A copy of the New York Times newspaper sits open and horizontal on a white table with a cup of black coffee next to it.

Cracking the Code of the NYT Best-Seller List

What is the secret combination to unlock a spot on the coveted New York Times best-seller list?
Believe it or not, there is a certain formula to finding your book amidst some of the nation’s best-selling authors, and it’s not just huge sales numbers. While success is not guaranteed, a behind-the-scenes look demystifies the ever-enigmatic selection process of the New York Times (NYT) best-seller staff.
Every Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Eastern time, the New York Times best-seller list is published online. It’s then published in print eleven days later. While sales numbers are a factor in making the list, according to the best-seller staff at the New York Times, they also employ investigative journalism and other subjective measures to dole out the highly selective spots on the list.
Here are the basic facts of the list straight from the Times:

1. Each week, several thousand vendors confidentiality report sales data in myriad genres and interests in the United States. Large press, small press, and self-published titles are eligible for the list.

2. Data on millions of titles is reported from bookstores (including independent), online retailers, and specialty stores.

3. Print and/or ebook titles can be included; both formats are allowed. Audiobooks are included, based on the combination of both physical and digital copies.

4. Sales are defined as completed purchases by the buyer.

5. Books such as perennial sellers, class books and textbooks, journals, crosswords, ebooks available exclusively from a single vendor, etc., are not included in the list.

6. There are eleven weekly lists and seven monthly lists.

7. A book can be featured on the best-seller list and not in the Book Review, and vice versa.

8. Books published during a busy publication week face harder competition than books published during down times.

9. The best-seller staff is responsible for employing investigative journalism in order to detect manipulation or fraud. Parties frequently buy bulk orders of books in order to skew sales data. This practice is not illegal, but the NYT actively investigates circumstances to more accurately reflect the sales data.

10. The best-seller staff does not read every book they choose to reflect and rank on the charts; according to the NYT, sales data is the only factor.

However, in a lawsuit, the New York Times was sued for neglecting to reflect certain books on the charts. Their response is a direct hit at the claims of objectivity: “The list did not purport to be an objective compilation of information but instead was an editorial product.” Therefore, it must be noted that even after the vetting and research, the New York Times best-seller list is ultimately an editorial—subjective—list, rather than an all-encompassing objective reflection of current book consumers. The confidential reporting aids in reducing pressure on booksellers, but it still shades the number of actual reports the Times receives.
While not reported by the Times themselves, here are a few other “tricks” to get on the list as reported by Entrepreneur:

a. Preorder campaigns are extremely valuable. In order to reach the list, it is generally understood that a book needs over ten thousand preorders for consideration.

b. While five thousand copies purchased after publication could mean a spot on the list, most times five thousand does not apply for new and/or unknown authors. Further, those numbers over a week of sales mean more than the gross total of sales in a year.

c. The more mainstream press coverage a book receives, the more likely it is to be featured.

d. Legitimate bulk sales of books may flag the title as fraudulent during the NYT investigative process.

e. It is also reported that more reported sales selected by the Times come from independent bookstores rather than storefronts or online retailers. This can skew the readership, since books purchased at an indie bookstore could differ from what the masses are purchasing elsewhere at different prices.

Some best-seller lists include the Wall Street Journal and the USA Today best-seller lists. The former requires around three to five thousand copies, makes it easier for nontraditional published works to get featured, and is purely based on sales. The latter is more similar to the New York Times list in that it is curated to an extent, but it can include books excluded on the NYT list like cookbooks and game books.
Overall, award list notoriety can be dazzling, but it can also be a disappointment if that is the only baseline for success. For indie books, it is often better to focus on smaller literary awards, local awards, or other local press. The New York Times best-seller list is a good baseline for seeing what is selling from week to week, but it is not the end-all-be-all of the current publishing landscape. There are several thousand books that will never make the list, but will still win awards, win hearts, or just win support from your closest friends and family.

