Saturday, June 20, 2009

Publishers' Bestseller Lists

I'm talking about e-pubs, since they're the ones I'm most familiar with. (Yeah, okay, I dangled a preposition to avoid an awkward construction. Just so you know I know.)

Samhain has always posted its bestsellers at My Bookstore and More. It even ran a popularity contest last year in which readers were invited to vote for their favorite books. More and more e-pubs are coming forward with weekly or monthly sales rankings for their titles. Some make this information available only to authors; others, to the general public. Some still don't release the information at all.

I have decidedly mixed feelings about the sales-posting trend. On the one hand, I fully believe a forthright approach is to be applauded. Vigorously. Too many e-publishers have embraced secrecy, often for its own sake, and/or engaged in slinky and self-serving behind-the-scenes machinations. Authors and readers alike have a right to feel confident they're dealing with an upstanding business entity that has nothing to hide.

On the other hand . . .

I have serious reservations about this practice.

  • Regarding public postings: Should readers be encouraged to buy books that are already selling well? This makes no sense to me. People being what they are (and I'll likely insult you here, so bite down), the herd mentality prevails. If book shoppers see that Eat My Shorts by Benny Bushwacker is Number One this week, they'll likely stop looking and buy Eat My Shorts instead of another book that could very well prove a more satisfying read. Shouldn't overlooked titles be brought to readers' attention instead of those that are doing well on their own?

  • Regarding both public and inhouse postings: How does it affect a publisher's non-bestselling authors to see that their efforts aren't being "rewarded"? Will they succumb to a defeatist attitude? Or will they start playing copycat? Neither consequence is desirable. The former could cripple truly good writers who have much to offer, and the latter will result in a slew of derivative submissions as lowlist authors try to ride the high-flying coattails of their more successful peers.

  • Finally, there are those doofuses who will go around proclaiming they're bestselling authors or such-and-such a title is a bestseller, even though these distinctions only exist at Peapod Publishing. (I confess, I just threw this one in because it annoys the snot out of me!)

A couple of my publishers share sales rankings with their authors and only with their authors. They're damned good publishers, too. I sure as hell don't fault them for doing what they're doing. Openness invariably garners my respect.

That said, I never look at the figures. I don't want to see them. I don't want to feel discouraged, or pressured into writing stuff for which I have no real affinity just because I think it will increase my sales. I don't want to become a mope and I sure as shit don't want to fall prey, however subconsciously, to the copycat syndrome.

I'm wondering how readers and other writers feel about this trend. Are you influenced by bestseller lists? If so, how?


Jeanne said...

I stopped doing this when I realized I was never going to be on the best seller list at any of my publishers.
It was depressing to me and I can only be grateful that the publisher you mentioned has the kindness not to push it into the public's face.
I really don't look at bestsellers because hype often times has more to do with rankings than not.
I'd rather go by recommendations by others including readers and authors.
BTW, my word verification for this post was "inkedsp"
Weirdly appropriate

K. Z. Snow said...

I didn't mention any publisher other than Samhain, Jeanne, so I can only guess you meant one of two others.

See, now your reaction verifies one of my assumptions -- that writers could be dragged down, mentally, by these lists.

Never or rarely appearing on them is tantamount to being told one's books are rejects. Granted, that's a melodramatic way of putting it, but many authors are likely to see it that way. It saddens me to think of their reactions.

Clare London said...

Hell, you make me feel bad because I *have* watched them like a hawk in the past. Though much less nowadays. I think it encouraged me, the first book I ever got on a 'list'. But I like to think I have enough maturity to stay steady (!) when it doesn't happen again. A case in point was Freeman - it'll never reach the same audiences that Sparks Fly did. I'm cool with that.

I also agree with you about the herd mentality. I've rambled before about what I call the 'first' syndrome. Someone writes something that's either the first in its field, or - rather more likely - the first to get noticed. There was a lot of it in fanfic. But that book is then on the rec list for ever, top in the searches, first on a newbie's list. It may well have been a bloody fantastic book, but its status then prevents a lot of other subsequently fantastic books from appearing anything other than a coattail-hanger-on. Or even getting noticed.

I don't know, maybe that's my professional jealousy speaking. I know I can rant to you and you'll understand I'm not *really* a mean-spirited harridan! LOL

BTW I have undolic as my verification. Sounds like the way my stomach feels.

MB (Leah) said...

Strictly as a reader, I'm somewhat influenced by "best seller" lists.

