Bogus Sales?

07.10.15 5:20 PM ET

Is Ted Cruz A Bestselling Author Or Isn’t He?

In its first week on sale, the senator said that his book sold almost 12,000 copies and that The New York Times refused it a spot on the bestseller list. Who is gaming whom?

Ted Cruz’s new book, A Time for Truth: Reigniting the Promise of America, is not on The New York Times bestseller list. It is on other lists, such as the Wall Street Journal’s and USA Today’s.

A spokesperson for the Times told Politico, “In the case of this book, the overwhelming preponderance of evidence was that sales were limited to strategic bulk purchases.”

Cruz’s publisher issued a statement saying the opposite: “HarperCollins Publishers has investigated the sales pattern for Ted Cruz’s book A Time for Truth, and has found no evidence of bulk orders or sales through any retailer or organization.”

Conservatives have been quick to assume that the liberal Times is smothering the news that Cruz’s book is selling well.

Trust me, it’s much, much weirder than that.

Nearly every news outlet that maintains a bestseller list uses a different methodology. Some rely on Nielsen BookScan for their sales information. Some collect their own data.

Some, like USA Today, mush everything into one list, so hardcovers and paperbacks and e-books all jostle for the same rankings. Others segregate their lists according to format (one for hardcovers, one for paperback, etc.).

The Times slices and dices its list about as finely as anyone. There’s a hardcover fiction list, an e-book fiction list, a paperback fiction list, a how-to list, and on and on. After J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books took over the number one fiction spot for months on end, the Times created a separate list for children’s fiction.

The kids’ book list was in response, it was said at the time, to complaints from publishers that they couldn’t compete with Rowling’s success. As long as she dominated the fiction list, no one else was ever going to have a number one adult bestseller again.

And number one bestsellers are important to publishers. A number one bestseller gets pride of place in bookstores, and it gets better positioned on Amazon. Just the name of a book on a bestseller list is that much more free advertising. And down the road, a hardback’s bestselling status means more will be spent to promote the paperback edition when it comes out, and of course the paperback is bedecked with type proclaiming it a Times bestseller. When the author’s agent tries to sell the author’s next book, the bestselling status of the author’s previous book completely changes the conversation.

The Times takes its role in all this very seriously, which is to say, it knows how important the list is to publishers, and it doesn’t like being gamed.

If you’ve got deep pockets and want to make your book a bestseller, you can do that. You can buy up books in bulk and make the list. To counter this, the Times weights the results of its tabulations from stores around the country. It also does this to keep, say, New York City or other big book markets from controlling the contents of the lists.  

So, for example, if the Times sees that a significant number of the 11,854 copies of Cruz’s book sold so far this week come from one place or a handful of places, the newspaper does not give those sales the same weight it gives sales from other stores and online outlets.

Which is admirable, and also worrisome. Admirable because the Times wants its list to reflect what books readers actually bought, not what was snapped up in bulk by some company in the employ of a conservative interest group (some other day we’ll undertake an examination of the closed circle in which conservative writers publish books with conservative publishing imprints, which are then promoted by conservative Fox News commentators to conservative viewers who loyally buy the books—if you doubt the effectiveness of such a loop, consider that nearly every mainstream publishing conglomerate has an imprint dedicated exclusively to books by and about conservatives). Worrisome because who ultimately decides what constitutes a legitimate sale? And a sale is a sale is sale, or isn’t it? Well, no, clearly at the Times it is not.

Of course, however they are compiled, the nation’s various bestseller lists do roughly reflect reality. John Grisham and James Patterson and Doris Kearns Goodwin really do sell a lot of books. Day in and day out, the books on various lists are largely the same and in more or less the same order from list to list. But if a publisher or an author or an author’s rich associates want to “create” a bestseller, they can do that, too. So take what you see not as hard fact but as an approximation of fact.

Every few years some enterprising reporter exposes all the contradictions and problems associated with bestseller lists. And maybe there’s some handwringing, and maybe someone comes along with a new innovation that will set everything right. USA Today’s one-size-fits-all list was supposed to resolve disparities and let you see what was really the most popular book in a given week. BookScan was supposed to make everything about sales transparent. The changes get made, and yet essentially everything remains the same, because all the players have too much invested in the status quo. They know it’s flawed. And yet …

It’s like the joke Woody Allen tells in Annie Hall: “A guy walks into a psychiatrist's office and says, hey doc, my brother's crazy! He thinks he's a chicken. Then the doc says, why don't you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs.”