'Best-Seller' — What Does It Mean to Be One? The New York Times best-seller list used to be the gold standard of the publishing world. But these days, there is a proliferation of lists, and stores prominently display their own "best-sellers." So what does it mean to be a best-seller?

'Best-Seller' — What Does It Mean to Be One?

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A National Book Award is nice, but publishers want even more to be able to promote a book as a national best-seller. So there has been a proliferation of best-seller lists. And each is just a little bit different. Recently, The New York Times made a change that will add even more books to its list.

NPR's Lynn Neary reports on what it means to be a best-seller.

LYNN NEARY: In a move that will make more authors and their publishers happy, The New York Times divided its paperback best-seller list into two: a list for mass market paperbacks, usually dominated by genre fiction like romance novels and thrillers, and another for trade paperbacks that tend to be works of literary fiction.

Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the Sunday Times Book Review section, says The Times wanted to make more room for the kind of book their subscribers like to read. He says they started thinking about making some changes a few years ago, when they noticed that Jeffrey Eugenides' "Middlesex" was raking in sales.

Mr. SAM TANENHAUS (Editor, The Book Review): Hundreds of thousands had been sold, well over half a million. It had not once appeared on our best-seller list, whereas other titles that one couldn't even remember because they would bob up to the surface of the list for a week, disappear, sink, and be replaced by another one worth hogging the list.

NEARY: Getting on the New York Time's best-seller list is a much sought-after goal in the publishing world. But the publishers don't like what they see there. They can always turn to USA Today or regional newspapers or magazines or Amazon.com or any one of a number of other lists that can legitimately bestow the title best-seller on a book.

Mr. TERRY ADAMS (Vice President and Director of Trade Paperbacks, Little Brown and Company): Boy, it can mean anything, can't it?

NEARY: Terry Adams is vice president and director of trade paperbacks at Little Brown and Company. He says there is no magic number that makes a book a best-seller.

Mr. ADAMS: I was just looking at the BookScan list today and there was a book that sold, let's say, 125,000 copies in one week, and it was the number one non-fiction best-seller. Well, the next week, the number one non-fiction best-seller had sold 30-odd thousand copies.

NEARY: Nielsen BookScan is another way that publishers can find out how their books are doing. About sixty-five retail locations report their actual sales on a weekly basis. And publishers pay to get that information. Publishers can also consult BookSense, the bestseller list based on reports from independent bookstores.

Meg Smith manages the BookSense list.

Ms. MEG SMITH (Marketing Manager, BookSense.com): It's almost like the original social networking, of the best-seller list because you see what other people have read and what other people have bought. And as a reader and as a browser, you think, huh, well, that's been selling, then maybe it's something I would like as well.

NEARY: Smith says independent booksellers also play a role in driving books on the best-seller list that would not have gotten there otherwise. One example she cites is "Water for Elephants," a best-seller that was so successful that Sara Gruen, a previously unknown author, now has a multimillion dollar deal for her next two books. Smith says it was buzz among independent booksellers that gave that book its initial momentum.

Ms. SMITH: And it really changed the plans of the publisher and how many books, ultimately, they went to print on. And that buzz that began with the independent bookstores, yes, it did translate very concretely to sales and then, ultimately, to the book being taken up very large in the chains.

NEARY: Big chain stores like Borders have their own way of calculating best-sellers, which are prominently displayed at the front of their stores.

Tom Dwyer is director of merchandising for Borders. He says not only are readers interested in best-seller lists, so are authors.

Mr. TOM DWYER (Director of Merchandising, Borders Bookstore): They want to be number one on the list. They want to know where they are on these various lists. So, believe me, we get calls about, where are we going to be on the list? Did we make the list?

NEARY: In the end, with so many lists out there, which one really does matter? Well, says Meg Smith, they all do.

Ms. SMITH: It's an extension of the way people shop for goods these days, you know? When you go on Amazon and you can see the ranking, the sales ranking amongst all the books sold that day, what does a best-seller mean? It could be your best-seller in the last 10 minutes, and that has some value.

NEARY: Of course, there is one sure bet you can make about best-seller lists. As long as they're around, a diet book will be on one of them.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

SIEGEL: And there is another sure bet about best-seller lists. The readers who put books on such lists are more likely to be women than men. You can read about this gender gap in reading at npr.org.

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