Saturday, November 22, 2008

Is The NYT Paperback Best-Seller List "Rigged"?

Take a look at this Sunday's nonfiction paperback bestseller list in the Book Review section and you'll see one book that doesn't belong.

Hint: It's not by Barack Obama.

Making its debut at #20 this week is Ben Mezrich's "Rigged: The True Story of an Ivy League Kid Who Changed the World of Oil, from Wall Street to Dubai," published by Harper Perennial.

The book had some brief success in the fall of 2007, when the hardcover came out; the story of the formation of the Dubai Mercantile Exchange landed on the Times's extended best-seller list. What makes its appearance notable now is that the book doesn't show any signs at the moment of being anything close to a best-selling book.

The paperback came out on August 12 -- more than three months ago, an eternity in book publishing -- and has made a few recent appearances on the Times's extended paperback bestseller list, as it climbed to #25 last week before landing on the landing on the published list in tomorrow's Book Review.

But who's buying it, and where? The Times's sales figures don't match up to anyone else's list.

A check of the two largest Internet book retailers shows that the paperback isn't selling well at either. Amazon ranks "Rigged" at #54,394 on its list; the other 19 books on the list range in rank from #8 (Obama's "Audacity of Hope," number-one on the NYT list) to #687 (Steve Martin's "Born Standing Up," now in 14th place). Barnes & Noble doesn't report any better sales, putting "Rigged" at #17,120 on its list.

While there's often a slight discrepancy between Internet sales and the NYT bestseller list (which weights independent stores, supermarkets, etc) there's rarely such a substantial gap between Amazon figures and the Times list. It's worth noting that this week, all other 19 books on the Times's paperback bestseller list -- except Mezrich's -- have sales in the top 1,000 of Amazon's bestsellers.

How could this have happened? Sometimes books get a sudden spike from news events, and Mezrich's book is based in a part of the world that generates headlines almost constantly. But a check of news reports in recent weeks finds no mention of Mezrich or his book, making that scenario unlikely. Nor do there seem to have been any Mezrich interviews or developments that suggest a sudden run on his book.

Here's how the Times explains the methodology behind its nonfiction paperback best-seller list:

Rankings reflect sales, for the week ending Nov. 15, at many thousands of venues where a wide range of general interest books are sold nationwide. These include hundreds of independent book retailers (statistically weighted to represent all such outlets); national, regional and local chains; online and multimedia entertainment retailers; university, gift, supermarket, discount department stores and newsstands. An asterisk (*) indicates that a book’s sales are barely distinguishable from those of the book above. A dagger (†) indicates that some bookstores report receiving bulk orders.

Curiously, Mezrich has himself written about the manipulation of markets in his nonfiction previous books. Most famously, Mezrich's "Bringing Down The House" told the story of a group of MIT students who used a sophisticated card-counting system to
win millions in Las Vegas casinos. (That book became the basis of the movie "21.")

Earlier this year, both Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe reported that Mezrich may have invented scenes and characters in that book, which was labelled nonfiction and itself ended up on the Times's best-seller list.

More recently, Mezrich attracted attention for his plans to write about the fight over the origins of Facebook; that book, which has yet to be published, has already been optioned by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who's writing a Facebook movie.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hah, enjoyed your thoughts, but have you been to an airport lately? Copies of Rigged are all over the place, especially at Hudson Booksellers, who have racks and racks of the paperback. Rigged is selling huge among people traveling during the holiday season, which is where Busting Vegas and Bringing Down the House both sold huge numbers as well.