Realizing You’re Part of the Problem: E-Waste

I do a lot of reading online. This shouldn’t feel like a hard-won conclusion, and yet it is something I have only started to notice recently. I work at a book press, and yet more and more, the role paper plays in my life has diminished. When I was going to Danebo Elementary School in 2005, I came to class outfitted with clean paper notebooks, folders to fill with my paper assignments, and binders to hold it all together. Today I use my laptop to take notes, which I save to Google Drive along with all my other assignments, which I turn in to my professors via D2L (Portland State University’s online learning management system), where I find my assignments, schedule, and syllabus. The books I read for work and pleasure are almost always downloaded onto my phone either as EPUB files or as audiobooks. I carry almost no paper with me and feel righteous frustration when handed a paper syllabus.

I feel virtuous for saving paper, but this issue might not actually be as cut and dry as we think. According to Alison Moodie’s 2014 article for The Guardian, “Is Digital Really Greener than Paper?”, it’s more complicated than that: “More than 65 percent of paper in the US was recycled in 2012, making paper the nation’s most recyclable commodity. Over the past century, forest coverage in the northern part of the country, from Minnesota to Maine, has actually increased by 28 percent.” Turns out a big reason your bank has been pushing you to “Go Green, Go Paperless” is to reduce costs. This article claims there just weren’t any studies comparing the sustainability of digital and paper media. But while paper’s relative sustainability may surprise you, wait until you hear about e-waste.

Digital media certainly seems sustainable. It’s “reusable” and makes other materials obsolete (I haven’t had an alarm clock, a flashlight, or a calendar that wasn’t part of my phone in six years). Yet more and more, smartphones and other electronic devices are treated like disposable objects. The average American keeps their cell phone for only eighteen months before discarding it. Cultural and manufacturer practices support this. Companies end maintenance to operating systems that support older devices. Overseas factories make the cost of production relatively inexpensive, and lack of know-how makes repairs to older or even gently used devices expensive and inconvenient. My last phone died when I spilled water on it—once. I went to my service provider, and they immediately started the process to get me a new one. The only place they could send it for repairs was back to the manufacturer, but a refurbished phone is considered a piece of junk in a culture where the newest device is a status symbol.

This has a cost. Despite US regulations about proper e-waste recycling, 60 percent of e-waste ends up in landfills. These leach toxic materials into the environment. Of the materials that are recycled, 30 percent are still unusable and end up getting thrown away.

Since I grew up during a time when the internet, social media, and personal devices were becoming a part of everyday life, the materiality of these things has been invisible to me. I only recently thought to wonder if the internet was the result of more than just magic (spoiler: it is). It took my sixth phone and second laptop for me to see my personal devices as material objects and to wonder where they went when I was done with them.

This is a much more complicated issue than what I have presented here, and I encourage you to do your own research. On an economic and cultural scale, we need to change how we interact with electronics before we can label them sustainable. Read more about those here. On a personal and local level, there are things you can do! Do your research about where to recycle old devices locally. Green Century Recycling is a good option in Portland. When your device breaks or sustains minor damage, try taking it to your local electronics repair shop. Or maybe try iFixit.com to find user-made repair guides and challenge yourself with some DIY projects.

Right now iFixit is teaming up with the Repair Association to lobby for right-to-repair laws in the state of Oregon. Learn more about it here. Add your name and start fighting e-waste.

Open Letter to Amazon Gains Support of Best-Selling Authors

While this year’s Fourth of July fireworks displays around the country were bold and beautiful, the fireworks between online retail giant Amazon.com and long-standing book publisher Hachette were anything but. Over the holiday weekend, support for Authors Guild Council Member Douglas Preston’s open letter to Amazon hit 300 signatures, with big names like Stephen King, Scott Turow, Nora Roberts, and James Patterson as signers. The open letter calls on Amazon “to resolve its dispute with Hachette without hurting authors and without blocking or otherwise delaying the sale of books to its customers,” among other things. “No bookseller,” Preston writes, “should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want. It is not right for Amazon to single out a group of authors, who are not involved in the dispute, for selective retaliation.”

The letter lists three main issues that he and other authors have with Amazon:

  1. Boycotting Hachette authors, claiming their titles are “unavailable.”
  2. Refusing to discount many of Hachette’s books.
  3. Slowing the delivery to “several weeks” on many of Hachette’s titles.

