That darned New York Times bestseller list!

Now that the New York Times‘ online-only Graphic Books Chart has been around for a month or so, people are beginning to wonder just how the heck it works. It’s almost like one of those steampunk automatons — shiny and mysterious at the same time, and no one quite knows where it came from.

200904161412 That darned New York Times bestseller list!Kevin Melrose kicked things off by wondering how come a TWO YEAR OLD book (DARK TOWER) could suddenly unseat WATCHMEN and then slink back into obscurity the very next week. Chris Butcher jumped in and declared the list broken, and suspected that the NYT was using Diamond sell-in numbers. To back that up, he had pretty powerful evidence:

So how did we end up with Dark Tower: Gunslinger Born on the list? That’s tricky. Marvel is a very litigious company, and has all sorts of warnings about reproducing their private personal information in public. Blah blah blah. So, let’s talk about me instead, because I doubt even Marvel would be able to argue that retailers aren’t allowed to talk about their own businesses. So: There was a time period last month where I ordered Dark Tower: Gunslinger Born and received a higher-than-average discount on that book, and for every copy I ordered, I got another copy of the book for free. I did this, it happened, and I am talking about my actions as a retailer (litigious!). So the week that all of those discounted copies and free copies of Dark Tower that I ordered shipped to me, the book ALSO appeared on The New York Times Graphic Novel Bestseller list. Do you see the correlation there?


A lively comment section ensued, and Tommy Raiko chimed in with a kind of Occam’s Razor observation:

200904161414 That darned New York Times bestseller list!

I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next guy, but I simply cannot believe that the NYT is so stupid as to be using comics-store-sell-in-from-Diamond and bookseller-sell-through as if they were exactly the same thing. They simply can’t be that stupid. For years before establishing this list, the NYT’s apparently cited the difficulty in getting appropriate sell-thru figures from the comics market as a reason they hadn’t set up a graphic novel list; the fact that they now have set one up implies that they’ve somehow solved that problem, and it’s defies imagination that their solution would be “To heck with it! Let’s just use the sell-in figures!”

Maybe I’m missing some nuances on the timing here, but isn’t it possible that whatever promotion Marvel did to get retailers to order more copies of the book also had the effect of actually selling more copies to consumers, which sales were reported to the NYT? Isn’t is at least as easy to think that that’s what happened here as it is to think that the NYT is somehow so hapless as to dismiss the difference between sell-in and sell-thru?

This forced Butcher to refine his original hypothesis:

The reason I had initially discounted this possibility–the thought did occur to me–is that prior to about two years ago, there was almost no method of reporting sales data from individual comic book stores. It’s really only been in the last 5 years that direct market comic book stores have moved, in a major way, towards digital inventory tracking and control. I know that Hibbs has been chronicling that change at his various writing outlets. When I think to myself “What possible data could they be using?” it never even occurred to me that they might have access to DM sell-through data, because historically, they didn’t. No one did. Many comic book stores didn’t (don’t?) even have paper tracking methods (generally referred to as “cycle counting”), let alone weekly digital inventory counts that they could pass along to The Times.


Then, like Bloody Mary, just by naming him, along comes Brian Hibbs in the comments with startling new evidence:

For what it is worth, ComicsPRO is working with the NYT to get more stores involved in reporting their individual numbers to the list.

For what it is worth, I believe that more DM stores are using MOBY than using ComicsSuite from Diamond (probably by a factor of two or more)

And IF ComicsSuite is reporting sell-through to Diamond (and I doubt it is), Diamond has not disclosed that, and, so, that would probably be illegal.

New here’s where WE show up with some corroborating evidence. While we were writing a story on the ComicsPRO meeting a few weeks ago, MOBY owner Benjamin Trujillo mentioned that information from retailers using MOBY, a POS system that is gaining use among comics shops, is being sent to the Times for its list. Now, as Butcher suggests, the sample might be very small, but at least, for the VERY FIRST TIME, accurate DIRECT MARKET SELL-THROUGH numbers are being reported.

200904161418 That darned New York Times bestseller list!Now a little background here. The New York Times‘ bestseller charts have long been the gold standard of all book bestseller lists, with a ranking there the equivalent of ruling the box office or topping the Nielsens. However, the methods by which they achieved these results were usually a big pile of — to be blunt — juju, based on report weightings, guesswork, the cocktail circuit and advertising revenue.

