Is the New York Times bestseller list politically biased? - Hindustan Times
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Is the New York Times bestseller list politically biased?

The Economist
Jun 23, 2024 08:00 AM IST

Our investigation suggests it is

“The New York Times is pure propaganda,” tweeted Elon Musk, a tech mogul, in March. Mr Musk was responding not to the newspaper’s coverage of his companies or of Donald Trump, but rather to the newspaper’s latest bestseller list. “Troubled”, a book by Rob Henderson, a social critic, about the hypocrisy of America’s elite, had been excluded from the hardcover non-fiction list despite selling 3,765 copies in its first week. According to data from Circana Bookscan, a firm that claims to track 85% of print book sales in America, “Troubled” outperformed the books that ranked in the fourth and fifth slots that week. Many saw the omission as a sign of political bias.

The New York Times Headquarters(Getty Images) PREMIUM
The New York Times Headquarters(Getty Images)

Such criticism is not wholly new. The New York Times, which has kept a tally of bestsellers since 1931, came under fire in 1983, when William Peter Blatty, author of “The Exorcist”, sued the paper for omitting his book “Legion” from the fiction bestseller list. (His case was eventually dismissed.) And last year James Patterson, who has had nearly 290 New York Times bestsellers, complained that the paper was “cooking the books” when a non-fiction title of his did not make the cut. Like Coca-Cola, the New York Times guards its proprietary formula; exactly which retailers report sales, how they are weighted and which sales are screened out is shrouded in mystery.

Whenever the New York Times snubs a prominent conservative book it rekindles a debate about whether the newspaper discriminates against right-wing authors. Alleged victims include Ted Cruz, a Republican senator, who wrote “A Time for Truth” in 2015 and Clay Travis, a radio host, who published “American Playbook” in 2023. “It’s bang-your-head-against-the-wall frustrating,” says Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary under George W. Bush. Mr Fleischer’s book, “Suppression, Deception, Snobbery and Bias”, did not make the list in 2022 despite healthy sales.

Some may be tempted to cast aside such complaints as sour grapes, a popular delicacy in both publishing and politics. But a study by The Economist suggests that accusations of bias against conservative books may have merit.

To determine whether such claims are fact or fiction, The Economist compiled 12 years’ worth of Bookscan data from Publishers Weekly and identified books by 12 publishers that describe themselves as politically to the right of centre. These include Broadside Books, an imprint of HarperCollins that specialises in “conservative non-fiction”, and Regnery Publishing, which bills itself as America’s “leading publisher of conservative books”.

Our search of books released between June 2012 and June 2024 yielded 250 titles, out of a total of 4,169 that made the Publishers Weekly top 25 hardcover non-fiction list in at least one week. We then built a statistical model to predict whether books would appear in the New York Times weekly “hardcover non-fiction” and “advice, how-to and miscellaneous” rankings in order to determine whether books by conservative publishers were included on these lists more or less often than their sales data would suggest.

We estimate that, on average, books by conservative publishers are seven percentage points less likely to make it onto New York Times weekly bestseller lists than books by other publishers with similar sales figures. This disparity does not tend to affect the leading conservative bestsellers. For example, in the past 12 years, Bill O’Reilly, a former Fox News host, has made the non-fiction list as author or co-author with 17 titles, more than anyone else of any political persuasion; in second place is Mr O’Reilly’s sometimes co-author, Martin Dugard, and in third is Glenn Beck, a conservative radio host.

Instead, the bias is concentrated in the lower rungs of the list. Among titles that sell fewer than 5,000 copies per week, books from conservative imprints have a much worse chance of making the list than those from other publishers that sold similar amounts. Those that rank in the bottom ten of 25 slots on the Publishers Weekly bestselling non-fiction books list in a given week are 22 percentage points less likely to make it onto the New York Times list (see chart 1).

Conservative books that do become New York Times bestsellers rank 2.3 notches lower on the non-fiction list, on average, than those published by other presses with similar sales, though the effect varies by publisher (see chart 2). Again, books that are not top bestsellers fare even worse: those at the bottom of the Publishers Weekly ranking place five spots lower.