According to a July 4, 2014, article in The Guardian, the “negotiations became public knowledge after Amazon began raising estimated delivery times for what Hachette claims are thousands of its titles. Amazon said earlier this week that its stance was ‘in the long-term interest of our customers’; Hachette has said that it is looking for ‘terms that value appropriately for the years ahead the author’s unique role in creating books, and the publisher’s role in editing, marketing, and distributing them.’”

Amazon’s response was short and sweet: “We take seriously and regret the impact it has when, however infrequently, a terms dispute with a publisher affects authors,” the statement continued. “We look forward to resolving this issue with Hachette as soon as possible.”

Not all authors support Hachette in this dispute, though. Self-published authors have created their own petition, with more than 7,000 signatures, asking Hachette for better royalty rates for authors—in essence, asking for a living wage. The last few decades have seen the reworking of creative industries, usually to the detriment of the artist. Record companies are squeezing the life-blood out of musicians for a higher production rate, galleries rarely take chances on new artists anymore because of the current state of the economy, and the movie industry has been creatively bankrupt for years. It’s become almost impossible to get noticed through traditional channels of promotion. The possibility for self-promotion in publishing is one of the only ways some authors can get in the game, and many self-published authors will continue to support Amazon during their tug-o-war with Hachette.

How much would Hachette lose if Amazon remains unmoved? Conversely, how much does Amazon stand to lose if giants like King, Roberts and Patterson decide to pull their works from the site? At the end of the day, there are no real winners in this dispute. It’s safe to say that authors—and readers—are the ones most likely to lose.

Publishing Roundup: Harlequin Romance, Oyster, and the Rise of the Independents

It’s time for another publishing news roundup, straight from the Ooligan source! Sometimes, it’s easy to get caught up in the bubble of our little publishing house, but it’s important to remember that there’s a whole lot happening out in the publishing world right now, given that the whole industry seems to be teetering on the brink of a massive overhaul.

News for big publishers is a bit bleak this month as Harlequin, the classic romance publisher of Fabio-covered, bodice-ripping fame, was sold to News Corporation and, consequently, HarperCollins Publishers for $415 million at the beginning of May. Following the announcement of their sale, Harlequin reported a 14-percent decline in profits from the first quarter of 2013 to the first quarter of 2014—no doubt a consequence of their continued struggle to keep up with the increasingly digital market of the romance industry. A larger than average number of romance readers consider themselves frequent or avid readers, and they appreciate not only the anonymity of reading romance on e-readers but also the instant accessibility and decreased price of the e-book format. Because of this, romance as a genre is shifting to a primarily digital format faster than many other genres out there. Indeed, a 2012 survey by the Romance Writers of America found that nearly 50 percent of romance readers are likely to buy books to be read on an e-device, and there is little doubt that this number has since increased. Harlequin is an old enterprise, having been founded nearly sixty-five years ago, and publishes nearly 110 books every month. However, the New York Times reported that, in 2012, 50 Shades of Grey outsold Harlequin’s entire North American retail sales, and even though that romance giant provided a boost for romance sales everywhere, Harlequin did not manage to survive the most recent round of mergers (starting with the merger of publishing giants Penguin and Random House in 2013) that drastic changes in the publishing industry have brought about.

In other digital news, Oyster Books, a book subscription service that is quickly attempting to become “the Netflix of book borrowing,” made a leap toward its goal in early May as it partnered with over 500 new publishers and now offers over 500,000 titles for borrowing. Among these publishers is giant HarperCollins, which alone added nearly 10,000 titles to the Oyster database, including massively popular titles such as Life of Pi and American Gods. Many sources are calling Oyster’s claims to be the Netflix of books hyperbolic. As the International Business Times points out, it’s impossible to compare the way that people consume books to the way people consume television. The monthly price for Oyster is $9.99 for unlimited borrowing, unlimited being the buzzword here. However, people read a lot slower than they watch films and television shows. IBT estimates that, at the rate at which the average person reads, each book would still cost them about $2.49 apiece at Oyster’s monthly rate. That’s only a little bit less than the cost of owning the books in an e-book format, nevermind the fact that many of these books are available through library e-book lending services for free. Oyster CEO Eric Stormberg insists that he’s competing by offering not only a larger volume of works but also works that can be attained more quickly after a book’s release than it might be through the library. Right now, that time gap is probably be the key to Oyster’s success. Given that they still haven’t even stretched themselves to the Android market, their success or failure remains to be seen. Only time will tell if people are willing to buy into an e-book subscription service.

