Last summer, as the general election heated up, “Hillary's America” by conservative author Dinesh D'Souza rocketed to the top of the New York Times bestsellers list in the hardcover nonfiction category.
On a list printed by Publishers Weekly magazine, however, “Hillary's America” remained stuck at No. 2 for four consecutive weeks before gradually falling out of the rankings in mid-September.
Though D'Souza peaked higher on the Times's list, his publisher, Regnery Publishing, is now boycotting the Times because of alleged bias against conservative writers and saying it will only recognize the Publishers Weekly list as legitimate.
Regnery's protest would appear to make little sense, except as a stunt designed to draw cheers from readers (and potential readers) who also applaud President Trump's tirades against “fake news” reported by the “failing” New York Times.
It could be a smart business strategy. Regnery is complaining about the Times's current ranking of D'Souza's latest book, “The Big Lie” (No. 7), and about the newspaper's omission of another title, “No Go Zones,” by Raheem Kassam, an editor at Breitbart News. Breitbart reported that Regnery “has revealed how the Times's list, once believed to be the gold standard in publishing, is stacking the decks against conservative authors.”
What better way to sell a book to a conservative audience than to promote the idea that the New York Times doesn't like it? It worked for Ted Cruz, who griped when his 2015 memoir didn't make the Times's bestsellers list in its first week, then watched as publicity helped propel the book to No. 7 in week two (behind a Regnery-published book by Ann Coulter, by the way).
The formulas behind bestsellers lists vary and are guarded with the intensity of Facebook's algorithm. The Times surveys what it considers to be a representative cross-section of book vendors. Publishers Weekly relies on sales data supplied by Nielsen, better known for its television ratings.
Direct comparisons are difficult because the Times and Publishers Weekly don't track all of the same categories, and they use different cycles. A week, as measured by the Times, is Sunday to Saturday. As measured by Publishers Weekly, a week is Monday to Sunday.
That means a big sales weekend for any given book will be captured in a single cycle by Publishers Weekly but will be split in two by the Times. (Sales on a Saturday are included in Week A, while sales on a Sunday are included in Week B.)
Neither cycle is inherently better than the other; they are just different — and the difference could help explain why rankings by the Times and Publishers Weekly don't always line up.
In an email to The Fix, a Regnery spokeswoman faulted the Times's methodology and said books should be “ranked based on actual retail sales and not a secret formula based on sales reports from a select number of undisclosed stores.”
“We are not looking for a handout or a leg up,” she added, “only a fair shot, which the objective and transparent ranking system of PW provides.”
Meanwhile, the Times has said Regnery's bias charge is “simply ludicrous.”
The Fix reviewed the rankings of “Hillary's America” on both publications' lists and found that the book's ranking was more sustained and higher, on average, in Publishers Weekly, but that its zenith was higher in the New York Times. It enjoyed eight-week runs on both lists.
We sampled 41 weeks' worth of hardcover nonfiction lists published by the Times and Publishers Weekly over the past 14 months, in search of evidence that would support Regnery's bias claim but did not find anything convincing.
In April, David Limbaugh's “The True Jesus” first appeared slightly higher on the Times's list and then slightly lower.
Last September, “The Conservative Case for Trump,” by Phyllis Schlafly, Ed Martin and Brett M. Decker, made a one-week appearance on both lists. Publishers Weekly had it at No. 15, the Times at No. 16.
Last October, Publishers Weekly had Edward Klein's “Guilty as Sin” at No. 12, while the Times put it at No. 13.
These are minor discrepancies that do not suggest that Regnery's conservative authors are systematically underrated by the Times.
In fact, Regnery appears to be doing its best to inflate discrepancies with misleading claims. Here's an excerpt from the company's news release about boycotting the Times:
As an example, though the disclaimer at the bottom of the New York Times list states, “Rankings reflect sales for the week ending …” the most recent bestseller list for the week of September 3, 2017, listed The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left (Regnery; July 31, 2017) at #7 on the list, despite being #1 in sales out of all 15 books featured on the list, according to Nielsen BookScan. For the same week, No Go Zones: How Sharia Law is Coming to a Neighborhood Near You by Raheem Kassam (Regnery; August 14, 2017) had the 10th highest sales of the 15 books on the list, according to Nielsen BookScan, but was not placed on the list at all.
Notice that Regnery did not mention Nielsen's actual rankings, as printed in Publishers Weekly. Instead, it used relative rankings that included only the books listed by the Times and omitted all others.
“The Big Lie” appeared at No. 2 in Publishers Weekly, not No. 1, meaning the difference between its ranking there and in the Times was five spots. “No Go Zones” came in at No. 16 in Publishers Weekly, not No. 10. In the closest equivalent week, the Times included only 15 books on its list. Even if the Times's ranking was identical to that of Publishers Weekly, “No Go Zones” would not have appeared because the Times's list stopped at No. 15.
Regnery is trying to cast itself as a victim of liberal bias, but the numbers don't back up the publisher's grievance. What's more: Whether Regnery publicly acknowledges the New York Times or not, its books will still appear on the newspaper's bestsellers lists because sales data come from bookstores.
Regnery's protest looks like an attempt to have it both ways — earning conservative street cred for blasting the Times while still enjoying the prestige of placing books on the paper's lists.