Platinum Books

The more I read and discover about how bookselling works, and how some folks want to change it while others want it to remain the same, the more mystified I am about certain elements of the sales and recognition system, most particularly the rubric of what constitutes success.

What constitutes great success in selling a book? Making a list. It’s not even making money, though that’s obviously an understood necessity. Everyone likes making money. But book sales success is making a list. Or, THE list (The New York Times, specifically).

From where I’m sitting, this has to be the most bizarre and short-sighted system in which to recognize an author and a book, topped only by closing one’s eyes and pointing at a bookshelf to pick Book of the Year.

Consider the ever-changing, completely nonsensical rubric represented by The List. An author releases a book, along with a few bazillion other people. Within a specific format or genre in the space of one week, this author sells more books than anyone else, and bam, this author makes The List. Could be 10 when everyone sold 6. Could be ten bazilliodrillion when everyone else sold 9. Whatever. This author sells more, and this author makes The List. Maybe her fans party like rockstars at the bookstore, storming the local chain store to find their copies of her new release, and stay up all night reading it, and then… the next week? If that author’s fans have all bought their copies and sales drop back off to a much lower level, that author won’t be on The List anymore. But that doesn’t matter! If that author made it once she gets to use the almighty banner of publishing power: New York Times Bestseller. Orders go up, the finest meats and cheese are brought in, along with the noise, and possibly the funk.

Now, I fully recognize that to make The List, we are talking some serious sales – but the number of sales that making The List represents could change by significant amounts week to week. It’s not as if there’s one threshold of success.

To make The List, in essence, a book shoots its wad in the space of a week, collapses in exhaustion, and that is what is held as the pinnacle of success.

There’s medication for that phenomenon for males, is what I’m saying.

But if a book starts off ok, and manages to make consistently good sales for years, never really hitting A List or The List, but hitting a threshold such that the author receives money in royalties for years and years… that’s awesome! No one sneezes as lifelong royalty checks. But there’s no measurement of success that accommodates or includes that longevity of sales. There is no cumulative indicator of success for books.

Conversely, and I do dislike comparing books to the music industry because nothing is ever that simple, but bear with me here: if a record album sells and sells and keeps on selling… it might reach gold status. Then platinum. Then multi-platinum. What’s more, everyone in the industry in the US knows what that means: Gold is (at this time) 500,000 units, platinum is 1,000,000, multi-platinum is 2,000,000 – cumulatively. The certification can vary by country and by region, especially because of population variances, but looking specifically at the US, there is a cumulative sales standard.

What’s more, songs are awarded gold and platinum status for downloads as ring tones. (You can see where I’m going with that, right?)

Yes, I realize that the RIAA certification has its own wtfery, and that platinum status for an album has been declared based on units shipped and not on actual sales, and yes there are flaws and blah blah blah yackety schmackety.

My point is: why is there no cumulative recognition for book sales? Why is there no measurement equivalent to gold/platinum status for books? Platinum record status means, to the consumer, a fuckton of copies of this CD exists in many, many cars and on many many iPods. LOTS of people are listening to or own this album. Why not a platinum book, which means a bodrillion people have or are reading it over the last few years?

Why is the highest pinnacle of book sales and recognition to shoot a wad once instead of long and continued turgid success? Why in the name of potpourri is success measured with so underperforming a stick? Why is there no measurement for cumulative sales for books so that authors and publishing houses can use that as an additional method on which to market current and future books? I would love to celebrate authors and books that maintain sales for years, whose books remain in print because they are discovered and rediscovered by readers. How is it not possible to acknowledge and celebrate those cumulative success stories? How do we make it so?


Random Musings

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  1. 1

    To make The List, in essence, a book shoots its wad in the space of a week, collapses in exhaustion, and that is what is held as the pinnacle of success. There’s medication for that phenomenon for males, is what I’m saying.

    It’s too early for me to try and wax comprehensible on this topic, but may I say, Sarah, this is one pithy-ass post. Thanks for waking me up.

  2. 2
    Deb says:

    As usual, very interesting thoughts, Sarah.  The sad thing is that even though there are far more individual books published and in print than individual pieces of music released, much more tracking of music sales goes on than tracking of book sales.  In the recording industry, there’s a separate chart to track records that were released a certain length of time ago and have fallen out of the current chart at least once since then.  I’m not sure if it’s referred to the “classic” or “vintage” chart, but for years, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and one of the Eagles’ records (“Hotel California”?) went back and forth in the top spot in that chart, while Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” was not on that chart because it never dropped out of the current top 200 and so was considered a “current” release even when it was well over a decade old.

    I say all of this to ask—why can’t there be a similar list for books?  Books that were published a specific length of time ago and are still selling could be placed on a “vintage” list.  I also have to ask why are there only 10 spots on the NYTBS list when there are 200 on the music list?

