This week, I reviewed American Sniper – needless to say, I wasn’t a fan. More than anything, I was bewildered as to how such a terribly written book could become a “#1 Best Seller”, and I felt sad for everyone who picked up a copy thinking that meant it would be a terrific read. This got me to thinking: what makes a “best seller”? How can you avoid the best sellers that aren’t worth your time?
What Is A “Best Seller”?
The term “best seller” was first used in The Kansas Times & Star back in 1889, but the idea has been around basically as long as books have been mass-produced. The phrase is generally understood to indicate a book that has sold more than others over a given period (or is more frequently borrowed, don’t forget about your local library!). Lists of these “best sellers” are published by various newspapers, magazines, and book-stores, the most widely-recognised ones being Publishers Weekly, the Washington Post, Amazon.com, and – of course – the New York Times (more on that one in a minute). Best seller lists are usually divided into categories – popular fiction, non-fiction, cookbooks, and so on – to make sure you’re not comparing apples and oranges.
The most important thing to understand is that the term “best seller” is associated only with copies sold or borrowed, so it has nothing to do with the book has academic or literary merit. As such, it is used very loosely by book publicists and publishers. They know that a book with “best seller” printed on the cover will (funnily enough) sell more copies than a book that is advertised as simply being “really good”. That’s the power of social proof for ya!
How Are Best Sellers Calculated?
It depends on the list, who publishes it, and why. Usually, best seller lists rely on sales data over a specific period – maybe a week, a month, or a year. That’s a super-important factor, because the sales period is really the main determining factor in a book’s rank (or, indeed, whether a book appears at all). A classic book (like, say, Moby Dick) might sell way more books over a period of fifty years than a current book (like, say, Still Alice), but guess which one is going to make a best seller list calculated on a specific week of 2007? Plus, think about what happens to books the week that the movie adaptation is released. People see ads for the movie, decide to buy the book before they see it, and all of a sudden – for just one or two weeks – a book that is 5-10 years old (or older!) is back on top of the list. To put it another way: if best seller lists covered sales from all time, The Bible would be in the number one spot every week.
Another really important factor in determining whether a book is a “best seller” is the category into which it is placed. The New York Times famously created a separate “Children’s Books” list in 2001, because Harry Potter had dominated the first, second, and third places in their fiction list for so long. If the categories are really narrow and niche (“21st century female memoir”, “children’s books by Australian authors”, “Young Adult fantasy hardcovers”), a book doesn’t have to sell all that many copies to make it to the top. If, on the other hand, the categories are really broad (“fiction” and “non-fiction”), the book would have to go boonta to even get a look-in at the top ten.
What all this means is that, while the number of copies sold does “count” in calculating whether a book is a “best seller”, it’s not the only factor (and it’s definitely not the most important factor). There’s a tonne of other things that go into these calculations, too: whether the book is hardcover or paperback, whether its sales are wholesale to book chains or private orders for independent bookstores or online orders, whether the author has previously had a best seller… As complicated as it sounds, people have still found ways to game the system (of course). In 1995, the authors of The Discipline of Market Leaders personally ordered 10,000 copies of their own book through small bookstores that they knew were influential in the calculation of best seller figures. It bloody worked, they made the top 10 in a bunch of the lists, and the authors laughed all the way to the bank.
The most widely-recognised list of all – the New York Times Best Seller List – remains a bit of a mystery. It’s been going since 1931, published each week in The New York Times Book Review. The exact method used to compile this particular list is literally a classified trade secret. As best we plebs can tell, it’s based on weekly sales reports from selected independent and chain bookstores in the U.S., but no one really knows for sure. The secrecy is designed to prevent people from rigging the system (authors of The Discipline of Market Leaders, we’re looking at you!), but it also means that readers – like you and I – can’t really evaluate the value of its recommendations, because we don’t know where they come from.
For as long as there have been best seller lists, there have been criticisms of them, and they all boil down to pretty much the same thing: best seller lists can’t be relied upon to tell us which books are worthwhile. A classic book will always outsell this week’s flash-in-a-pan garbage celebrity memoir over time, but that’s not going to be reflected in a list that only takes this week or this month into account. Some lists are prone to double-counting, because they take into account both wholesale and retail sales, which gives us a false sense of how many people are buying and enjoying those books. And, most worryingly, there will always be authors and publishers that try to game the system, and the reader will (almost) never know when that has happened.
