How the Bestseller Lists Work
Carly Watters in Conversation with Brad Listi on Otherppl
In the latest “Craftwork” episode, a deep-dive conversation about the bestseller lists with Carly Watters, herself a longtime literary agent and the co-host of the popular writing podcast The Shit No One Tells You About Writing. Carly is “very online”—follow her on Instagram and Twitter—with a keen understanding of the digital landscape and the challenges faced by contemporary authors. In this episode, we discuss how the bestseller lists actually work, who the decision-makers are, and what making a list can mean to a writer’s career in practical terms.
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From the episode:
Brad Listi: So when it comes to bestseller lists, they’re not all created equal. There’s the New York Times list. There’s a lot of different lists. And yet I guess you would argue that they matter. I mean, they do matter. It shows us at the very least what’s selling in a broad sense, but in a nuts and bolts business way, obviously doesn’t hurt an author to be a bestseller. But it’s a very exclusive club. It’s hard to make it onto the bestseller list; there are plenty of wonderful authors who whose work never shows up in those pages. So let’s talk about why they matter. Let’s also talk about how they’re different, the different lists.
Carly Watters: Absolutely. One of my favorite quotes on the topic is from Laura B. McGrath. She is an academic who studies publishing, and there are very few of them. Laura’s great. She’s a professor of English at Temple University. She teaches a course on the history of the bestseller. And what she says is, she compares the New York Times list to the original recipe for Coca-Cola. We have a pretty good idea of what goes into it, but not the exact amount of each ingredient. And I think that’s a really good way of putting it, because essentially no one outside of the New York Times itself knows how its bestseller lists are calculated.
And it’s the same with Amazon rankings. I’ve sold a number of books to Amazon imprints, and even those editors can’t tell me how all of these Amazon algorithms and ratings work. So I think it’s really trying to remember that they’re all different because they’re all gathering different types of data, and their methodology is also different.
So that’s why if you open the New York Times, you’re going to see a certain list of books on that bestseller list, and then you’re going to look at IndieBound or the Publishers Weekly bestseller list, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal… again, all of these different newspapers are using different methodology. So I think that’s very important to remember. The methodology that they use, you can find it on all of their websites if you’re actually genuinely curious about how they decide to make these decisions.
The New York Times is an interesting one because they say that they want to reflect who they imagine to be their reader or their consumer, what people who are New York Times-type people would want to see on the list. Their expressed goal is for the list to reflect what individual consumers are buying across the country instead of what’s being bought in bulk by individuals or associated groups. Because we know that certain politicians buy their way onto the list by buying these bulk sales, and that’s always really interesting. So they try to guard against that. They’re not using this hard data. They’re saying, hey, let’s manipulate this data essentially into what we think our readership wants to see on the list. So that’s very interesting.
The New York Times places a huge emphasis on independent bookstores and geographical diversity. And so we don’t know if every week they track the same indie bookstores. It could be like one week, they’re tracking this region, this region, this region—we don’t know all that, but we know that they their goal is to achieve some geographic diversity. We do know that they pay attention to Amazon and box stores like the Costcos and the Targets, and they do take BookScan into consideration. But it’s generally known that they’re going to put an emphasis on indie bookstores. But again, we don’t know which of those indie bookstores there is.
BL: But why wouldn’t they be transparent about their process and just tell us what they do? Like, why is the formula for Coke so closely guarded?
CW: I think it has to do with the fact that they don’t want certain authors or publishers to say, “Hey, go to Changing Hands in Arizona. That’s the store which they track from,” and therefore manipulate sales potentially, or give authors or publishers opportunities to manipulate sales through selling more units unnaturally through that store. I think they’re trying to avoid that.
Carly Watters is a SVP and Senior Literary Agent at P.S. Literary. She began her publishing career in London as an assistant at the Darley Anderson Literary, TV and Film Agency. Carly joined Toronto-based P.S. Literary Agency in 2010 and has sold over 100 books during her career. She represents award-winning and bestselling authors in the adult fiction and non-fiction categories, and select children’s books. She is known for her long-term vision for her authors and being an excellent collaborator with a nose for commercial success. She has close ties to publishers in the major markets, is a member of the AALA, and works directly with film agents to option film and TV rights to leading networks and production companies. Her clients’ books have been translated into 40 languages, optioned for TV and film, adapted into podcasts, and have been on every bestseller list from coast to coast, including the New York Times, USA Today, the LA Times, the Washington Post, the Toronto Star, and theGlobe and Mail. Carly is also an annual judge for the Women’s Fiction Writing Association Rising Star Award.