Popular literature is a concept that implies its orientation towards the masses. As such, it is bound by several popular assumptions, some of which are less justified than the others. Among the most widely recognized is the correlation between the book’s popularity and its quality. However, it is much more commonly formulated as “good sales are indicators of good writing.” While not completely untrue, this assumption has several important points that need to be mentioned, such as the mechanics of sales analysis and the reasons for the existence of the criteria, which suggest that the notion should be used with caution rather than taken at face value.
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Identifying the literacy sponsor
Book publishers are among the chief economic literacy sponsors. As their ultimate goal is profit from publishing books, there is little wonder they need advertisements and other marketing techniques to promote their merchandise. One of the best-known examples of marketing books is the appeal to their popularity, which, according to popular belief, is best illustrated by sales numbers in the so-called “bestsellers lists,” the rankings that are regularly published in popular media. These rankings supposedly indicate the quality of the book, as the intuitive assumption is that a bad book will never be popular enough to have good sales. However, before we challenge this assumption, we need to figure out what are the reasons behind having these lists in the first place.
Reasons for measuring by bestselling
A text is a commodity that is not easily assessed. Unlike physical goods, which can be inspected or tested before buying to determine whether they stand up to the buyer’s expectations, or, at least, checked for compliance with the quality standards, literary texts have no such properties. While the scholarly and specialized publications for professional use at least have the characteristics which can serve a specific cause and thus their quality can be more or less determined based on their actual value for the user (e.g. the integrity of the published data, the validity of the research, or the comprehensive nature of the reference materials), the fictional books are even more complicated.
While certain standards of good writing can be measured directly (e.g. the grammar) or indirectly (e.g. the structure of the text), there is no clear way of measuring either the artistic value of the book or the level of satisfaction a reader will experience or even a consensual point regarding what constitutes a good book. Instead, the potential consumers must rely upon the secondary factors, like the book’s popularity and the impression it has made upon the surrounding audience.
At the same time, any given person only has access to a very limited number of other readers. Besides, to receive feedback on any given book from any given friend or an authoritative figure, one important condition must be met: they must read the book, which is not always the case. Thus, the publishers have decided to compile the popularity of large audiences into a simple and approachable format.
The sales have been selected as the primary criteria for two reasons: first, they are easily obtainable and do not require coding or interpretation: supposedly, if somebody decides to pay for a book, he thinks it is worth it. Second, the numbers are far less likely to be misinterpreted, unlike the results of the survey or critical review. Additionally, the survey would require much more resources and time to be conducted while the bestsellers lists are usually updated every week.
Chad Allen, a member of AuthorMedia team, an organization that specializes in boosting book sales, suggests that a bestseller is not just a popular book, but one that impacts society and changes the world (par. 2). Despite these claims, the lists are often misunderstood, as not all of them paint a comprehensive picture to the point where some do not deal with sales at all, counterintuitively to their name.
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Principles of functioning
The bestsellers lists usually include some factors in an attempt to assess the book’s popularity. New York Times has more than thirty lists that deal with different genres, with some of them using a different set of criteria to rank the books. The USA Today’s list is the only one that relies solely on sales numbers (Ferris par. 3), with all other lists either adding other criteria or even prioritizing them while downplaying numbers of sold books.
What further complicates matters is the fact that some sources do not disclose the criteria, which adds to the objectivity but makes it less understandable if the results have anything to do with the book’s quality at all. Sometimes, the books, known as “one-week wonders” make the weekly list once because of the sudden peak in sales while the monthly analysis puts them significantly lower in the list (Ferris par. 6).
Additionally, a marketing technique, known as “pay-for-play,” (buying several books to artificially promote the book as popular), further discredits the validity of bestselling lists (Trachtenberg par. 5). Finally, some of the retailers either delay the reports of sales for months, which is more than enough to distort the weekly rankings or do not report them at all, which makes the lists even less reliable.
The actual meaning of the bestselling lists
As such, the bestseller status does not mean that many copies of any given book are sold – it just means that a certain amount of books was sold quickly within a short period (Howey par. 4). In other words, the quality of the book is not necessarily a requirement for it to be on the list. Instead, the book’s popularity is what matters. Besides, the popularity is not even necessarily genuine – it may be boosted by marketing techniques, ad campaigns, or even achieved by manipulating the numbers. Interestingly, the popularity stated in the list may turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, when more people start buying a book based on its rankings and thus keeping the sales high for it to remain visible, and thus, popular.
Alternative criteria for assessing the quality of writing
However, as was previously mentioned, there is no agreed-upon way of distinguishing a good book from a bad one. In other words, while bestselling is not a sign of the quality of work, what is? There are several possible alternatives to determining it, but they too have their weak points. Individual reviews by professional critics may be an option. However, they are highly subjective and thus prone to bias. Besides, the professionals usually represent only a certain stratum of society, so their judgment may not apply to a wide audience.
The reaction exhibited by society and the subsequent impact of the work is an excellent measurement but requires a tremendous amount of time and effort to observe the results and codify them, not to mention the time for the impact to become visible. Despite the drawbacks, both ways remain more viable than sales numbers in identifying good writing.
In conclusion, the popular assumption “bestsellers reflect good writing” is flawed. While being suggested by the publishing industry, one of the economic sponsors of literacy, and exhibiting at least some level of integrity, it does not account for enough factors and can be easily manipulated. As a result, it should rather be viewed as proof of the popularity of the work, not its quality.
Allen, Chad. The Little Known Secret to Writing a Bestselling Nonfiction Book. 2013. Web.
Ferris, Tim. How Bestseller Lists Work… and Introducing the Amazon Monthly 100. 2012. Web.
Howey, Hugh. The NYT and WSJ Best Seller Lists Must Die. 2014. Web.
Trachtenberg, Jeffrey. The Mystery of the Book Sales Spike. 2013. Web.