Battle Of The Best Seller Lists

Independent booksellers are revolting against the Times

The war on the New York Times best-seller list began in mid-summer at tiny Landon Books in Mill Valley, Calif. After years of reporting its hottest sellers each week, adding highbrow grist to the vaunted list, owner Hut Landon stopped cold. Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Assn., had just come from New York, where he had tried to kill a plan by the Times to link its online book section with Barnes & Noble's cyberstore. "I told them if they went ahead with it, we would strongly encourage our members to stop reporting sales," he says.

But the deal had already been signed. In mid-October, the Times and Barnes & Noble Inc. wired their virtual perches together, letting Web surfers click from a Times best-seller or book review to Barnes & Noble to buy it. The backlash ensued--with more fury than even Landon had imagined. Some 30 stores in his group dropped out of the Times best-seller universe as did a half-dozen stores in Oregon. The rebellion spread through the Midwest, into the South, and up the East Coast. "They kicked dirt in our faces," says Duff Bruce of The Open Book in Greenville, S.C. So he and 14 fellow members of the Southeastern Booksellers Assn. kicked back.

"ARMAGEDDON." Never has a best-seller list wrought such wrath by linking with a retailer. USA Today's online list feeds into Barnes & Noble. There are no such links from The Wall Street Journal or BUSINESS WEEK lists. But when the Times linked with Barnes & Noble, it brought to the fore all the frustrations of small stores struggling to hang onto their sliver of the $26 billion book market. In 1993, independents sold one in four books; now they sell one in five. "They are a beleaguered species," says Charles McGrath, editor of the Book Review. "It's understandable that they reacted with extreme consternation to the marriage of the Book Review and Barnes & Noble, which they see as Armageddon."

McGrath estimates that 50 to 100 stores have stopped reporting. The Times closely guards the mix and methodology of its list, but, he says: "It was short of a critical mass, but enough that we noticed." What's more, some store owners are dismantling "New York Times Best-Sellers" sections and no longer sell advance copies of the Book Review.

The secession of small stores could profoundly change the most respected indicator of the public's taste in reading. In addition to pop favorites, independents sell works by serious authors--the very books the Times likes to review. Together, the independents kept Howard Stern's Private Parts from the top spot on the Times list two years ago and, more recently, helped push Cold Mountain, a first novel (and recent National Book Award winner), onto the list. "Immediately after it showed up, it began to snowball," says Morgan Entrekin of Grove/Atlantic, which published Cold Mountain.

That's the power of the list. Once a title becomes a Times best-seller, the chains cut the price by 30%, spurring more sales. But the independents who helped make the book a hit then can't match the price of the discounters and lose sales.

Now some independents are striking back--with lists of their own. The American Bookseller's Assn. is negotiating with a service called Book Scan to record sales electronically at small stores. The product is made by Sound Scan Inc., which revolutionized the recording business with the modem-and-bar-code method of tracking sales. "We won't associate ourselves with a list that's not scientifically gathered," says Avin Mark Domnitz, executive director of the American Booksellers Assn.

Publishers Weekly, meanwhile, is talking to Landon about creating an independent list to complement its existing one. And the New York Times plans to launch a small-store online index in January. So far, says McGrath, the prototype closely resembles a nascent list being produced by Sanj Kharbanda, general manager of WordsWorth in Harvard Square, with input from 30 stores. The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets is currently No.3. "Their list makes you realize there's still an intellectual crowd out there," says Nora Rawlinson, editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly. And if there was doubt about their collective power, there isn't anymore.

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