the complete review Quarterly
Volume III, Issue 3   --   August, 2002

Measuring Success
Some thoughts about bestseller lists
and box office numbers

       The numbers are in again: boffo box office for the third installment in the Austin Powers-series. The estimates for the 26-28 July 2002 weekend domestic gross come in at 71.5 million dollars US. Impressive.
       Gross is what it's all about in the movies. The money that rolls in. Which is understandable, in many ways. Money is what it's all about.
       But even if it's money that is all it's about, why focus on these numbers -- other than the fact that they're pretty easy to calculate ? Gross, after all is, not what you're after: net (i.e. revenues (gross) minus expenses and the like) is all that counts. But since movie studios put Arthur Andersen to shame with their "creative" accounting and manage never to find much net when all is said and done, gross is what gets the big press.
       There's a lot of talk about "highest grossing picture" and such nonsense and these numbers are pretty much all that most people follow; certainly, they are practically all the press talks about. But do box office numbers reflect much of anything ? Maybe there's something to be learned from boring bookish bestseller lists .....
       Bestseller lists (with all their faults and the dubious methods of putting them together) reflect unit sales -- even though (see below) they only reflect them, rather than reveal the hard data. I.e. they suggest the true popularity of a book. Box office numbers do not reflect ticket sales. Not very well, anyway.
       By just counting gross, box office numbers overrate cinema-goers in more expensive markets and those who pay full price. In the boondocks where ticket prices are around five dollars two people have to see any film to count as much as a single New Yorker who pays ten dollars for his or her ticket. G-rated movies, packed with kids who get in for half-price, don't do anywhere near as well as R-rated movies filling just as many seats with full-fare paying adults. Similarly films that appeal to discount-getting seniors have trouble appearing to do as well as those drawing a younger crowd. Given how bunched-up box office totals often are this can have a large effect on the rankings: for example, on their recent opening weekend Minority Report and Lilo and Stitch finished neck and neck in gross numbers, but Disney's movie obviously sold a much larger number of tickets.

       Hollywood gave up counting the success of movies based on ticket sales a long time ago. The reason was a simple one: they were an embarrassment. People forget, but movie-going in the US peaked in the mid-1940s. It declined precipitously for decades after that and, despite a recent surge of interest, has never even come close to reaching the levels of those times again -- and this despite the population being much greater now than it was then. Movie attendance has actually shown nice increases for quite a few years now, but even so attendance in 2002 is only expected to hit around 1.75 billion (the highest in decades, by the way). Impressive ? Consider that in 1943, with a much smaller population (and fewer states !), the nation at war, and many citizens doing their patriotic duty abroad movie attendance was 4.3 billion.
       Hollywood shouldn't be that embarrassed: TV and then videos were the cause of the terrible decline, and when TV screenings and video and DVD rentals and sales are included their movies are probably seen by far more people than ever. Just not at cinemas.
       Why the obsession with gross numbers ? Because they're big -- and inflation helps insure that they tend to grow bigger. Sure, in "inflation adjusted dollars" Gone with the Wind can compete with Titanic, but who can really handle those inflation-adjusting calculations (especially when a movie is re-released years or decades after its original screening to confuse matters more) ?
       The best way to compare the relative success of various films would be to compare how many tickets they sold, not how much money they took in. Of course, the last time that anything sensible was done in Hollywood was -- if ever -- long before the whacky M.P.A.A. came into existence, so don't expect those figures to be released with great fanfare on a weekly basis anytime soon. No, it remains: all gross, all the time.

       With books it is the number sold that counts. Sort of. Many bestseller lists don't strictly adhere to this simple formula -- there's often a whole lot of extrapolation involved, and a certain selectivity (no religious books, no re-published books (which is why you didn't find Lord of the Rings on The New York Times' paperback bestseller list earlier this year)) -- but one way or another copies sold are what counts.
       The book industry -- as authors waiting for their royalty statements can attest to -- is not exceptionally good at figuring out (or at least at revealing) how many copies of any given title they've sold. Some recent technical innovations that are gaining broad use might help rectify this situation, but publishers aren't exactly eager to trumpet most of this information. Box office gross provides at least a hard (or very soft) number that everyone can relate to; bestseller lists only rank books in order of sales, without (with very few exceptions) giving readers any idea of the actual numbers involved.
       The reason, aside from some of the technical difficulties in obtaining the true number of copies sold, is, of course, again one of embarrassment. Books don't sell many copies. Even top sellers. A million copies sold in a year (a total reached by only a handful of books annually) only averages out to less than 3000 copies sold a day -- about the number that attend a successful Broadway show in a big theatre on any given night. (By comparison, even a conservative estimate of the number of movie-goers who saw Austin Powers III on its opening weekend, comes out to about 10,000,000 (in only three days).)
       But getting on those bestseller lists remains a vaunted goal and publishing grail. As consumers for some reason are apparently impressed by this sort of "success" -- far more, it appears, than they are by most critical approval (i.e. if the reviewers like it) and, certainly in the US, far, far more than by any official seals of approval in the forms of prizes or awards (with some genre-exceptions, such as poetry and kids' books). Except for the nod from Oprah (no longer forthcoming) and other celebrity endorsements, making the bestseller list is not only the great sign of success but also what breeds more success.
       Many oddities remain in the bestseller-list world -- including the division of lists into hardcover and paperback. Hardcover and paperback lists are often very similar -- at least on a time-adjusted basis. A year after it was on the hardcover list many a book reappears on the paperback list -- how surprising ! Sure, there are some titles that come out originally and solely in paperback, but this differentiation between formats in determining bestseller status is still an odd (and certainly an unnecessary) one. Except, of course, that publishers love it because it gives them additional bestseller lists to find their books on.
       Maybe the book bestseller lists could learn something from Hollywood's measures of success ? The many and muddled lists -- hardcover and paperback are also always divided into fiction and non-fiction (apparently people are too stupid to differentiate between the two if they were on the same list), and there are often additional lists such as for children's books (infamously instituted at The New York Times in response to the Harry Potter books dominating their "regular" bestseller lists). At least places like just have one big list of truly best-selling books (and then allow for sub-divisions according to readers' tastes and interests). Why not always consolidate the bestseller lists ? Or -- even more fun -- why not do it à la Hollywood and arrange all the books (hardcover and paperback and all genres together) and solely count the gross of the sales ?
       Book prices vary greatly -- far more than movie ticket prices. Looking at The New York Times' many bestseller lists from the 28 July 2002 Book Review:        Add in the fact that many booksellers offer often large discounts (especially on bestselling titles) and the gross numbers begin to look fairly interesting.

       Being a number 1 bestseller isn't always all that it's cracked up to be. Like "winning" the opening weekend at the box office, it's all relative: it depends solely on the competition. There are weekends when a less than 15 million dollar opening will put you number 1 at the box office -- but for the 26-28 July 2002 weekend 70 million wouldn't have sufficed. Similar disparities exist in the book world. But it's all about being number 1, even just for a moment. On the bestseller and box office lists they don't care if all you've accomplished is the equivalent of winning your 2:30 AM TV time slot. In Hollywood they at least have the vague honesty of totalling the gross for the year to figure out what was the biggest blockbuster. In publishing, it's good enough to rank on the weekly list, with not too much attention being paid to the year-end totals.

       It's an odd obsession we have with bestsellerdom and box office. The dollar signs make the latter particularly tantalizing: maybe publishers really should move to that model too, to spice the book world up a bit. It sure is more fun than hearing about print runs (which are oddly never amended to then include return and remainder totals ...) and other largely pointless data.

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© 2002 the complete review Quarterly
© 2002 the complete review