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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