LIST-ACLE

A book about making America great again is a national bestseller—but not to the New York Times

Todd Starnes is a patriot spurned by The New York Times. So he’d have you believe.

The Fox News radio host has a new book out called The Deplorables’ Guide to Making America Great Again, released Feb. 7. And the book is not a New York Times bestseller.

The Deplorables’ Guide did make the bestseller lists of Nielsen BookScan, USA Today, and Amazon, as Fox News points out. Marcos Perez, of publishing house Charisma, sees this as an intentional injustice, telling Fox, “We are appalled by the subjective nature of this decision to exclude ‘The Deplorables’ Guide to Making America Great Again’ from the best-sellers list.”

But the truth is likely far more mundane, and has more to do with the difficulty of getting good book data in the US. The only lesson anyone should take away from this bestseller list discrepancy is that readers should always exercise a healthy skepticism toward any “bestseller” designation.

Some background: New York Times has published a monthly national bestselling books list since 1942, weekly since 1975. It can be counted on to expose books to new potential readers, and is seen as a special sign of prestige: Getting a book onto the list is reason enough to slap a big sticker on the front cover of your book or stick it in your Twitter bio. But that list is one of several industry standards for bestselling books in the US, which includes Nielsen BookScan and Amazon. And while the New York Times’s list-making methodology is murky, all bestseller lists are ultimately incomplete. Here’s how:

Nielsen BookScan: The consumer insight company’s BookScan tracks only print books, not ebooks. It uses data from 16,000 booksellers in the US, which the company estimates is about 85% of total trade print book sales. The list of top 25, across several categories, is published in book industry magazine Publishers Weekly, reflecting sales from two weeks prior.

Pros: includes unit sales
Cons: ebooks are not included, but tracked separately by Nielsen

The New York Times Best Sellers: These lists are compiled by human editors, based on sales data from “thousands” of places books are sold in the US. The paper keeps this list confidential, which is what Fox News takes issue with. But the more dubious part of the methodology is that the Times “statistically weight[s]” its sales numbers in order to “represent and accurately reflect all outlets proportionally nationwide,” which implies that the rankings are created by a model and are not strictly speaking a ranking of most raw sales to least.

The Times also doesn’t include a number of book categories, such as perennial sellers and required classroom reading, or crossword puzzles. The list comes out every Sunday, and reflects sales from three weeks prior.

Pros: longest running
Cons: methodology is somewhat opaque; the list shows books ranked against each other, without raw sales data

Amazon 100 Best Sellers: Amazon has a running count of its top 100 books, updated hourly. It lumps in all books together, in all formats and genres, and if you want to drill down into one category, it’s a bit hard to navigate. It updates presumably in real or near real time, though Amazon is famously opaque about its sales data, so there’s no way to be sure.

Pros: changes hourly instead of weekly; includes self-published authors
Cons: only includes Amazon purchases; doesn’t archive, so you can’t search past lists

One major disadvantage of Nielsen and the New York Times is they leave out self-published books, which in certain genres, like romance, make a sizable difference. Late last year, BuzzFeed published its own cookbook, which sold about 100,000 copies in two months. Despite the impressive numbers that would have easily ranked high against other cookbooks, it didn’t make any bestseller lists either, including Amazon, since it was self-published and sold directly by BuzzFeed.

In the case of Starnes, it’s not clear whether sales are really good enough to warrant being on the New York Times bestsellers’ list. The company publishes the top 10 paperback nonfiction books. Starnes’s book was #74 on USA Today’s bestsellers list the week of Feb. 17, and yesterday was #13 on BookScan’s trade paperback list and #79 on Amazon’s overall list. In an email, the New York Times writes, “In the case of this book, it simply did not meet our standard for inclusion.”

Starnes doesn’t seem too upset by being left off the list. His site actually advertises the book with a link:

Click here to get your copy of Todd’s new book – blacklisted by The New York Times!

“Bestseller” is complicated: Was a book a bestseller in a niche genre for one week? Or in the top 5 for all fiction for 50 weeks? Was it on a list out of 10, or 100? All this is not to say that bestselling book lists are meaningless. What they do well is show that some books are raised in the national consciousness, and that certain titles are popular within the country. And that’s about it.

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