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April 16th, 2008 by Sylvia Day
Minority Report
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Have you heard? Sometime late last year or early this year (the exact date appears to be a mystery), Wal-Mart — one of the largest retailers of books in the US — stopped reporting their book sales numbers to the NY Times and the USA Today. This would seem to mean that the lists we’ve come to rely upon as indicators of book sales and bestsellers in this country are markedly different than the same lists we followed this time last year. Authors who sell the majority of their books through Wal-Mart are showing up on the lists lower than authors with much smaller sales numbers who sell predominantly through the struggling chain and independent bookstores.

You might have heard about Wal-Mart’s decision a year or so ago to only carry certain titles. Many books/authors who once enjoyed hefty sales figures at Wal-Mart suddenly found their print runs slashed when their latest book was passed over by Wal-Mart’s book buyers. Simple fact is: Wal-Mart sells a ton of books. Now the lists can’t factor in those figures.

I’ve always thought of the bestseller lists as an indicator of what America is reading now. Is that no longer true? Are they now only an indicator of what half the American population is reading and only a certain demographic — the bookstore shopper? What about the moms shopping for laundry detergent and socks who pick up a book at WalMart as a treat? There sure are a lot of them. I’ve heard Wal-Mart’s market share is as high as fifty percent.

Is this change a good or bad thing? For those authors whose books were passed over at Wal-Mart or those whose trade paperback titles are never considered, does this level the playing field a bit? What are the long-term ramifications for established authors, who might find that the majority of their sales aren’t reported?

As an author, I can understand the thrill of “hitting the lists” for the first time. No matter what, you have to sell a lot of books to make the lists. But I can also picture the flipside — selling more books than ever, but not being recognized for it, which is more than just an ego-stroke. Have you seen those bookshelves in drug, grocery, and airport stores that are numbered (#1, #2, #3) for those books on the NYT list? Imagine if an author would have been #5–if their Wal-Mart sales had been counted–now hitting #16. (Being in the Top Fifteen is hugely important, I’ve heard.) Which might lead to less outlets, less visibility, less sales. Which could then lead to lower print runs, lower advances, etc. (I’m speculating.) Perhaps it wouldn’t be a big deal if Wal-Mart had a low market share, but 50%? Again, that’s a lot. If the authors were losing sales because the quality of their books was diminishing, that’s one thing. But in this case, they would be losing sales only in a figurative sense, but the costs they might pay are very real.

There has been some talk about this on various author loops, but the topic is rife with confusion. Why did Wal-Mart decide to keep their book sales numbers to themselves? How does this affect the viability of the bestseller lists? Can they be seen the same way, knowing how many books they don’t factor in?

What does it mean to you–if anything?

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16 comments to “Minority Report”

  1. Well, coming from selling into grocery, most stores prefer to keep their numbers to themselves. It doesn’t add value for them to share information and can hurt them (the proper product mix is a competitive advantage).

    Why don’t the list people do what Nielsen and other info gatherers do and have a person standing outside the store, counting? It is well known (for at least a decade) that Wal-mart doesn’t like to share their numbers.

    Lists don’t mean anything to me, the reader. I don’t read them. I do notice when a book is available in Wal-mart or Target though.

  2. I’m very puzzled as to why Wal-mart doesn’t report their book sales to the best seller lists anymore.

    Cutting the number of titles they sell was disappointing news. I’m one of those moms with very limited time in the day. I rarely get to a bookstore these days, but I’m often at Walmart. I’m already seeing a cut in title selection at my local Wal-mart. They’ll carry 18 copies of 26 different titles by Nora Roberts, but very little by new or midlist authors. I have a great deal of respect of Nora Roberts, but I’m not a fan of her books, so my choices as a consumer are pretty limited these days at the Wal-mart book section. I wish Wal-mart would have kept their title selection more varied. I’m an impulse buyer when it comes to books, and I haven’t bought one from my local store in a couple of weeks (I used to buy at least 2 books every time I went).

    These days I get most of my info. about various titles from blogs dedicated to romance and romance writers. I’ll take this info and order from Amazon.

    For new and midlisters - not good news IMO. Not at all.

  3. I’ve never been on the NY Times or any other bestselling list, but Wal-Mart does seem to have highly varied sales practices. As a black author, it’s always a coin toss to see if they’re carrying my books. I’m not talking about areas where there are few black people; that wouldn’t make sense. But I’ve also seen areas with a fair amount of black people (most recently in Denver/Aurora, Colorado) where the Wal-Marts only sell Eric Jerome Dickey and Terry McMillan, and I think the consumers are being shortchanged.

    About the question asked, it won’t affect this non-bestselling author personally, but I do wish they’d rethink their policy. Book sales are book sales. I can see if the local A&P doesn’t report, but Wal-Mart is a giant retailer with substantial sales.

