Fiction Addiction

Book news and reviews with Bronwyn Sell and Christine Sheehy

Fiction Addiction: Bestseller criteria to be reviewed

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Old reading room

A couple of years ago I was delighted to hear that a book I had written had made the national weekly bestsellers charts.

I eagerly looked up the charts on the Booksellers website and found the appropriate category - New Zealand Non-fiction. But my book wasn't there. I discovered it, eventually, under International Non-fiction. There it was, Kiwi Heroes: 50 Courageous New Zealanders, sandwiched between Tony Blair's autobiography and Bill Bryson's latest.

As gratifying as it was to be in such celebrated company, I wondered how my book could have been mistaken for an overseas title. It was written by a New Zealander, about New Zealanders, for New Zealanders, distributed primarily in New Zealand, with the words "Kiwi" and "New Zealanders" in the title, and a photo of the Wahine ferry on the cover.
The explanation? It was published by Allen & Unwin, an Australian-based publishing house that produces a handful of New Zealand books a year. For the purposes of the charts, my book was considered an import.

This also explains why (in answer to a question posed last week by a reader of this blog) the Booker-winning The Bone People by Keri Hulme doesn't figure in the Booksellers Premier New Zealand Bestsellers list, the book sales hall of fame.

There are four tiers on the list - platinum, gold, silver and bronze. To qualify for the bronze list a fiction book needs to have life sales of at least 5000 copies in New Zealand; a non-fiction book 10,000 copies. The threshold for the platinum tier is 50,000 (fiction) and 100,000 (non-fiction). Successful books get to wear a sticker on the cover proclaiming their success.

The Bone People has sold, by Hulme's count, more than 350,000 copies in New Zealand alone (and she says that's a conservative estimate). But it doesn't appear in the lists because it was taken on by an international publisher early in its shelf life, so is thus officially an imported book.

I mentioned these all-time bestseller lists in a blog last week about the popularity of New Zealand novels (or lack thereof), and many readers weighed in to question the absence of some of our most successful authors, including Hulme and Nalini Singh, whose romance novels are international bestsellers.

I've since done a bit of digging into the eligibility criteria for these awards, and found many curious restrictions:

* The book must be currently on sale to be considered, so if you had a blazing bestseller in the 1960s that's now out of print you can't apply to have this recognised retrospectively.

*It must be widely available, so it can't be considered if it's just for sale at one small-town bookshop - even if it sells over the threshold. Even if it's a title exclusive to a big chain such as Whitcoulls it's ineligible.

* As mentioned above, it must be published in New Zealand, rather than published overseas and "imported". This would exclude Emily Perkins' upcoming novel The Forrests because it is published by Bloomsbury in London.

* It'd be tricky to get a self-published book on the list because Booksellers relies on the sales data submitted by reputable publishing houses, and doesn't have the resources to audit sales.

* Internet sales and e-books are a grey area. Though publishing houses can include e-books in their data, sales of books through online retailers such as Amazon (which doesn't release sales figures) aren't as transparent.

* A book must have been published "primarily" for the New Zealand market. So even if a book by a New Zealand author was technically published in New Zealand, if it had a wider distribution in Australia it might not qualify.

* Booksellers rely on publishers to apply for a spot on the lists, at the cost of $200 plus GST per book. If the book has done its dash on the bookshop shelves - and most New Zealand books get a short shelf life - publishers will be loathe to spend more money on it. An author friend who has had eligible books in the past says: "We talked about applying but decided that having the stickers wouldn't really drive another $200 worth of sales so there wasn't really any point. Some authors will push to get the accreditation as a kind of kudos thing."

* She also says that most publishers will only bother applying once a book reaches gold or platinum status. "I mean, who really wants to have a bronze medal? (Even though Kiwis are very good at winning them.)"

I've had a chat about all this with the chief executive of Booksellers New Zealand, Lincoln Gould, and the good news is that the organisation is going to review the outdated eligibility criteria for the lists - prompted by the discussion on the Herald Online that followed last week's blog. (Power to the people!)

It won't be easy for Booksellers to come up with a transparent, workable criteria. Like any product, books are increasingly distributed online and electronically in a global marketplace, which makes sales figures harder to independently verify.

Adding to the lack of transparency is Whitcoulls' decision last year to withdraw its participation from the Booksellers' weekly bestsellers charts.

These are compiled separately from the all-time bestsellers lists by Nielsen Bookscan, from retailers' point-of-sale data. The withdrawal of the country's biggest book chain means these weekly lists are now indicative rather than comprehensive, and couldn't be collated over a longer period to determine lifetime sales.

So good luck to Booksellers. It's nice to give successful New Zealand books a bit of recognition, and it would be good to see The Bone People take its rightful place at the top of that all-time bestsellers list.

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