Author Dan Balow

Mystery of the Bestseller List


In my years in publishing, one of the most interesting aspects has been the evolution of bestseller lists. The primary source of confusion for authors and publishers of Christian books is that the most influential bestseller lists (New York Times, USA Today, Publishers Weekly) do not consider sales of books at Christian retailers in their calculations to any great extent. Hence, Christian books are handicapped from the beginning as they compete with the general market/non-Christian books on the various lists.

There is no comprehensive national bestseller list for Christian books.  There are lists that count sales mostly in general retail and those that count sales mostly in Christian stores, but there is no list that combines the sales in any meaningful way. Add to this the large number Christian books sold through ministries, specialty racks (Choice Books, etc.), book clubs and by authors themselves. None of those sales count for best-seller lists.

The music and movie industries have highly developed reporting processes for sales. Books do not. The only accurate reporting for all sales comes from publishers themselves, but with the potential for returns from various channels, that data is viewed in a long-term manner.

While there is some sampling of data from Christian channels in some of the most prominent lists, most of the sales are ignored.  Here are some basics about the various lists:

  • The New York Times (which is actually twenty different lists), USA Today and Publisher’s Weekly lists do not consider sales occurring in Christian-only channels to any great extent, which in most cases can reach 70% of the units sold of a title. Those sales included are only a sample.
  • The bestseller list from CBA  (the trade association for Christian retailers) is a good apples-to-apples monthly comparison within the stores who report to their proprietary CROSS:SCAN, but does not reflect anything outside of those stores.
  • The bestseller list from ECPA  (the trade association for Christian publishers) is also a good apples-to-apples comparison each month with data submitted to the PubTrack system from a variety of sources.  ECPA combines sales from Christian and some general channels through their multi-channel list each month, but is really only good for comparison as the data is a sample.
  • Bookscan data does not generate a bestseller list per se, but as a widely used data service, it pulls from a variety of sources, some Christian stores, but again, ignores the lion’s share of Christian channels.  It is a sample of sales.

So, the best book publishing can offer is a sample of sales. There is no great conspiracy on the part of the influential secular lists to exclude Christian books…they simply consider Christian stores as “specialty” retailers. The same would be true for books sold in card and gift stores.

A final point about bestseller lists. They all have editors. That means no list is a simple download of data without review. If a book sells a majority of copies through one store that reports to one of the lists, it will probably be excluded from consideration since the sales are not spread broadly and do not reflect a widespread trend.

In the future, when you look at a bestseller list containing Christian products, be aware that the data included is a sample and take it with a measure of salt.

Your turn:

Did this post cause you to rethink anything?

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Learning Every Day

One of the favorite things I do each month is to get together with three friends to talk about life and work.  We meet for breakfast and share what we are doing.  All of us are Christ followers and have known each other for many years.  We discuss issues related to the changing world of communications as all four are involved in various aspects of the media.

For example, I recall one day that we discussed how bad news has much more velocity than good news in social media.  One of the breakfast gurus mentioned an event he was involved in promoting where comments were being posted on social media during the event, by the participants. (It was a very large race…no idea how people on racing bicycles can be Tweeting) We then discussed how public relations used to be a process of spinning a story and getting media to cover it in manner you wanted.  Now, negative comments seem to take on a life of their own before we know it.

Each month the subject is different, mostly unplanned, but always interesting and always challenging.

Each generation, there is an important skill to be practiced that is a key to working successfully.  I recall many years ago when personal computers came on the scene and thinking that I was really happy that I took a typing class in high school.  Now, the schools call it “keyboarding”, but the QWERTY keyboard is as important to every job today as good handwriting was a couple generations ago.

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Fearless Writing

Last century (sounds more dramatic than “15 years ago”), I made a presentation to a group of authors on book marketing with the intention of helping them understand how best to work with their publishers. I ran across my notes the other day and was not really very surprised to see almost everything I presented that day is no longer entirely valid.  The material was true in a publishing world where the frogs were swimming in the kettle and the heat hadn’t been turned on yet!

One of my outdated statements from fifteen years ago was about the relatively few “gatekeepers” involved in buying and selling a book. A gatekeeper would be a book buyer for Barnes & Noble, Family Christian Stores, Lifeway Stores, Mardel Stores, etc.   These buyers make the decisions what books that respective retailer stocked. If they didn’t like your book, the hopes of having a bestseller were greatly diminished. It was true then, but a bit less so today.

In the current world of publishing and distribution of content has been described as the diminishing role of gatekeepers. Those few gatekeepers have been supplemented by millions of gatekeepers…your readers.

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The First Novel I Ever Read

It was the summer of 1970…I was dreading a long family car trip mainly because I was 14, I had braces on my teeth and was starting high school in the fall.  I was required to be full of dread.

The big hits on pop radio that summer were “Mama Told Me Not to Come” (Three Dog Night), “Close to You” (Carpenters), “Everything is Beautiful” (Ray Stevens), “The Long and Winding Road” by the Beatles, “The Overture from Tommy” by the Assembled Multitude, “25 or 6 to 4” by Chicago and “Teach Your Children” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.  On and on the list goes…great stuff.  I still have some of the 45’s. (If you don’t know what those are, tough luck)

But I had a long car trip ahead of me and I was miserable.  I couldn’t even drive yet.

