DBW’s New eBook Best Seller List is the Work of a VP at HarperCollins

Would you buy an ebook from this man?
Yesterday Digital Book World unveiled a new project. For the first time ever there was a single best seller list for ebooks which tried to reflect the relative standings of all the major US ebookstores. The new list is based on a system developed by Dan Lubart at his startup company Iobyte’s eBook MarketView service.

I don’t like the new list for a couple reasons, mostly because I don’t trust the data sources (Amazon’s fiddled with their rankings before). But it turns out that I missed a huge problem with the list. It turns out that Lubart isn’t just the founder of IoByte; he is also currently a senior VP at HarperCollins for Sales Analytics.

Conflict of Interest, much?

I missed that detail yesterday because DBW didn’t disclose it anywhere.  It’s not mentioned in his post on the DBW blog (where it should have been at least mentioned as a footnote), nor is it listed in his author bio. The only person who noticed and made a big deal about it was Len Feldman. He noticed an offhand reference to this detail in Mike Shatzkin’s writeup of the story.

As shocking as it may be, you can confirm the info on Dan’s LinkedIn page (he’s worked for HC since October of last year). So what we have here is a best seller list which uses a secret algorithm based on the work of someone who didn’t tell us that he worked for a Big 6 publisher. Yeah, I must say that I am filled to the brim with confidence.

And I can’t help but feel that he was being deliberately deceptive. This detail was left out of DBW’s own press release, and even though Dan has a fairly detailed author’s bio on DBW, there was no mention of HarperCollins either. That failure to disclose renders all of Dan’s other posts on the DBW blog suspect.

It also raises questions about why so few self-pubbed ebooks made it on to the list.  As one reader reminded me on Twitter, Mike Shatzkin made a big deal yesterday about this very absence:

First of all, there is a striking lack of self-published material represented. There is not one self-published ebook in the overall Top 25 and only two appear at all, both on the lowest price band (from zero to $2.99).

Given that 4 Smashwords titles made the NYT list in a single week, it doesn’t really make sense that none would show up on the DBW ovarall list. How do we know that there isn’t some weighting against self-published ebooks? What else do you think they’re concealing from us?

Whoops. I hate it when news changes while I’m still working on a blog post, but apparently Dan’s bio has now been updated to reflect his current job at HC. That detail wasn’t there this morning nor was it there when I read up on Dan yesterday.

I still don’t trust the numbers. And the quiet way that DBW is adding a mention of HC after the fact (and after I asked the editor for a comment) doesn’t reassure me either.

Can you give me a compelling argument which would prove he wasn’t biased in the favor of his employer?

26 thoughts on “DBW’s New eBook Best Seller List is the Work of a VP at HarperCollins

  1. I read the article and also Shatzkin’s praise of this list he helped invent. Is it me or are there more and more people trying to get in bed with the Big 6 and dismiss indie authors and Amazon as real players?

    I find Mike’s response to my comment about royalty rates on his blog a bit stunning– that most legacy authors never earn out (true) so the royalty rates don’t matter much (not true). An author who consistently (and in publishing terms consistently is often once) doesn’t earn out, finds themselves looking for a job.

  2. Only two Harper Collins books made the list. Both in the $0.00-2.99 list. One made the overall list at #25 which is James Rollins Sigma Force at $0.99.

    At least he isn’t favoring his employers titles.

  3. It is truly unbelievable (or maybe not so) that an employee of the big 6 could concoct this amount of rubbish. Perhaps self publishing is a significant threat after all. (I know, I’m finding that hard to believe too)

  4. Perhaps, more importantly is the accuracy of the information being presented. The notion behind this is actually appealing. Although, it hasn’t made the best start, there probably is a market for this type of collective data. Most ebook retailing websites generally publish something similar,so I really couldn’t see myself making use of this.

  5. My problem with Shatzkin’s article and with the DBW bestseller lists is that they are based on what I believe to be a false premise. As I noted at Shatzkin’s blog, the lists are leading people to draw a wrong conclusion — that pricing doesn’t matter — by comparing apples to oranges.