    And, finally, we know that the New York Times Bestseller list is easily manipulated to show a book is more popular than it actually is.  People with a vested interest (not to mention lots of disposible income) buy massive amounts of a particular book so that it appears to be a huge best-seller; then the books gather dust or are given away or remaindered.  (A related question would be why is there not a remaindered list?  I think it would be very eye-opening to see how few weeks elapse between a book being on the NYTBS list and being remaindered.)

    It certainly wouldn’t be easy to corral a large group of publishers to reconsider the way a book’s sales are tracked and reported, but I agree there has to be a better way than the current system.

  3. 3
    teshara says:

    At this point the best sellers list could also double as a ‘one hit wonder’ list or ‘what you’ll be lining your drawers with soon enough.’

    I used to pay attention to book lists but I think they’ve lost a lot of meaning in the last decade or so.

    These days, paper listings seem to promote books that are similar to each other and that are streamlined to appeal to a specific fraction of the public (the readers of that particular paper) and depending on what paper you’re reading the books can be completely different.

    Because of this change, I always assumed that the paper that’s publishing the list had a vested interest in the publishing company and was using the list as a type of advertisement, just like any other ad anywhere else in the paper.

  4. 4

    A thoughtful analysis, as always.  Nothing to add, but I’m always hoping publishing will continue to move forward in a positive fashion.  Maybe 2010 will be the year digital novels get more respect from the mainstream media?

  5. 5
  6. 6
    Ana Thierry says:

    Did you know that some authors (bigger names) can actually negotiate to hit the NYT list in their contracts? The NYT is based on book orders, not actual sales. What’s the point of that?

  7. 7
    Rebecca says:

    Great post!  I agree with you that there are far too few ways of measuring success in the book industry.  You are right that the “privilege” of having A New York Times Bestseller on the cover of the book is how an author knows they’ve “made it.”  And it doesn’t make sense because they haven’t won any awards, they haven’t shown any long-term success, they haven’t done anything but make a record in what could be a slow week in the book world.  There should definitely be a better way to measure the brilliance of authors and books.  Thank you for such a thought-provoking post.

  8. 8
    Tina C. says:

    I didn’t realize that it was so easy to hit the NYT Bestseller list.  Admittedly, however, I never really thought about it too much, either, since I don’t use that list to make my reading decisions.  I have to agree that it is very odd that there isn’t some better system in place to track what books are actually consistently selling, however, especially in this day and age when it would be so easy to compile the numbers.

  9. 9
    Laura (in PA) says:

    Great post. I totally agree, that there should be a better way, rather than someone getting recognition just because of one good week, and another selling for months or years and never being in the limelight.

    Maybe we should send it to Congress, like they did with college football. They have nothing better to do, right?

  10. 10
    joanneL says:

    A couple of things come to mind:
    1- I love it when a fav author makes a bestseller list. (that’s a shoulder shrug, it doesn’t make any difference to my life, just a nice nod to an author I like to read)

    2- I would think—I don’t know for sure—but I would think that royalty checks are better than a faux silver book hanging on the author’s wall.

    3- Are we talking about the fact that no one knows the number and duration of a books continued sales or that the consumer doesn’t know? (On the numbers, I don’t care, no concern or care of mine. On the duration, I can see the re-prints and re-issues on any selling site or inside the cover page.)

    4- I AM NOT being contrary, lol! It’s just that if it’s important to reviewers or fans to know the numbers then I missed that boat or lost my ticket.

    5- The award system for Best Books that I use is to buy, give and pimp the books I love. I celebrate those authors who have multiple keepers on my bookshelves and who continually write books I want to read by buying their next release.

    Not Numbered:
    Happy, Healthy New Year Sarah!

  11. 11
    Lyssa says:

    As someone who depends on 1. word of mouth/recommendations of friends as their primary source for new authors, 2. will read a particular author until they begin to bore me (specially if they are writing a series) 3. buy audiobooks rather than text based books for a lot of my favorite authors, The List ::drumroll:: really does not influence my buying habits at all.

    What The List does influence is my access to the books I want to read.  Some of my favorite authors may not make audio books because of pirating. Some of my favorite authors may not have second or third series because their books did not sell as well as others (Nina Abrams). So I end up going to UBS to find my books, simply because I can not buy a second printing of a title, because it is not there.

    And audio books have a totally different problem. Audio sales I found do not count towards The List. So situations involving athors where I love their books, I love listening to their books, I love their narrators, do not get the sales of their audio books applied to the overall numbers of how well a particular book is doing. And I am not the only one out there who is ‘listening’ rather than ‘reading’ these days. With audio books, commuting to work actually can be enjoyable. Also with audio books, authors deal with piracy issues just like E-books, and high production costs.

