Friday, August 21, 2015

Weighing In on the NEW New York Times Bestseller Lists

It probably isn’t news to anyone reading this that the NYT Children’s Bestseller Lists are changing again, but in case it IS news, you can read the original announcement here, and then come back once you’re done.
Now that we’re all caught up: what does this mean?
Honestly, I don’t know if it means anything. That is, it doesn’t mean anything to ME, except that maybe one day my book will have a better chance of making it onto the list than it did under the old system, which means my future publishers and I have marginally better odds of being able to put New York Times Bestseller across the top of the cover. (We’re talking TINY margins of improvement. Like, really, not much. Like, out of the 5,700-and-some-odd books published and the many thousands of books continuing to be sold every week, only ten will make it onto that list, so SMALL SMALL ODDS.)
But I honestly don’t know if it means anything beyond that.
Some people are excited about the changes because having a list for (usually new) hardcover titles and a separate list for (usually backlisted) paperbacks means more discoverability for newer titles... But we’re talking about a list of ten titles. The range for discoverability is still pretty small. As discoverability tools go, the NYT Bestselling Children's Books List has always been, and always will be, an inadequate tool. Additionally, I don’t see very much time passing before publishing catches on to the fact that re-issuing backlisted titles  with strong sales as “special edition hardcovers” can get that same title listed on TWO NYT lists, which just puts us back where we are now with one or two names dominating both lists instead of just the one list.
And if we’re talking about the NYT list as merely a status report - as a reporting of facts, specifically the facts about which books are currently selling the most copies in any given week - then what this does is give us an idea of which new books are doing really well in their first few weeks after release. Which is nice to know, I guess, if you want to write to trends, which we all know is a bad idea.* It’s also nice to know which books have staying power. If publishers are marketing the bejeezus out of their new hardcover titles and someone’s paperbacks from five years ago are still outselling them, that says something about the quality of those old books, and maybe also about the public temperature in terms of the willingness of the general public to explore new and untested waters vs clinging to the familiar and comfortable. And there is something to be learned from that. (This is something we lose with the new switch - the ability to compare sales of new books with sales of older titles.)
The NYT List is also good for marketing purposes, in a “let’s examine this after the fact” kind of way. If there are more than ten awesome books coming out that week,** but only ten make it onto the list, it can be helpful to look at those ten and then look at what their authors and publishers and PR people did to market those books that the authors and publishers and PR people maybe didn’t do for the awesome books out there that DIDN’T make it onto the list. There are ALL KINDS of factors in what makes a book a blowout success, from cover design to advertising to book tours to blurbs to ALL THE OTHER THINGS. There is the factor of the author’s authorial history - did their debut win a big award? Did an earlier title come out this weekend as a film adaptation? Is this the third in an already best-selling series? 
This stuff makes a difference. It sucks a little that it makes a difference, because a) none of it has anything to do with the actual words inside the actual book, and b) apart from author-initiated marketing, pretty much all of it is outside the author’s control. But nevertheless, for better or worse, it makes a difference. Having a book on the NYT Bestseller List is an incredible achievement, and all the books on that list deserve to be there - but so do some books that never get there, and that’s just math. There are ten slots each week. There are a lot more than ten books coming out each week. You can’t control that.
And that’s the thing. There is only one thing that you, the author, can control. One. You can write an awesome book. You can write a book that is so awesome, people will press it into the hands of everyone they know. You can write a book that is so awesome, people will write fan fiction about it, because they can’t let go of those characters. You can write a book that is so awesome, people will wait in line overnight to be the first to read the next one.
So forget about the New York Times Bestseller List. Just write your book. Make it amazingly good. Pick the right words, and put them in the right order, and make it irresistible. If your book is irresistible, you won’t have to worry about the NYT Bestseller List, because people will buy your irresistible book.
And that’s what it’s about.

*NEWSFLASH: In case you’re new to the writing-for-publication scene and you haven’t come across this information yet, writing to trends is a very bad idea. By the time you recognize a trend, it’s too late for your book to ride that wave, because by the time you draft it and revise it and revise it and the publisher gets a cover designed and all the rest, the trend will be over. Just write the book that you need to write, and write it now.
**There are ALWAYS more than ten awesome books coming out in any given week. There isn't enough money in the world to buy all the awesome books every week. Unless you're Donald Trump, in which case you're too busy spending money on Other things. Which is a shame, if you ask me, but nobody is asking me.

1 comment:

  1. Another thing to think about: publishing is struggling. In the blockbuster economy of the 20-teens, publishing is struggling to stay afloat, and authors are struggling to make a living. (It could be argued that authors have always struggled to make a living, but that's beside the point.) Many authors rely on their backlist to stay afloat. By pushing paperbacks to a separate, online-only list, are we harming the backlist? Or are big-selling paperbacks - the ones that make up "Top Ten" lists - not part of that equation for the typical mid-list author who relies on sales from the backlist to keep the electricity turned on?