All the books that are on the shelf

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n Mini Kapoor
This week, on Friday, The New York Times announced the unusual step of yanking a book off the No.1 spot on one of its bestseller lists, and readjusted its Young Adult Hardcover Books list without Lani Sarem’s Handbook of Mortals. This followed feedback about peculiar activity that had catapulted Sarem’s debut novel, the first in a planned fantasy series, to the top. The Guardian reported that upon news of its supposed success, other YA writers had become suspicious about how a book that was out of stock on Amazon and that others had hardly heard of could be a genuine bestseller. As they asked around, they found bulk orders at “NYT-reporting shops”, a list of stores that’s supposed to be confidentially drawn up so that writers and publishers cannot game the lists, and their sleuthing compelled the paper to announce that “the sales for Handbook for Mortals did not meet our criteria for inclusion” and that it had been expunged from the list.
This episode draws attention to how much of our discovery of new books is dependent on crafty placement of titles, if not outright manipulation as in the above case. Getting on the NYT list, for example, creates its own momentum in increasing sales of the book — in the U.S., the bestselling books are often placed prominently in bookshops, and offered on discount, giving the books on the list a double advantage at recommending themselves to buyers. A book that’s noticed has a better chance of being bought.
Making of a bestseller
Indeed, the very fact of a book being stocked itself determines how well a book does. As Keith Gessen noted in his short but exhaustive inquiry into the making of a bestseller, How a Book Is Born, the stocking choices of individual stores can influence a book’s trajectory among the reading public. His numbers are more specific to the U.S. market and are from early in this decade, but the trend is telling: “While they cannot force anyone to buy a particular book, the return rate of a good independent bookstore is quite low, between 15 and 20 percent. Which means that, on the one hand, the book buyers for indie stores are very conservative, taking two of this, three of that; but it also means that statistically speaking, once a book is in a store, it has an 80 to 85 per cent chance of being sold.” Incidentally, he found that Barnes & Noble, the American giant, had just one buyer for literary fiction for all its hundreds of stores: “On the one hand, this makes sense, and is the very definition of an advantage of scale; on the other hand, it seems outlandish that the tastes of one person should have such an effect on what tens of thousands of people buy and read.”
It may appear that unlike bricks-and-mortar stores with their limited floor areas, online bookstores with no space constraints would allow us to better crowdsource a list. But algorithms, of our own individual making, tie us to the few preferences of ours that online bookstores know when they make recommendations. Go to the books “recommended for you” at Amazon. It’s such a limited variety that it never really gives us a wide enough range of options even if we keep marking off books we already own so that the list is not dictated by our browsing history and purchases at the online bookstore alone. There is, of course, also the “customers who bought this also bought” button, but keep at it, and you may soon enough be caught in a loop that brings you back to your original choices.
Those old books
In fact, even keeping books in our libraries can be susceptible to gaming. In her short book Bookshelf, that is part of the Object Lessons series, Lydia Pyne cites an experiment by writer Phyllis Rose. Rose decided to read all fiction in the LEQ-LES shelf in the New York Society Library, and found among other things that keeping a book in circulation is vital for a library to keep it on the shelves.
Writes Pyne: “In a bit of brilliantly fabulous ironic snark, Rose observes that a crusade to keep certain books on their library shelves doesn’t necessitate actually reading them, just checking them out of the library.” Time to visit the library and borrow old favourites.

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