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?