NEW YORK -- It has been criticized for being ingrown and unscientific, a weekly work of fiction that -- for all its seeming authoritativeness -- is shrouded in mystery. So when the New York Times Book Review announced it would begin splitting its paperback bestseller list into two lists, one reserved for quality paperback fiction, a chorus of voices in publishing began parsing What It All Meant.
Some declared it a long-overdue recognition of the importance of so-called trade paperbacks, the larger, more expensive editions that feature works by critically praised writers. Those books have had to compete for spots on the Times bestseller list with smaller, cheaper, glitzier mass-market paperbacks by brand-name authors like Grisham and Baldacci. But critics said the creation of yet another bestseller list threatened to dilute the meaning of the term. And they said it also threatened to dilute the Book Review itself, which announced that, at least initially, the section would lose a page of copy to make room for expanded book listings.
Industry observers agreed that the Book Review probably would attract more ads from publishers with the debut of a new paperback fiction list. Yet this raised a sensitive issue at a time when many book sections, including the Los Angeles Times’, have faced page cutbacks: These lists do give crucial exposure to new books, but they are also just one more marketing tool for publishers.
“It’s a balancing act,” said Carlin Romano, the longtime book critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “And in this case, I think the Times Book Review knows exactly what it’s doing, to tilt the balance in order to attract more advertising. But they’re also giving a lot more authors the right to claim now that they’re bestsellers. This will give them very good exposure, but philosophically, the more bestsellers you have, the less the term means.”
More slots open up
Under the new plan, the review will run two expanded fiction lists: One will be for 20 mass market paperbacks; the other is intended to feature more literary works by such writers as Cormac McCarthy, Claire Messud and Jeffrey Eugenides. As part of a redesign, the review is also boosting the number of books on its “How To, Advice and Miscellaneous” list, swelling the total number of bestseller titles from 70 to 110. But the lists don’t stop there: The Times also ranks an extra 15 bestsellers on its “extended” fiction and nonfiction charts online.
The stakes are high, because the New York Times Book Review is the most influential publication of its kind in the U.S. book world. And the chance to make one of its bestselling lists can make a huge difference to authors, agents, publishers and booksellers. For many, the new fiction list is a long-overdue validation of trade paperbacks, which are prominently displayed these days in many chain and independent bookstores.
Indeed, some publishers are issuing quality fiction directly into paperback, and sales are encouraging: Trade paperbacks had a 6.6% sales gain in the last three years, and a majority of the bestselling trade paperbacks in the last two years were fiction, according to Albert Greco, a Fordham University business professor and publishing expert. Unveiling a new paperback fiction list is significant, he added, because “the Times’ bestseller lists and reviews have an impact on sales, especially in independent bookstores, where buyers often consult them.”
But did the Times create the new list to boost a genre -- or its already healthy ad sales? Alone among U.S. book review sections, the Times’ weekly has had no trouble attracting ads.
For Sam Tanenhaus, the Book Review’s editor, creating the new trade fiction list “gives us the chance to recognize the category of quality fiction, of literary fiction. It also allows us to create a closer connection between the books we review and what readers might find on the bestseller list in any particular week. We can give a boost to authors who might not normally make the list, but now suddenly they’ll be appearing on it.” The weekly’s ad situation, he added, “is pretty good. “It’s not as if we needed this list to get more. But do we want more? Sure.”
In the first trade fiction list, which ran Sunday, the bottom rung was filled by “The Echo Maker” by Richard Powers, whose complex, ambiguous novel won last year’s National Book Award for fiction. Powers’ title might not have been expected to make the weekly paperback list under the Times’ old formula. The new list also benefited Southern California author Lisa See, whose “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” did not make the previous paperback rankings but debuted at 10 this week on the new list. More than half of the titles of the new list, however, were filled by books on the previous week’s list, including “Water for Elephants,” “The Kite Runner” and “Suite Francaise.”
‘Great marketing vehicle’
The arrival of a new list “is something we’ve hoped for, for many years,” said Paul Slovak, publisher of Viking, which issues many of its fiction titles in paperback at the Penguin Press. “Getting good books on a bestseller list is a great marketing vehicle for paperbacks, and this decision will make that easier.”
Still, the expanded list comes with a price. Tanenhaus conceded that the section would, at least initially, lose a page of content because of the larger lists. He said the review would get space back if it sold more ads in the future. But that did not impress some critics.
“This new list may be great for [the Times], but it’s not great for the continuing discussion of books in this country,” said critic Lizzie Skurnick, who writes the Old Hag literary blog. “Once you’ve lost a page of content, it’s gone. And there’s a choice to be made between the conversation about books in this country and the monetization of books.”
The New York Times Book Review’s bestseller list is no stranger to controversy. For years, skeptics have questioned the soundness of the way it is compiled, typically by having merchants across the nation fill out questionnaires about which books are selling. Times staffers then “weight” these results according to whether they are from chain or independent bookstores or other outlets; beyond that, the paper has declined to reveal the precise methodology. Competing lists are produced by Publishers Weekly, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, Amazon.com and BookSense (produced by independent bookstores) plus the big chains.
While all of these lists might be confusing, writers clearly benefit. The bottom line for many in publishing is that “eyeballs on the news page are an extremely important thing, they’re crucial to book selling,” said Sandra Djikstra, a literary agent based in Southern California who represents See. “Creating a new weekly list for paperback fiction is a plus for everybody who cares about the future of good writing.” --