Bestsellers, Book Selling, and Digital Books

In this month’s Romance Writer’s Report, there’s an article about decoding what it means to be a “bestseller.” In a curious convergence of topics, I was recently interviewed by an undergrad journalism student looking for information on how books are marketed with the arrival and market power of digital books. Seeing this article made me ponder how books are labeled and sold, both online and off, and I had to ask myself: have I ever bought a book from an author I haven’t heard of just because the cover said, ‘New York Times Bestseller?’

Nope, I haven’t. I remember being told by multiple authors that once you can place that banner on your books it’s a huge potential boost in sales, but the RWR article seems to indicate that it’s because booksellers will buy more of the book, not because shoppers gravitate to the bestseller banner itself. It’s a goal for many authors – and I don’t think that making a major list is meaningless at all. That bestseller status can represent some hella-huge sales.

Because bestseller-dom is a coveted insignia, it makes me wonder: should the same best-seller status be trackable for online purchases? What if someone sells twice or three times as many Kindle and ePub copies of their book than print? How can book sales be better measured for digital books? Does being in the top ten of a particular publishing house’s digital books make for good cover banner? Is there a way to track and measure book sales digitally so that the sales across all formats and between houses can be tallied and compared for some sort of “bestseller” status? Even now the tracking mechanisms for bestsellers is hugely flawed. According to the RWR article, Bookscan doesn’t include numbers from Wal-Mart or major discount retailer chains, so having an accurate measurement of books actually sold in a week’s time can be a challenge to say the least.

I keep circling back to my original thought: how much does the bestseller banner on a book’s cover influence the reader’s purchase? Is the bestseller insignia something that’s significant for authors, and publishers, and booksellers, but not so much for book readers? I’m going to be presenting a lot of seminars about digital reading and romance readers in the coming months, including at the O’Reilly Tools of Change in Publishing conference in February 2010, and I have been pondering for awhile now the best tactics to market to readers who want digital books, which begs the questions about what works in the present model, and what doesn’t.

Speaking specifically about bestseller-dom, does knowing that an author whose name you don’t recognize is a Times or USA Today or Publisher’s Weekly bestseller influence your purchase?

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Random Musings

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  1. 1
    R says:

    There are so many virtually identical looking (and backcover blurb sounding) books on the shelf in the romance section of a big bookstore that ANYTHING that helps to differentiate between them is appreciated.

    If I’m cruising for something random (ie: I didn’t come to find something specific, I just want to discover something great off the shelf), anything that hints “other people discovered this author first and can attest to their books being worth buying”  is a welcome message.

    It still might be a 10.99 mistake, but it feels like a better bet than something without “bestselling author” on the cover.

  2. 2
    Ros says:

    There are books that I have deliberately NOT read because they are bestsellers (Dan Brown, I’m looking at you.  Ugh.)  But no, nothing I can ever remember picking up because it had ‘bestseller’ on the front.

  3. 3
    awasky says:

    I voted yes, but it’s with a caveat: that banner has never influenced my purchase of fiction. Most of the time I buy fiction, it’s because I know the author or that book was specifically recommended to me. But it does influence my purchase of history books. If I’m looking for a book on a certain era or event, I will tend towards the bestseller, since I take that as an indication that it is well-researched and well-written.

    Given the number of bestseller lists now, and once you get into ebooks, it’s even more lists, publishers can (and do) but “Bestseller” on the cover even if it only hit the list in podunk newspaper. Or even better, “International Bestseller” if it never hit a list in the US. I wonder that the term has any meaning anymore.

  4. 4
    Tara L says:

    I hate to say it, but I kind of pick books through the magpie method. Something about the book makes me think, “Ohhh, shiny!”

    Usually that’s the author’s name: I’ve read them before or I remember getting a recommendation. But sometimes it’s a great cover picture that grabs my eye, or a catchy title. I rarely even read the back cover copy unless I’m not sure whether or not I’ve read the book before. I’m pretty sure I’ve never even noticed a “NYT Bestseller” label on the cover until I’ve gotten a book home. Same with quotes from other authors. They never even register unless I’ve seen them several times before and then I just think, “Damn, they’re still getting mileage out of that.”

    I just bought Susan Wiggs’ Tudor Rose Trilogy yesterday. Here’s the whole decision making process as best as I can remember it:

    Ooh, pretty. Tudor. Yay, not a Regency. Trilogy. Damn, do they have all three in stock? Ohh, they’re all pretty.

