Fake Merit-Based Systems And The New York Times Best Seller List

The New York Times Best Seller List is a dream for many authors. It’s a symbol of ultimate success. Having it labeled on a book cover is a literary badge of honor. And, it’s also a fake bestseller list.

The New York Times Best Seller list has nothing to do with sales (well, something, but that’s proprietary) and everything to do with their desire of what they think people should read and discuss. They call these “authentic best sellers.”

It’s not bad, it just feels misleading. I mean, did you know this? Maybe I’m the last to know, but I did not (and thanks to Seth Godin for pointing it out). Here are some other things I didn’t know about it:

I didn’t know that in 1983 the guy who wrote The Exorcist wrote a follow-up book called Legion. I didn’t know that it sold like hotcakes but mysteriously wasn’t on “the list.” I didn’t know he sued them. I didn’t know you could sue a newspaper for something like this, but I can see why he did.

I didn’t know the New York Times won the case. I didn’t know that you could call a list a “bestseller list” and then still claim it was editorial in order to have its contents protected as free speech. I didn’t know. And now I do. And now we both do.

We encounter lists that proclaim to be merit-driven but are actually editorially curated all of the time. We can find them in corporate hierarchies. We can find them in politics. We can find them in social groups. Anywhere merit flies cover but curation wins by someone’s opinion, it’s the New York Times Best Seller strategy at work.

When we encounter these situations, the first thing we can do is learn to notice them. If they’re not strictly based on merit, then we want to (quickly) realize there’s a different rule book to apply. We don’t want to end up in Legion frustration. If getting to the top of the list matters to us, we have to figure out how to actually play to the tastemakers.

The second thing we can do, if it doesn’t matter to us, is to opt-out. If we want merit to matter, if we want to change the culture, we have to look away from the list. Whatever anyone thinks of The Exorcist 3, it was based on Legion, and it was broadly much more successful in terms of sales than a lot of other books and movies we never heard of. People can succeed without the blessing of a list, but they’ll have to redefine success in their own way.

Here’s the big takeaway: Curated lists come with their own culture. It’s true in book lists, org charts, politics, social groups, and all sorts of other places. If a list is representative of a culture we want to thrive in, we should learn the formula and how to play to win. If it’s not representative of the culture we want to be a part of, we should feel free to part ways. Even if it’s a harder path to strike out on our own, chances are we will find some others who feel the same way.

Culture is based on curation. Culture is what emerges when the same stories are told within a group, over and over, reinforcing the DNA that binds a community together. The questions we have to ask ourselves are: what’s being curated and why does it matter to us? If we like the culture, we should embrace the rules. If it’s not a fit, we can find another option or we can build our own. One paper’s bestseller list is another blog’s listicle. We have to go where our values are.

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