As a reader, I love the Sunday New York Times Book Review. As a writer, I love/hate the Sunday New York Times Book Review.
But both my reader and writer halves look fondly back to an era when the Times ran two simple pages of best seller lists — one page of hardcover fiction and non-fiction lists and another page of paperback fiction and non-fiction.
These days best seller lists have multiplied in the book review section like mold in a leaky basement. It started innocently enough back in 1984, when the Times supplemented its lists of fiction and non-fiction best sellers with a third category of Advice, How-to and Miscellaneous books. Then in 2000, spurred by the Harry Potter phenomenon, it added a monthly list of Children’s Best Sellers.
In 2007 the Times paperback list underwent mitosis and became two separate lists of Trade and Mass Market Paperbacks. Then, just last month, it upped the frequency of the children’s lists to a weekly basis and added four new lists of fiction and non-fiction e-books and combined print/e-book sales.
The Times is now running sixteen (sixteen!) separate best seller lists in the print edition each Sunday. That takes up six of the section’s 28 pages.
Honestly, does anyone read all these lists and care?
I suspect the Great List Explosion is viewed happily by publishers, who now have more opportunities to slap a “New York Times Best Seller” logo on any given book, and who probably welcome even the teeniest marketing bump in today’s shifting marketplace. And I know the Times’ intent is probably to stay relevant as the industry wobbles between its print past and an e-book future.
But a lot of these lists just feature the same titles over and over. This week, for instance, James Patterson’s Tick Tock is number one on the print hardcover fiction list, number two on the e-book fiction list, and number two on the combined print and e-book fiction list,.
As a reader, I’d rather relegate some of those lists to the Times‘ web site and use the precious print real estate for more reviews of more books. (By new, unknown writers!)
Or if the editors feel a deep psychological need to run multiple lists, let’s try to come up with some that don’t keep repeating the obvious.
For instance, I’d like to see a feature listing the ten top books at a different independent bookstore each week — with the proviso that none of those books can also appear on the main national best seller list. What books — other than the James Patterson and Stieg Larsson ones that we all know about — are people scarfing up in Stowe, Vermont, and in Austin, Texas?
Okay, I freely admit that the multiplicity of best seller lists is not one of the burning issues of our day. Crowds will not occupy Tahrir Square over it. And it’s possible there’s some writerly sour grapes in all this — if I were the author of Tick Tock rather than an obscure history of girls’ schools, would I be complaining that the Times was including it on too many best seller lists?
But still, the Times Book Review is such a powerful platform. It’s the closest thing to a national literary discussion that we have. I hate when the Times uses its power as an echo chamber, to reinforce successes that already have trumpets and fireworks, rather than showcase great stuff that people don’t yet know about.
I hate how these mushrooming lists cajole us to shift our focus ever further onto industry data, and away from reading and writing.