Indie bestseller list looks a lot like the Times'

There's no escaping "Tuesdays With Morrie."

Published December 8, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

The American Booksellers Association is not yet ready to launch the much anticipated (and much delayed) e-commerce portion of its Web site, but it is now publishing its own bestseller lists on the site. The lists are compiled using the sales figures of independent bookstores. Since one of the mottoes of Book Sense is "Independent bookstores for independent minds," you might expect to find a few titles on the lists that don't also show up on mainstream lists such as the ones published by the New York Times.

But it turns out that the Book Sense lists are hardly a triumph of the cappuccino class over the Maxwell House mentality. The results, polled from 170 independents across the country, yield few surprises. In fact, the Book Sense lists include most of the same titles that appear on the two Times lists (one compiled with sales figures from independent bookstores and the other from chain bookstores).

Nevertheless, Book Sense's marketing director, Carl Lennertz, seems pleased with the results. "Over the years it's been easy to think that the chains and the price clubs are the only ones who sell the big bestsellers, and the independents are the ones who are marginalized and do a great job of the midlist," he said. "This just shows that we sell a lot of the bestsellers and we also sell the midlist, and that's where the power comes in."

The Book Sense fiction list does include two literary novels that do not appear on either Times list, but they're hardly sleepers. J.M. Coetzee's "Disgrace" and Ha Jin's "Waiting" have both recently won major honors, the Booker Prize and the National Book Award, respectively. (J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, currently dominating the Times lists, is ranked in Book Sense's children's books list.)

Book Sense's nonfiction list, however, is a little more eclectic, even if Mitch Albom's perennial chart-topper "Tuesdays With Morrie" shows up in the No. 1 position. Bruce Bernard's history book "Century: One Hundred Years of Human Progress" is No. 9, and Jonathan Raban's literary travel memoir "Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings" is No. 12; neither book appears on the Times lists.

Book Sense can claim a clear advantage over the Times bestseller lists in terms of timeliness. There's a seven-day gap between the date that the Times compiles its figures and the circulation date of its list. Book Sense claims that it turns its lists around in three days (taking weekly sales reports on Saturday and e-mailing them to participating stores and publishers by Tuesday). However, the Book Sense lists on the Web site Monday stated that they were reports "for sales the week ending November 27," which suggests that the system isn't yet up to speed.

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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