Never trust the bestsellers list

Last week, Jeff Bercovici published an article in Forbes about how to buy you way on to The New York Times bestseller list. I wasn’t surprised. I’ve never trusted the bestseller lists, though I feel like I’ve been tied to them for as long as I’ve been buying books for library collections. Bercovici’s article reveals just how some unscrupulous publishers can disguise big purchases as little ones, so that it looks like lots of people are buying a particular book. I highly doubt that this practice is going to stop just because someone in the media twigged to it.

Bercovici’s article did validate my personal stance of staying away from the bestsellers list as a source for finding new books to read. I also stay away from Oprah’s list and most major awards when it comes to my personal reading. I stick to book reviews, book bloggers I like, and recommendations from GoodReads (which are surprisingly accurate once you tell it about the first 800 books you’ve read).

What I really don’t like about the manipulation of bestseller lists is that this kind of manipulation crowds out variety. It’s impossible for small publishers to play this game. The only way to break through is to win a big award and get on readers’ radars. But the big awards are often given to literary fiction, leaving genre fiction (the fun stuff) out in the cold. Bestseller lists do highlight a lot of genre fiction, but the same authors and the same publishers appear again and again.

These very problems are why I like book social networks so much, even though most of them are owned (wholly or in part) by Amazon. You can find friends and readers with similar tastes and recommend books to each other. Even though recommendations are fraught, they might be the only way to find out about the books that don’t win awards and will never show up on the bestseller list (no matter how much they deserve it).

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