How to Make the Best Seller List

Last month, my publishing company managed to do the impossible: put a book on the New York Times best seller list (as well as on several regional lists).

The book is "Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate – The Essential Guide for Progressives," written by George Lakoff, University of California professor of cognitive science and linguistics, founding senior fellow of The Rockridge Institute, author of "Moral Politics" and other books, and, according to Howard Dean, "one of the most influential political thinkers of the progressive movement." Why? Because he talks about language and how it's used to frame the issues and political debate, something that the conservatives figured out long ago and a major reason why they are now in power.

In short, it is a revolutionary kind of book.

I say we did the impossible for many reasons. One is that we're a small, independent book publisher, not a corporate conglomerate media company.

Another, that we published and launched the book in a mere five weeks, from draft manuscript to finished book. We did it with no advertising budget or the services of an outside promotional firm, and two weeks before the publication date, we had no advance sales (neither commission sales reps nor key account buyers had even heard about the book).

Finally, we achieved the impossible because even as the book was climbing onto the Times paperback nonfiction list (35 titles long), it was deliberately bumped and dumped into the "Advice/How–To/Miscellaneous" category (15 titles long, and so off that week's list): the publishing world's version of the book–ghetto.

Of course, if we had actually published a How–To/Self–help title, we'd be ecstatic, but we didn't. We published a political book, which is now #9 on this list — slightly below "The Sweet Potato Queens' Field Guide to Men," immediately following "Fix–It and Forget–It Lightly" and just before "Relationship Rescue."

Naturally we protested this categorization and naturally the Times, in all its elitist, arbitrary and arrogant "wisdom," refused to change it. (Read the entire e-mail exchange.) Luckily for us, the trade e–mail newsletter of PulishersMarketplace.com, Publishers Lunch, picked up the story and ran with it, making it clear to all in the publishing industry how capricious and decidedly unscientific (dare I say political?) this list selection is. Also cloaked in secrecy.

There appear to be no objective criteria for deciding how a book is categorized beyond what Rich Meislin, the editor of News Surveys, the department at the Times in charge of these lists, declares is the judgment of "people of good will."

People of good will?

How about people lunching with editors and others from the big New York houses with lots of ad money to spend? How about people who don't particularly appreciate the upstart progressive views of independent media? When challenged by Jennifer Nix, the book's editor, on why Ann Coulter's book, "How to Talk to a Liberal," was not similarly categorized, Meislin wrote, "We made it past the 'How to' in the title of Ann Coulter's book and discovered that it was a collection of her essays and didn't read like a how-to book at all. (In much the same way, we discovered that Jenna Jameson's 'How to Make Love Like a Porn Star' isn't a how to book, either, despite its title.) That's why, when they had the appropriate level of sales, they made it onto the nonfiction best seller list."

I wonder if you can guess where Bill O'Reilly's conservative rant (a form of advice, isn't it?), "Who's Looking Out for You?" goes? Equally incongruously, "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves" (an Englishwoman expounding on the use and misuse of punctuation marks) is not considered advice either! However, MoveOn's "50 Ways to Love Your Country: How to Find Your Political Voice and Become a Catalyst for Change" (a collection of essays, by the way) was dumped, like our book, into Advice/How–To, despite the protest of its (independent) publisher, Inner Ocean Publishing. I'm confused.

How strange that the authors, editors and publishers that usher books into the world have no input on how these books are categorized – perhaps by people who don't even take the time to read the books that cross their desks. Mistakes can happen, but when pointed out, they should be righted.

Thankfully, only the New York Times marginalized our book in this way. And, in spite of them, Lakoff's book continues to find its way into readers' hands.

So, what's the moral of this story, aside from the usual "money talks" and the systematic marginalization of independent (dare I say political?) voices by the mainstream conglomerate media? Perhaps it's that the entire Times bestseller list "stamp of approval" is fast becoming totally irrelevant in today's Internet–savvy, mission–related, blogging world. It's one more example of how the emperor has no clothes.

The real story is that in the heat of this incredibly potent political season, a small publisher from Vermont was able to publish a critically important and timely book (it couldn't be doing as well as it is if it weren't so relevant), and get it out literally overnight by partnering with key progressive organizations (AlterNet, MoveOn, Sierra Club, Democracy for America, Apollo Alliance, Institute for America's Future, Hightower and Associates and many others) who helped launch it on the Internet. They posted information about the book on their Web sites and sent buyers first to Amazon and other Internet sellers. Then, once the word started to spread, especially via the blogosphere (DailyKos' rave review alone sent it up to #8 on Amazon), key independent booksellers across the country got behind it and made it the bestseller it is.

No big ad buys, no big NYC publicity firm lobbying the Times and other review media, no significant advances at the big chains, although they too have done just fine sales–wise. The real story is that serious book publishing no longer needs the Times, and maybe that's why they tried to disappear the book.

Of course, it would be fun to see the book climb to #1 on the Advice/How–To list.

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