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Inside Move: ‘Potter’ problems plague list

N.Y. Times bestseller index ignores some pubs, but change is coming

It’s been a bruising summer for the New York Times bestseller list, and the old Grey Lady is still reeling.

Once the gold standard of commercial success in the book world, the list has been discarded by America’s biggest bookstores, all of which now use their own lists as determinants of discounting policy and in-store real estate.

And in separate incidents last week, the long-unchallenged authority of the Times list was called into question.

On Aug. 23, the Times reported that AMG/Renaissance lit agent Alan Nevins had attempted to influence the list. Nevins channeled sales of 18,000 copies of a book by Amway founder Rich DeVos to Amway distributors through Los Angeles-area bookstores that report to the Times list.

The Times balked at the sales, dismissing them as at best the equivalent of a business-to-business buy, and at worst a naked attempt to steal some of the magic the list confers on a book.

“The premise of the list is consumer purchases,” Times surveys editor Michael Kagay said. “Every attempt over the decades to manipulate the list seems to have involved bulk sales.”

But cash registers nationwide recently began telegraphing mass orders of another book you won’t see on the list this month — the paperback edition of “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.”

With 3.2 million copies in print, it’s one of the fastest-selling books in America; but the Times has no place for it. There’s no paperback kids list in the paper, and despite lobbying from Scholastic, and statistics showing that 43% of Harry Potter readers are older than 14, the Times won’t track it as an adult paperback.

“The bestseller list should reflect what America is reading,” said Barbara Marcus, head of children’s publishing at Scholastic. “I don’t understand the decision.”

Nevins has said that his intention wasn’t to manipulate the list and that he realized the Times was likely to ignore the sales spike — a strategy the paper uses to prevent deep-pocketed authors from buying a place on the list.

Nevins’ motives may remain suspect, but one thing’s clear: Few bestseller lists share the Times’ scruples.

Those 18,000 sales ignored by the Times would likely have registered on the Barnes & Noble list, spokeswoman Debra Williams said. “It would be an indicator of what our customers are buying,” she said.

In recent years, other lists have made a run at the Times. The USA Today list, strictly a barometer of sales, has gained importance as the book trade’s closest equivalent to the music industry’s Soundscan. The USA Today list was topped last week by three volumes of Harry Potter, followed by Tony Roberts’ “Who Moved My Cheese” — all absent from the Times adult lists.

Publishing insiders are quick to point out that the Times list is still the brand to beat — a brand based on its accurate record of consumers sales at bookstores of all shapes and sizes.

“Its prestige is as great if not greater than ever,” Random House senior veep Stuart Applebaum said. “It’s still the definitive list for the literate book-minded consumer in this country and probably around the world.”

But it’s also a work in progress.

The Times broke with tradition this summer and created a hardcover kids list.

Times Book Review editor Charles McGrath has disclosed to Daily Variety that the list is going to evolve further, and a children’s paperback list, possibly to rotate with other categories, is forthcoming — so there’s still hope for “Chamber of Secrets.”

In the meantime, the Times list keepers are left to ponder an electronic future, long after Harry Potter has relinquished his grip on the list. Once book purchases are reported electronically like recorded music sales, there’ll be no disputing who’s king of the hill.

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