian Stores. It also includes buying groups such as Parable, Munce, and Covenant, and regional chains and local independent stores.

The Mass Market Channel consists of the big box mass outlets such as Wal-Mart, K-Mart, and Target, as well as the wholesale clubs like Sam’s Club and Costo.

While most publishers sell through other sales channels (e.g., specialty retail, online, ministry, direct, and international), these are the big three. As I pointed out previously, no bestseller list measures sales through all three channels. Most measure sales through only one channel. Nielsen BookScan does the best job, but it fails to measure sales through the Christian Bookstore Channel, which represents about 10% of total bookstore sales. This may not sound that significant, except that the majority of religious books is being excluded.

What we need is a bestseller list that covers all three major channels. I have compiled such a list, based on our proprietary database. For the sake of reference, I am calling it The Thomas Nelson Top 100. This includes total sales for the last 12 months. It represents the top selling books across all retail sales channels for calendar year 2006. It is not perfect, to be sure. Like the USA Today list, it does not include sales through Wal-Mart or Sam’s. But it does include the other mass outlets.

Here’s a summary of which bestseller lists cover which sales channels:

Bestsellers Lists and Sales Channels
Sales Channel
ABA Mass CBA
Types of Stores
General Market Bookstores Mass Market Outlets
and Wholesale Clubs
Christian Specialty Stores
Bestseller Lists
New York Times
Publishers Weekly

  ECPA/CBA
Christian Retailing
USA Today  
Thomas Nelson Top 100

As I have studied this list, several things stand out:

  • Fifteen of the top 100 books are Christian titles. Less than half of this many show up if you exclude the CBA sales channel.
  • The second bestselling title for all of last year was a book we published: The Holy Bible (NKJV). This is a text-only Bible we published as part of The Million Bible Challenge, which we developed to help CBA retailers promote Bible sales. Only James Frey’s, A Million Little Pieces sold more copies—barely. It sold a mere 1,200 more units that our Bible.
  • Three Thomas Nelson titles made the list: Captivating by John and Stasi Eldredge (#28), Cure for the Common Life by Max Lucado (#90), and Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller (#98).
  • Random House (big surprise) had the most books on the list with 24 titles.
  • James Patterson and Dan Brown tied for the authors having the most books on the list. Each of them had seven titles (including various formats of the same title).
  • Even a couple of the medium-size and small Christian publishers made the list: Baker, Group Publishing, Frontline, and Moody.

I do not intend to compile this on a regular basis. I am simply trying to demonstrate the inadequacy of the available bestsellers lists and illustrate what could be done if industry leaders and the media would get serious about compiling a comprehensive list that represents all sales channels. Maybe someone will take this on as a goal for 2007. Any takers?

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  • http://www.thewritinglife.ws Terry Whalin

    Mike,

    I've found your discussion of this matter fascinating and educational. I love your challenge at the end of this post. Here's what I don't understand. Why hasn't a media outlet like Publisher's Weekly or USA Today tackled this issue and compiled a better, accurate and more complete bestseller list? Is it their own lack of understanding? Don't they have access to the various data sources where you are compiling these numbers? Or is there some type of bias that is driving how these lists are compiled? Or is it just because they've always done it a certain way?

    I've always heard certain channels (such as CBA stores) were excluded from the process. Whoever compiles these lists are making those decisions. Is there anything the general public can do to change or help this process?

    Thank you for your insight.

    Terry

  • http://www.relevantblog.blogspot.com relevantgirl

    Thanks for spelling this out so well. I echo Terry's question. It seems there should be some way to remedy this inaccuracy.

  • http://www.goodwordediting.com Mark Goodyear

    These posts were so interesting. I especially appreciate the specific percentages.

    And I agree with Terry and relevantgirl. It seems like it would be in everyone's best interest to make the list as comprehensive as possible. What possible ulterior motive could publishers have to exclude the CBA or any other channel of distribution? Surely this is not some plot against the CBA but just a matter of people and organizations being resistant to change.

  • http://zanesmilkmachine.blogspot.com Michelle Pendergrass

    Sounds to me like it's time for change.

    I love the list, Mike. Maybe you should consider compliling it on a more regular basis. Might shake the whole publishing world up a little bit.

    I think that would be a good thing.

  • http://zanesmilkmachine.blogspot.com Michelle Pendergrass

    I should add that somehow, someone should get numbers from places such as Walmart and Sams.

