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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

The Best Seller List

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, May 14, 2017


 Everyone wants to read the latest Bestseller, and the library hold lists are filled with people wanting to read whatever is “hot” on the Bestseller Lists.


From the standpoint of a librarian who has worked in libraries for over 46 years, I have a different view of Bestseller Lists today and their impact on the publishing world.


Most public libraries view the “New York Times Best Seller List” as the standard listing of the “best seller” list for America.  It started as a regular weekly feature in their book review section in 1942.


Libraries also watch the “Publisher’s Weekly” best seller list, which was introduced by that trade publication in 1912 and is the oldest continuously produced book list.  This is the end of the easy explanation of best seller lists.


Both of these lists have expanded to lists of various book formats, types of books, and various publications which expand the scope of the lists.


Individual book sellers started lists in the 1970s showing their specific book sales rankings, and were joined by “USA Today” and their list of 150 popular titles, and the expansive list of which both sells and produces books for the marketplace.


The best guess is that there are some 50 major best seller lists in America, and as many as 300-400 in some format.  So, what is a bestselling book?


Various folks have tracked a specific book on the various major lists, and found that the book ranked from 10 to 121 on different lists at the same time, and didn’t even show up on other lists.


Over the years, controversy has surrounded the best seller lists, coming to a climax in 1983 when author William Peter Blatty sued the New York Times claiming that his book “Legion” had not been on their list and cost him sales.


The court ruling was that the list is editorial content, not objective factual content, so books could be added or excluded from the list.


Since that time, authors and publishers have tried to impact the best seller lists by purchasing large blocks of books to show large sales, having only minimal impact.


In the world of self-publishing, all kinds of tactics are being used to show that an author or a specific title is on a bestselling list.


The generic term of bestselling list or best seller’s list can be used to describe any book.  One author claimed that they sold two copies of their book which made it a “best seller” as their first book sold none.


Other authors describe themselves as a “bestselling author” with some going as far as to say they were on the New York Times version.


A check of the New York Times Best Selling List find neither their name or their book as having ever been listed even for just one week on said list.


Perhaps this was an early version of “Fake News?”


Again from the standpoint of a librarian, we view best seller lists as marketing that is attempting to place a book into the public arena, and if the story is good it really doesn’t make a difference what list it appears.


Of course, I understand the marketing concept of new books, especially those not produced by a major publisher with a marketing budget; which forces the author to perform their own promotion of their book.


More often than not, our acquisitions staff receives a request for a book from the public that requires a lot of research to even locate.  Sometimes it is only available from (not someplace that most libraries use for purchase) or directly from an individual or small company that is not prone to library sales.


Often has book reviews of their books, and I wonder how many are the author’s relatives and friends saying glowing things about a book.


I once had an Ohio author call to donate a copy of her new book to our library.  Upon receipt, I tried to read one of the worst books I have ever attempted to read, and then noticed that her web site said that her new book was “in the collection of the Public Library of Steubenville and Jefferson County.” 


We were being used as advertisement.