I won't buy or read a book just because it's on the best seller list if it's a sub genre I don't like or the blurb tells me it's not a I book I'd enjoy.

If I'm on the fence about a book, then "best seller" might influence me. Kind of making me feel a bit better about purchasing a book I'm not too sure about.

I will admit though, that if I'm looking to buy a book, I'm less inclined to search through pages of books, but to look at books that show up on the first page of a website, which are usually best sellers.

Sometimes it works as a disadvantage to the unknown to me author, for me in particular, because I'm the anti herd person and go the opposite direction just because I'm contrary and I hate doing what everyone else is doing.

Also, when it comes to ebooks in particular and not, say, NYT best seller lists, I'm far more discretionary about buying a best seller because ebooks go into very specific territories that might not be my taste. Especially in the erotic arena. I'm pretty much guaranteed that if I buy a NYT best seller romance, I'm probably not going to end up reading some nasty BDSM, that seems to be popular, by accident. You know? So with ebooks I'm far more careful.

About authors, I can see where it can be good and bad. If an author ends up on that best seller list then it can validate them and give more impetus to keep writing.

It's also a good indicator of what is selling and if an author can manage to write something within the current fad that doesn't go against their own grain then it's good to know what is selling.

On the negative side, I agree that it can be very discouraging if you're never on that list. And I know of a few authors with whom I've become a bit closer who have decided to add more sex, go the way of erotica more, or throw in a menage, or whatever the current popular kink is just to start really selling.

I don't think this is the way to go if it's so much against your grain as an author, but that's me. We all give up something to have our dream sometimes.

K. Z. Snow said...

Clare, don't feel bad for having looked! :-D I'd be damned happy if I were on one of those lists. But if subsequent books didn't make it, I might start thinking I was doing something "wrong." That's when the second-guessing begins, and I don't want to trap myself in that cycle.

Being frustrated doesn't make you a harridan! :-) Readers' buying habits do erect cement ceilings. As we've discussed in private, it seems like an ongoing exercise in futility trying to break through them. And that's another reason why I don't look at bestseller lists.

K. Z. Snow said...

Hi, Leah. Your reasoning makes sense. I suspect readers who also review books tend to choose more carefully. Some do jump on bandwagons and blindly ride them forever, but others are more open and apply more thought to the selection process.

Kris said...

I have become more selective with my purchases over the last few months, but tend to use reviews (those reviewers who have similar tastes to me in particular) and excerpts to 'assist' me with my selection as opposed to bestseller lists.

To be honest, the only bestseller list I've really noticed is the one on the All Romance eBooks store site... and that's because it's on the front page.

I read so quickly that I'm more interested in the 'recently added' lists more than anything else. The back lists are something I've trawled through many a time so I feel like I know them like the back of my hand. Only new releases are really of interest to me at the moment.

The other lists that I sometimes give attention to are those which are show what other readers are liking - top review lists, I guess. Even then I take 'em with a pinch of salt.

K. Z. Snow said...

Yeah, ARe and Fictionwise do post their own (and, man, I've seen some weird stuff turn up on ARe's lists). I don't pay any attention to those, either, but not for the same reasons I don't look at my own publishers' lists.

Ditto the DIKs and NUTs and various and sundry Reviewer's Top Picks -- unless I really respect the reviewer. But obviously I'm speaking as a reader here, not a writer, and a reader with quirky tastes, at that. If the sound of thundering hoofbeats surrounds a book, it's a good bet I won't be too interested in it. (Boy, did I find that out with Laurell K. Hamilton. Hours of my life I'll never get back, given over to one prolonged fit of disgust!)

Jenre said...

I don't look at rankings, never have done. I occasionally catch sight of one at ARe and have been occasionally open-mouthed if a book I thought was mediocre is selling well. Sometimes there's no accounting for taste.

I buy books on the strength of reviews, or because they are written by authors I like, or if they are recommended by trustworthy cyber-friends.

In my opinion the only outcome for showing rankings is to make one author smug and another suicidal.

K. Z. Snow said...

In my opinion the only outcome for showing rankings is to make one author smug and another suicidal.

In the case of making them public, yes, that's one way of putting it. That's why I was so appalled when Samhain ran its well-publicized popularity contest last year. How freakin' insensitive! I was rather vocal with my attitude--too vocal for my own good, no doubt--but I see something like that as a measure of a publisher's fundamental respect (or lack thereof) for all but its bestselling authors.

This is a tough, competitive business as it is. Since writers are obviously the mainstay of the industry, they don't need to be humiliated by their own publishers.