    It just makes sense that it should be done right.

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

    Great comments. Thanks!

    The big problem is that you need two willing parties to make this work. First, the media (or Nielsen BookScan) has to recognize that their lists are incomplete and therefore inaccurate. I don’t think there is intentional bias; they just don’t get it.

    Second, retailers have to cooperate and furnish their data. Frankly, this is the problem with Wal-Mart, Sam’s, and most Christian retailers. So far, they have refused to cooperate, because they think it will give their competitors an advantage. (I addressed this notion in my first post on this topic.) I am hoping that they will see that greater visibility for the true bestsellers will, in the end, help everyone, including themselves.

  • http://www.brandilyncollins.com Brandilyn Collins

    Michael, thanks for all this. I know this reporting takes a lot of time.

    In November on Forensics and Faith, I ran a four-day post on bestseller lists both in CBA and ABA. Since I'm no expert in this area, I had to do quite a bit of research to see how each is put together. A couple things I discovered in that research:

    Michelle–yes, it would be great to have WalMart data, but the company apparently refuses to give it to anybody. They have no interest in bestsellers lists; they're only interested in what they sell, and to them that's proprietary info.

    Terry: The periodicals seem to like how their lists work, even though they know they're inaccurate. These periodicals are geared toward their own clientele, and their lists for the most part reflect that type of consumer. Besides, the NYT is considered king, so why should it change? (BTW, I was astounded in reporting how the NYT list is created. The thing's front-loaded with major publisher's "big books.")

    At the least, I just wish CBA could get its act together and produce a decent list within the industry. But with many stores refusing to report their data, including the entire Family chain, our list is really inaccurate. A CBA official hinted to me that this is about to change–"watch for news at the January Expo." We shall see.

    ~ Brandilyn

  • http://www.jimseybert.com Jim Seybert

    Great discussion Mike – another element in the "why can't we have better lists" dialog is the money that's made by those who control the data. There are a number of players who control a portion of the stream and none want to give up what they have.

    Their tight-fistedness is somewhat understandable, as some have invested huge sums of of money setting up data collection and distribution models. However, the sad reaility is that we will never have a truely complete and accurate list until the POS data for ALL channels becomes openly available.

    My encouragement to those who have their hands on individual buckets of data is to understand we are in a post-information age where everyone has access to knowledge to a point where having knowledge is not as valuable as knowing what to do with it.

    Thanks again Mike – no easy solution is forthcoming, but dialog such as this is a step in the right direction.

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

    Jim,

    Thanks for your feedback. I agree with you. We are living in the “Age of Transparency.” This is why it is easy for me to share information. Competive advantage is not the information itself. It is all about knowing what to do with the information. This is also a case where we need to stop trying to protect our slice of the pie and focus on making the pie bigger for everyone. The former will only lead to declining sales and market share. The latter may just lead to growth in sales and market share.

    Regards,

    Mike

  • http://www.noveljourney.blogspot.com Gina Holmes

    Thanks Mike and all who added to clarifiying. I feel like I finally have a grasp on understanding this. Maybe a few well written/angled articles in key publications would raise awareness and possibly open some eyes?

  • http://www.2blowhards.com Michael Blowhard

    Very interesting, tks. Much to learn!

    You may get a kick out of a blog posting I wrote about bestseller lists a few years back …

    http://www.2blowhards.com/archives/2003/07/bestse

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

    Michael,

    Your post is fascinating! You raise some very valid points, especially the distinction between “trade books” and all other books (e.g., text books).

    Thanks for the link,

    Mike

  • http://www.bookmarket.com John Kremer

    I've been writing for years about the inaccuracies of the major bestseller lists, especially those compiled by the New York Times and Publishers Weekly. I devote an entire section of by book, 1001 Ways to Market Your Books, to a discussion of this problem, especially for smaller book publishers. For example, you can't make the New York Times bestseller list unless they put you on the potential list to begin with, but their bias is totally focussed on the top ten publishing groups, primarily those based in New York City.

  • http://www.michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

    John,

    Just an idea, it might be good to post a link to the chapter in your book in which you discuss bestseller lists. That way, my readers could “sample the brew” and then, hopefully, buy the book.

    By the way, I have bought your tapes in the past and thought they were excellent.

    All the best,

    Mike