Reading the 2012 Bestseller Lists

April 3, 2013 by Thad McIlroy

The era of the wide-open and transparent web met its match when the largest etailer in the land, Amazon.com, decided that honesty is not necessarily the best policy. It’s not that Amazon lies. It’s just that it grossly generalizes, sometimes misleadingly so. Last month when Bowker offered a detailed chart revealing that 43.8% of trade book sales are now consummated online, the industry was reminded of Amazon’s infuriating reluctance to provide hard numbers of its own.

Meanwhile Publishers Weekly dropped a gift in our laps a few weeks back as part of its Facts & Figures 2012 coverage: A 2012 ebook bestseller list! But not just any old list. A list with sales figures, lots of sales figures, everything from the 25,008 ebooks sold of Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness to the “15 million+” ebook copies sold of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy and the 12.7 million ebook copies of The Hunger Games trilogy (detailed on a separate children’s books bestsellers listing).

I thought it would be interesting to plug Publishers Weekly’s revealing numbers into some of the 2012 bestseller lists. USA Today provides a combined print and ebook 2012 bestseller list which I chose as my benchmark, so I’d have a point of comparison to Amazon’s list.

Amazon actually offers two different ebook bestseller lists for 2012. The first list is only for titles published in the 2012 calendar year. The more useful list orders bestsellers regardless of year of publication. That’s what’s embedded below (or you can download it here).

The value of these numbers is that they’re as close as we can get to knowing how many ebooks Amazon actually sold. The “Qty. (PW)” in the third column is the total number of ebook sold in 2012 as reported by the publisher. The number includes Amazon’s sales. So, based on your best educated guess of what Amazon’s percentage of the ebook market is, you can estimate Amazon’s sales.

It’s not worth trying to back out the data for the very top bestsellers. There are too many variables in play. Head further down the list and start looking at the patterns.

Although the USA Today ranking is for combined physical and digital, Amazon’s ratings reveal a close correlation.

Broadly speaking romances don’t rank on Amazon as highly as they do at other outlets. Look at The Marriage Bargain by Jennifer Probst, #37 on USA Today and a no-show on Amazon. Or Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire; #61 on USA Today; a no-show on Amazon.

Twenty-six titles appear in Amazon’s top 100 that have no place on USA Today’s list. Only two of those are Amazon Publishing exclusives. About half are self-published titles without a print equivalent, often available only through Amazon. The rest were titles apparently better suited to digital than to print. Nine of those are listed below the USA Today Top 100 under the heading “Other 2012 Amazon Top 100 Ebooks.”

Beneath that I offer “Selected Titles Reported by Nielsen UK” as detailed in The Guardian. As is often the case Jamie Oliver leads the pack. It’s somehow in keeping that trailing only slightly behind Oliver is The Hairy Dieters: How to Love Food & Lose Weight.

Finally I included a selection of bestsellers from Canada that appear only on Canadian lists (most of the titles on Canadian bestseller lists are published in the U.S. or the U.K.). The #1 bestseller in Canada in 2012 was, unsurprisingly, Quiet: The Power of Introverts (however the author and publisher are both American).

Lastly I looked at Digital Book World’s “Best-Selling Ebooks of 2012” (in the far right hand column). DBW works with Dan Lubart to provide an unusual inferred list. You can judge it here in relation to two other 2012 bestseller lists and against the volume sales numbers provided by Publishers Weekly.

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