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Redefining “Bestseller”

Patrick Wensink’s Salon article “My Amazon bestseller made me nothing” is about 90% linkbait. But knowingly or not Wensink touches upon a few industry-wide fallacies that are worth discussion.

The tl;dr version  of Wensink’s piece:

This past summer, my novel, “Broken Piano for President,” shot to the top of the best-seller lists for a week. After Jack Daniel’s sent me a ridiculously polite cease and desist letter, the story went viral and was featured in places like Forbes, Time magazine and NPR’s Weekend Edition. The New Yorker wrote one whole, entire, punctuated-and-everything sentence about me! My book was the No. 6 bestselling title in America for a while, right behind all the different “50 Shades of Grey” and “Gone Girl.” It was selling more copies than “Hunger Games” and “Bossypants.” So, I can sort of see why people thought I was going to start wearing monogrammed silk pajamas and smoking a pipe.

Much as the word “publishing” has become a much-abused catchall for a variety of connotations, “bestseller” here must be taken with several grains of salt. Wensink’s referring to Amazon’s bestseller list, which is updated hourly, and not the more commonly cited New York Times list, which is updated weekly.

So, yes: Wensink can say his book legitimately outsold titles like Bossypants . . . for a one-hour period on one retailer’s site. (He writes that it shot to the top of the list for a week, which I would dispute.) Broken Piano sold around 4,000 copies throughout its run. That’s about what he would have to sell in one week to crack the Times fiction list.*

What’s most troubling is that a year after Broken Piano‘s publication Wensink still believes the most pervasive fallacy in publishing: attention=sales. His novel didn’t make NPR based on merit. Rather, he’d run afoul of fair use issues for IP owned by a $3.5B spirits conglomerate and made hay with the subsequent wrist-slap. Would you want to read a novel that was more well-known for its cover art than its content?

I know, I know: any publicity is good publicity. I’ll certainly grant that. And it’s understandable the same naivete that fueled the original news item–“Nobody will care if I rip off the logo of an internationally known brand”–would presume a brief Amazon sales spike portends a financial windfall. The difference is Gone Girl‘s publicity was actually about the book itself, not some Boing Boing-friendly legal skirmish. (Unless Wensink’s goal all along was to be talked about more than read. In which case: kudos.)

Of course, Wensink isn’t stupid. He knows when he says “bestseller” it doesn’t mean what everyone else thinks when they hear “bestseller.” There are no books with “Amazon Bestseller” stamped across the cover. The article itself only exists as a kind of Diet Disruption. That is, the Broken Piano story isn’t a case study of how the industry is changing–for that, see Laura Miller’s article on Hugh Howey’s “Wool” series. Wensink’s book an exception to the rule that proves…nothing, really. It’s merely a fluke. And as publishers well know, there’s nothing novel about flukes.

 

*But what about gaming the system? Amazon takes measures to subtract bulk buys from its bestseller tally. If you were to buy 500 copies of your own book, for instance, Amazon would flag the sale and remove it from the Sales Rank counts. So I’m told. As for the Times, there are numerous agencies whose sole purpose is to circumvent roadblocks and help authors buy their way onto the list. It’s a terrible practice which undermines the entire endeavor, erodes  consumer confidence, and wreaks havoc on booksellers’ buy-in from the publisher.

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The Problem with Being 11th

Nick Bilton writes about an issue that’s been troubling me for a few months: the meretricious “top 10″ lists populating culture sites and content aggregators. (I recommend reading the article. Then come back. …Back? Ok.)

If you’ve developed iOS apps you know how helpful the “New & Noteworthy” and “Staff Favorites” sections are. Last year our Journey to the Exoplanets iPad app was chosen for “New & Noteworthy” and immediately experienced a significant sales bump, rocketing to #1 in its category.

We were thrilled, naturally, and also made aware of just how few marketing channels there are for apps.

(Interestingly, app reviewers didn’t respond to us until we received this imprimatur from Apple. My book publishing colleagues will recognize this as something of a reversal, as if the Times only reviewed books after they hit the bestseller list.)

The web’s emphasis on list-making has been well documented on the content side. Mashable‘s entire M.O. is to present content as numbered lists (preferably odd numbers). Or should I say, in their article “The Top 7 Ways for Mashable to Present Content,” list-making is #1. They admitted as much in a tongue-in-cheek article a few years back where they outlined how their writers gamed the system.

And sites like Flavorwire thrive on such lists. But if we zoom out, a self-reinforcing feedback loop emerges in both content and downloads: articles in the Most Viewed category tend to stay there, and as Bilton notes with iTunes, there’s a big gap between being tenth and eleventh.

Not only are we in a popularity contest. We are in a popularity contest in a hall of mirrors.

-Nick Bilton

From the perspective of a healthy media diet, this can be worrisome. (The Filter Bubble and all that.) It also sounds reminiscent of the old days of broadcast television. When there were only a handful of TV channels, your product by default captured a healthy market share. Clay Shirky has pointed out this also meant your show didn’t have to be terribly good, just on.

I wonder if our current web infrastructure is simply a new version of this same problem. We’ve moved into the adolescent stage of the internet: the novelty of “all information, all the time” is gone, replaced by the growing influence and importance of curators. (Compare Maria Popova fifteen years ago to today.)