When the NYTGB list started, we suspected that some kind of juju might be at work here, since the list is so seemingly random, and not in step with anyone else’s ideas of what is “popular” — kids’ comics and Beanworld???? — but we became increasingly disabused of that notion the week that WALKING DEAD trades #2 and #9 appeared. Volume #9 just came out and is selling briskly everywhere but…#2? Where the hell did THAT come from? Such a random placement would seem to come from some kind of complicated formula that was just crunching info, and not some higher design.

While we don’t know how many MOBY (and presumably Diamond POS stores) stores are reporting to the Times, if the number is small enough, weighting could definitely affect the list. One assumes that Wednesday data is being sent out, and a rush of folks at even a single indie-friendly store to buy a copy of TED MCKEEVER LIBRARY: BOOK 3 could be enough to tip the weighting.

OR…it could still be a lot of juju.

For now, while, as everyone commenting notes, the list seems arbitrary by whatever standards we’re used to, it’s also wide-ranging enough that, as Butcher concludes, it’s useful as a marketing tool. With books from Fantagraphics, Top Shelf, Oni, Image, and other non-Marvel/DC publishers regularly appearing, it’s a nice boost to show that superheroes aren’t the only game in town.

As we’ve been saying for a long time, as POS becomes the norm at comics shops nationwide, and not just a crazy newfangled tool, we are going to see a LOT of changes in the conventional “wisdom” of comics retailing. The shift from sell-in to sell-through as an indication of success is going to shake things up, and it isn’t always going to be pretty, but it could leave a stronger foundation in its wake.

At any rate, it will be VERY interesting to see when — and if — A DRIFTING LIFE’s Amazon surge is reflected in the list.

Comments

  1. With all these comic book reviews showing up in newspapers, more accurate sales data, and an actual New York Times bestseller list, it’s almost like comic books are a REAL industry!

  2. Scott says:

    ‘almost’ is the key word there….

  3. If I were you I’d edit the para about talking to Ben Trujillo a little, because it nearly implies that *MOBY* is reporting and collecting data, rather than MOBY *users*. Different things entirely, of course!

    Walking Dead v2 was OOP for… 16 weeks or so? So, there was a LOT of pent-up demand for it when it finally came back into stock. I can easily see it ranking PURELY from that. I know that I personally sold more copies of v2 that back-in-stock week than of any other two volumes combined…

    And, sheesh, Bloody Mary?

    Finally: Something close to a quarter of ComicsPRO’s membership has put their names in to report to the NYT (independently, not THROUGH the organization) (I know this because I led the questions to the NYT to see if they were interested, and compiled the interested membership list)

    -B

  4. If you click on my name above, you’ll get directed to a Barnes & Noble EssentiaList I created to track the bestsellers.

    As I noted on the 212 list, New Avengers Illuminati, on sale for a year, made the #10 spot on the hardcover list just as the trade was shipping. Having spent twelve years in retail bookstores, I know that customers will either wait for a cheaper edition if it’s coming soon, or buy the cheaper edition if it’s available. Seeing as how the trade paperback has been out a few weeks and hasn’t charted, I think the sell-in hypothesis is correct.

    Heidi, do you have access to BookScan data? Can you compare the top ten BookScan titles to the top ten NYT titles and see if there is any correlation?

    Also, note that while the New York Times distinguishes between mass market and trade paperbacks, it does not distinguish between the regular hardcover edition of Watchmen and the Absolute edition, even though there is a big difference in price and content.

  5. Heidi M. says:

    Brian:

    I tried to imply that but definitely worth a clarification since this is all being scrutinized.

    A quarter….hm so that would be around 40-50 stores?

  6. mark coale says:

    As mentioned every time the NYT list comes up, the list for me lost its credibility when they lkept Howard Stern’s book from being #1.

  7. Mastablubba says:

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    check it out!

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    mastablubba

Trackbacks

  1. […] Friday nattering Filed under: Comic shops, Linkblogging, Sales, TV — davidpwelsh @ 8:32 am At The Beat, Heidi MacDonald rounds up the discussion of the New York Times Graphic Books Bestsellers list. I have to admit that I don’t really see why these lists are any more problematic or opaque in their methodology than any of the other sales rankings. I always assumed that the odd or counter-intuitive products that sometimes show up on the lists were more a function of the fact that there are 30 slots posted weekly than of the way the entrails came out of the goat or how the 30-sided die landed on Friday morning. […]

  2. […] Just in time for this week’s installment of the Graphic Books Best Seller List, Heidi MacDonald rounds up discussion of the mysterious mechanics that power The New York Times charts. […]

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