  4. Lists don’t mean anything to me as a reader, either. I don’t look at them. I’ve never read a book because it was a bestseller. I also shop online, where I can find just about any book that has ever been in print, so I’m not a slave to the whim of a store’s buyer, who doesn’t have the first clue what I want.

    What this says to me is that the lists are not an accurate reflection of anything, have outlived their prior usefulness, and need to be overhauled before the publishing industry uses them as a decision-making tool, if not discarded entirely.

  5. Lists mean nothing to me as a reader/reviewer, but I do feel sorry for authors who won’t receive the recognition they’re due. :cry:

    As a mom/reader, I think it’ll drive up books sales over the Internet. I don’t have time to visit the bookstore, even if there was one near me. Also, grocery stores which do a good job stocking a variety of books will pick up the slack. Fred Meyers (Krogers to you all, I think) comes to mind.

  6. […] But is this news or just situation normal? I know Jane @ DA did a big write up on the whole NY Times List once upon a time. I guess I should go look for it, I admit I zone out it is all so convoluted to me. Tags: list list list, NY Times Best Seller List, USA Today List […]

  7. (Grinning at Kimber An and her grocery store book shopping.)

    This is SO off topic (and probably worthy of a whole blog post) but I have a weakness for romance novels displayed in drugstores. I’m fairly picky about my on-line purchases, the same with bookstore, but I’ll buy ANY romance novel in a drugstore. Doesn’t matter the age, writing, category or any of that. I’m buying it.

    I have no idea why.

  8. I stopped trusting the NYT lists ten years ago, when I worked in an independent bookstore and discovered the lists were based on the number of books shipped to stores, not the number of books actually sold. Has this changed since 1998?

    The music industry used to track album sales the same way, then switched to SoundScan, which tracks the albums/CDs as they’re purchased, not as they’re shipped. I think that’s a lot more trustworthy.

    Not related to the discussion at hand, but the final straw for me and the NYT lists, after the shipped-vs.-sold problem I mentioned above, was when they gave in to complaints about the Harry Potter books dominating the general fiction list and created the children’s/YA list. Wimps.

  9. This lists have always been made up by slight of hand and voodoo . . .

  10. Then Chicklet, why do they need the stores to report at all? Why not ask the publishers for the info?

  11. I remember hearing about that a year ago. Oddly, I haven’t noticed any real change in the books that either of my local WalMarts carry. The “small” one has never had a great book selection, but does carry a few books by new authors, and the Super WalMart in Raynham, MA, has a lot of books by new or new-within-the-past-few-years authors. Hell, I often end up making my new author purchases from WalMart because they are cheaper and thus it’s less of a risk if the book sucks. (And the hubby won’t complain about me packing in a cartful of books. :D)

  12. Then Chicklet, why do they need the stores to report at all? Why not ask the publishers for the info?

    To preserve some semblance of legitimacy? :smile: As it was, if a publisher could convince the buyers for Barnes & Noble and/or Borders to make huge orders of a book for the entire chain, then chances were much better of getting it on the list. I heard rumors of incentives like bigger discounts or publishers paying for more promo space in the chain stores, but I have no idea if that really happened.

  13. Ahhh… that was a standard year end game, Chicklet. The seller convinces the buyer to take a truckload of product. The seller can then note it as a sale and get it out of inventory (making the numbers look good). Then the next month, the product gets returned.

    The auditors crack down on this now but I doubt the list makers do.

  14. I had heard that the Times used to send the list of books on which stores were to report sales figures, and booksellers could elect to write in other titles, if they wanted to. Not sure if that’s still how they do things.

    They don’t ask publishers because they aren’t truly trying to find the bestselling books in America. They are trying to learn which of a certain list of books sell best.

  15. Piggybacking on Bettye’s comment, the Wal-Mart in my neighborhood dismantled their entire African-American fiction section last year for a larger Magazine and Inspirational Fiction section, and added a section for books in Spanish. If they slashed their stock as drastically as everyone has said (though, they did have a healthy number of April releases when I checked), those at the bottom (namely, black authors) are bearing the brunt of Wal-Mart’s action. :mad:

  16. Great post, Sylvia. But to correct a slight error–the drug store/grocery bestsellers aren’t reflective of the NYT list. They are set by the individual distributors (i.e. News Group, Levy) in conjunction with the publishers. The slots are paid for, but the distributor picks the number (so your publisher can’t buy #1, but they would pay co-op for a slot, if that makes sense.)

    As far as NYT, I believe it was a misconception of getting on the list based on books shipped. Number shipped gets you on a long list, but it’s up to the booksellers to report their sales onto the NYT list.

    Walmart not reporting definitely hurt my list placement on my last book. Without going into details, my numbers were much stronger than my previous book, but I slid five slots (from #10 to #15.) I wouldn’t say Walmart is 50% of mass market book sales, but they are high (probably 40%).

    In the end, though, sales numbers drive the business, so even if you’re hitting lower, as long as your numbers are strong your publisher is going to be happy.