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The New York Times, a leading newspaper in the United States provides bestseller lists in their The New York Times Book Review. These lists are very influential in what is read by a large number of people, due to the publicity gained from a book reaching the list at all.

I'm skeptical of what the list represents. How is the list put together? What standards are used? How are the sales counted?

  • What exactly do you mean by how they 'work'? What constitutes a bestseller, and what algorithm is used to generate the list? – Rand al'Thor Mar 8 '17 at 12:31
  • @Randal'Thor Yes, how is the list put together, what standards are used, how sales are counted, that sort of thing. – Benjamin Mar 8 '17 at 12:32
  • The Wikipedia page has quite a lot of (sourced) information. – Rand al'Thor Mar 8 '17 at 13:19
  • @Randal'Thor The first cited source there ([6] Pierleoni, Allen (Jan 22, 2012). "Best-sellers lists: How they work and who they (mostly) work for") is 404. – user8 Mar 8 '17 at 13:41
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    @yannis Some of it is quoted here. In particular: "How the New York Times figures its lists is nearly as secret as, say, the recipe for Coca-Cola. Book Review staff editor Gregory Cowles explained in an email: "(The formula) 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."" – Rand al'Thor Mar 8 '17 at 13:48
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The New York Times (thereafter NYT) has a pretty detailed explanation of their methodology.

First, the list does talk about retail sales (which is rather good news, but is not the case in other industries such as video games). Those figures are measured from a panel on which NYT does not say much, except that it's confidential and should be trusted, and is restricted to the US.

Rankings reflect unit sales reported on a confidential basis by vendors offering a wide range of general interest titles. Every week, thousands of diverse selling locations report their actual sales on hundreds of thousands of individual titles. The panel of reporting retailers is comprehensive and reflects sales in stores of all sizes and demographics across the United States.

In a list à la Prévert, we find out that those thousand of retailers include

national, regional and local chains; scores of online and multimedia entertainment retailers; supermarkets, university, gift and big-box department stores; and newsstands

and is opt-in based:

If you are a book retailer interested in reporting your store's weekly sales to The New York Times Best-Seller Lists, send a request here.

This is as much as we know on the data and its representativeness: we do not know much about the panel's exact size or composition. The fact that you can opt-in on it probably correlates it a bit too strongly with the lectorate of NYT.

Let's also note that editors that are nominated for appearance in the list should complete some requirements from NYT to appear in the actual, published list. Very little is known about those requirements, whether they include a financial participation, etc.

Publishers and vendors of all ranked titles must conform in a timely fashion to The New York Times Best-Seller Lists requirement to allow for examination and independent corroboration of their reported sales for that week

Despite those meager news on the overall obscurity of the process, three positive points should be noted about the process: NYT is very transparent about how significant it judges its ranking:

An asterisk (*) indicates that a book's sales are barely distinguishable from those of the book above.

It is transparent also about any distinguishable manipulation in figures:

When included, such bulk purchases appear with a dagger (†).

And the body is independent from the advertising department:

The New York Times Best Sellers are compiled and archived by The Best-Seller Lists Desk of The New York Times News Department, and are separate from the Culture, Advertising and Business sides of The New York Times Company.

TL;DR: You can trust The New York Times to know what they do, but hey, they won't tell us.

  • "You can trust The New York Times" - citation needed. – Rand al'Thor Mar 10 '17 at 12:10
  • @Randal'Thor "can", not "should". The answer states that NYT gives enough info to hint towards credibility, but is by no means verifiable. In this context, I think every information needed on whether to trust or not the NYT ranking is contained in the answer. – VicAche Mar 10 '17 at 12:19

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