LETTER : Penguin 60s: don't kill the messenger

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The Independent Online
From Mr Steve Butler

Sir: It is saddening, though not surprising, to read in your article on the Penguin 60s ("Penguin turns a new page", 12 August) the intemperate and ill-informed criticisms of Bookwatch's bestseller lists by publishers who feel deprived of "their" bestseller list places by the Penguin campaign. This is a classic case of "killing the messenger". Unable to respond directly to Penguin's success, the managing director of Macmillan, the head of marketing at Reed and the chairman of HarperCollins resort to attacking us, the lists' compilers.

I do not recall anyone telling us on previous occasions that one of their books was not really number one, and would we please mark it down. If our methods were satisfactory then they must be now, since we apply them without variation or favour in every case. All these publishers subscribe to the basic sales data from which our lists are compiled, and presumably find it worthwhile.

Adam Westcott, head of marketing at Reed publishing, who worked at Bookwatch from 1989 to 1991, attacks our methods as "not objective and scientific". But our methods have changed significantly since he left. We now use a panel of more than 250 shops weekly (four years ago, this averaged only around 75); 300 per cent more "raw" data, a more sensitive system of analysis using a new computer system and a far greater proportion of sales data supplied direct from shops' computer terminals - all things that publishers urged us to undertake.

The contention of Ian Chapman, managing director of Macmillan books, that the "true place" of Jackie Collins' Hollywood Kids "is in the top five" merely illustrates the problems publishers have in seeing past their own hype. Without the Penguin 60s, I dare say, it would be in the top five, but the public would not accept bestseller lists that did not reflect sales of almost three million books in five weeks. If the lists are "incredibly important for morale and can have a big influence on unit sales", publishers should be keen to ensure that the public perceives them as trustworthy.

Bookwatch does not have the final say over what kinds of books are included in or excluded from newspaper bestseller lists. It is editors who have decided that the Penguin 60s should be included. Publishers know this. So why are they using Penguin's success to try to rubbish our reputation?

Yours sincerely,

Steve Butler

Research Manager


Chesham, Buckinghamshire