Why the Bestsellers Lists Are Inaccurate

Most of the bestsellers lists are inaccurate. In fact, I can’t think of a single exception. They claim to be comprehensive. Supposedly, they represent the best selling books in the country. But the fact is, they don’t. At best, they represent sales through a specific sales channel.

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For example, the New York Times bestsellers list claims that it’s

Rankings reflect sales, for the week ending [current week], at almost 4,000 bookstores plus wholesalers serving 6,000 other retailers, statistically weighted to represent all such outlets.

But guess what’s missing? That’s right. All the mass market outlets like Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Target, Costco, and Sam’s and Christian bookstores (some 2,300 stores or so). This is a big piece of the market.

For example, at Thomas Nelson, about 34% of our total sales come from Christian bookstores and another 16% come from mass outlets. Only 21% of our sales go through general market bookstores like Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Books-a-Million—the stores the New York Times polls. The other large Christian publishers probably have a similar mix. As a result, the Times completely misses the number of units that are moving through some very significant sales channels. At best, they can claim that their bestsellers list represents sales through only one specific sales channel.

But Christian bestsellers lists, such as the ones compiled by ECPA, are no better. They too only represent sales moving through one channel. In this case, Christian bookstores. They don’t attempt to measure sales of Christian books through mass market outlets or general market bookstores. Christian Retailing’s bestsellers list is even less accurate. It only measures sales through distributors. This automatically favors smaller publishers since more of their sales, as a percentage-of-total revenue, go through distributors.

Probably the best list is USA Today’s. It attempts to measure book sales through both general market bookstores and selected mass outlets. Unfortunately, it does not include sales through Christian bookstores. Two major sales channels are better than one, but we really need all three to get an accurate picture.

What we need is a comprehensive, multi-channel bestseller lists that represents sales through every viable outlet. The Association of American Publishers could do this, but it could only measures sell-in (shipments to bookstores) as opposed to sell-through (sales through the cash register), since the data it collects is coming from publishers not bookstores. It would be comprehensive, to be sure. It could measure all sales in all channels for America’s top publishers, including Christian publishers. (It currently collects and reports overall sales data from some 81 publishers.)

An AAP bestsellers list would also capture sales through speciality outlets, ministries and non-profits, direct-to-consumer, and any other outlet. The achilles heal, if there is one, is that this data is self-reported. All AAP can report is what publishers tell them. It would have to be an “honor system,” because AAP has no way to validate the data it is given. Regardless, this would be a better solution than anything we have now.

The best solution of all would be for Nielsen’s BookScan to collect data from Christian bookstores. It already collects data from 6,500 general market bookstores and other retail outlets, including Target, K-Mart, and Costco. (It apparently does not collect data from Wal-Mart or Sam’s.) It is also based on point-of-sale data, so the data is thus more reliable. It reflects what customers are actually buying.

The sad fact is that Nielsen can’t get Christian bookstores to participate. They don’t want to share their data. They are afraid that general market booksellers and mass market outlets will use this data to gain a competitive advantage. In my humble opinion, this is nonsense.

For starters, competitors to Christian bookstores already have access to Christian bestsellers lists. This data is published monthly by the two major trade magazines and is readily available on the Web (see previous links). In addition, all the major Christian publishers call on the general bookstores and the mass market outlets. In the ordinary course of business, they tell these accounts which of their particular books are selling best. So, these competitors have access to all the data they need.

Because Christian bookstores refuse to cooperate with Nielsen they either intentionally or unintentionally reduce the visibility of Christian products on the major bestsellers lists. Because sales through Christian bookstores can’t be counted, many books never hit the list that are, in fact, probably outselling those on the list! (Just to give you an example, in the last 12 months, we have had over 100 of our books at Thomas Nelson sell more than 100,000 copies. You can make it onto the list, depending on the velocity and the season, with as few as 20,000 books sold.) As a result, people who might be interested in Christian books, never get the opportunity to discover those books, because—to be blunt—Christian booksellers are “hiding their light under a bushel.”

In addition, the larger Christian publishers, in an effort to drive the bestseller lists, tend to send their authors to general market bookstores, because they know that they report to the various bestsellers lists. If Christian bookstores reported to these lists, particularly Nielsen, then it wouldn’t matter to most of us if the author signs books at a Christian bookstore or a general market bookstore. Both would get reported. But Christian booksellers aren’t giving us that choice. As a result, everyone loses, especially the would-be Christian book consumer who doesn’t get the opportunity to discover books that are, essentially, invisible.

If Christian booksellers are going to prosper, they have to get back in the game. They can’t adopt a protectionist posture and hope to compete. They desperately need more customers. They need to stop merely trying to hold on to the customers they have and start going after the customers they don’t have. There’s a whole world to be reached. This will only happen if they help make Christian books more visible in the general culture. When people experience the value of Christian literature, they will want more. However, they can only get so much of it in the general market. Eventually, if they get hooked on it, they will find their way to a Christian retailer, where they can find a broader selection of the books they want to read.

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  • http://imani.wordpress.com Imani

    I don’t know that any bestseller lists, except maybe USA Today try to give the impression that their rankings show, statistically, the best selling book in the country. Particularly the NYT who try to maintain an air of high brow culture. The last thing they’d want to do is include sales of books from Walmart.

