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Contemporary and New Fiction: What is a Best Seller's List?

written by: Lenzi Hart • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 9/13/2013

Book best seller's lists are a integral part documenting contemporary fiction sales. Teaching your students how to read and understand the many best seller's lists that are out there can aide them in finding contemporary fiction they might enjoy reading.

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    What is a Best Seller's List?

    Lesson Plan on the Best Seller's List The phrase "best-seller" or "best selling novel" is thrown around A LOT in the publishing world, yet many avid readers have no knowledge of what qualifications a book must meet in order to be deemed a best-selling novel. In this portion of our contemporary fiction unit, students will understand how the most recognizable best-seller's lists operate, and how reading this lists on a regular basis can assist them in finding good books to read. We will also ask the question, "How do book stores use best seller's lists and do these lists impact their stock of books?" and attempt to formulate and answer.

    So what exactly is a best seller? Wikipedia defines a best-selling book as being "a book that is identified as extremely popular by its inclusion on lists of currently top selling titles that are based on publishing industry and book trade figures and published by newspapers, magazines, or bookstore chains." Point out the fact to your students that anyone can create a best-sellers list. Independently owned bookstores have different standards of what a best-selling book is, compared to a chain store. Selling fifty copies in a Mom & Pop store might equal a best-seller for them, but that same title might have to sell five hundred copies for a big chain bookstore in order to be given the title. Due to that fact, many publishing houses only look at major best-sellers lists like The New York Times, USA Today, and Indie Bestsellers. Each of these lists have concrete qualifications and are well-respected lists.

    During my lesson on best-seller lists, I dumped the following information into a Power Point, and had links of each lists' website embedded into the presentation. I'm blessed to have an overhead projector in my classroom that is linked to my computer, so I would click on the links and we would look at each list together. The students seemed to enjoy reading the lists and the book descriptions, and we would go back a few months on each list and compare the books. I would also explain the publication or source of the list and the different standards involved in creating the compilation.

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    The New York Times Best-Sellers List

    For most of us, this is the most widely recognized list, because a book being on this list is used as a marketing tool. Most hardcover fiction books that make the list will print "New York Times Best Seller" on the cover of the paperback version of the book. This is thought to catch the eye of the shopper and entice them to learn more about the book.

    The Times list is created by compiling sales of books from independent, chain and wholesale stores (like Target and Walmart). The list is published weekly in The New York Times and posted on the paper's website at this link. The list is updated weekly, but the list you see before you is a result of sales tallied three weeks prior. Therefore, books sold over Mother's Day that were very popular, like Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul or some other mother-themed book's sales will be reflected on the published list three weeks from the Mother's Day week.

    The Times has ten different best-sellers lists, and of those ten there are four lists that contain the sales figures of fiction books. Hardcover Fiction, Paperback Trade Fiction, Paperback Mass-Market Fiction, and Children's Books. An interesting fact about the Children's Book list is mentioned on Wikipedia, stating that "July 2000 a children's literature section was created; some publishers complained that the Harry Potter series wouldn't leave the top spots on the list and was not leaving enough room for their books". J.K. Rowling is one powerful author to have changed the face of The New York Times Best-Sellers List!

    Many of my students asked what the difference was between paperback trade fiction and paperback mass-market fiction, and thankfully this question was answered by the store manager of Barnes and Noble during our class field trip. Trade fiction can be described as the paperback books that are larger and have clean white pages. Mass-market fiction books are the smaller, more compact paperbacks that use the darker, recycled paper for its pages. Bringing samples of each type of book can help students see the difference, so show them which book is trade fiction and which is mass-market. Many of my classroom sets of novels are mass-market fiction, so you should have plenty of examples in your room, too!

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    USA Today & Indie Bound Best-Seller List

    The USA Today list is similiar to The New York Times List, in that it includes sales from independent chain and wholesale stores. The notable difference in its list, is that it compiles all genres of books into one list. The first fifty on the list are printed in the paper, and the entire 150 books are available online at the USA Today website link, and are updated weekly. Both fiction, nonfiction, hardcover and paperback are included in the top 150.

    Indie Bound Best-Seller List is a compolation of sales from independently owned bookstores. Seven lists are published on the Indie Bound website, and are updated weekly. Discuss what differences an independently owned bookstore might have compared to a chain bookstore. Your students might be like my own, and have never even seen an independently owned bookstore, having only been exposed to chain stores. I played the clip from You've Got Mail in which Meg Ryan's character discusses the differences between chain bookstores and locally owned.

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    Why Do I Need to Teach This Stuff?

    I used to be the kid in the back of the room asking, "Why do we have to know this?", so as an educator, I attempt to provide a rationale for everything that I teach. With that being said, students need to know this so they have real-world applications for reading. Instead of going to the mall and walking around like an aimless idiot, they can go into a bookstore with their printed best-seller list and browse for books they want to learn more about.

    One of my students asked if you have to buy the books you browse in the bookstore. This is when I had the grand idea to organize a field trip to Barnes and Noble Bookstore, so students who've never stepped foot inside a bookstore could understand the environment. Bookstores are a place to linger, sit in the aisle and read, grab a cup of joe and of my favorite places on the planet and I wanted to share that appreciation with my students. Call your local store and inquire if it is at all possible to take groups of students on a field trip, then read my next article, "Organizing a Bookstore Field Trip" and get your plans underway for the new school year! Perhaps this lesson will open the eyes of students to the enjoyable world of contemporary fiction and the many enjoyments that can come from bookstores.

Contemporary Fiction Series

New fiction is often overlooked in public schools, and at a time when new teen fiction is flying off of the shelves and shaping mainstream media! Capitalize on this resurgence of interest in teen reading and integrate it into your classroom lesson plans with the help of this article series.
  1. Teaching Contemporary Fiction Series: Shaping Your Unit
  2. Contemporary and New Fiction: What is a Best Seller's List?
  3. Planning a Bookstore Field Trip
  4. Teaching 'The Hunger Games' by Suzanne Collins
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