Friday, 5 December 2014

Bestseller lists? Nah

I'm taking part in a radio discussion tomorrow about science books of 2014. It's for a US radio show, and they've provided me with an extensive (and really interesting) set of topics to discuss from 'A book that pleasantly surprised you' to 'Which genres do you grab and which do you tend to overlook?' But one section left me absolutely cold - we're going to discuss the New York Times Bestseller List.

As the only newspaper I read with any regularity (about once a week) is the i, I never see bestseller lists. I have no clue what has been on the NYT list (or the Sunday Times, or whichever newspaper in the UK does them - I have no idea about that either). And, frankly, why should I care? Of course if one of my books was on one of those lists I would inevitably be rather more interested for my own purposes, but of itself it tells you nothing but sales figures. It certainly doesn't identify the best books - or books I would particularly want to read - so why should I bother to hunt it down? Specifically I have no interest in slavishly following the masses. After all, if I did that in TV viewing I would have a continuous diet of soap operas and reality TV shows. Is that a recommendation for an approach?

As I describe in Dice World, the process by which a book becomes a true bestseller (as opposed to the category bestsellers most of us authors claim, for instance when a book gets the top ranking on Amazon in the popular science category) is one that is inevitably shrouded in mystery as it's a chaotic process. Just like you can't forecast the weather months ahead (take note, Daily Express), you can't forecast what will be the next Harry Potter or Brief History of Time. And what being a 'bestseller' certainly doesn't indicate is excellence.

So my answer will be simple - I don't look at these lists, I don't want to be guided on what I read or review on popularscience.co.uk by what is primarily a marketing tool, and it seems to be a way that many books get overlooked because there becomes too much focus on a handful of titles that simply happen to have been in the right place at the right time. It's the Richard and Judy bookclub all over again. Sorry NYT, you're not for me.

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