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The Making of a New York Times Bestseller

All publishers aspire to have their books hit bestseller lists, and probably no list more so than the New York Times, the coup de grace of bestseller selections. So how does one achieve a spot on this compendium of all the books fit to list? It turns out the criteria are not as straightforward as you might expect.

Following reports that George Lakoff’s political work Don’t Think of an Elephant! had made the Booksense and San Francisco Chronicle paperback bestseller lists, Chelsea Green received word that the book had made #30 on the NY Times paperback list. We were ecstatic, but troubled to see that the book was listed with the wrong author (Howard Dean) and wrong publisher (Ballantine). When president and publisher Margo Baldwin called the Times to correct the information, she was told that the book was no longer on the list at all, as it had been reclassified as a How-To/Self-Help book. What follows is a mystifying conversation between Chelsea Green staff members and the book taxonomists at our nation’s Paper of Record.

Here’s what Publisher’s Lunch had to say about the exchange:
The NYT raised a few eyebrows last week after unusual dispatch of two different versions of its weekly e-mail providing advance release of the bestseller lists dated October 31. The first version incorrectly listed DON’T THINK OF AN ELEPHANT, credited to Howard Dean and Don Hazen with Ballantine listed as the publisher, at No. 30 on the extended paperback nonfiction list. (Dean wrote the foreword and Hazen contributed an introduction; the author is linguist George Lakoff, and the publisher is Chelsea Green.)

At least a few eyebrows remained raised when a second, corrected version of the list dropped the title entirely, with the paperback of Thomas Cahill’s SAILING THE WINE-DARK SEA moving onto the list at No. 35.

When Chelsea Green publisher Margo Baldwin contacted the NYT, they told her the book had been recategorized for tracking on their “advice/how-to/miscellaneous” list. After challenging the recategorization multiple times (a political book, it provides “advice” in the sense of what Amazon calls “recommendations for how the progressive movement can regain semantic equity by repositioning their arguments.” Baldwin’s appeals apparently ended with NYT staffer Rich Meislen, who told Baldwin via e-mail, “Having looked through the book, I think it’s correctly categorized…. I appreciate your concern, but people of good will can disagree, and we disagree on this one.(10/26/04)

Alarmed at the incorrect classification of a bestselling political book, Margo Baldwin contacts Edward Wyatt in the NY Times newsroom.
At 10:56 AM 10/22/2004, Margo Baldwin wrote:

Dear Mr. Wyatt,

Thought you might be interested in the fact that one of the hottest political books of the year, Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by UC Professor of Linguistics George Lakoff, has been denied a place on the New York Times paperback nonfiction bestseller list because it was placed in the advice/how-to/self-help category. It’s currently #8 on the San Francisco paperback list, # 12 on the Northern California Bookseller Association list, and #19 on the national Booksense bestseller list for paperback nonfiction. This is the book that DailyKos called “The Best Book This Cycle,” along with many other endorsements and rave reviews.

I find it appalling that people in charge of the New York Times bestseller list would in a sense dismiss its importance as a political book by placing it in the self-help category (if one were to follow this logic, then Ann Coulter’s book should also be in this category!). I would be happy to talk to you more about this if you’re interested. I’m convinced that this decision was a political one and I’m outraged. See link below for more info on the book or just do a quick google search and see how much coverage the book has been getting. I’ll be happy to send you a copy as well and/or put you in touch with the author.

Margo Baldwin

Ps maybe as a Times reporter you can’t cover this story. But if you can, I hope you will.

Pps maybe the Times thinks this is an advice book for all those liberal “girlie men” and women who want to take back the language of political discourse.

On 10/22/04 11:21 AM, Edward Wyatt wrote:

As you probably know, the best seller list is the work of a different department here at The Times, specifically News Surveys, and I don’t have anything to do with it. I appreciate the idea but I don’t think I’m going to do a story on the book at this time.


Ed Wyatt

At 11:32 AM 10/22/2004, Margo Baldwin wrote:

Thanks for your reply. I understand that you don’t have anything to do with that department, but if the decision is a political one, then it becomes a media story. It’s also about how smaller publishers get treated and marginalized, even when they have best selling books. Very disappointing to have to contend with this kind of bias when we are all doing our best to keep independent media alive. Can I at least send you the book?


On Fri, 22 Oct 2004 16:52:51 Edward Wyatt wrote:

Please feel free to send the book. But I think the idea that there is any political motive behind the classification of the book is misguided.


