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Bestselling author James Patterson has penned a letter to The New York Times (NYT) excoriating them for “cooking the books” of their famed New York Times Best Seller List.
Most people are familiar with the Best Seller list. It is a coveted and illustrious honor to make that list, and every author dreams of having their work land somewhere, anywhere on it. Logically, most people might assume the Best Seller list is based on which books sell the most copies. Patterson did as well, until he noticed a recent best seller was not included.
What’s up with @NYTimes best seller lists? Anybody besides me notice that @MikePompeo’s book sold more copies than 6 titles on today’s list?
Patterson had his publishing company query NYT about how they determine their list after he noticed his own latest work, Walk the Blue Line – a collection of real-life stories from police officers across the country – was placed below other, lower-selling titles. The answer they received concerned Patterson. The Times told his publishing company their best seller list was based on “raw sales.” Could it be the Times didn’t want to highlight a book that humanizes police officers?
That was enough for the author of the Alex Cross series to write a letter of complaint to the NYT editor. When the paper declined to publish his letter, he posted it to social media instead.
I’m a longtime reader of The New York Times. Since 1971, when I first moved to New York City, I’ve devoured your paper. Every. Single. Day.
I can’t begin to estimate what portion of my worldview has been influenced by your often amazing journalism. I’m also an author and have paid special attention to your book review section and to the bestseller lists it contains. As a reader of the newspaper, I know mistakes are sometimes made. And that you have an admirably thorough and public process for correcting – and drawing attention to, and working past – your mistakes. I also know that this spirit of self-criticism and getting-it-right is too often absent from your bestseller lists.
Your claim in the fine print that “The panel of reporting retailers is comprehensive and reflects sales in tens of thousands of stores of all sizes and demographics across the United States” should be reassuring. But it’s not. Because it’s bonkers. Tens of thousands of bookstores? We would be a happier and less dysfunctional nation if it were true – but it’s regrettably not! Maybe you mean “locations that sell books” and you include grocery stores, newsstands, Amazon lockers and yard sales? But that’s a quibble.
The real problem is where you say “Sales are statistically weighted to represent and accurately reflect all outlets proportionally nationwide.” Because here you suggest your process has statistical rigor. And it simply doesn’t. As the nation’s bookstores and our publishing houses have known for years and can prove – your lists too often are outside the realm of the statistically possible, much less plausible. The fact is that you regularly publish – even now that we have computers and widely available data – lists that say a book sold better, or worse, than another even when it’s probably wrong.
I understand you responded to a recent query from my publisher – regarding a book containing what I believe to be important and illuminating firsthand stories by American police – by saying that you don’t just pay attention to “raw” sales. I guess that means you favor the cooked variety. (I suspect you prefer to say “refined.”)
To be clear, according to BookScan, Walk the Blue Line outsold all but 3 of the books on your list of 15. It outsold some by a 4:1 margin. Somebody’s not very good at math. Not to pile on here, but The New York Times also publishes its lists a week later than Bookscan, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times and just about everyone else.
What’s with that?
Look, I know somebody is going to accuse me of pursuing self-interest here. And they would be right. I am an author. I love landing on the list that gets more attention than any other in the country. A list that brings additional visibility and attention to the books it names. A list that has – I imagine it should be easy enough for an economist to prove – actual monetary value for authors and publishing houses. And a list that can make, or break, the careers of new writers.
Maybe I’m foolish for thinking “best seller” is supposed to be a measure of what’s most popular with my fellow book-buying readers, as opposed to some Times-decreed value judgement on the method by which the books were sold.
At any rate, I’m asking you to please cut it out. We live in a world where truth and accuracy are under frequent fire. This may be a narrow trade industry concern, but this lack of journalistic rigor also redounds to the reputation of what I has always believed is the most truth-loving, influential news outlet in the world. An institution I feel should always strive – with every piece of news it sees fit to print – to stay that way.
I recently wrote @NYTimes a letter about them cooking the books on their best seller lists. They told my publisher they didn’t rely on just “raw” sales. And they refused to run the letter. But you, dear reader, can read it here. Please spread the word. pic.twitter.com/fr5NfX7uME
— James Patterson (@JP_Books) March 29, 2023
Publishing house Regnery cut ties with The New York Times Best Sellers List in 2017 after complaining that the list had been “rigged” for years.
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