Best-seller lists: let the buyer beware

February 5, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism.

To know anything about publishing is to know that best-seller lists are not always what they appear to be.

Some of those lists do in fact reflect sales of books. But many, especially the ones you might see inside bookstores, reflect something quite different.

Recently there surfaced a story from Great Britain that WH Smith, one of the nations largest booksellers. has been publishing a list determined at least in part by whether or book had been boosted in a deal with publishers, industry according to industry insiders. 

A former WH Smith employee has blown the whistle on a practice that had the retailer instructing employees to display Richard Osman’s novel The Thursday Murder Club in the number one slot in stores regardless of its sales figures. Penguin Random House, the publishers, had paid for such a space.

Here’s part of the story:

“When the last Richard Osman came out, Penguin bought the number one spot on all WH Smith in-store bestseller charts so it had to be displayed as the bestseller in every single store, whether it actually was or not,” Barry Pierce, who worked at the retailer from 2020 to 2021, recently claimed on social media.

Mr Pierce and his colleagues received “no data or rubric to follow” when putting together their bestseller chart when he worked at WH Smith, the former sales associate told iNews, a news website in Great Britain. 

Instead, the chart comprised books that WH Smith wanted to “push”, and was treated as a “promotional space” rather than a “legitimate chart” based on which books were selling the most copies, he claimed. (

Publishers generally charge more for books listed as best-sellers, so the investment in getting a book on the best seller list can pay big dividends.

So, book buyers beware: Not all best-seller lists are what they seem.



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