Having made no headway in the newsroom, Margo is directed to Rich Meislin at the Times’ book tracking unit, News Source.
At 11:09 AM -0400 10/23/04, Margo Baldwin wrote:

Dear Mr. Meislin,

I’m hoping you can tell me who to contact about submitting a formal letter of complaint about the categorization of a book of ours for the best-seller lists. We recently published Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by UC professor of linguistics, George Lakoff. It’s become a national best seller (#8 on the San Francisco paperback nonfiction list, #4 on the Northern California Independent Bookseller Association list, #19 on the National Booksense list).

The New York Times contacted us a week ago about the book, saying they were tracking it and wanted 2 copies sent overnight, which we did. It then came to our attention 2 days ago that the book was mistakenly listed by the Times with the wrong author and wrong publisher. I called John Wright who told me that it was a mistake and our book was not on the list but he let me know that the book was being tracked on the paperback advice/how-to list, not on the regular nonfiction list. I was shocked to hear that what we and everyone else who has read the book consider one of the most important political books of the season has been relegated (ghettoized) to this section, a completely inappropriate category. When I objected, he put me in touch with Deborah Hoffman, who said she’s have another look at it but then called back to say that they were sticking with their original assessment.

I have to tell you that I’m outraged by this decision. I also have to tell you that I think it’s a decision that has kept the book from appearing on the extended nonfiction paperback list for the past two weeks. As you know, the advice list is only 15 books long, vs 35 books on the extended nonfiction list. It’s also a more competitive list, with books like What to Expect When You’re Expecting and the like taking up space for years at a time.

In any event, I would like to have this decision reviewed by someone higher up in the News Survey department and hope you can put me in touch with the appropriate person. For more information about this book, and why it is so absurd to be categorized this way, please see link below. I look forward to hearing from you shortly.

Margo Baldwin

On 10/25/04 10:16 AM, Rich Meislin wrote:

Dear Ms. Baldwin,

Thanks for your note. I’m the person you’re seeking.

Having looked through the book, I think it’s correctly categorized. (We don’t consider Advice/How to to be a ghetto, by the way, even though it’s a smaller neighborhood.)

I appreciate your concern, but people of good will can disagree, and we disagree on this one.

/ Rich Meislin

On Mon, 25 Oct 2004 11:00:15, Margo Baldwin wrote:

Dear Mr. Meislin,

Thanks for your prompt reply. I have to say that I am extremely disappointed with your decision. Nor can I understand how you could possibly categorize a book that is clearly a “Politics book” as advice/how-to. Perhaps you can enlighten me on your rationale for this. Nobody who’s read the book can believe that the Times has treated it this way and are similarly mystified. There is a piece coming out in Publishers Weekly today about the book and I will forward it along. I have to say that my sense is that the mistake may originally have been an honest one, but that there is now considerable resistance to admitting it was a mistake, perhaps because it would mean also admitting that our book should have been on the regular paperback nonfiction extended list for the past two weeks. As you so well know, being on the list has huge implications in terms of marketing, promotion, and sales. So arbitrarily keeping it off the list this way is extremely disturbing. Nor can I accept your assessment that “people of good will can disagree” as the standard by which you categorize books for the bestseller lists. Certainly there must be specific criteria by which you assign books and I would request that you tell me exactly what those criteria are so I can be better enlightened for our future bestselling titles.

Margo Baldwin

Act II: Enter the editor, Jennifer Nix, who picks up the conversation with Ed Wyatt in the newsroom.
On Friday, October 22, 2004 3:47 PM Jennifer Nix wrote:

Dear Mr. Wyatt,

Thank you for your response [to Margo]. As acquisitions editor of George Lakoff’s new book, what *I* find to be misguided–and very unfortunate–is the fact that the NYTimes refuses to admit its mistake in this matter of the categorization of the Lakoff book. How anyone there can defend this decision is beyond me, particularly when the conservative rant book by Ann Coulter, How to Talk to a Liberal, was not treated with similar ghetto-ization. That this decision unfairly and absolutely affects our chances of making the bestseller list is very disturbing. That you would think we are misguided, rather than choosing to look into it–whether or not a story is written–is just, well, strange.

I covered book publishing for Variety, was a producer for NPR’s On the Media, and wrote media criticism for a number of outlets. I would have considered this a story worth looking into, at the very least. Let me assure you, that I had no intention of putting out a self-help, how-to book. I find this insulting to the work of Dr. Lakoff. That the NYTimes ALONE is marginalizing this book in this way, I find to be very telling.