There isn’t a monolithic “Big Three” of TV networks anymore. But Top 10 culture does echo its sentiment of easy and populist content over more individually relevant fare.

As you can tell, it’s a complex topic, and many content sites circumvent it by emphasizing editorial over Most Viewed algorithms. (I’d cite Longreads here, or even Valet Mag.) What do you think?

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Facebook, In and Out

The announcement of Facebook’s upcoming IPO serves as an excellent chance to step back and assess the state of social networks and the information economy. The Times posted a suite of articles on the subject in their Sunday Review section, including an illuminating piece by Somini Sengupta on different countries’ approaches to online privacy:

Every European country has a privacy law, as do Canada, Australia and many Latin American countries. The United States remains a holdout: We have separate laws that protect our health records and financial information, and even one that keeps private what movies we rent. But there is no law that spells out the control and use of online data.

Highly recommended. It pairs well with Lori Andrews’ op-ed “Facebook Is Using You,” about the unseen uses for that data stateside. Such as: the ignominious practice of “weblining” turns your online activity against you in the form of demographic, geographic and behavioral profiling.

What’s worse, Andrews points out the lack of oversight and regulation in this space. If insurance and credit card companies are running actuarial tables on our online activity, how can we judge their efficacy? These algorithms aren’t held up to the test other companies face–namely, the test of the market–and so might err (again and again) where fair and unjust business practices prove mutually exclusive.

Even though laws allow people to challenge false information in credit reports, there are no laws that require data aggregators to reveal what they know about you. If I’ve Googled “diabetes” for a friend or “date rape drugs” for a mystery I’m writing, data aggregators assume those searches reflect my own health and proclivities. Because no laws regulate what types of data these aggregators can collect, they make their own rules.

I hope Congress can push for greater transparency. It’s tempting to exaggerate the pernicious effect of such an unregulated space, or tend toward alarmist conclusions. Instead, I’ll just say: we’ve all seen the failures in Amazon’s product recommendations after browsing for gifts. Can you imagine if those some mistakes, writ large, affected your insurance liability?

 

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Is Reading a Social or Solitary Activity?

That’s an unfair title for the blog post, as obviously there’s isn’t one answer. But after reading the incredibly misleading “E-Books Make Readers Less Isolated,” I felt it necessary to weigh in.

Note the article appears in the Fashion & Style section, not Books or Tech. This is perhaps why there isn’t any distinction made between a dedicated e-reader like the Kindle and a multimedia device like the iPad. When strangers and friends ask to check out my iPad, almost none of them care about the ebook apps. I would argue they are distinctly different devices serving different audiences. One is a reading device, and the other is a media device.

“For many, e-readers are today’s must-have accessory, eroding old notions of what being bookish might have meant. ‘Buying literature has become cool again,’ [Dr. Levinson] said.” Setting aside how insulting this statement is, let’s take the high road: is the article saying ebooks and/or Kindles are cool? iPads? We know iPads are cool, and that has nothing to do with their ability to display ebooks. That’s like saying Solitaire is hip again because the new MacBooks hit the market.

I haven’t equated bookishness or reading literature with solitude since I was a teenager. Partly this is because I was a huge nerd with nobody to discuss Irvine Welsh with. Mostly it’s because these days I find reading literature an immensely social activity: book clubs, author readings, drunken debates about metadata (this happened on Friday, sadly), arguments over a New Yorker review… I feel privileged to live in an environment of like-minded readers. So is reading solitary because I prefer not to be bothered on my subway commute as I tear through a great novel?

I heartily endorse the oft-cited remarks by David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen about the purpose of reading: to pacify loneliness through communion between a writer and a reader. It’s uniquely solitary and social*:

*Yes, this is a video I produced for my job. But I love my job, so it’s all the same thing in the end.

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iPad Thoughts

As an experiment, I’ve written this post on the iPad, so if in fact the keyboard functionality is as much a pain in the ass as critics have said, you’ll know when my review devolves into a series of curses and short sentences.

Having an iPad is like walking around with a newborn: it’s heavier than it looks, everyone wants to touch it, and you feel conspicuous on the subway. And like a baby, this thing gets dirty quickly. My greasy fingerprints appeared all over the screen 10 minutes into firing it up. I already smeared it with a little French cheese by accident, which is surely a common smudge for this particular device. (Why yes, I do live in Park Slope!)

iBooks: So far the app is B+. I love the sample chapter feature. Yes, the Kindle has this too. But the Kindle’s a single-use device, and none of my friends buy single-use devices. I’m not fond of the title selection: David Rakoff and Elias Canetti are both on my to-read list, but no luck; it’s now retitled my to-read-in-print list. I can’t wait for publishers like New Directions and NYRB Classics to add their titles. At the same time, I’m happy to report a bunch of FSG books like The Ask and The Three Weissmanns of Westport are up and ready for purchase. I’ll be reading a few different titles in the app this week to get a feel for it. I expect it will be similar to my hit-and-miss approach with reading books on the iPhone. (In that case, the only book I could get through was, appropriately enough, Steve Knopper’s Appetite for Self-Destruction. Maybe I only like ebook texts which performatively comment on their reading format.)

No, I did not mean "idiot," you snob.

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