    And I walked away with all three in my basket. It took about 12 seconds. I’m guessing that’s not typical.

  5. 5
    Chani says:

    I selected ‘maybe’ (way to sit on the fence), as I might be more inclined to try an unknown author if a book is a best seller, but I must say that I am more influenced these days by word of mouth and sites like SBTB and Dear Author.

    What I would be interested to know is the ‘box office’ of a book/ author i.e. how many of a particular book was sold and how many total an author has sold in her/ his career. This is easy information to find on movies/ directors and albums/ artists but I have never been able to locate anything like it for books and authors. Some book covers will say something like [this author] has “30 million books in print” but that doesn’t really answer the question – anyone know any more about this? Is this information available to people working in the publishing field?

  6. 6
    tracykitn says:

    I think that “Bestseller” status at least makes me give something a second look. I’m more likely to take time to flip through and read a few pages before making a decision; or to take note of the title/author so I can look for them at the library. But I don’t think I’d actually BUY a book based solely on that status (but then, I’m notoriously cheap when it comes to books—if I’m gonna spend money on a brand-new book, I need to be reasonably convinced I’m going to enjoy it. If it’s used, I’m slightly more random about my selection methods.)

  7. 7

    I’m with Tara—if I’m going to take a book out of my library based on something aside from a positive earlier experience with an author or a strong friend-recommendation, I go for looks.

    My background is in graphic design, so if it’s a non-romance I go for how envious I am that I didn’t design the cover. And, shame of shames, if it’s a romance, I often go for the one with the torso that most appeals to me (plus I read the back cover to make sure it sounds steamy and penetrable … uh, plot-wise.) Oh, and sometimes with a romance, I make sure I can stand the characters’ names. I have a hard time taking characters seriously if their names require me to suspend my disbelief. Oops, I’ve gone off-topic.

  8. 8
    Elizabeth Wadsworth says:

    I’m with Ros here—if anything,  “bestseller” status is more likely to make me avoid a book (as will the Oprah’s Book Club sticker) unless it’s by an author I already know and love.

  9. 9
    JamiSings says:

    Only time I read bestsellers is when I already like the author. Such as Dean Koontz.

    I work in a public library and get exposed to a lot of best sellers. Part of it is our rental books – $1.50 for 7 days – and part is the books people put on hold. I’ll often read the flaps out of curiosity or hear about it from our patrons and find it’s just so much pretentious clap-trap. This is why I’ve never picked up Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer.

  10. 10
    Lady Pearl says:

    I selected “maybe” for similar reasons as Chani. If none of my favourite authors have a new release that I can snatch up, then I start hunting for a new author to enjoy. Since I’m always nervous trying out a new author, every piece of information is helpful in making my choice. I must say, though, that it being a bestseller doesn’t hold a whole lot of weight in my final decision, but it does make a bit of a difference.

    As well, like Tara and Cara (I chuckled a little that their names rhymed), visuals is what attracts me to a new author. I’ll browse the shelves until a book catches my eye. If I’m fairly impressed (be it the typeface, man’s torso, or overall look and feel), then I’ll read the back cover. Other things I take into consideration: number of other books published, quotes/affirmations from writer’s peers, first chapter, recommendations from store staff and friends.

  11. 11
    Gail says:

    Nope, best seller banners have never influenced me to purchase a book.  I can tell you what does though…. recommendations from other authors. 

    For example, when I first stared reading I read Anne McCaffery’s entire catalog. If she wrote it, I’ve read it. It took me about a year give or take, but when I was done it was like, “now what?” Well, I started browsing my local library and I stumbled upon a Tara Harper book. On the front cover was a blurb endorsing the book by, you guessed it, Anne McCaffery.

    Well, I read the book and loved it.  Ever since, if a book is endorsed by another author (not a paper or book list) I like, then I give that author a shot. And if I wind up liking them, I will also read books endorsed by that author.

  12. 12
    RStewie says:

    I’m never inclined to buy a book based on the author’s “bestselling” status.  I go by online reviews and recs, my own interest from reading some of the book, or authors that I already have read.

    …Mainly the first and third, though.  If I’m at the bookstore, it’s because I’m looking for something specific, either because a favorite author has a new release (which isn’t available in epub, because now I just buy them online) or I’ve read a review or rec and decided to check the book out myself (and if I like it, I will subsequently buy an ebook of it).