Jennifer Nix

At this point Jennifer contacts Rich Meislin, back at Book Review Classification Headquarters
At 12:00 PM -0600 10/25/04, Jennifer Nix wrote:

Dear Mr. Meislin:

It appears that you should see the exchange [above]. I now also add my own disppointment to the mix, about your decision regarding Dr. Lakoff’s book. That anyone feels we are misguided in standing up for this books seems, to me, to be somewhere far short of reasonable. Please explain to me how Ann Coulter’s book, How to Talk to a Liberal, was not similarly categorized. The very words, “how to,” are in its title. Your denial that Dr. Lakoff’s book is of a political stripe, while treating Coulter’s book with that respect, is highly confusing. Dare I say, even ridiculous? Please advise.

Jennifer Nix

On Tuesday, October 26, 2004 6:24 AM Rich Meislin wrote:

Ms. Nix,

Thanks for your note. 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.

Books on the How to/Advice/Miscellaneous list come in all stripes. There are how-to books on finance, on cooking, on diets, on relationships, and, yes, on politics and political persuasion. And that’s where we felt Dr. Lakoff’s book fit best, since a lot of it consists of practical advice. I don’t think you’re misguided in standing up for your book. But I do think you’re incorrect in reading our decision on where to track it as resulting from political bias.

/ Rich Meislin

On 10/26/04 1:34 PM, Jennifer Nix wrote:

Thanks for your response. I still don’t agree with the decision, but it’s your paper. I do hope you realize that you’ve confounded a large number of folks, however, when you placed Dr. Lakoff’s political work among such books as:

PAPERBACK ADVICE Top 5 at a Glance

1. RICH DAD, POOR DAD, by Robert T. Kiyosaki with Sharon L.Lechter
2. WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU’RE EXPECTING, by Heidi Murkoff, Arlene Eisenberg and Sandee Hathaway
3. THE POWER OF NOW, by Eckhart Tolle
5. THE PILL BOOK, edited by Harold M. Silverman

Especially enjoy seeing his work competing with “The Sweet Potato Queens’ Field Guide to Men.” I suppose the best thing we can do at this point is to play along with your game–with all the irony we can muster. I still find it disturbing that your team at first had our title on the regular nonfiction list (with the wrong author and publisher), then bumped it, allowing a Nan. A. Talese book, “Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea,” published in Oct. 2003, (a book hovering above 11,000 on Amazon) to somehow make it onto your list (as reported by Publishers’ Lunch). In the heat and frenzy of the last week of this election season, no less. I could not have imagined that the American buying public would be beating down bookstore doors to learn about the ancient Greeks just now. Go figure!

I long for a day when the NYTimes system for determining its best seller lists is not cloaked in secrecy, and small, independent publishers are not left scratching their heads over strange occurences such as this one.

Jennifer Nix

ACT III: A word from the book’s author, Dr. George Lakoff.
George Writes:

Dear Mr. Meislin,

You could not possibly have read Don’t Think of an Elephant! and classified it as a How-to book.

The first chapter was a political analysis with one page of advice for progressives tacked on at the end.

At the end of the book, there is a 9-page chapter on how to talk to conservatives. That’s 10 pages out of the whole book — all of it tacked-on material.

I wrote the book. It is a cognitive-science-based analysis in popular form. My previous book, Moral Politics, also hit number 8 on amazon in last few weeks. You never listed it when it came out, even though it made best seller lists elsewhere, presumably because it was published by U. of Chicago Press, and classified as “academic.” Check with Kim Singer at UC Press. It’s one the best selling books they’ve ever had.

What do I have to do? I write a detailed book for a distinguished academic press and it’s too academic to be listed. I write a popular book on the same subject, tack on a few pages of advice, and you disqualify it as a how-to book.

I can’t believe you’ve really read either.

Face it. The decisions you make do matter. They do have political effects. When this is true, read the books!

Hoping you can do better this time,
George Lakoff

The denouement from Publisher’s Lunch:
Here’s the latest twist in Chelsea Green’s efforts on behalf of their hot title DON’T THINK OF AN ELEPHANT. Rich Meislin at the NYT continues to insist the book is properly categorized as a “how to” book “since a lot of it consists of practical advice,” albeit “on politics and political persuasion.” Answering queries from the publisher, Meislin says they “discovered that Jenna Jameson’s HOW TO MAKE LOVE LIKE A PORN STAR isn’t a how to book, despite its title,” nor is Ann Coulter’s HOW TO TALK TO A LIBERAL, which “didn’t read like a how to book at all.”

Author George Lakoff insists in a reply that the book has “one page of advice for progressives” in the first chapter, and nine pages on “how to talk to conservatives” at the very end. Otherwise, though, he declares: “It is a cognitive-science-based analysis in popular form.”

Interestingly–perhaps now that the book is being “tracked” more closely–on the forthcoming November 7 lists, the book has popped up to No. 9 on the extended paperback advice/how-to/misc. list.(10/28/04)

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