Readers of the Pack: American Best-Selling
IN MAKING THE LIST, his 2001 book about best sellers, former Simon & Schuster editor in chief Michael Korda recalls that the publishing house once commissioned a study of which books made the most money. After a detailed presentation, the consultant said to the editors, "Do you guys realize how much money the company would make if you only published best sellers?" He might as well have told them that they'd do better playing the lottery if they picked the right numbers. Trends come and go, but the best seller remains essentially serendipitous. An editor can be no more certain of finding the next one than a writer can be assured of writing it. "As a rule of thumb," writes John Sutherland, an English scholar who has studied the phenomenon, "what defines the bestseller is bestselling. Nothing else."
The term best seller has always been a misnomer. Fast seller would be more appropriate, since the pace of sales matters as much as the quantity. The first list of books "in order of demand" was created in 1895 by Harry Thurston Peck, editor of the trade magazine The Bookman. Publishers Weekly started its own list in 1912, but others were slow to follow: The New York Times did not create its best-seller list until 1942. Now, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today also compile national lists, and each of the major regional papers has its own—all generated in slightly different ways. The Times bases its list on sales reports from around four thousand booksellers, which it declines to name (a column by the paper's public editor a few years ago said only that they change constantly).
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