    For myself, The List is an illusion. Would I like to appear on The List one day as an author? Hell yeah! Do I put any stock in the fact that The List is anything more than a marketing tool? Hell no. It does not serve as a measure of quality to me. After all, some books get on it simply because the author has name recognition, and die hard fans. Some books because publishers have great marketing directors. And a few books because they are truly entertaining.  I don’t want to be one of the herd of thoughtless consumers with my book choices, but it is easier to get access to any book once the herd has discovered it or the author and given it power in the market place.

    So the question becomes have The List become outdated? Is this idea of ‘number of units ordered/sold’ as a measure of quality really valid? No. But The List is power. It gives authors power to negotiate better deals. Perhaps blogs are taking the place of The List as places where books get noticed. But still the herd has to buy a book.

    spamword: standard82 / Will I still have any standards when I am 82?

  12. 12
    vivian Arend says:

    There’s medication for that phenomenon for males, is what I’m saying.

    :spews coffee on keyboard:

    As a newbie author I’ve discovered equal rankings on a top ten list don’t mean equal sales. As a reader I would love to see a ‘longevity’ chart, for the simple reason I know there are gems of books that I miss, and THOSE or the kind of books I’d expect to see make a continual seller list.

    Right now I find asking what’s on people’s keeper shelves seems to be the way to discover the books that keep on delivering.

    Happy New Year to SBTB!

  13. 13
    DS says:

    The New York Times Best Seller list banner (or indeed any trumpeting of bestsellerdom) will often make me pass a book over—mainly because the books I have read that get this title are rarely the best books I have read.

    The extended release list?  I like that because books which have that type of staying power are books that might be worth reading.
    Didn’t the Harry Potter books get taken off some list because they sort of clogged it up and new books couldn’t get to the top. Clearly shows it is more a marketing idea.

  14. 14
    dick says:

    Has anyone ever polled UBS owners for the that kind of information, I wonder?  The UBS I patronize has longevity lists of a kind.  Those books which “turn over” most often have a different, and higher, price.  Publication dates of many of those books is some years in the past.  I’ve never checked whether those I’ve read were ever on the LIST.

  15. 15
    Brooks*belle says:

    ITA.  Truly great books are capable of multiple orgas—er—I mean trips to the bestseller list.  Kinda like women. ;o)

  16. 16
    Bob Mayer says:

    I agree the various lists are vague and capricious.  I’ve had books that were in the top 10 on USA Today if you just count FP—fiction paperback; yet never cracked the NY Times list, even extended.  Have had a book selling #4 in hardcover at B&N but came in #21 at NYT.  The lists are based on velocity, not overall volume.
    Bottom line it’s nice to say “NY Times Bestselling Author” but it’s nicer to sell a lot of books.
    I think things are going to change—one question:  how is the NY Times factoring in e-books now?
    I’m in the process of re-releasing 16 of my titles in the next 8 months via Kindle, other e-book formats and POD via Lulu.  I’m interested to see what happens.  But I know it won’t concern lists.

  17. 17
    Kristin says:

    Great, great post Sarah.  You hit on some really important points and did it with a great amount of snarky humor.  I totally lost it when I read “Why is the highest pinnacle of book sales and recognition to shoot a wad once instead of long and continued turgid success?”

  18. 18
    Jody Sharp says:

    My understanding of the NYT list is the same as Ana Thierry’s: it is based on orders from bookstores and other vendors. Not consumers, so much.  Mostly because these numbers are very much in advance of publication.

    And when you walk into the bookstores and see the wonderful displays stocked with many multiple copies, you can see how those numbers build.

    Sure they are ordered in anticipation of sales, but the bookstores also know they can return them for credit. It is an interesting cycle.

  19. 19

    Oh damn, I was so going to be über-clued-in to the blogosphere and share an awesome discussion I recently read about this, then realized it happened here on SB! Déjà vu!

  20. 20
    CHH says:


    The NYT created the Children’s Book List specifically to get HP off the their main list.

  21. 21
    Fiamma says:

    Thanks for making me laugh out loud with your descriptions of wads :)
    I would love to see a list of books that have maintained longevity because most likely they would have content I’d be interested in checking out. Most of what I read comes on the recommendations from friends and blogs like this, so I never really do the lists. Have you ever read the book list in EW? I am all for popcorn novels, who doesn’t enjoy a good one, but when EW conveys them to be the height of literature it slays me every time.

    Happy New Year everyone!

  22. 22

    A medication, you say?

    I’ve been lurking a while, but I thought I might chime in with a link:  NYT bestseller Lynn Viehl’s royalty statement which includes a link to her previous statement. 

