Wednesday, August 11, 2004

C-SPAN Writes Last Chapter Of 'Booknotes'

By Tommy Nguyen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 11, 2004; Page C01

In announcing the cancellation of "Booknotes" -- C-SPAN's popular author interview program -- yesterday, host Brian Lamb was haunted by the numbers. He spends 20 hours each week reading books in preparation for "Booknotes," he estimates. That's 1.8 years of his life that have been dedicated to reading since the show debuted April 2, 1989. Now he wants to reclaim some of that time for his personal life.

Has it come to this? The author-interviewer, arguably the most quirky and dedicated on television, the creator and curator of one of TV's few institutions for avid readers -- has he finally tired of books?

"Oh, that's not true -- I still love reading," Lamb says. "I've never missed a show in all these years. It's been great, but I also think it seemed, in many ways, like I was always studying for a semester exam every week. Even kids in school get the summers off. I just thought it was time to do something new."

The program -- which has featured guests ranging from Bill Clinton to Shelby Foote, from Roger Mudd to Michael Moore -- will be pulled Dec. 5, when "Booknotes" celebrates its 800th author interview.

"What? They're canceling 'Booknotes?' " says Barbara Meade, co-owner of the Politics and Prose book store on Connecticut Avenue, a mecca for a "Booknotes" kind of person. A candlelight vigil at the store has not been announced. "Well, our store customers have loved watching his interviews, and they've gotten very interested in a particular book after watching a show [on the book]. We hear from our customers that 'Booknotes' is the only thing they watch on TV. They're going to be very disappointed."

As word spread yesterday among book lovers, many remarked on the way the show's tone and mood could edge on the surreal. Some recall Lamb asking questions such as:

"What was it like running U.S. foreign policy?"

"Was Khrushchev a trustworthy man?"

"How much did you make when you were 23 years old?"

"What is buggery?" Lamb once asked author Martin Gilbert.

Lamb's idiosyncratic interview techniques were eulogized. "Lamb's show is the most strait-laced stream-of-consciousness bit of showbiz on a rigidly anti-showbiz outlet in the history of entertainment," said one author who did not wish to be identified because he had been a guest on the show.

Local literary agent Debra Grosvenor, who has seen many of her clients on the show (including Eleanor Clift and Steve Neal), says she'll miss it a great deal.

"It was fabulous," she says. "It seemed to be an unbiased discussion on that particular book, and Lamb comes across as a very intelligent reader. I don't think its [book sales] impact has ever been quantified in the industry, but we would always be thrilled when one of our authors got on the show."

On Dec. 12, "Booknotes" will be replaced by another interview program hosted by Lamb, tentatively called "Q&A," which will occasionally invite guests from the book world. More frequently, however, they will come from beyond. It's a bonus, says Lamb, if they come from the deep beyond.

"We really want to hear from new and exciting people who are not necessarily writing books, accomplished people from all walks of life," says Lamb, mentioning that politicians, journalists, doctors, scientists and historians will all be a part of his expanded Rolodex. A scenario he's counting on for the show's development sees him picking up the paper, turning to the back pages and finding a story on someone who has very little or no chance of making it on any other TV show. That's his new definition of a quality guest.

"There are 4,000 schools of higher learning in this country," Lamb says. "How many of those chancellors and presidents have you seen on TV? How many of them have interesting stories to tell? How about we just start with that?"

Lamb, founder and CEO of C-SPAN, says he also changed the show's focus because he has become a bit weary of the book promotion cycle: After publishing a book, an author will simply make the rounds and appear on many shows. "What really kept me and the show going all these years was this great opportunity to learn something new in my reading, meet new authors and pass along my unique experience to the audience," says Lamb. But since exclusive television appearances are so rare among authors, "it seems that I can't do that anymore. So if I do interviews with authors in the future, I'd rather talk to them outside of that sequence."

"Booknotes" will still survive on its Web site, where archives of the interviews will remain, and Lamb insists that BookTV -- C-SPAN2's 48-hour programming on the weekends -- will see enhancements that will compensate for the loss of "Booknotes." Most likely viewers will see another interview show soon.

