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The New York Times Best Seller list is widely considered the preeminent list of best-selling books in the United States. It is published weekly in The New York Times Book Review magazine, which is published in the Sunday edition of The New York Times and as a stand-alone publication. The best-seller list has been ongoing since April 9, 1942.
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 sales figures are widely believed to represent books that have actually been sold at retail, rather than wholesale, as the Times surveys booksellers in an attempt to better reflect what is purchased by individual buyers. Some books are flagged with a dagger indicating that a significant number of bulk orders had been received by retail bookstores.
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." In 1992, the survey encompassed over 3,000 bookstores as well as "representative wholesalers with more than 28,000 other retail outlets, including variety stores and supermarkets."
The lists are divided among fiction and non-fiction, print and e-book, paperback and hardcover; each list contains fifteen to twenty titles. Expanded lists that show additional titles are available online through the Book Review website. The lists have been subdivided several times. "Advice, How-To, and Miscellaneous" debuted as a list of five on January 1, 1984. It was created because advice best-sellers were sometimes crowding the general non-fiction list. Its inaugural number one bestseller, The Body Principal by Victoria Principal, had been number ten and number twelve on the non-fiction lists for the two preceding weeks. In July 2000, the "Children's Best Sellers" was created after the Harry Potter series had stayed in the top spots on the fiction list for an extended period of time. The children's list was printed monthly until Feb. 13th 2011 when it was changed to once an issue (weekly). In September 2007, the paperback fiction list was divided into "trade" and "mass-market" sections, in order to give more visibility to the trade paperbacks that were more often reviewed by the newspaper itself. In November 2010, The New York Times announced it would be tracking e-book best-seller lists in fiction and nonfiction starting in early 2011. "RoyaltyShare, a San Diego-based company that tracks data and aggregates sales information for publishers, will … provide [e-book] data". The two new e-book lists were first published with the February 13, 2011 issue, the first tracks combined print and e-book sales, the second tracks e-book sales only (both lists are further sub-divided into Fiction and Non-fiction). In addition a third new list was published on the web only which tracks combined print sales (hardcover and paperback) in fiction and nonfiction.
A Stanford Business School analysis found that the majority of book buyers use the Times' list for buying ideas. The study concluded that lesser-known writers get the biggest benefit from being on the list, while perennial best-selling authors such as Danielle Steel or John Grisham see no benefit of additional sales.
The best-seller list may not be a reflection of overall book sales; a book that never makes the list can outsell books on the best-seller list. This is because the best-seller list reflects sales in a given week, not total sales. Thus, one book may sell heavily in a given week, making the list, while another may sell at a slower pace, never making the list, but selling more copies over time.
In 1995, the authors of a book called The Discipline of Market Leaders colluded to manipulate their book onto the best seller charts. The authors allegedly purchased over 10,000 copies of their own book in small and strategically placed orders at bookstores whose sales are reported to Bookscan. Because of the ancillary benefits of making The New York Times Best Seller list (speaking engagements, more book deals, and consulting) the authors felt that buying their own work was an investment that would pay for itself. The book climbed to #8 on the list where it sat for 15 weeks, also peaking at #1 on the BusinessWeek best seller list. Since such lists hold the power of cumulative advantage, chart success often begets more chart success. Although such efforts are not illegal, they are considered unethical by publishers.
In 1999, Amazon.com announced a 50 percent decrease in price for books on the Best Seller List to beat its competition, Barnes and Noble. After a legal dispute between Amazon and The New York Times, Amazon was permitted to keep using the list on condition that it displayed it in alphabetical rather than numerical order. Since 2010 (or earlier), this is no longer the case. Amazon now displays the best-seller list in order of best selling titles first.
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