jarold imesThe Tainted
Best Seller's List

by Jarold Imes
June 2009

What you are about to read will probably cost me a lot of publishing opportunities: make me more enemies than friends. Then again, fixing a problem has never been about seeking opportunities or making friends.

“The Essence Bestseller’s List” is tainted, and there needs to be a drastic overhaul in order to restore the list to the level of prominence it once had a few years ago. The problems probably began before Essence Communications became part of the conglomerate Time, Inc. I can’t say that is the case for sure, but I will say that in the past year or two, I have become more disheartened and confused about the books that are, and the books that aren’t making the list. And with that come interesting stories on how some books did make the list.

If I were the only one with this suspicion, I’m pretty sure I would be labeled as an author who is “hatin’” on another author. For the record, I have nothing but love and respect for the authors on the list who legitimately, through marketing, word of mouth, radio/television buzz, and by writing a great book, earned their spot on the list and have the book sales to prove, that they themselves did not purchase their spot. I have respect for authors who don’t make the list but have written powerful and critically acclaimed tales that made me wonder why they didn’t make the list. However, when members of various message boards I frequent ask me if I’ve even heard of the book in the #4 spot or the book in the #7 spot and I say no, and when I ask my publishing colleagues and they say they haven’t heard of the book either, that rings a bell, sounding the alarm signaling that something has gone amiss.

How can a book be #4 or #5 on the list when it is not in stock in all the stores that contribute to the list in the first place? Shouldn’t that be a basic requirement? I mean damn, if one store is doing astronomical numbers with a particular title, while the other fourteen to nineteen stores have never heard of a title, any auditor who values their reputation or credentials should see that as a red flag. How does a book that has no buzz, that no one has ever heard of, be ahead of two or three books that everyone and their mama is talking about on internet message boards, mailing lists and (gasps) with their real live book club? Better yet, how come I don’t see anyone reading the #3 or the #5 book but every time I turn around, I see someone reading the #8 or the #10 and book store managers have a hard time keeping the #6 or #9 book in stock because they say that that book is one of the top selling African-American books in their store? I go into stores and I look at how books move in my area (which covers North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia) and I check print runs of titles on a shelf and when a publisher is on print run number three or four, I promise you the book is not just sitting on the shelf.

Dare I say the list is being bought and as early as maybe 2005 that some authors have figured out what it takes to do just that. Plan a large event, make sure the suppliers of the books are Essence Magazine Contributing Stores, tell your readers to buy your books at those stores and viola, you’re on the list. How about this, if your publisher is friends with or actually owns one of the contributing stores, just have them ring up your sales through that store for a month or two and you could make the list that way. Or, you could just buy your books from all the stores and have them ship the books to a few book clubs or libraries or something like that . . . works like a charm.

But if the list is “best selling” then shouldn’t I, as an author, literary researcher and participant in various message boards, chats and mailing groups know about the books. I mean, I read the catalogues, visit the websites, hell I even call the publishers and book stores themselves on a good day just to make sure that whatever I say or print is correct. I know back in the day, I always figured that 10,000 units was what it took to get on Essence and 50,000 units was what it took in general to claim best selling status without making it on any published list. But even for that to happen, the average fan in a particular genre should at least have heard of any book in question.

And for the record, there are few exceptions to this rule . . . no scratch that. The only exception to any scenarios I’ve mentioned before is Dutch: The Finale. It’s been almost two years since the book made its magical appearance on the streets and on and off of various book store shelves across the country. And we all know the story, so let’s put my argument this way, other than say, Midnight: A Gangsta Love Story, what other street lit book (or any other African-American title for that matter) has had readers anticipating, calling and begging for the book? Don’t worry I’ll wait . . .

I don’t hate “Essence,” its staff or anyone affiliated with the magazine. What I’m challenging Essence to do is to either go back to or instate the following rules to make the list as pure as it was a few years ago:

  • No bookstore that is owned by an author, publisher, publicist or anyone affiliated with the publishing industry should be on the list.
  • If rule number one is not feasible or gets to a point where it is no longer feasible, then do not factor in the books written, promoted or published by owners or its affiliates that are sold at that store.
  • The book should be in stock in at least half of the reporting stores in the month it appears on the list.
  • Allow more stores, street vendors and non-traditional African-American owned book sellers, who can meet the requirements, should be able to contribute to the list.

View more of Jarold Imes articles<<

Jarold Imes is a contributing writer for The Urban Book Source and author of Hold on Be Strong; he is the creator of online soap opera: Hold on Be Strong (www.holdonbestrong.com), send emails to:jaroldimes@yahoo.com.

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