Each week, countless Americans lingering over their Sunday newspapers scan through the book pages’ best-seller lists. Many people find it entertaining to see who’s on top, what’s newly hot, and whether long-entrenched titles have finally been dethroned. Ever since the first best-seller list was published a little over a century ago, the number of weekly, monthly, and annual lists has so proliferated that they are now a staple of most major newspapers and many news magazines. Occasionally, compilations of these lists even become books in their own right. 1
The popularity of best-seller lists certainly speaks to Americans’ abiding passion for rankings of all kinds. Every year, the public snaps up the latest reports on the top colleges, the most livable cities, the highest-scoring athletes, and so forth. People and products related to the media seem especially conducive to being ranked. For instance, 1998 saw the much-publicized (and criticized) American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 films ever made, and the Modern Library’s selection of the 100 best novels (followed the next year by the 100 best nonfiction books).While such “best of” lists may spark furious debate over how judgments are made, best-selling or top-grossing lists attract less controversy. They appear to be straightforward devices that objectively provide us with interesting information about the actions of culture consumers.
Best-seller lists, however, do not exist simply to satisfy idle curiosity. These lists serve extremely important functions for members of the book industry, as well as for many historians and social scientists. While scholars have long relied on them to indicate literary tastes or social trends for a given period, best-seller lists are powerful marketing tools that book professionals [End Page 286] use to sell more books. Among the many rankings now printed, the New York Times best-seller list is widely considered to be the preeminent gauge of what Americans are reading. Yet its methodology is highly problematic, and many people in the book industry assume that there are irregularities on the part of sources who report to the Times. Similar kinds of problems characterize the lists published by other print and online venues. At the same time, most members of the public, as well as scholars who peruse the lists, have little understanding of what they represent.
In this article, I examine the uses and abuses of best-seller lists in the United States. Along with explaining how some of the more prominent lists are compiled, I will discuss the role of these lists in the marketing efforts of book professionals. My intention here is to argue that despite general agreement in the industry that the lists do not accurately reflect what books are the country’s top sellers, major publishers and booksellers have an interest in maintaining the authority of the lists. Therefore, those controversies over the lists that do occasionally arise are easily contained.
The Best-Seller in the Academy
The category of the best-seller has attracted increased scholarly attention in the wake of greater interest in popular culture and popular practices of all kinds. During the last few decades, historians, literary critics, and sociologists have been applying their different questions and different perspectives to a wide variety of popular literature. 2 While many have focused on a specific genre, some writers have explored the social significance of best-sellers in general. They have turned to these books for clues about a group’s culture, or they try to discover why particular books resonate with so many people at a particular time. Related to this, by examining how readers approach best-sellers as well as critics’ reactions to these books, researchers hope to better understand the place of popular literature in society and in readers’ lives. 3
Several of these scholars have noted the problems involved in identifying a book as a best-seller. As they suggest, the term “best-seller” not only refers to an empirically determined ranking, but is sometimes used to describe a particular type of book, one that is deemed especially commercial. For...