Teddy Pig said...

I want more!

The point is not to upset the authors, the point is for the publisher to make sales.

Readers like those lists, I like those lists as a reviewer so I know what is attracting readers.

If anything validity wise it is a public acknowledgment of authors who do good work that people want to buy and thus are being recognized for selling books.

Does it always follow my personal likes and dislikes? NO but it can make a sale of something I might have missed.

K. Z. Snow said...

My question, though, is this: Why should it be necessary to draw further attention to books that are already doing well? Why not instead spotlight other titles so readers may discover them?

The same authors are pretty much going to dominate these lists month after month, so there's little to be learned. The "big" discoveries could be lurking offlist, but they likely won't be found if readers keep being conditioned to embrace what's already been widely accepted.

It just makes no sense to me.

MB (Leah) said...

My question, though, is this: Why should it be necessary to draw further attention to books that are already doing well? Why not instead spotlight other titles so readers may discover them?

This reminds me that at my local Borders I found a book of an author I like who gets no recognition. An ebook author.

Her book was just near Nora Roberts' books. Tons of NR books were all facing out and I wanted to shuffle things around to put her book facing out, but didn't. I felt like, really, do so many NR books need facing out? She will sell even if she's in the back of the store in a dark corner.

Not to begrudge NR anything but it would be nice to see covers of books of less well known authors facing out to get a chance.

K. Z. Snow said...

That's my feeling too, Leah. It seems the biggest names are always pimped most vigorously, which is completely unnecessary!

Teddy Pig said...

Well you are right about that the big authors on the publisher roster will get the typical hike up the list because it is a basic sales tool.

I see it as an interaction between the readers and the publisher. Whoever gets bought gets the slot right?

You never know when a new author might pop up to the top of that pile and that is even exciting to the readers. It happens and it encourages people to buy.

It's a win win situation for the publisher sales wise. I don't get why authors are so against it to the detriment of their publisher.

K. Z. Snow said...

In some ways it's a Catch-22, Teddy. A book must sell well to nab one of the "slots," but unless it's in one of the slots, its sales will continue to lag behind the biggies.

I seriously doubt, too, that posting its bestseller list subtantially boosts profits for the publisher. If that were the case, Ellora's Cave would've been doing this from the jump. ;-) Heck, every publisher would be doing it.

Most of them obviously feel no need to -- or feel it would be detrimental to other authors in their stables. Posting such lists only encourages readers to stay with the same old same-old rather than explore new offerings.

Teddy Pig said...

Ellora's Cave would've been doing this from the jump.

Oh please, EC tried to get rid of Ingrams and look how that worked out.
One minute you found them in every B&N the next minute poof.

K. Z. Snow said...

I think I'm missing something here.

Teddy Pig said...

I'm just saying that EC is not my go to choice for rational business decisions.

Teddy Pig said...

K.Z. here is proof to some of your suspicions though. If you look at Amazon bestselling EC Books in print look who continues to dominate the top ten for years now.
EC has the least movement on Amazon in this regard because the other publishers seem to have more balanced sales or something.

Which is why I call them Lora's Cave...


K. Z. Snow said...

Oh, okay. Now I see what you mean.

You'll get no argument from me. ;-) They do seem to know how to turn a tidy profit, though. Have you seen their release schedule lately?

Teddy Pig said...

In summary... EC lucked out and got some truly talented authors. It's too bad I don't think they really appreciate that talent.

Now don't get me wrong. I love their back catalog and I still review and enjoy some authors writing for them.

BUT... I don't respect them like I do Loose ID or Samhain for many reasons and I tell it like I see it.

Treva Harte said...

Just happened to read this. You know we resisted any kind of bestselling lists for years because we want authors to write their best and not worry about what others do. But it was pointed out to us -- forcefully-- that writers like to know what is selling out there so they can do better with their own work. So we're giving it a try in house, without numbers. It may be telling authors something and getting rid of false information about what sells and what doesn't. Or not. This is an experiment and we're trying to add informative in house stuff that will help authors as well as just a list.

K. Z. Snow said...

As I said, I think it's a completely acceptable and even commendable practice when kept inhouse. Authors aren't forced to peruse the lists, after all. And if LI started doing this in response to requests, so much the better. It means you're responsive, and that's always a good thing.

I, for one, just prefer not to see the lists. Don't want to become a copycat; don't want to be crippled with insecurity; don't want to get self-congratulatory and complacent. But that's just me.