The idea of Slate’s The Gist piece about bestseller lists is appealing enough: “Why are there so many lists? Who keeps track of these things? And why are no two lists alike?” Unfortunately, it quickly degenerates into the usual hodgepodge of misinformation and delusional theories about how publishing works.
The grand theory that emerges is that “no one buys books” and that publishers are engaged in a “relativist, fuzzy-data cabal,” trying to “suppress” real information like Bookscan data so that the public won’t catch on!
Perhaps the following sentence stands as the best example of the many many misconceptions, oversights, and pure errors:
“The publishers’ unwillingness to part with hard data forces those who compile best-seller lists to aggregate point-of-sale figures from booksellers across the country.”
Among the things this writer doesn’t understand: That the NYT chooses to “track” certain titles, and you can’t make their list if they aren’t “tracking” you; that the Book Sense lists don’t represent aggregated sales numbers; that the Times effect through discounting has considerably dissipated; that bestseller lists today are significantly driven by the mass-merchandisers; and that Bookscan bestseller lists are not available to the public because of the data company’s strategy, not because of publishers. Plus there’s the specious assumption that well-publicized box office grosses are a meaningful statistic (folks in the movie business know, and lament, that the important statistic, and the one most comparable to unit sales of a book – ticket sales – isn’t tabulated in real time.)