    This of course does not negate your point about the need for assessing the true bestseller in the country. I don’t know if all of the big publishers would be truly interested in that. (I don’t know anything about Christian publishers. Or publishing in general, really :p.)

  • http://missionarygeek.blogspot.com Jeff Singfiel

    Great post Michael. Thanks for peeling back the curtain a little into how bestseller lists work.

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

    This is fascinating. I don’t have enough facts to add anything intelligent to the debate but I agree that we do need to step out of our comfort zone and do our best to expand. That’s our mission at Novel Journey. In order to get more ABA/BEA readers interested in CBA fiction, we’re lining up NYT best-sellers in hopes that their fans will discover people like Dekker and Liparulo. The cross-over will go both ways no doubt and maybe that makes some folks nervous. Perhaps afraid they’ll lose their CBA readership to the ABA. I don’t think that’ll be a problem. I love some ABA author’s material but I love coming “home” to the CBA when my cup needs filled. Much of our fiction can stand alongside what the secular book market offers.

    This was an interesting topic I hadn’t put much thought into. I appreciate your insights.

  • http://jwikert.typepad.com/the_average_joe/2006/12/michael_hyatt_o.html Joe Wikert’s Publishing 2020 Blog

    Michael Hyatt on (Inaccurate) Bestseller Lists

    Michael Hyatt, President and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, offers this perspective on inaccurate bestseller lists. He’s absolutely right, and it’s somewhat related to the earlier post I made about the definition of bestseller. Michael had dropped ou…

  • http://russ-ramblings.blogspot.com Russ N.

    Very interesting post and I appreciate your view of the Christian publisher and what could be done to improve the reach of Christian literature.

    Too often we take the “hide it under a bushel” mentality to anything Christian. Yet another slice out of life that people who need to hear the message we bring that never get a chance.

    Holy huddles don’t work and have never been the plan. Whatever we do may we do it to the glory of God — that’s (relatively) wide latitude to impact our world with the gifts, talents, abilities that our Creator has given us.

    Thanks again for the post – it’s challenging beyond the Christian publishing marketplace.

  • http://www.goodwordediting.com/?p=16 Goodword Editing

    Behind the Curtain of Bestseller Lists

    Michael Hyatt, the president and CEO of Thomas Nelson isnt exactly Toto, and the American publishing business certainly isnt Oz. But his blog does a great job of pulling back the curtain to demystify the Christian publishing world.
    I need…

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

    Thank you for clearing up a very complicated, somewhat baffling issue. As an author, I’ve wondered about the discrepancy in lists.

  • Dave

    Wow. Just clicked over here from your post on Living In A Transparent World.

    Are the Christian Retailers still resisting? Have you made any (more) efforts to gain cooperation in order to get "the light" out from "under the bushel?"

    An experience I had years ago, when I was a Manager in an independent Christian Bookstore, may shed a little light on Christian Bookstores' reluctance to share the information and their fear of the competition.

    One of TN's competitors had a very popular study Bible. It was probably our best selling study Bible, at least at the time. We'd order it in multiple cases at a time.

    Then one day, the Publisher had the "brilliant" idea of selling it through Costco.

    Despite our multiple case orders, Costco was "somehow" able to sell theirs below our cost.

    We asked about this. How could they possibly be selling for less than what we were paying… particularly when we ordered so much?

    The answer: If you ordered them 10,000 at a time, you'd get the same discount, and be able to compete with them. But it won't hurt you, because your employees are more knowledgeable and you imprint names on Bibles.

    So what happened? People would come to our store to be educated. Then they'd head over to Costco to save $$ and come back to get their new Bible(s) imprinted.

    We ended up having to change our imprint policy – significantly raising the price for Bibles bought elsewhere in order to give them more incentive to buy from us. And the result of that was a tarnished reputation. Many of our customers became convinced that all we were trying to do was rip them off.

    Trying to look at it from the Publisher's perspective, I can see how they wouldn't want to leave that market. It was quite profitable for them.

    However, it seems to me, that's shortsighted.

    As you mention above, roughly 1/3 of the Publisher's sales were probably coming from stores like ours. And they were willing to sacrifice that 1/3 in order to gain less than 1/5 through a new market.

    I made the following suggestion then, and was dismissed immediately… but I still think it is valid, and worthy of consideration. And it would, I believe, go a long way toward improving both the relationship between the Christian Publisher and Christian Bookstore, and the amenability of the Christian Bookstores to sharing their sales information on a broader scale.

    Here's the suggestion:

    Change the discounting structure to reward sales outlets for more than JUST volume. Sure, reward outlets for large orders of single titles. But also reward outlets for carrying wide breadth of product.

    If something like that had been in place for our store when that situation had risen, Costco – in carrying literally ONE title (and only in one color and one binding) – would have been limited in the discount they would have gotten. And we – in carrying probably 50-75% (or more) of their entire catalog on a perpetual basis (yes, we went much deeper than probably most stores do) – would only be limited in the discount we would have gotten due to our "failure" to order the AAAAA+++ package of that single title.

    Can you see the benefit? If Christian Retailers shared their sales information, sure, others would see what the best sellers are. But, unless those others are willing to expand their inventory to include a significant percentage of the total catalog of the Christian Publishers, they're not going to have the "unfair" advantage of size to bury the Christian Retailer by cherry-picking the top one, or two, or 10 titles and undercutting them on price.