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Making Books

So there must be more to the reluctance to switch to Book-Scan. Nora Rawlinson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly, says she gets additional information on how books are selling by having "that constant contact with booksellers." BookScan aggregates sales from all the participating retailers in a region, so subscribers can't know if a title is selling particularly well at, say, independent bookstores. It's just that sort of inside information that Maryles reports in her "Behind the Bestsellers" column. The N.Y. Times recently started "Inside the List," a column that digs back into its list's archives, which go back to 1935.

Jacqueline Blais, who supervises the USA Today's bestsellers, explains the benefit of self-compilation this way: "We're able to archive the information with the sensibilities of people who are book readers, with librarians' instincts, so we can look at a richer pattern of book sales." In March of this year, for example, USA Today ran a story highlighting changing trends in book sales since the list's inception in October of 1993, noting, for example, that religious titles like those in the Left Behind series of apocalyptic thrillers have broken out of the Christian bookstores and into mainstream outlets. (If the N.Y. Times were to report this trend, the data would presumably have to come from somewhere other than its own list, which, according to Meislin, doesn't track "primarily religious books" at all. The Washington Post does list religious titles and, in fact, ran a separate story on the Left Behind bestsellers in a recent issue of Book World.) USA Today also takes pride in having raw numbers, not just weekly rankings, enabling editors to see that over the years a classic like The Elements of Style has sold more copies than a flash-in-the-pan new release.

The Value of Data Only

Publishers Weekly's Maryles says that she'd love to have information from Nielsen BookScan, if only to supplement the data her own team gathers from stores by phone and fax each week. "But the problem is we can't get that information without paying a king's ransom." How much? PW won't say, and Nielsen's Jim King declines to discuss pricing at all, not even the variables that determine what each subscriber pays. Book World's Arana insists the weekly list she receives from BookScan is not expensive but, due to a confidentiality agreement, The Post cannot divulge what it pays.

One thing seems clear: Publishers, who get much more than a list, find the service invaluable. "We've found many fabulous uses for it," says Simon & Schuster's Reidy. When signing an author from another publishing house, acquisitions editors can see the author's actual sales track record, whereas before BookScan the publisher had little more than the agent's word to go by. Similarly, by looking at which regions show the strongest sales for a particular author, the company can decide where to focus publicity. For more complex searches -- say, parenting books sold in the Northwest during 2003 -- subscribers can request a custom report. Given the industry's notoriously poor bookkeeping, it's not surprising that, according to one insider, book publishers are willing to pay half a million dollars per year for BookScan. But paying to access the database and paying to publish a list of rankings are clearly two different things. The newspapers and magazines that publish their own lists and incur people-hours to do it might well be investing more money in the information-gathering process than they would spend to buy BookScan's list.

So perhaps it boils down to the fact that each list creates a business of its own. And yet, although the N.Y. Times charges an annual fee of $1,140 for its list, spokesperson Elizabeth Areddy says the revenue from those sales is "a fraction of the cost of the survey itself." It seems the payoff is partly in good publicity. Rawlinson says that Publishers Weekly gives its list away because she wants to see as much media coverage of books as possible, and "for places that can't afford to do their own bestseller list, we like them having a list, and we like to be the ones providing it."

Reputation, Reputation, Reputation

Having a high-profile list surely promotes a periodical's name, which in turn makes that list seem more trustworthy. That's because, absent information on methodology, says Greco, the reader must rely largely on the reputation of the publication creating the list, which comes partly from seniority. The PW list, published since 1912, carries weight among industry insiders, just as the N.Y. Times claims to have the oldest and most reputable list available to consumers. "In a sense it's territory we charted first," says Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the N.Y. Times Book Review, "and because of that, considerable prestige accrued to the N.Y. Times list." Tanenhaus adds that even Ann Coulter, "a famous attacker of the N.Y. Times," has on her book jackets the words "by the New York Times bestselling author."

For all its precision in numbers, Nielsen BookScan, launched in 2001, is finding it difficult to compete with that kind of prestige. The few institutions who publish BookScan's lists -- such as Book World -- see value in the "70 percent coverage of all book sales" that Nielsen promises. As for other prospective customers, the benefits don't yet seem to outweigh the costs, monetary and otherwise. When BookScan began to make its figures available three years ago, some predicted that independent bestseller lists would soon be obsolete. But the book industry is a business like no other. Prestige, old reputations, branding -- for the time being these seem to drive the bestseller lists every bit as much as the numbers. •

Marina Krakovsky is a freelance writer in California. She has written for Scientific American, Psychology Today, Parenting, Stanford Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.

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