To pass the time on the trip, I went to the library and saw a book that caught my eye…relatively new from Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain.   I checked it out and started to read.  I couldn’t stop reading.  I was transported to an underground virus containment facility deep in the desert and worked desperately to find a way to combat a subspace virus that threatened to destroy the earth.

It was the shortest car ride ever.  I don’t even remember Nebraska.  It was the first full-length novel I ever read.

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Home from Ghana

I returned home two days ago after spending a week with publishers in the city of Accra, Ghana representing Media Associates International ( The Ghana Publisher’s Forum included about thirty people from both Christian and general trade publishers, gathering for sixteen topical sessions over four days on subjects as wide ranging as Developing a Strong Publishing Program to Human Resource Management.

Last fall, I had the privilege of meeting 200 publishing people from 50 countries at the LittWorld 2012 conference in Kenya, organized by MAI.

This month, Ramon Rocha and I presented material separately and together. He is the director of MAI’s training programs. As former CEO of OMF Literature in Manila, Philippines, Ramon led them from 1997-2008 to become that nation’s largest Christian publishing house. He was the founding chair of MAI-Asia, offering training and consultation to publishing leaders and authors in 11 countries, including China, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and others. He authored The Christian Publisher: Strong in the Storm in the Expand Your LittWorld series (MAI).

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Think Global Writing

As you read this, I am in the bustling city of Accra, Ghana in West Africa taking part in four days of training for Ghanaian publishers, August 20-23, conducted by Media Associates International (  International publishing guru Ramon Rocha and I are participating in seminars on a wide range of topics.  My little secret is that I learn and am blessed far beyond what I carry from home in the U.S.   We would appreciate your prayers that our presentations are well received and they we rely on God’s wisdom rather than our own.

Last fall, I had the privilege to present material at the tri-annual LittWorld conference in Nairobi, Kenya…hosting 200 people from 50 countries.  (Even Mongolia was represented)

On the flight over, one of the in-flight movies was The Social Network, a drama that traced the beginnings of Facebook from 2003.  What started as a college website with less than honorable intentions now has 1.1 billion (that’s a “b”) registered users worldwide…about one in six humans on the earth.

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Doomsday Words

“Nobody is buying print books anymore”

“Nobody is buying printed magazines or newspapers anymore”

“No one shops at bookstores anymore”

“No one is reading anymore”

“No one goes to the trade shows anymore”

“No one needs a traditional publisher anymore”

“Everyone should just self-publish”

When the speed of change is faster than we can easily comprehend, our language has a difficult time catching up with reality, so we have a tendency to use over-stated terms to describe what is happening.  Our very choice of words open the door to making some very poor business decisions.  How?  Rather than seeking wise solutions by understanding the facts, we make fast decisions based on incomplete information.   Simply…it’s faster.

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One Day at a Time Technology

Computers are the perfect example of something we learn about and then must constantly update that knowledge. It’s like we have all had to become scientists or doctors. Just a few years ago, computer storage was measured in megabytes. Then it reached a thousand megabytes and we moved on to gigabytes. When we reach a thousand gigabytes we need terabytes.

As a public service, here is something to memorize so you can be as smart as a fourth grader:

1 Bit = Binary Digit

8 Bits = 1 Byte

1000 Bytes = 1 Kilobyte
1000 Kilobytes = 1 Megabyte
1000 Megabytes = 1 Gigabyte
1000 Gigabytes = 1 Terabyte
1000 Terabytes = 1 Petabyte
1000 Petabytes = 1 Exabyte
1000 Exabytes = 1 Zettabyte
1000 Zettabytes = 1 Yottabyte
1000 Yottabytes = 1 Brontobyte
1000 Brontobytes = 1 Geopbyte

In the 90’s when everyone needed to have a website, we all learned the same thing…that just having a website wasn’t enough.  We needed to update it every month, then every week, then every day just to keep the traffic growing.

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Art Wins

By Dan Balow

Over 25 years ago, one of my favorite magazines was a “geek” publication called “American Demographics.” The magazine doesn’t exist any longer, but the various contributors to the magazine continue to comment in other publications.

Almost every day, I think about one of the articles I read in AD from those many years ago. It was a tongue-in-cheek piece on the danger of “WIWAK” research …where a person will make a decision based on When I Was A Kid. The article was a call to make informed decisions based on facts, regardless of your personal biases.

A lot of publishing decisions are made because, “my son would never read this”, or “I don’t like books on…”

Successful publishing is almost always a result not of thinking “outside of the box”, but thinking outside of ourselves.

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What Am I Looking For?

I started in Christian publishing in 1983 working in the telemarketing department for David C. Cook Publishers when they were located in Elgin, Illinois.   As a young guy working for a company that had been around for over 100 years, I was in awe.

Starting to work for Steve Laube and with professionals like Karen Ball and Tamela Hancock Murray, I am stunned once again.  We combine for over 100 years of experience in Christian publishing…but at least it is spread around to four people!

My years working in the industry not only have taught me the nuts and bolts of publishing, but also how to treat people.  We are people with specific strengths, gifted by God and passionate about communicating God’s grace and truth to the world.  I am excited to begin the journey.

What am I looking for?

Fiction and non-fiction with a core of great story.  Story is not limited to fiction, just as teaching lessons isn’t limited to non-fiction.   My early days were spent in advertising learning that the best advertising was engaging and interesting…not just information.  So, I have spent a lifetime being affected by stories…and feel that books need to have that element.

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