But Lamb wants everyone to get excited about his new show. "Because we're not governed by ratings on C-SPAN, we have the luxury to experiment," says Lamb. "We can be different and unusual."

C-SPAN Writes Last Chapter Of 'Booknotes' (

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Valuing Bestselling Books
July 2004

Retail Strategy
Research by
Alan Sorensen
Assisstant Professor of Strategic Management
Stanford Graduate School of Business

STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS — Each week millions of readers look at the New York Times bestseller list to see what everybody else in the country is reading. And as soon as a title hits the list, booksellers typically push the book to the front of the store and slash its price by as much as 40 percent.

So it seems reasonable to assume that once a book makes the list its sales will really take off—if not for the lower price then because readers might view bestseller status as a sign of quality or because they don't want to miss the action. According to Alan Sorensen, an assistant professor of strategic management who has studied the effect of bestseller lists on sales of hardcover fiction, the majority of book buyers seem to use the Times' list as a signal of what's worth reading. Relatively unknown writers get the biggest benefit, while for perennial best-selling authors such as Danielle Steel and John Grisham, being on the list makes virtually no difference in sales.

"There is an effect, but it's small—much smaller than most people would have expected," says Sorensen, who studied sales records for 2001 and 2002. "What's remarkable is there is this dominant downward [sales] trend," he says, describing the typical sales path over time in the fiction titles he studied. Most sales occur soon after a book hits the shelves and gradually peter out. "If anything, what appearing on the [bestseller] list does is not so much cause your sales to increase from one week to the next, but rather to decrease at a slower rate."

Of course, looking at bestsellers alone wouldn't prove that any week-to-week sales changes were caused by the list itself. To answer the causal question, Sorensen needed a comparison group: books that sold well but somehow missed the list. So he looked at data from Nielsen BookScan, a sales monitoring service that tracks retail sales of books across the nation. Unlike the New York Times, which samples sales from only some stores, Nielsen BookScan captures most actual sales.

Consequently, Sorensen found differences in the two lists. In fact, in the two years he studied, Sorensen found 109 different books that failed to make the Times list even though Nielsen reported they sold more copies than other titles on the Times' list. Thus, if Sorensen saw sales rise on the Nielsen BookScan data the week following that same title's appearance on the New York Times list but saw no similar increase for a different top-selling Nielsen book that wasn't on the Times list, he inferred that something about the appearance on the Times list caused the subsequent jump in sales.

Based on these comparisons, Sorensen estimates that previously best-selling authors got the least benefit from being on the New York Times list, while unknowns had the greatest jump in sales. On average, he estimates, appearing on the Times list might increase a book's first-year sales by 13 to 14 percent, but for first-time authors sales probably would increase by an impressive 57 percent. And for established authors like Danielle Steel or John Grisham whose every novel seems to become a bestseller, "the list has no discernible impact on sales," writes Sorensen.

This pattern, he says, suggests the bestseller list primarily tells consumers what may be worth reading. "It's free advertising for new authors who make it to the list," he says. With a well-known author, on the other hand, people don't need a bestseller list to help them decide whether to buy the book.

Careful to isolate the bestseller list from other likely causes of higher sales, Sorensen also looked at the famous "Oprah effect," the stunning way being chosen for Oprah Winfrey's on-air book club immediately catapults a title onto the bestseller list. Though reluctant to name numbers because there were few Oprah titles in the sample, Sorensen says the Oprah effect is "many times bigger" than the bestseller effect.

Looking at sales of individual titles is fun, but for economists, says Sorensen, a more interesting question is the effect of bestseller lists on overall product variety. If bestseller lists are indeed generating extra sales, are those sales stolen from other books? Or are those extra sales literally extra sales, bought by people who wouldn't otherwise have bought any book? "It's a really hard question, and I don't have the ideal data for answering it," concedes Sorensen. But he has indirect evidence suggesting that being on the list does indeed generate extra sales. If he's right, everyone but the perennially best-selling authors and their publishers may have a little bit less to grumble about.

—Marina Krakovsky

Research - Valuing Bestselling Books - Stanford GSB

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