Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The San Francisco Chronicle Changes its Bestseller List:

For the last two weeks, readers of the San Francisco Chronicle list have been getting something new: a bestseller list not compiled by the newspaper but one put together by the trade association of independent bookstores.

It is a significant change, but one most people probably didn’t notice.

For dozens of years, the San Francisco Chronicle had compiled its own weekly list of local bestsellers. Every Monday, a staff person would call around a dozen or so bookstores to find out which books had sold the most copies the previous week.

Since the Bay Area has such an avid literary community, the Chronicle bestseller list often served as an earlier indicator for books that went on to capture spots on national lists. In addition, getting on the list was prestigious in itself. “A San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller” is a good thing to print on a paperback.

So why did John McMurtrie, the editor of the books section, give all that up?

Time, time, time, and a respect for independent bookstores.

The recent cutbacks in Chronicle staffing levels have affected the book section, and now there is only one editorial assistant for the department, according to McMurtrie. Compiling the list took up a good chunk of time.

But more importantly, McMurtrie came to realize that the regional bestseller list put together by the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association was actually more comprehensive than the Chronicle’s list. The NCIBA polls around 55 independent bookstores in the nine-county Bay Area region for their bestsellers, providing a more accurate snapshot of sales.

“I’m all in favor of championing independent bookstores, of sending readers their way,” said McMurtrie. “They’re an important local resource in so many ways.”

Hut Landon, the executive director of NCIBA, is delighted by the switch because he thinks publishers will now have to pay more attention to independent bookstores rather than the big chains like Barnes and Noble or Borders Books.

“Literally, the only way to get your book on a bestseller list in the Bay Area and the Chronicle will be to get on the list in independent bookstores.”

So if an author comes to town and only does an event at Barnes and Noble, rather than at Book Passage or A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland, he or she may not make the list.

“It’s going to be good for the independents,” said Kathleen Caldwell, owner of A Great Good Place for Books. “Publishers will take us much more seriously. They are going to want their books on the San Francisco Chronicle list and they’ll put their authors in an independent rather than Barnes and Noble because those sales won’t be reported on the list.”

If this switch had been done a year ago, it would have been bad news in some ways for local authors. That’s because it took a lot longer for a book to get on the NCIBA list than the Chronicle list. My book, Towers of Gold, is a case in point. It first made the San Francisco Chronicle list on Nov. 30, 2008 but didn’t show up on the NCIBA list until Jan. 25, 2009 – almost two months later.

The NCIBA has revamped the way it calculates bestsellers since then, according to Landon. The list is timelier, with information gathered on Monday for previous week’s sales and posted by Wednesday. The bestseller list is calculating using a point system and is not merely a reflection of the sheer number of books sold.

A book that sells 250 copies in one book store will get points, but not as many points as if that same book sells 25 copies in 10 different book stores, said Landon. Books also get points for being on an individual bookstore’s bestseller list. So the broader a book is selling, the more likely it will make the list. “You don’t have to have a huge book with a huge budget with big author events to make the list,” said Landon.

But the switch will probably make it harder to make the list. In the past, if a book came out locally and the author had multiple events at Bay Area bookstores as well as a book party, the chances of getting on the Chronicle list was high. It often only took sales of 100 books to get on that list. And getting on the list in the early days of a book’s release helped build that all-too-important momentum.

A comparison of the Sept 13 fiction bestseller list prepared by the Chronicle staff and the Sept. 13 NCIBA list shows they are different. There were 4 books on the Chronicle list that did not make the NCIBA list, including The Sower by Kemble Scott, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Vergese, ad 286 Bones by Kathy Reich.

The NCIBA list had some names the Chronicle did not, including Lisa See's Shanghai Girls, The Last Song by Nicholas Sparks, The White Queen by Philippa Gregory, and Homer &  Langley by E.L. Doctorow.

The two nonfiction lists had even more disparity: The Chronicle's list included Farm City by Novella Carpenter, The Healing of America by T.R. Reid, Born Round by Frank Bruni, and The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. The NCIBA list had Shop Class As SoulCraft by Matthew Crawford, Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Republican Gomorrah by Max Blumenthal, and Official Book Club Selection by Kathy Griffin.

Interesting, huh? I don't know what it means, but it is interesting.


Ilana said...

So how many copies does it take, on average, to get onto the NCIBA list?

I know it must vary byseason (people buy more books of all sorts in some seasons than others)and by all sorts of other quirkiness, but is there a ballpark number?

For instance -- when I see that a certain book is number one on the Chronicle/NCIBA list, should I assume that the book has sold 250 copies that week? 1,000? 5,000? or what general range?

Kristen Holden said...

Interesting how some good can come of the sinking ship that is the Chronicle.

Thank you.