The B&N Best Seller List Controversy

What are they up to?

There’s been a recent little dust-up about the best seller list on B&N, especially their Nook best sellers. The accusation that’s floating around is that B&N is deliberately manipulating the data to artificially rank the more expensive main stream publisher books on the list, forcing out the cheaper Indies.

I feel pretty confident when I say that B&N is NOT manipulating data.

They are excluding it.

The reason there are no Indie/PubIt! authors on the B&N Top 100 is because those PubIt! titles are categorically excluded from that ranking. Instead of grouping all books together, a’la Kindle, B&N broke them out and gave PubIt! authors an entirely separate list, the PubIt! Best Sellers list.

A Smart Move?

Amazon’s Kindle store treats all authors and titles as equal, and their best seller list reflects that. They make no judgments and have no deals with anyone. Kindle is, currently, the closest the book world will ever get to a 100% free market. Obviously, Indie authors prefer this, as it gives their books an honest chance to break out — and, to anyone following ebooks the last 10 months, there are have been some significant breakouts (and I’m not just talking about Amanda Hocking).

But what’s good for Indies may not be good for distributors. The mainstream reader is, as a whole, a lot more interested in their favorite “name brand” authors than they are in sifting through the Indie unknown. More and more are experimenting with cheap Indie titles, but the key word here is “experimenting.” Judging from reader reviews, there are many who have regretted those experiments (even the 99 cent ones). I’m not slighting those Indie authors who ARE breaking out and selling well, gathering an audience and building a brand. What I’m saying is that thousands of Indie books are being uploaded a day right now, and a majority are not at the level of quality most readers are used to. It’s still pretty wild out there and a number of readers are not interested in testing those waters, no matter the cost of entry. It’s safe to say that a majority of readers in the current market are much more inclined to read authors backed by the larger publishing houses.

The other half of this equation is profit margin. The higher the purchase cost, the larger the share to the distributor. Pushing readers towards higher priced, and higher demanded, books is good for the bottom line. The question is: will the “big name best seller” strategy be good for the long term? A lot of the appeal (and revenue) of Netflix is it’s “long tail”. As eBooks evolve, will best sellers continue to be the moneymaker, or will it be the accumulation of long tail sales? And how will digital booksellers facilitate the breakout books in that tail?

The Long Haul

The future of digital publishing is still in an amazing amount of flux. Where Amazon’s “everyone is equal” stance is pushing the progressive end of the spectrum, B&N is taking the more cautious approach. Given their respective financial positions, it’s little surprise.

In all honesty, I’m just happy that the “big two” both have an easy, low cost method for any author to upload their book. Compared to the others (Yes, I’m looking at you Kobo, Sony, and Apple!), this is a revolutionary step.

The hard reality to Indies is that the literary world, like nearly everything else, is still largely “brand” driven. Many players — publishers, distributors, book sellers, and even customers — are heavily invested in the status quo, and they are in no hurry whatsoever to change. Readers like the reliability of their favorite authors and everyone on the supply side loves the money. Giving customers what they want at an elevated price is good business.

The issue is that no one knows how long this will continue. What makes money today may not make money tomorrow. Just ask R.I.M — or should I say R.I.P.?

Amazon is betting on the free market — not a bad bet to take. B&N has decades of sales trends data and customer understanding at the retail level, they know what their customers want and believe in giving it to them. It’s obvious, B&N feels history will continue to repeat itself for a while longer. But, let me remind you, B&N was quick to switch to digital, a move that probably saved their company. They will switch again in a heartbeat and a few lines of code if they feel they need to. I’m sure when the Nook store’s search results indicate a change is warranted, they will do what they have to to keep their company solvent. They’ve made a lot of money over the years selling books, they’re going to give the market what it wants. Right now, it’s big publisher books. Tomorrow, maybe something else.

The Sleeping Dragon

The real question in my mind is not B&N’s selling practices. They are certainly not the only ones following the brand philosophy (*Cough* NYT! *Cough*) when it comes to tracking books. The question I have is whether Amazon will continue its current practices when they become publishers themselves? Amazon is making alliances and signing authors — and, at least for some Indies, the royalty Amazon the Publisher has offered hasn’t been as good as those from Amazon the Distributor. Are they going to curate their bookstore in the future? Are they going to alter their rates on lower priced books? Or will they do nothing, and we all continue happily along? I don’t know — but they sure do hold a lot of cards right now.

Given the fluidity of the market, and the uncertainty of the future, the best thing for Indie authors to do is what the more successful have been doing: write the best book you can, provide quality covers and formatting, sell through multiple outlets, and market like there’s no tomorrow. As the book world continues to shift and adjust, this strategy still proveds the best position however the wind blows.

About Rob McClellan

Rob is the founder of ThirdScribe, a unique author services platform and social network. As a naval officer and diver, he spent a majority of his career doing a lot more than you would think with a lot less than you can imagine -- a skill that has proven extremely valuable in the start-up world. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Google+.

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