The New York Times made a mini-headline of its own this week, when it announced that it would begin to track and report ebook best sellers in 2011. This, says the Times, will also entail a redesign of the section of its Sunday Book Review that currently includes 14 other lists.
The variety of lists currently available gives a nice, sweeping picture of what’s selling (which is different than what’s being read), but it’s important to consider all of the factors involved. Distribution, for one, plays an enormous role in these statistics. A book by an independent press is not going to be available in anywhere near as many outlets as one published by Random House, and if it isn’t available, it can’t sell. The movie business has a way of accounting for this sort of disparity, with the reporting of per-screen or per-theatre revenues, so that one can compare the success of a film on hundreds of screens to that of a film that’s playing on thousands. This could just be my ignorance, but I don’t believe the book business has a similar metric.
The best seller lists also provide a sort of sociological window into American purchasing patterns. The hardcover fiction list, for example, presents us with the 15 best sellers in cloth. But what it means, really, is that these are the 15 books most popular right now with a cross-section of the population that either has the disposable income to drop $25-$30 on whatever they want to read this week, or has a relationship to literature that compels them to get it while it’s hot, regardless of the expense. Bless their hearts, in either case.
The paperback numbers are even more flush with insight, mostly because of the way that the trade fiction and mass-market fiction lists are presented side by side. Ever walk into a bookstore and see two versions of a single paperback book, right next to each other? One has a bigger trim size, but a slimmer profile, and nicer paper, and sells for $13-$16. The other has a smaller trim, meant for spinner racks, but is much thicker, on rougher stock, and probably priced around $6.99. The former is the trade, the latter the mass-market. If you bought both, and set them on your shelf for even just a year, you’d see that one’s meant to last, and one’s basically disposable. They represent different attitudes towards the value of books as objects, each perfectly valid. They also represent different supply channels – mass-market fiction is available at grocery stores and gas stations; trade paperbacks usually are not.
The paperback fiction lists in the NYT Sunday Book Review let us see how different books appeal differently to these different markets. On the list dated November 14th, 2010, for instance, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is #1 on the trade fiction list, but Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol is #1 on the mass-market list. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, along with Larsson’s The Girl Who Played With Fire, make the only two titles that appear in the top 20 for both trade fiction and mass-market fiction. What’s not clear from the list, though, is that only a very small selection of books is ever actually available in both formats. Number three on this trade fiction list, for instance, is Howard Jacobson’s Man Book prize-winning The Finkler Question, which is not available as a mass-market paperback. Publishers decide which books to make available in which formats, and these lists both highlight and inform their decisions.
The point, which surely isn’t a controversial one, is that these lists are interesting, but they’re also pretty complicated. So, with the imminent arrival of this new list for ebook best sellers, it’s important to think about the complications. An obvious one is the same consideration about the purchasing population listed above – to be buying and reading ebooks, you need both the desire and the device. That’s a certain population, and this list could tell us what they’re buying.
But there’s also the availability factor. For example, every Harvard University Press title that is available in print can be purchased as a physical book through Amazon. Currently only a percentage of those titles are also available as Kindle books (we’re working on it).
Another big factor that I think it would be a mistake not to consider is Amazon’s active role in shaping ebook sales. Amazon, via the Kindle device and apps, currently has an overwhelming share of the ebook market, and though for competition’s sake I’d love to see that flatten out, my own personal armchair prognosticating doesn’t have it changing anytime soon.
So, here, finally, is the rub: what incentives does Amazon have to steer certain ebooks towards readers? Want one ebook to sell more than others? It’s not so hard, really. And Amazon has any number of reasons to prefer some titles to others. Maybe there are books that they make more money on than others. Or maybe there are business strategies that will be bolstered by the reporting of strong ebook sales for one publisher’s titles versus another’s. It’s no secret that Amazon has tried hard to avoid entering into Agency Plan models with publishers, under which the publisher has the right to set the retail price for the book. Doesn’t it seem like Amazon would benefit from saying that ebooks sold under the model it prefers sell better than those under the model favored by publishers?
It’s not a nefarious allegation to suggest that business wrangling like that could play a role in the titles that Amazon promotes. If I’m a bookseller and I make $5 every time a customer buys book X, but only $3 when they buy book Y, and I think they’re only going to buy one, of course the business part of my brain wants them to buy X. Maybe I also have a book-loving part of my brain that will still steer them towards book Y if it’s a better read. But Amazon is probably mostly business brain.
This, again, isn’t so different than the other lists. Maybe The Finkler Question is #3 this week because Bloomsbury and Barnes & Noble worked out a deal to put thousands of copies front and center. To be fair, in the case of B&N this is a coveted promotional opportunity that's only offered to publishers when B&N really believes in a book. You can call it pay-to-play, but it’s not cheating; it’s just how it works. That stuff plays a role in all the best seller lists. What’s different here though is the great extent to which this new ebook list will be dominated by one vendor. I don’t imagine that an ebook best sellers list will be all that functionally different from a Kindle best sellers list. And, considering that this is a publicly traded company that is still infamously withholding when it comes to its actual sales figures, I do hope that the New York Times presents their reporting model very transparently. And that we all remember to take the new list with a grain of salt.