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Booked to sell

There’s little debate. Copies sold remain the most honest-to-factual way of gauging how a book is doing. But to get those copies flying off the shelves needs a big push — with recommendations, hype, money and publicity, Nivriti Butalia finds out more...

books Updated: Sep 06, 2008 23:54 IST
Nivriti Butalia

There’s little debate. Copies sold remain the most honest-to-factual way of gauging how a book is doing. But to get those copies flying off the shelves needs a big push — with recommendations, hype, money and publicity.

Deborah Hofmann, editor of bestseller lists at The New York Times, says bestseller rankings reflect sales for each week. In an e-mail volley, she explains that the process is a survey, taken every week. “The unit sales for thousands of titles are reported every week, in 13 categories, ranging from Adult Hardcover Fiction and Non Fiction, to four categories of Children’s titles, including advice guides of all sorts,” adding that all data are tabulated in their computer.

“On the Adult Fiction and Nonfiction lists,” Hofmann says, “we rank 35 titles each, 15 of which appear in our printed Book Review pages.” The remaining 20 titles on those lists are published in their expanded rankings online at nytimes.com.

Back home though, best-selling author Chetan Bhagat, originally of Five Point Someone fame, believes book lists in India are often manipulated and misrepresent actual sales figures. “Can you honestly believe that a book priced at more than Rs 700 is selling more copies than a paperback priced at Rs 200?” he asks. Bhagat says it’s all right to feature books on the list of recommended and must-reads, but a best-seller should be just that, by definition.

As for the quickest desi yardstick to gauge a book’s success, “if the book is pirated and sold at traffic lights, you know it’s a bestseller”, says Bhagat.

Bookstores, too, rely primarily on the most-copies-sold mantra. “See, the Jeffrey Archers, Sidney Sheldons and Paulo Coelhos will hit the best-seller list even in just their first run of copies — fifty thousand to a lakh,” explains Amit Chaudhury, the Kolkata-based head merchandiser of Oxford Bookstores. But people do go by set yardsticks, so “one does look at the international lists in the UK and US”, says Pallavi Malhotra, owner of Full Circle. “But that’s more to get an idea of the markets and what the rest of the world is reading.”

Often though, a personally recommended must-read list works better than computer-generated report of sales figures. In many cases then, word-of-mouth flak for a book or praise is valued higher than a statistic.

On the numbers game, Bhagat insists that book figures should be audited, like movie collection figures at the box office, to eliminate the scope of manipulation.

Of her own stores in New Delhi, Malhotra says they have two book lists. One, the monthly best- seller, comprising their own computer generated sales figures; and the other, the personal must-reads, which Malhotra finds “works well and is more enjoyable”, as it comes from active feedback and interaction from loyal customers who’ve liked what was picked out for them.

Not every bookstore though serves it on a platter, and Ajit Vikram Singh of Fact and Fiction in New Delhi isn’t one to spoonfeed customers. Sceptical about lists, he believes a book ranked highly in The New York Times and Guardian is out of sync with the Indian market.

Sunil Sethi, media personality and anchor of a books section on TV, feels while it might be a bit of a stretch to imagine the bestseller lists are fabricated, some pretty random books get repeat mentions on top week after week. From his side though, he does his bit to counter it by adding that personal touch and endorsing his own title of the week — be it fiction or art history.

“We do not disclose the identities of retailers — including hundreds of independent ones — who submit their sales data to us,” says Hofmann. “Nor do we disclose the number of copies of any title sold or what it takes to obtain a ranking on any of the discreet lists.”

Perhaps reading Chetan Bhagat’s mind, she adds, “We take these measures in order to insure the ongoing integrity of the rankings, to protect the process as much as possible from attempts to manipulate the outcomes.”