As much as publishing has struggled to evolve over the past decade due to market changes, an increasingly difficult market and the supersonic growth of e-books, publishing journalism has also lost much of its focus. Costs must be cut, and inevitably during times of economic strife, money for the arts and its journalism are usually first to go. This has taken form in a variety of disappointing ways: Great critics losing their jobs, informative sites and publications shutting their doors, and the remaining outlets strengthening their focus to a more limited scope. At the beginning of the year, the New York Times cut a range of its best-seller lists, including the graphic novel/manga and the mass market paperback lists, and this week it was reported that USA Today were considering discontinuing their weekly best-seller list altogether.
Unfortunately, it seems that the writers, readers and areas most affected by this in the literary world are genre based, most notably romance and science-fiction. As noted in the open letter penned by the Romance Writers of America, the USA Today list “has long been considered one of the most accurate measures of best-seller status when it comes to commercial fiction.” It may not carry the prestige of the New York Times list to certain readers, but for those who are keen to note the movers and shakers of populist writing that’s often ignored by publications with a long history of dismissing women’s pop culture, USA Today proved crucial.
Its 150 book strong list can be filtered by genre, but as a single list taken from an analysis of US booksellers’ sales, it’s a key insight into how most readers buy their books: Independent stores, big chain franchises, online retailers, and through mass merchandisers. The New York Times list provides specificity, whereas the USA Today list offers a wider context to the market itself. Both are important lists and publishing as a whole relies on them both to various extents, but with the former already gutting itself of many of the sub-lists that represent populist tastes and genre fiction, to have the latter possibly disappear altogether would be a major blow to readers and authors alike.
The RWA’s open letter highlights that the “USA Today is the only major media outlet with a list reflecting the commercial fiction market”. It’s strange yet dishearteningly unsurprising to note how little representation such a powerful readership has in the reporting of the industry. Trade paperbacks may be scorned as frivolous fluff or airport reading, but to strip them of the little representation they have is to deny their exceptional cultural influence. Romance readers are used to this – a billion dollar a year industry run almost exclusively by and for women, but talk of it from sites like the New York Times and the Guardian is steeped in scorn. Contrast that with USA Today, who have an entire section of their website, Happy Ever After, dedicated to passionately discussing the genre and its work. Marvel may rule the world but it couldn’t stop the New York Times from dropping its comics and manga list altogether.
The best-seller list is not a cheap venture to put together, so cutting it would probably save USA Today a decent amount, but it would also rob them of a unique feature that’s proven priceless to many a reader. The importance of art and culture should not be downplayed in our current tempestuous climate, and its presence should not be seen as a disposable luxury to cut when the purse strings are pulled. I seriously hope that USA Today reconsider on this matter, should it prove to be true. A publishing world without their best-seller list will only widen the gap between “literary” and “populist” literature that the industry and reporting around it perpetuates.
UPDATE: USA Today confirmed to RWA that they’ve no plans to scrap the list, so hurrah.