New York Times Or Bust
For many authors, writing a book that sells enough copies to earn a place on the New York Times Best Sellers List is often considered the highest honor the media can bestow upon a wildly grateful writer.
Count me in.
That said, I’ve never actually consulted the New York Times Best Sellers List prior to making a book purchase. But I have given a book more consideration if those words were printed on the cover. Even though I don’t go looking for the information, I still pay attention when the information finds me.
To show you what a different experience Amazon is for me as a reader, I didn’t even know until today that they have a New York Times Best Sellers List posted on their site. As I scrolled through it, I briefly wondered how books are chosen for the list. Here is what I found:
“The list is composed by the editors of the "News Surveys" department, not by The New York Times Book Review department, where it is published. It is based on weekly sales reports obtained from selected samples of independent and chain bookstores and wholesalers throughout the United States.
The exact methodology used in creating the list is classified as a trade secret. Book Review staff editor Gregory Cowles explained the method "is a secret both to protect our product and to make sure people can't try to rig the system. Even in the Book Review itself, we don't know (the news surveys department's) precise methods.”
Okay, so the list has weighted values. What competition doesn’t?
Interestingly, Stanford University reported that a spot on the list has every positive effect for little-known authors and no measurable effect at all for the established ones.
That’s probably not a surprise.
Still, I do wonder what craving we are satisfying by obtaining a spot on that, or any list. Perhaps, those cravings are holdovers from earlier times in our lives.
I am reminded of when I was in elementary school and my papers would receive gold stars. They never really meant that much to me, those stars, until a fuss had been made at home; until they went up on the fridge, crammed into a too small space bordered by my mother’s latest favorite quotes, various invitations, some forgotten lists, and the other gold-starred school papers that belonged to my brothers.
It didn’t matter that it could barely be seen amidst all the competing paper activity. I knew it was there—and it was public. As a kid, the refrigerator door was my New York Times Best Sellers List.
These days, I spend a lot of time browsing book-related sites, blogs, tweets, and Facebook posts on the web. It seems as if everything has been built on the “five-star” platform.
As J.A. Konrath pointed out in a blog post, “If you've ever given a one-star review to anything, you're probably an idiot.” Whenever I see a one-star review, it says to me that whoever wrote the review has a personal agenda against the author or against some aspect of the novel’s storyline.
I generally skip those reviews.
Receiving two stars is definitely crushing for a book. You figure the reviewer gave the author one star for writing the book and one star as credit for whatever marketing aspect convinced the reviewer to buy the book in the first place. For me, a two-star review equals an impossibly boring story.
I have the type of personality that looks for the good, the likable, in everything – books, people, design, cuisine, art. I don’t always find it, but I do always look.
My point in saying this is that I’ve come across very few novels I would rate as two stars. In fact, the one book front and center in my mind right now is a traditionally published novel carrying the name of an author I’ve long read, but who most certainly didn’t write the books recently being sold under her name.
Yes, I would know the difference; I’ve spent many fine hours with more than a dozen of her previous novels.
Talk about duplicitous. I haven’t bought a book of hers since.
Here’s a side note to famous authors: When you tire of writing the books we eagerly gobble up the minute they hit the shelves, please retire. Being listed as co-author could be acceptable, too – at least then we’re not expecting your magic on the page, and can decide if we want to take a chance on the real writer of the novel. Another idea would be to start your own imprint of books that are endorsed by you, but are not pretending to be your creation.
It’s too disappointing otherwise.
But then, publishing is a business. The math says you'll lose old fans like me, but you’ll pick up new fans who’ll never know the quality you are capable of as a writer. A wash?
Okay, back to the stars.
To me, three stars says, “I didn’t lose anything by reading this but I didn’t necessarily gain anything either. It has some enjoyable spots, and it fills the time reasonably well.” These are always the most interesting reviews to me because the person is showing they spent their money on the book, read it, then took the time to post a review. But I often wonder what the post “Warning: Ordinary” means, exactly?
In my experience, ordinary is a highly subjective word, and using it underscores my belief that the reader review process is in need of new dimensions.
A four-star review is practically perfect, to my way of thinking. It seems to say, “Yep, this was seriously good reading, and I’m coming back for more!” It also gives the author room for improvement, growth, new ideas, even a course change, if the mood strikes.
Five stars can be hard to live up to. It instantly flips the question a potential reader might ask, from, “What will I like about this book” to “What will I dislike about this book?”
To effectively communicate, authors and readers need an established structure to help find one another, and the existing system is a good start. In the future, I hope to see review structures expand beyond stars. I don’t yet know what this structure would look like, but the best analogy coming to mind is one that may surprise you: counter tops.
In my opinion, the most beautiful granite and marble counter tops have a consistent background color, and thick, deep veins of another color running through them. Ye olde standby, Wiki, describes it this way: “The resulting marble rock is typically composed of an interlocking mosaic of carbonate crystals.”
An interlocking mosaic. A story within a story.
This is the area in which self/indie published fiction excels. This is the magic of a gifted writer. This is the dimension the current review system doesn't capture.
Ashley, you say, that’s what the text portion of the review is for – explaining the “why” behind the number of stars.
Right. I know. It's just that…movies consistently get reviewed and awarded on many different levels: story, acting, cinematography, editing, sound, etc. Why not books?
Plus, this is the age of database standardizations. Many of our self/indie published authors may be choosing to make their books available in other languages, and this type of comprehensive ratings system will be easily translated and shared.
Anyway, it gives Amazon a dozen new Top 100 lists with which to entice new readers.
Ultimately, though, I don’t pick a book because I think it will be perfect. I pick a book because I think it will carry me away for a few hours to someplace I’ve never before been.
In some stories, the magic vein, the five-star dimension, will be in the descriptions of the landscape, or in the construction of the protagonist’s annoyingly loveable flaws, or in the heart-stopping action sequence that took your sleep and didn’t return it for two days.
Someday, perhaps, we’ll have a more comprehensive means of sharing the magic veins in each book. Until then, it’s New York Times or bust.