Yesterday, Amazon debuted its Amazon Charts as a sort of competitor to the New York Times Best Seller List, which is a welcome addition to the medium and got me thinking.
Growing up, I knew for certain that I wanted to do two things with my life: be a sportswriter, and write novels. I wrote my first “novel” when I was 10, a 15-page story about a guy who gets a shot to play major league baseball. I wrote a couple more in eighth grade, one about a youth ski champion, and the other about a mystery on a train. When I wasn’t doing that, I inhaled everything sports related and wanted nothing more than to be the next Peter Gammons. Or Leigh Montville. Or Dan Jenkins.
But then, after college, I discovered two things: I hated the idea of traveling around the country covering athletes and being in locker rooms, and I am really just not a good writer of fictional prose. So, instead of covering sports, I went with entertainment, which allowed me to write about movies and TV, which had replaced sports in my heart, and, instead of books, I went with screenplays, because dialogue came much more naturally to me than prose.
Even after I had given up the dream of being a successful novelist, I always had a soft spot in my heart and a special reverence for the New York Times Best Seller List. There was something magical about it. It had a mystique that transcended any given genre or type of entertainment, it was simply its own thing. Also, I grew up the son of a bookseller, and to this day I have a love of printed tomes over the digital kind, to the point where my apartment gets a little smaller all the time, filled as it is with purchases from Amazon, or Barnes & Noble, or The Strand.
I don’t read the Times anymore, haven’t for a while, but I do still peruse the Sunday Book Review, primarily because it has the Best Seller List inside. Regardless of whether or not I have actually picked up anything on it, I’m still fascinated by the contents, and will often make notes to see if there’s anything there that might strike my fancy. Sometimes, as in the case of The Girl On the Train, I pick it up and am revolted, forced to question the collective taste of the mainstream reading public. Other times, I discover something remarkable, like Justin Cronin’s insanely entertaining and brilliantly written Passage trilogy, and am floored.
The thing about the Times’ list, though, is that it’s entirely the domain of the larger publishing houses. Only a company that can get thousands of copies of a given title into bookstores has a real shot of getting its product onto the list. This means that smaller publishers and, indeed, folks who publish their own novels, generally don’t have a prayer.
Any kind of Best Seller List, be it for books, movies, television, video games, whatever, is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. People buy the items on the lists because other people are doing so, and they either don’t want to miss the fun or don’t want to feel left out. See, for example, my aforementioned foolish purchase of a paperback copy of Paula Hawkins’ first novel.
Thus, following that logic, only books that actually have the built-in opportunity will actually make the list, with very few exceptions. It reminds me of the film world, in which only studio movies get the chance to make big bucks at the box office, while indie films wallow because they’re not playing on the same field. In the movie world, there’s no real way to balance that scale, because, by definition, a film playing on 3,000 screens is going to outgross one playing on three. It’s not fair, of course, but it’s just The Way Things Are.
Which is why I am now such an enormous fan of Amazon’s entering into the game. The question is, what’s the difference between Amazon Charts and the Times’ list? Glad you asked.
While the Times has an algorithm that doesn’t factor in books self-published on Amazon because they’re not sold in stores, Amazon’s new list will account for those exact sales. Whereas before, a book like The Martian only gets attention because its digital sales are so strong that it attracts a major publisher who will then release it in mass market paperback form, now an author who gains a following solely from Amazon readers can find his or her work climbing up a list that will only draw more attention to it and, in theory, lead to more sales.
This is, in every sense of the word, a game changer. It’s an egalitarian move designed to offer opportunities to those whose work might draw a sizable audience, but perhaps not the attention of a publishing house. Whereas before, the rarified air of the publishing world was an exclusive one, now, it is open to those who might not have the contacts, or whose work might not appeal to the specific tastes of the gatekeepers, or anyone else other than a public hungry for reading entertainment who might have, in one way or another, stumbled upon something that strikes their fancy, or touches them, or is maybe just a good old-fashioned yarn.
And with those gates now flung open more widely, so do those who are able to enter it now have the chance to be recognized for something that the establishment was not, previously, prepared to recognize.
Of course, if you look at the list today, you’ll see mostly mainstream fare — Harry Potter and Stephen King’s It and the latest item from the James Patterson factory — so it’s not like the list is going to immediately be overflowing with titles only available via the website itself, but that’s less important than the fact that it could happen, which is not an option the Times’ list really provides.
There’s another wrinkle involved, which is the option it actually offers to bookstores. Stores that, ironically, might not even offer some of the items on the list. Walk into any place that sells books and you will almost immediately notice tables stacked with books labeled “Best Sellers.” Now, this offers booksellers added options with which to hype the items they’re selling. No longer limited to the Times’ list, this extra bit of appeal can only help the bottom line.
Obviously, it would be nice if the same kind of thing could happen in the film world, but that’s more than a little pie in the sky. Yes, there is a specialty box office list, detailing the numbers of the smaller films, but it’s not the same. The book world has the advantage of reaching millions more people than the film world does, and you can download a book you heard about in a way you certainly can’t with a movie, but that world is changing a lot, too.
It seems odd that it’s taken this long to make a move like this one, but it’s welcome, nonetheless. It also, for me at least, portends of more, similarly good things to come.