  13. 13

    I can safely say that whether or not a book is labelled “bestseller” is so very much not anything I pay attention to when I decide to pick it up. This is mostly due to the fact that the majority of my reading is SF/F—and there are only a tiny handful of SF/F authors who make the NYT bestsellers list anyway. Of those that do, two of them, Jim Butcher and Charlaine Harris, are authors I was already reading anyway.

    These days just about all of my book buying depends upon what my recommendations list up on Amazon spits out for me, as well as monitoring various publishing-related blogs (like this one!) and keeping an eye out for books that sound interesting. I’ve also been keeping an eye on Fictionwise’s homepage to see what books they feature, since that’s gotten me interested in a couple of authors I hadn’t read before.

  14. 14
    Jez Morrow says:

    Certain titles come into the distributors’ warehouses with “Bestseller” stamped on the boxes before a single book ever hits the shelves.
    “Bestseller” is decided in advance any actual sale and has nothing to do with books bought on the consumer level. Bestsellerdom has to do with units to be shipped and does not account for units returned.
    Using the Bestseller tag, your publisher’s sales force tells the chain’s buyers how many units they can expect to move.
    What Bestseller designation does for you is get your books widely distributed and placed on lots and lots of shelves in a prominent positions, and that’s the reason you desperately want “Bestseller” on your cover, whether that designation moves a reader to buy it or not.

  15. 15
    Laura (in PA) says:

    I have never bought a book because it was on the bestseller list. However, I do look at the bestseller lists to see what’s on them, usually NY Times Book Review, to which I have an email subscription, and USA Today, to which I have a paper subscription. Both these include small descriptions of the plot, and if it sounds interesting, I may think about reading it. I found “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society” and “The Help” this way, which are both awesome books.

    I have a lot of authors I’m interested in, and I’m playing catch-up with many of them, so I never am at a loss for something to read. My problem is keeping up. But I get most of the recommendations on my list from word of mouth, and blogs like this and a few others that cater to my reading tastes – both from the writers and commenters. I’ve found several of my favorite authors this way – Louise Penny, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Kristan Higgins, Julia Quinn, to name just a few.

  16. 16
    Gwynnyd says:

    I put “maybe” but it’s really closer to “it depends.”  I am pleased to see that an author I already like has one, as having a “bestseller” banner usually means they can get contracts, may be able to quit their day job and will be writing more. I usually avoid “bestsellers” by first time authors, as I have found most of the ones I have read disappointing.  In that sense it is often useful to know that TPTB consider them in that category, as I know the odds are good I won’t like that new author very much.

  17. 17
    Nadia says:

    In general, by the time an author in genres that appeal to me make the bestseller lists, I’ve been exposed to their work enough already to know whether I want to read their latest or not.  And for favorites, I’ve anticipated the release and have already bought it or reserved it at the library.  Authors I’ve never heard of that soar up the list are likely more “literary” than what I’m after.  Online reviews and recommendations are my primary source for new (or new to me) authors, followed by interesting cover blurbs while browsing at the library or the book store.  The clearance rack at Half Price Books is great for new discoveries – I’ll take a chance in a heartbeat when I’m only paying a buck or two.  Hence, my overstuffed TBR closet, LOL.

  18. 18
    karma says:

    I’m interested in reading the RWR article; is it available online? Sarah, can you give the title and author?

    thanks

  19. 19
    Rebekah Ward says:

    So many authors whose books I dislike are bestsellers that I don’t think “bestseller” is a recommendation I’d take into consideration…

  20. 20
    Joan says:

    I think the best boost from making the bestseller list is the better exposure that the book gets—on bookstore display tables, in lists in newspapers and online sites, at the library.

    Like others, I have shied away from buying and reading bestseller titles (Suzanne Brockmann being the exception). Partially because I want to support the lesser-known authors and titles, partly because I fear a lowest-common-denominator factor in the content.

    Glad you’re going to the O’Reilly Conference. I love working with their tech book editors.

  21. 21
    Henofthewoods says:

    magpie method – check
        if a cover is nice, and another author starts to have     covers in the same style, I appreciate that the publisher is telling me that I will like the second author.

    author blurb – check, use with caution, some authors will blurb anything and some actually read the books. You will see which are which after a while.

    the actual word “bestseller” on the book – never
    And I am another obsessive reader who won’t read a book if it is too popular. I start to worry that I will be disappointed with all of the people who are raving about it. If I read Harry Potter and it is not better than Ursula K. Leguin, won’t I feel like Ursula K. was ripped off? Or at least CS Friedman. Won’t I feel like my entire family has no taste? Isn’t it better not to know?