Lastly and most optimistically, the market climate seems good for independent publishing houses right now. As big publishers continue to squabble and generally have a hard time adapting to change (see the battle happening between Hachette and Amazon currently), independent publishers such as the profiled and discussed in Publishers Weekly are really finding their place in the market. The same is true for independent bookstores, which, in an increasingly Amazon-centric world, are finding more and more business from people who miss the warmth and community of visiting a local bookshop. Hopefully, these trends will only continue to bring success to the little guys.

And then there were five

The Penguin/Random House Merger – 6 Months Later

Most headlines about the recent Penguin Random House merger have been positive. Some, however, like the aforementioned “And Then There Were Five,” have a slightly morbid ring to them. This particular headline describes the number of “big” book publishers left after the merger occurred. There are always questions about whether a merger like this is caused by financial necessity and questions about the ongoing viability of the company once it is merged. Six months have passed since the merger between these two companies, and things are looking bright so far. Here, I’ll look at a few aspects of the ongoing changes of the new Penguin Random House.

Penguin and Random House didn’t just come together in the United States; they also merged in Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, India, China, South Africa, Spain, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay, and Chile. Penguin Random House continues to merge sections of the company and buy out portions that were previously owned by other publishers. In November, Random House Mondadori was renamed Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial. The new name represents its position and identity as the Spanish-language publishing company of the newly formed Penguin Random House. In India, Penguin Random House has now taken 100 percent ownership of Penguin India over the 55 percent they owned previously. In December, Penguin Random House announced its purchase of Times Media Group’s majority stake in South Africa-based Random House Struik. In the UK, Penguin and Random House publishers have decided to merge their children’s divisions into one entity.

In terms of e-books, Penguin Random House comes out as number two in the ranking in 2013, although if one adds up their numbers from the first half of the year (before the merger), they come out far ahead of the number one company. Here’s a look at the rankings:

Rank Publisher Appearances
1 Hachette 258
2 Penguin Random House 230
3 Random House 146
4 Penguin 102
5 Self-published 99
6 HarperCollins 91
7 Simon & Schuster 72
8 Macmillan 68
9 Amazon 46
10 Scholastic 27

Since the merger, Penguin Random House has been expanding their presence online in various ways—and not just by being one of the top e-book sellers. Firstly, the company is taking part in a business competition that challenges small companies to analyze how their digital content is consumed. The contest invites entrants to find creative solutions for digital strategies across three themes: retail, events, and analytics. Another way Penguin Random House is becoming more visible online is by partnering with Pinterest to help readers connect with books digitally. Through the partnership, Random House is adding a Pinterest API to its website and will feature the social network’s current popular pins related to books on the front page of Randomhouse.com. The idea is to help site visitors discover new books and to increase the number of readers pinning books.

What does Penguin Random House have to say about the weeks since the merger? In a January 19 interview with the Economic Times magazine, John Makinson answered questions about how the company is doing since the merger. According to Makinson, the months since the merger have been “fairly quiet. We were very deliberate in the way we brought these companies together. We wanted to ensure it was not disruptive to authors, agents, and booksellers.” In response to whether this merger was a question of survival he said, “No, not at all. Penguin and Random House were the biggest and most profitable publishers in the world…The pace of change in our industry is very rapid and we need to think of the impact of companies like Google, Apple, and Amazon and how they disintermediate publishers.”

So there you have it, from the chairman himself, as well as from various other sources. Penguin Random House is thriving in the months since the merger. They are taking global control of all aspects of their business, their presence online is expanding, and they are at the top of the e-book charts. It will be interesting to see if this success affects the other four “big” publishing companies. Will we see other “big” mergers happening in the future?