If some books are good because they don’t sell, others are just as likely to be judged good because they do…
In Making The List, his 2001 book about best sellers, former Simon & Schuster editor in chief Michael Korda recalls that the publishing house once commissioned a study of which books made the most money. After a detailed presentation, the consultant said to the editors, “Do you guys realize how much money the company would make if you only published best sellers?” He might as well have told them that they’d do better playing the lottery if they picked the right numbers. Trends come and go, but the best seller remains essentially serendipitous. An editor can be no more certain of finding the next one than a writer can be assured of writing it. “As a rule of thumb,” writes John Sutherland, an English scholar who has studied the phenomenon, “what defines the bestseller is bestselling. Nothing else.”
The term best seller has always been a misnomer. Fast seller would be more appropriate, since the pace of sales matters as much as the quantity. The first list of books “in order of demand” was created in 1895 by Harry Thurston Peck, editor of the trade magazine The Bookman. Publishers Weekly started its own list in 1912, but others were slow to follow: The New York Times did not create its best-seller list until 1942. Now, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today also compile national lists, and each of the major regional papers has its own—all generated in slightly different ways. The Times bases its list on sales reports from around four thousand booksellers, which it declines to name (a column by the paper’s public editor a few years ago said only that they change constantly). The Wall Street Journal used to track only sales in major chain stores but now bases its rankings on data from Nielsen BookScan, an authoritative industry source that includes as many as three-quarters of the nation’s bookstores, around eleven thousand. IndieBound surveys only independent bookstores. Amazon.com offers its own list, updated every hour, but—like all the others—it is based on orders, not actual sales (since returns are not taken into account). Thus a writer with a carefully timed marketing blitz can push his book to a relatively high Amazon ranking for a day or so, allowing him to claim that it was, say, a “top ten Amazon best seller.” The system’s vulnerability to manipulation has resulted in the perception that, as Eliza Truitt wrote in Slate, the term best seller on the cover of a book means “about as much as the phrase ‘original recipe’ does on a jar of spaghetti sauce.”
The best seller is caught in a peculiar paradox: Its popularity can be understood as both proof and negation of its value. If the only attribute inherent to the best seller is sales, then any book that is popular runs the risk of being lumped in with the rest and tossed aside like a candy wrapper once finished—as Jonathan Franzen‘s angst over whether to accept the imprimatur of Oprah’s Book Club for The Corrections unwittingly illustrated. (The book was a No. 5 best seller in 2001.) For certain elite readers, the best seller is valuable primarily as a means of calibrating literary taste: We know what is good in part by knowing what is bad. But the sheer ubiquity of the best seller makes it impossible to disregard so easily. If some books are good (read: literary) because they don’t sell, others are just as likely to be judged good (read: entertaining) because they do. “If I’m a lousy writer, then a hell of a lot of people have got lousy taste,” Metalious once said.
“In reality there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is ‘good,'” wrote George Orwell, who was never a snob on literary matters. “Nor is there any way of definitely proving that—for instance—Warwick Deeping is ‘bad.’ Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion.” After reading my way through a century’s worth of best sellers, I’m inclined to disagree. Even if we are taught to appreciate Shakespeare in a way that we’re not taught to appreciate Deeping (whose stories of life in Edwardian England made him a household name in the late ’20s and ’30s), it’s nonetheless easy to distinguish their literary worth. Deeping’s works are crudely characterized and bombastically written—qualities we have come to associate with the best seller. But the high melodrama still draws us in. The impulse behind rubbernecking at a car accident is the same one that keeps us turning the pages: We want to watch the disaster unfold.