    But I am sure that I read bestsellers at least a bit more, because they are pushed down our throats. If half of the books that are available to you are bestseller list books, you are more likely to read a best seller than if you had an equal shot at every book that was published. This may be why some publishers don’t really like ebooks. They won’t be able to make us believe that “everyone” bought copies of the latest big-hype-fatuous-garbage for long enough to make the sheep buy their copies.

    I like the feature on fictionwise that lets me see what people are buying, but it is really strongly influenced by what was on sale recently. I only use it to surf people’s preferences. For serious shopping, I prefer reading through the list of everything out this week to see if there is anything I want. Then back to the reviews, to the library and backlists, then back to the price tag six or seven times, google that author and see if they have other books not out as ebooks, back to the wishlist. Was there a sample chapter anywhere? Or an online short story? A sample chapter tells you an awful lot.

    If I stretch this out I can shop for books all week. Purrrrrrrrr.

  22. 22
    Gail says:

    The only impact the bestseller lists have on my buying habits in availability. If I’m looking for a Nora Roberts I know I can get anywhere, supermarket included. Mid-list stuff on the other hand I may have to go online for.
    The thing that does effect me with new authors is if a site like this or AAR is really pushing someone I’ve never heard of then I’m more likely to spend money on an experiment if my library doesn’t have the book.

  23. 23
    Diatryma says:

    I’m only recently a romance reader—I spent some time not knowing which authors or publishers to seek or avoid.  “NYT Bestseller” and a blurb by someone I read translates to “not a single title, probably competent”.  It’s not the first thing I look for, but it is reassuring to find it.

  24. 24
    SonomaLass says:

    Me too, Diatryma!  When I first starting reading romance again, having an author labeled as a best-seller was helpful to me in separating out a few of the BIG NAMES in order to try them.  Some I liked, some I didn’t, but all of them were competent writers, even if not to my taste.  It gave me a place to start.  I know my way around better in fantasy and sci-fi, so I don’t need those so much.

    I think it’s important to make the distinction between an author being labeled a best-seller and a book being given that designation.  I don’t much care if a million other people like a particular title, but if a lot of people enjoy a writer’s style, that can be meaningful.

  25. 25
    StefK says:

    I voted no. I tend to browse in genres I find interesting, read the blurb, and buy it if I like it. That’s pretty much it.

  26. 26
    Suze says:

    I’m with Ros here—if anything,  “bestseller” status is more likely to make me avoid a book (as will the Oprah’s Book Club sticker) unless it’s by an author I already know and love.

    Me, too.  I started to write up a big spiel on how I find the to be lacking, but to hell with it.  I like a big chunk o’ romance in my fiction.  No romance, no Suze.

  27. 27

    To be personally honest, I am less likely to buy an author that I’ve never read before if they have certain labels on their book.  One is “NYT Bestseller”.  The other is “Oprah Book Club”.  I find the majority of NYT Bestsellers to be artsy-fartsy books with little redeeming features, although that isn’t always the truth.

    What I’ve always wondered is how royalties are being determined in regards to the various forms of books out there, from bookstore publications to bookclub editions to the newest kids on the block: ebooks.

  28. 28
    Sonic says:

    I am like many others – less inclined to buy a bestseller book.  In fact, there are way too many factors which would need to be aligned before I would even touch a bestseller – would have to be an author I trust, with a hell of a storyline, and I’d have to ignore all reviews and plugs for it.

    If it’s a bestseller, it’s popular and I’m sorry, but I’ve always been of the belief that, with a few exceptions, most things which are popular are liked by a lot of people and that usually means it isn’t good (people’s tastes and my tastes have never matched up well) – and that goes for most things (reality TV, crappy movies flooding all the theaters now), but especially for books.

  29. 29
    mischief says:

    I sometimes pick up a bestseller by way of market research.

    Usually in the library.

  30. 30
    Lyssa says:

    For myself I buy new authors for myself based on recommendations by friends, library ‘dry runs’, reviewers who I know I agree with (and the more reviewers who rave the more the I may consider an author), and my own personal quirk at the time. Of these the friends recommendations often rate higher than any other. The women and men who I have raved and groused about authors to, and who have returned the favor, often know my taste better than I do. Due to friends I have discovered many authors. Bujold, J.D. Robb (before it was known that was Nora), Anne Bishop all became authors I looked for because of a friend saying ‘you need to read…”.

    Spamword Walked58= I walked past Naked in Death 58 times before a friend told me to read it.

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