Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Photo by Gage Skidmore.
Unless you’re in the business of selling books, it’s unlikely your reaction to best-seller lists is deeply emotional. For most of us, even The New York Times’ ranking may create a momentary stir of interest or surprise, but little more.
Yet the conservative blogosphere recently lit up due to the Times’ weekly collection of titles - or, more specifically, because of the absence of one title in particular.
Politico reported last week that The Times chose to omit Sen. Ted Cruz’s new memoir, “A Time For Truth,” from last weekend’s ranking despite brisk sales. Cruz, who is among the many Republicans pursuing their party’s presidential nomination for 2016, has appeared at signings across the country since the book was released in late June, and his book has outsold Rand Paul’s “Taking a Stand” and Marco Rubio’s “American Dreams.” According to Nielsen Bookscan’s sales numbers, “A Time For Truth” sold 11,854 copies in its first week, landing it the number-four spot on both The Wall Street Journal and Publisher’s Weekly hardcover best-seller lists.
So why is it absent from The New York Times?
It turns out that political books, or at least political books by conservative politicians, have been on double secret probation. The Times’ spokeswoman Eileen Murphy told Politico that evidence suggested sales were “limited to strategic bulk purchases.” In other words, the staff didn’t trust sales numbers because they think they reflect insiders buying in bulk just to get a book on their best-seller list.
It isn’t unheard of for authors to push for a spike in sales in order to gain a bit of prestige from appearing on the Times’ list. A few years ago, The Wall Street Journal reported on authors of business titles who hired marketing firms to purchase books ahead of publication, in order to create a sales spike. Those who compile best-seller lists, including Nielsen, Amazon and The Times, are aware of such techniques, and have the right to try and control for them.
Yet The Times’ claim that the choice to omit Cruz’s book was simply a matter of methodology has not convinced everyone. HarperCollins, the book’s publisher, announced that it had investigated the sales pattern for “A Time For Truth,” and found “no evidence of bulk orders or sales through any retailer or organization,” Politico reported. Sarah Gelman, the director of press relations for Amazon, said that Amazon had found no such evidence either. (Cruz’s book appeared as the 13th best-selling book on the website over the weekend.) Barnes & Noble did not pull the title from its list, either.
The Cruz campaign has, perhaps unsurprisingly, made its stance on the matter clear. In a statement released on Friday, campaign spokesman Rick Tyler said, “The Times is presumably embarrassed by having their obvious partisan bias called out.” The campaign called for The Times to either provide evidence of bulk purchasing or issue a formal apology.
As The Christian Science Monitor pointed out, it is impossible to know from the outside whether Cruz’s book was cut because the Times staff disliked his politics. Ann Coulter’s “Adios, America” appeared as the top best-seller on the politics category list for the week in question (though it did come with a telltale dagger icon indicating bulk sales). And the way in which a given outlet compiles its best seller list can be surprisingly arcane, political bent notwithstanding. Given the Times’ cagey response to questions about their methodology, there’s no way to judge whether or not we should take their word for why “A Time For Truth” didn’t appear.
As the way the Times has handled Cruz’s memoir demonstrates, though, they have the right to handle their own lists however they like. The Times includes a note about methodology at the bottom of the list published online and in print, including a note that books that have benefitted from bulk sales (when they appear at all) will be marked with a dagger icon. Beyond this note, The Times consistently declines to be more specific about how the list is compiled.
One thing is clear, however: The Times doesn’t want to mislead anyone into thinking that books like Cruz’s are best-sellers that anyone should want to read.
That’s OK. It’s the Times’ list, after all. If by “New York Times best-seller” the paper actually means “New York Times best-seller that we like,” or “New York Times best-seller that we trust,” or “New York Times best-seller that we think is worth reading,” that’s fine.
A lot of people put a lot of stock in the Times’ Sunday Book Review section. But each individual review can, and should, be judged on its own merits.
The Times’ best-seller list, we now know, is a list of books that are both popular and effectively carry the Times’ editorial endorsement. You can take it - or not - for what it’s worth. And if you think that it’s not worth much, well, that problem can join the list itself as The New York Times’ exclusive property.