So, ultimately, the message is this: take best seller lists with a grain of salt. All they can really tell us is which books sold a lot of copies over a given period of time, and even then they can’t do that 100% accurately. Sometimes, they really cock it up! Here’s a few examples of when they’ve done just that…
6 Best Sellers That Aren’t Worth Your Time
American Sniper – Chris Kyle
I reviewed Chris Kyle’s autobiography this week, and it was a real stinker. It wasn’t just terribly written, it was also a really horrible story about a really horrible man. There was no nuance, no critical reflection, and no honest insight: just the story of a white man who liked killing brown people so much, he became the “best” at it. It’s enough to turn your stomach. If you’re looking for an interesting military read, check out Catch-22 or The White Mouse – neither of them have the words “best seller” on the cover, but they’ll be much better for your brain.
Fifty Shades of Grey – E.L. James
Sadly, it’s become really popular to shit all over this book, which I don’t think is “cool” or funny. The performative dislike of something that other people love is boring and played out, so if you’re here for that, sit down.
That said, from a literary critique perspective… Fifty Shades of Grey kind of sucks.
I’m sorry, but it’s true.
Fifty Shades has sold 70 million copies worldwide (and the story of a young girl’s free-fall into the unhealthiest BDSM relationship of all time has now become a major movie franchise, too). James originally self-published, seemingly without the input of a professional editor – and boy, does it show. It’s too laughably bad to be sexy. If you’re looking for some decent literary smut, check out my list of books that are sexier than Lady Chatterley’s Lover. There’s no reason your titillating filth can’t have some literary cred. 😉
The Secret – Rhonda Byrne
Some years ago, I was going through a tough time, and a well-meaning friend gave me a copy of The Secret. Now, I’m not looking down on anyone who reads self-help books (hell, I’ve read a few), and it’s certainly not my place to pick apart The Secret’s specific methodologies. It’s just that this one, the grand poobah of all self-help books, is terribly written, and laughably expensive for what it is. If you’re looking for a book to help you figure out your mess of a life, skip past this one.
Twilight – Stephanie Meyer
I know it’s a pretty shit go for me to say a best seller isn’t worth your time when I haven’t actually read it myself, but Twilight appears on so many “worst best seller” lists out there that I couldn’t possibly not include it here! The series has sold over a hundred million copies (not an exaggeration), the fact that it’s the story of a vulnerable teenage girl being exploited by her vampire boyfriend (and ending up in some kind of love triangle with a werewolf, or something?) apparently doesn’t put people off. I think we can do better, folks. Dracula was hardly a feminist call-to-arms, but you’re certainly better off chucking a few dollars towards Bram Stoker’s estate than you would be buying the Twilight series. For sure.
Fun fact: Fifty Shades of Grey was originally conceived as an erotic Twilight fan-fiction series. That should tell you something about both of them. 😉
Artemis – Andy Weir
The Martian was fucking fantastic, so it’s no surprise that Andy Weir’s follow-up novel, Artemis, sold like crazy. Everybody clamored to get their hands on the next speculative fiction masterpiece, but unfortunately the consensus seems to be that it really doesn’t hold up. I have not come across a single review that says it even comes close to The Martian, let alone surpasses it. The main criticism seems to be that Weir does a particularly clumsy job of writing a female protagonist. The extract I read left me asking the age-old question: why do male authors constantly write their female heroines as talking or thinking about how “hot” their own bodies are? No woman does this.
I won’t be buying Artemis, I’m afraid, but The Martian is definitely worth your time – and I wish Weir all the best in his next effort!
The Maze Runner – James Dashner
I’ve not yet read The Maze Runner either, but it is on my Keeping Up With The Penguins Reading list, and I’m fairly confident that I’m not going to love it. For starters, when I first showed my husband – who knows me pretty damn well – a copy of The List, he saw that I’d included The Maze Runner and he groaned. Loudly. He strongly recommended that I remove it, and I, of course, told him to get stuffed (nobody tells baby what to do with her List!). Still, his opinion counts for something.
Anyway, aside from that little personal anecdote, there are other reasons to include The Maze Runner on this list. It would seem it was written for the Hunger Games crowd, but it falls short in a lot of respects. Plus, earlier this year James Dashner was dropped by his U.S. publisher (Penguin Random House), and dumped by his agent, after serious sexual harassment allegations surfaced in a trade publication. He has released a statement saying that he would be seeking “counseling and guidance” with regards to his behaviour.
As you can see, it’s not that hard for a really average book to make it to the top of a best seller list. Best seller lists really aren’t your best guide to what’s worth reading – sometimes they get it right (check out my list of best sellers that ARE worth reading here), but there are plenty of best sellers that aren’t worth your time (or your hard-earned cash!). Have you read any terrible best sellers lately? Let me know in the comments below (or name and shame them over at KUWTP on Facebook!).