Not the right stuff

Sceptics might point out that books by conservative publishers primarily focus on politics, and it is possible that the bias experienced by conservative authors is, in fact, a bias against all political books, regardless of their ideological orientation.

To test for this possibility, we matched our data set with data from ISBNdb.com, a book database. This archive contains a “subject” field for around 40% of the books, enabling us to categorise them as political if their subjects included words like “politics” or “president”. To classify whether the remaining books are political, we trained a machine-learning algorithm based on their titles, authors, publishers and, when available, the New York Times’s descriptive blurbs. We then repeated our tests for bias on this smaller set of political books and found the estimated effect to be even greater than in the full sample.

The New York Times did not dispute or confirm our analysis on the record but says: “The political views of authors or their publishers have absolutely no bearing on our rankings and are not a factor in how books are ranked on the lists.” They add that “There are a number of organisations with bestseller lists, each with different methodologies, so it is normal to see different rankings on each.”

What explains conservative books’ potential disadvantage? Politics is the most common refrain. “The New York Times has a view of an acceptable kind of conservative,” says Michael Knowles, a right-wing commentator. His book “Speechless” (2021) sold 17,587 copies in its first week, ranking at the top of the Publishers Weekly list, and sold strongly for several more weeks. But it never appeared on the New York Times list. Mr Knowles, whose book argues that conservatives should actively suppress the speech of their opponents, believes this is because his views are unacceptable to the Grey Lady’s staff.

But there are also differences in the way conservative publishers sell their books. Many of the conservative books that do make the New York Times list may rank much lower than their sales would suggest because of supposed “bulk buying”, purchases that the paper determines are made by institutions or groups, rather than by individual readers. Titles thought to include bulk buys are marked with a “dagger” symbol and can have their rank adjusted. According to the newspaper, “Institutional, special interest, group or bulk purchases, if and when they are included, are at the discretion of the New York Times bestseller list desk editors based on standards…that encompass proprietary vetting and audit protocols, corroborative reporting and other statistical determinations.”

Treating bulk buys differently is meant to make the list harder to game by billionaires, bosses and politicians who want their tomes to top the list and can afford to buy up copies. Though there have been reports in the past of conservative groups attempting to manipulate the list through bulk purchases, our data suggest that use of the dagger is remarkably lopsided: 53% of books from conservative publishers are marked with a dagger, versus just 10% of other books.

Indeed, bulk sales do not appear to explain the bias that we observe in our data. We separated political New York Times bestsellers into one group flagged with a dagger and another without it and found that, in both groups, books from conservative imprints were ranked lower on average than those from other publishers with similar sales.

A final plausible explanation for the bias faced by conservative authors is the way the New York Times bestseller list is compiled. Rather than weighting all sales equally, some publishing veterans believe that the paper may place greater weight on sales at independent bricks-and-mortar bookstores than online retailers. Independent bookstores, which select titles to order and display, may not stock or give prominence to books by conservatives; online everything is available, and right-wing books fly off virtual shelves.

The New York Times list has emerged as a battle in a broader culture war over American publishing. After January 6th 2021, Simon & Schuster cancelled the publication of a book by Josh Hawley, a Republican senator who offered a fist pump of apparent support for the protesters before they ransacked the Capitol. Publishers also got flak for signing former members of the Trump administration. There is a “baked-in, systemic bias” in corporate publishing houses against conservatives, says an executive who works at one of the major ones.

The fairness of the New York Times list is not merely a question of politics. Bestseller status helps an author sell more books, generate speaking fees and negotiate better contracts for future book deals. As other newspapers have done away with their lists and bookstores have closed in recent decades, the New York Times list is even more important. It is supposed to function as a reflection of what the public is reading—and influences what consumers may want to.

A more transparent list would also be more useful. If Alex Jones, a controversial far-right conspiracy theorist, was indeed the second-place bestselling author in America—as Bookscan says he was in August 2022, with a title that was omitted from the New York Times list—people should probably know that. His enduring popularity says a lot about the country and its readers, who are not willing to close the book on him.

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© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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