Ignoring the Bestseller Lists

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I’ll admit to feeling a large dose of nostalgia when I think back to Sunday evenings spent listening to the Top 40 Chart Show on the radio, with fingers poised on the ‘play’ and ‘record’ button of my ancient tape recorder waiting for the DJ to stop talking over the track intro so I could get a clean recording of it (I’m really showing my age here).

Times have changed of-course, and with them the means and number of ways in which we discover new music, books, and films, and understand what is popular and what is not. That’s not to say that the old ways aren’t still important, just that things like the social curation provided by networks, and services like the Spotify’s Facebook link up have become just as important to those that use them as the professional curation of a critic’s list, or the ranking of a bestseller list.

Which is why it was interesting to get an update from Seth Godin’s new publishing venture, The Domino Project, about whether he cared about having their books make the Times bestseller list – long an objective for authors and publishers because of its potential amplification of both sales and credibility.

The answer, it seems, is no. And I can understand his reasons: an uneven weighting in taking account of where the book was bought; not counting books sold through non-traditional outlets (such as conferences); the existence of two non-fiction hardcover lists to prevent the kind of books the Times think people should be reading being crowded out by populist ‘How to’, ‘Advice’ and ‘Miscellaneous’ books; the hidden cost in having your focus distracted from your readers to what will work best to get on the list. And so on. Says Seth:

“Smart people are realizing the list is easily gamed, and word of mouth ends up being more important anyway…new ways of selling are more important than a label from a newspaper that knows it is publishing a list that isn’t accurate.”

Which kind of begs a question about the fading importance of book bestseller lists, music charts and most popular movie lists in being indicative of what is popular and likely to be good. I have another reason to question them: the fact that many are based solely or heavily on sales which, though important,  in isolation is a fairly blunt measure of the popularity of anything. What about the degree to which people are talking about it, writing about it, quoting it, reviewing it, recommending it, seeking it out, re-using it, swapping it, recombining it with other stuff?

According to a Hewlett Packard study that studied 3 million tweets about 25 movies last year, Twitter can be used to accurately predict the future box-office takings of big release films. Taking account of the rate at which messages were posted about it could predict the box office takings before the film opened. Sentiment analysis on the content of messages could similarly foresee the ongoing degree of success or failure. Both with a high degree of accuracy. Higher for example, than the Hollywood Stock Exchange (as an aside, another study found that measuring the mood of the ‘twitterverse’ on a given day can foretell the direction of changes to the Dow Jones Industrial Average three days later with an accuracy of 86.7 percent).

There’s a few interesting examples around that at least attempt to take account of a variety of social metrics. The BBC had a go with Sound Index, a project that bumped along (it’s currently currently closed) for years. MTV recently created a ranking of the top 100 artists, apparently based on ‘real-time buzz’ on the web – tweets, social mentions, blogs, news articles, streams and purchases from over 1 million artists. A more complex version of the Billboard Social 50. Then there’s Mombo, a movie recommendation service built on top of twitter that provides a rating based on analysis of the tweets about particular films.

But with all this data around, it’s a shame that we’re not seeing more examples of it being used imaginatively to create meaningful services of this kind. Apart from these few isolated examples, there seems to be a paucity of willingness to experiment from the major media owners in order to update what is surely an outdated methodology and practice. Isn’t it about time?

Original Post: http://neilperkin.typepad.com/only_dead_fish/2011/01/ignoring-the-bestseller-lists.html