Bias on the best-sellers list

By Isobel McCue

(Collegian File Photo)

Immediately upon entering any bookstore, one is greeted with a few markers of pleasant familiarity: the distinct scent of enormous quantities of paper in one place, an overzealous sales representative, some aloof, vintage army-jacket-clad hipsters and, inevitably, the table by the front displaying the best-sellers. They all don that familiar shiny sticker, a stamp of quality and assurance–-“New York Times Bestseller.”

The power of that little sticker is astounding. Its presence translates to more sales, promotion and  profit for the publishing company, along with publicity for the author. To the bookstore surfer, it means that book is worth reading. After all, there has to be a valid reason it is selling so many copies, right?

Recently, I came across a strange article on Fox News detailing why a major conservative publishing house, Regnery, severed ties with the New York Times. Their action stems from the claim of “years of bias” within the Times’ best-sellers list.

My initial thought was that the article must be fallacious. The best-sellers list is not some subjective ranking that could be liable to bias, as it is based purely on book sales data and, as a spokesperson of the Times stated, “the notion that we would manipulate the lists to exclude books for political reasons is simply ludicrous.” After all, this the New York Times we’re talking about. It is one of the most reputable news sources in the world.

But after conducting some research, I found that the article does not exist in isolation; many other outlets had reported on this phenomenon with recent regards to the Regnery incident. Interestingly enough, most of these reports came from primarily conservative news outlets, such as the Observer and Forbes. The backlash from liberal papers was notably in the other direction, with acerbic titles such as “Why a conservative book publisher’s protest of the New York Times bestsellers list is just a stunt.”

The exchange of reports seemed almost laughable, reading as a veritable squabble between upset children. However, I was soon shocked to discover some concerning echoes of truth in the assertions of Regnery Publishing. The agency’s complaint evidenced the fact that a decidedly conservative title, “The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left,” by Dinesh D’Souza, ranked at number seven on the Times’ list, while other sales tracking organizations placed the book at number one.

The reason for this, it seems, is the fact that the Times does not rely on reputable book tracking organizations such as the prevalent Nielson’s BookScan. Instead, the Times distributes surveys to different booksellers for them to report their sales of titles. The paper assures “The panel of reporting retailers is comprehensive and reflects sales in stores of all sizes and demographics across the United States,” but is unclear on the actual details of this process since the vendors’ information remains confidential under non-disclosure agreements. Even more shocking is this: “Institutional, special interest, group or bulk purchases, if and when they are included, are at the discretion of The New York Times Best-Seller List Desk editors,” meaning editors at the Times actually decide whether or not some sales are included in their calculations.

Interestingly enough, the Times even has a history of running into this problem. In 1986, William Blatty, author of “The Exorcist,” sued the Times over damages he incurred after the sales of his novel failed to be reflected accurately on the best-sellers list.

Whether or not liberal Times editors are conspiring to diminish the influence of conservative authors by shunning their books, there is some undeniable subjectivity within the glorified best-sellers list. This is markedly important, because it is presented as reflecting objective and raw data. In the best-sellers list, we don’t look to the Times for their opinion, but for the facts of which books are selling the most. A lack of transparency in the subjectivity of their reporting is misleading, and a concerning issue.

More important, however, is the ignorance to this fact. The reports simply suggesting bias in the list received immediate and swift backlash from liberal sources, the Washington Post demeaning Regnery’s action by calling it a “stunt.” I cannot help but come to the conclusion that the Times’ infallibility results in part from its status as a liberal news source. Just because a lot of the criticism of this problem is being voiced by recognizably conservative news outlets does not diminish the argument. Though it is inevitable that different news outlets reflect overall predominate biases and this is well known, we tend to think, again, that the liberal and well-respected Times is undoubtedly accurate. I myself am guilty of this, initially thinking Fox’s article was just a conservative conspiracy theory, but I was wrong in jumping immediately to this conclusion.

Many would probably lament to see a book about liberalism stemming from Nazism, but that does not mean it does not deserve to be on the best-sellers list if it is indeed a best seller. We need to acknowledge this double standard and not always default to thinking a liberal news source is correct and a conservative one is not.

Isobel McCue is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]