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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