    I suspect a problem with creating a “platinum seller” designation is that publishers hate to give that sort of information away—not only because of Sekrit Bizness Practices, but because some readers would be astonished to see how few people read their favorite authors. 

    Still, I’d be happy to see a diminishment of the importance of the NY Times list—to my understanding, they deliberately exclude certain genres.

  23. 23

    Compiling bestseller lists the way they do is like judging a play’s success by counting the number of seats in the theater on opening night, not how many bums are on them.

    And returns/remainders? If not for them, it might make sense to measure success based on copies ordered rather than copies sold, but I’d imagine there are a few books that make the list and then a few months later 3/4 those “bestselling copies” end up tagged at $2.99 in some bin somewhere. Or pulped and pitched in the landfill.

  24. 24

    Also, none of the Harlequin books are even eligible to make a list.  Since all of our sales take place in a short timeframe, you’d end up seeing all the Presents and Desire books dominating the list (and, oh, wouldn’t that be fun to see!). 

    I agree—it would be wonderful to create a way of documenting true sales. 

    How would foreign sales factor in?  Or would they apply at all?

  25. 25
    Suze says:

    I have to agree that it is very odd that there isn’t some better system in place to track what books are actually consistently selling, however, especially in this day and age when it would be so easy to compile the numbers.

    Especially with all the ISBNs.  Isn’t the purpose of them to track how many of book X in format y have sold?  Don’t they (whoever they are) already have the information?  How hard would it be for a publisher to set up a web page praising up their books with longevity?

    The more I find out about the publishing industry, the more it reminds me of income tax laws.  Contorted, overly-complicated, and quite possibly designed to screw me.

  26. 26
    mischief says:

    Is the NYT counting all bookstores?  I knew that it used to count—well, the bookstores where it counted.

    Time was when it excluded by genre, too, but that’s gone.  (Obviously.  Time was when they would not have segregated children’s literature to keep Harry Potter off because they wouldn’t have counted it in the first place.)

    I believe BookScan is going by the actual sales, counted at point of sale.  But it doesn’t have all outlets.

  27. 27
    Castiron says:

    The ISBNs may actually be part of the problem—to calculate Platinum, you need to have some way to say “this ISBN and that ISBN and this other ISBN? They’re all the same book.”  Which is certainily possible, but there’s not a clear standard for it yet.  (Especially when you get into the issue of slightly different versions of the same book. Do we lump together all editions of Pride & Prejudice, or should the hypothetical ISBN with an intro by Colin Firth be separated from the hypothetical ISBN with the intro by the Smart Bitches?  What about two different translations of the same work?  What about revised editions?)

    At the publisher where I work, lifetime sales is definitely something we track, and we’d actually rather have a book that’s going to sell steadily in good numbers for years than a book that has one chance to sell and is dead in the water afterwards.  But we’re also not a NY trade house.

  28. 28
    Scrin says:

    Successful bookselling?

    When the publishing industry presents you with an award for “Services to Bookselling”

    Like Terry Pratchett did. He used to be Britain’s best-selling author, and his sales are steady. People read some…and then pick up the other thirty-something Discworld books.

    I got someone turned onto Discworld. She got her sister on it. They went to the bookstore to get more, and persuaded three more people who were interested to try one of the Discworld books.

    Likewise, I own pretty much all of that series. Sometimes a book wears out from being passed around so many people (BITE ME, Mr. Publishing Consultant! Darn right a book that gets paid for once gets read many times by many people!), so I have to replace it.

  29. 29

    The dilemma of knowing when a book is a success and when it isn’t is not just a phenomenon among beginning writers.

    I was at a book signing three weeks ago.

    The author was someone who is internationally known through her books. She has published over 20 best sellers, and in all seriousness after the signing was over and she was packing up, she, in an unguarded moment, asked me if I thought she was a success.

    She wasn’t kidding either. She genuinely does not know what history’s verdict will be.

    That is a good point. I mean, a book may be a success or even a great success commercially, but then fade and not be considered worthwhile by future generations.

    My grandpa tells me of a book titled “Future Shock” that was a million best seller when he was a young man. Everywhere you went, you saw a copy of that book. But, I had never heard of it.
    It was written by a man named Alvin Toffler. I wonder if we asked Mr. Toffler whether he considers himself a successful author what he would tell us today.

  30. 30
    LG says:

    As far as I know, the closest thing there is to what you want is a list of classics.  I’m convinced that some classics stay classics because they are considered classics, and I’m not really sure what it takes for a book to end up on a “classics” list.  I wonder how long it would take before something written in my lifetime would end up on a classics list?  Unless maybe something already has and I’m not aware of it?  It’s too early in the morning (or too late in the day) for me to think this through very well, but your post was very interesting.  Good food for thought.

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