Every now and then, a publishing earthquake shakes things up. An author comes out of nowhere with a title that goes viral, riding best-seller lists like they were roller coasters.
Take Stieg Larsson's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," for instance. On a single Sunday earlier this month, it was simultaneously in fifth place, seventh place, second place and first place on various best-seller lists in the New York Times. The widely popular crime thriller, adapted into movies for Swedish and American screens, has bounced up and down the Times' Book Review lists for 133 weeks.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times ranked the novel in the No. 2 spot on its paperback fiction list that Sunday.
How do books make it onto best-seller lists in the first place? The answers are elusive.
"The creation of a best-seller list is the most nebulous thing you will ever encounter," said Paul Takushi, book promotions and marketing manager for the UC Davis Store. "No one really knows how it's done."
How the New York Times figures its lists is nearly as secret as, say, the recipe for Coca-Cola.
Book Review staff editor Gregory Cowles explained in an email: "(The formula) is a secret both to protect our product and to make sure people can't try to rig the system. Even in the Book Review itself, we don't know (the news surveys department's) precise methods."
"Everybody has a formula, everybody's list is different, and we do ours our own way," said Dick Donahue, features editor of Publishers Weekly magazine, the bible of the publishing industry. "I don't want to say that how we do ours is a closely guarded secret, but I guess I just did."
List-makers wield great power, certainly, but there are forces that can push a title toward the lists early in the game. Enthusiastic reviews are part of that, or a magical combination of buzz and timing (think "Steve Jobs" by Walter Isaacson), or the attention of Hollywood, as in the cases of "Dragon Tattoo" and "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett.
The most influential and far-reaching best-seller lists are compiled by the New York Times. They are unveiled to industry insiders 10 days before publication in the paper's bar-setting Sunday Book Review. The inclusion of the words "New York Times Bestselling Author" on the cover of a book adds an invaluable endorsement.
"I can tell you that once a book makes it to the list, everything snowballs," Cowles said via email. "Quite apart from the commercial aspect, it's a thrill for writers. Stephen King who's had something like 50 New York Times best-sellers told me it never gets old. He knows he's still doing something right whenever he hits it."
What moves books?
"Even in this digital age, the best sales tool remains word of mouth," said Stuart Applebaum, spokesman for Random House, the biggest publisher in the United States. "Nothing trumps that. It's the reason why Laura Hillenbrand's (nonfiction) 'Unbroken' is still a national best-seller 14 months after publication."
What else moves a title to the lists? Distribution to media of advance copies for pre-publication buzz, author interviews and tours (which include appearances and book-signings at bookstores and libraries, and for programs such as The Bee Book Club), and popularity among reading groups.
"Seasonality is also influential," said Donahue of Publishers Weekly. The (motivational-inspirational) 'Last Lecture' by Randy Pausch returns in the summer months as regular as clockwork because of graduation and Father's Day."
Another major consideration is an author's reputation. In pop fiction, anything by horrormeister Dean Koontz or romance novelist Nora Roberts is destined to be a best-seller.
But some scenarios are unique, as with "The Help" and "Dragon Tattoo." Stockett was an unknown whose debut novel caught fire with reading groups. Swedish journalist Larsson submitted the manuscripts for a trilogy to his publisher, then died in 2004 before the books were printed. When they were, they became best-sellers throughout Europe before being translated for a ready-to-read U.S. market.
Sources different, but results similar
Given that best-seller lists are the proprietary "secret sauces" of those who compile them, there is a template, industry experts say.
The calculation begins with weekly reports compiled by booksellers. Hundreds of national outlets serve as "reporting stores," including chain and independent booksellers, big-box emporiums and online merchandisers such as Amazon.
Generally, those sales numbers are distributed to the involved parties, including media, other retailers, publishers, libraries, book distributors and national wholesalers, and information aggregators such as the Nielsen Co. and Bowker. That data shared and sometimes sold is at the heart of it.
However, not every list-maker uses the same reporting sources. For instance, Book Sense, the marketing arm of the American Booksellers Association, calculates sales only from independent bookstores, while it is said that the New York Times includes wholesale numbers.
"(After a title makes a list) it comes down to which ones sell the most copies in a given reporting period usually weekly and the escalation or decline of those sales," said Applebaum of Random House, which had more than 230 New York Times best-sellers last year.
That relative measure of ever-changing weekly numbers explains why a best-seller can start out as No. 6 on a list, fall to No. 8, then jump to No. 2, or go on any permutation of that ride.
National and regional lists matter
Best-seller lists serve as guideposts for booksellers and marketing tools for publishing houses. For the public, they have become part of popular culture, almost in a social network way, with time-stressed readers basing their choices on the lists' implied recommendations by other readers.
"It's hard to ignore a Stephen King or a Patricia Cornwell (title) when you know everybody is reading them," Donahue said. "Readers in general have good taste, but there is pressure on them."
Barnes & Noble compiles a best-seller list based on the chain's weekly national sales numbers and prominently posts it at its 700-plus outlets around the country.
"Our customers usually stop to read it for what's hot or what's new by their favorite authors," said Ron Roberts, a bookseller at B&N in Citrus Heights. "It can influence them to try one book over another."
As mighty as the national lists can be, the regional lists created by independent booksellers are closely monitored by the publishing industry. They're where many eventual national best- sellers begin their journeys to stardom.
"We really believe that all best-sellers are local," said Applebaum of Random House. "(Moving a book to a list) begins with regional readers who sometimes overtake the national media in creating excitement (over a title)."
Success of "The Help" shows the power of grass-roots word-of-mouth. Stockett received 60 rejection letters over three years from literary agents before finding one who would represent her manuscript to publishing houses. The hard-copy edition appeared in 2009 and history was made. The movie version opened in August and, like "Dragon Tattoo," a special tie-in book edition was timed for its release.
Penguin will not share detailed international sales figures.
"But we can say we have sold nearly 10 million copies in the United States, across all formats," publicist Erin Galloway said in an email.
So, is the book any good?
In the middle of all this is a conundrum: Does a book's appearance on a best-seller list really mean it's a good read?
"I'm often surprised by what sells, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it's a big literary world," said Ron Shoop, Random House district sales manager for Northern California, whose accounts include 30 booksellers.
"Some books made a lot of readers very happy, while others not so much. Still, lists can dictate a book's success."
There are readers, though, who treat the lists as a general guide to what's new and don't feel compelled to jump on a title just because it's there.
"The lists are a venue for (discovering) new books, but (best-sellers) aren't necessarily what reading groups are looking for," said Marsha Holmes of the Elk Grove Book Club, which began in 1937. "Frankly, there are a lot of best- sellers that aren't appealing."