Most Read vs. Best Sold – my purple cow

I was recently interviewed by David Prosser of the Barsetshire Diaries blog and he asked me to: Share with the readers one little known fact about yourself. So I decided it was time to talk about an idea I had come up with a year or so ago that I haven’t really had time to pursue … until now.

I have it in mind to put forward the notion of measuring a book’s success not by the number of new copies that sell, but by the number of times the book is actually read. I think that would be a far better indication as to how popular a book is or how good the author’s writing is considered to be. By basing success on number of reads, this then brings libraries and the borrowing of books into the equation. And used books bought from bookstores could also be included. The problem with my idea is how to gauge the number of times a book IS actually read. That’s something I’m still mulling over.

I had queued up this blog post a long time ago and have been adding interesting articles ever since that touched on this idea. So let’s discuss it now.

From The Wall Street Journal we learn of a scam that was going on to skew the bestselling list numbers. The Mystery of the Book Sales Spike by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg shows that the traditional bestselling lists can be manipulated and how authors (and publishers) can buy their way on to even the most prestigious lists. And Did Dirty Tricks Create a Bestseller? by Willy Stern covers a similar scam. Can we really trust these bestseller lists?

Here’s an article from Slate, The Book Industry’s Best-Seller Lists: What are they, and why do they matter so much? by Eliza Truitt that briefly outlines why we have bestseller lists.

Bestseller Lists were not created to suggest new reading material for interested readers; they’re there to SELL MORE BOOKS, pure and simple.

One of the reasons why I believe that Bestseller Lists are inaccurate is because some authors never realize their audience through the usual channels of bookstores, online sales sites, big box chains – because we can’t get our books into them in the first place. And if books are never sold through these outlets then they never register on the lists. That does not mean there are no readers who are interested in our books. What it does mean is that we have a difficult time reaching any new potential readers – because our books are not sold through traditional methods and never make it onto the Bestseller Lists. (And eBooks are generally not sold at all through the bookstores whose sales data is being compiled to generate bestseller lists. But that’s a subject for a different blog post.)

Dan Blank explains about the problem on Writer Unboxed in his article, Your Audience is Unorganized. We need to build an audience for our work. It would be much easier to do so if we could tally up the number of actual readers who have read our books and prove our popularity that way, rather than by depending on the number of copies sold to attract attention.

I estimate that for every copy of my novel that has been bought or I’ve given away or that is in a library to be borrowed (both in print and eBook) at least 2 to 3 people have read each one. That’s a heck of a lot more times than the book has actually sold. It would be of greater benefit to me, and to my potential readers, to hear from those who have read the book and what they think of it. Especially as there will never be an opportunity that a book of mine will make it to a Bestseller List. You can understand why I wish to pursue this idea.

And finally, my last argument for Most Read instead of Best Sold … Have a look at the 101 Best Selling Books of All Time, according to List Challenges. How many of these have you read? More importantly, how many of these would you want to read? And, note again that this is a list of BESTSELLING Books, not BEST Books of all time. Just because a book sells a lot of copies does not mean that it is a worthwhile read.

My inspiration in forever thinking outside the box is Seth Godin and here’s what he has to say about Measuring nothing (with great accuracy). (When I first came up with this Most Read vs. Best Sold idea, I actually had the audacity to write to Seth Godin and ask if he thought I was on to something. He did reply, but just said, “Go for it!” So, here I am …)

According to Seth Godin, this idea of gauging books by number of times read rather than number of copies sold is My Purple Cow (Seth Godin on TED Talks: How to get your ideas to spread) and I’m sharing my cow, this current passion, with you now so that we can get a dialogue going.

What do you think of this proposal? Would it be a good idea to listen to readers rather than just tally up sales figures?

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4 responses

  1. I will definitely give this some thought! (I do agree you’re on to something…if I think of anything useful, I’ll be back and comment further in this thread.)

  2. I love the idea but I’m not 100% certain how you can prove – or even find out – who has read a book.

    It’s seriously tricky and I don’t really know what the answer is.

    1. I know, and as I said, it’s something I need to work on. I was hoping that by throwing the proposal out there and getting a discussion going we might all be able to figure out a way to gauge readership – if people agree that I’m on to something! Thanks for beginning the discussion, MT!

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