    If Stephen King’s novel is in the top 10 at the $14.99 price, what does that really tell us about the novel’s sales? Not much. We don’t know whether 1,000 or 25,000 units were sold at that price, only that more units of King’s ebook were sold at that price than any other ebook at that price.

    A more important statistic would be had if the publisher first sold King’s ebook at $14.99 then a month or two later sold the ebook, for the same period of time, at, say, $4.99. If at $14.99 1,000 units were sold but at $4.99 25,000 units were sold, we would learn that pricing does matter and matters significantly. OTOH, if at $4.99 only 1,500 units were sold, an argument could well be made that pricing doesn’t matter.

    I also agree that there is something fishy about the bestseller lists at the lower dollar end that do not include indie authors. Few Agency 6 ebooks are ever sold at less than $4.99 whereas most indie books are, which would lead me to believe that indie ebooks should be leading — or at least be well represented — on some of the lists.

    1. How ridiculous is this!

      I never said “pricing doesn’t matter.” And only a fool would contend that books will sell the same number at a higher price than at a lower price. I haven’t seen such a fool in print. And I have certainly never been one, at least not that way.

      The POINT here is that they’re trying to add up UNITS (approximating, of course, because they’re translating rank into an approximation of units.) They’re saying the more expensive branded books are selling more UNITS than the cheaper books.

      I didn’t think I’d have to get simplistic, but read this carefully. I am NOT saying that is BECAUSE they are more expensive. I am saying that DESPITE the fact that they’re more expensive, the branded books from the majors sell more. Or at least that is what the data here suggests. Challenge the data; challenge the methodology. But don’t create straw horse arguments and pin them to me!

      1. >>>And only a fool would contend that books will sell the same number at a higher price than at a lower price. I haven’t seen such a fool in print.

        Um, look at your clients for that.

        1. Mike: Name ONE! Just one.

          If any major publisher has EVER said a book will sell just as many units at a higher price than it will at a lower price, I’ve never seen or heard it. Please deliver the citation. I’d be very curious about it and the chances are I can debate the point with whomever it is personally.

          They’re all experimenting with pricing because they know exactly the opposite. In fact, that’s precisely WHY HarperCollins hired Dan Lubart.

          And, to be fair, I had nothing to do with putting this list together. They did confer with me (and a few others) about the methodology a couple of weeks ago — when it was basically done but not yet announced. But none of this work is mine. I say that to deflect unwarranted credit, not to avoid any blame.

          1. Agency is about controlling pricing to the consumer. Because publishers don’t just sell ebooks and because online channels are not the only way they reach customers.

            So, in other words, because YOU believe that the only logical reason for agency would be if a publisher believed they could sell more or the same number at a higher price, that must mean THEY believe it, even though none of them have ever said it and they’re constantly conducting pricing experiments (some of which seem to be documented in DBW’s bestseller list) that demonstrate that they don’t believe it.

            I think you should stick to accusations that you can back up. They’d be much more effective.

  6. And if you’re looking for a “compelling argument” that Lubart wasn’t cheating on behalf of Harper when he did this list, just add up the number of slots they have compared to the others. I decided not to do the math in my post because I didn’t want to raise the red herring, but those of you who do ought to at least do that simple calculation. (You’ll find that Harper has an embarrassingly small number of slots!)

    1. I only wondered if the list was biased in favor of traditionally published ebooks and against indie ebooks. Given Lubart’s job and the contents of the current list that is a fair question.

  7. What exactly is the this kerfuffle about? Is it that only a disinterested outside observer can draw up such a list? If so then we might as well forget the whole idea since such a paragon is nowhere to be found.

    Or is it because the list itself is flawed, maybe because everybody’s favorite self-publisher is not on it? It is up to those who mutter darkly of conspiracies to bring forth their evidence. We can then all decide for ourselves whether Mr Lubart is a Big 6 stooge or not.

    Lubart can be found discussing some issues with others at http://www.thepassivevoice.com/08/2012/digital-book-world-introduces-an-ebook-bestseller-list/

    He also used to run a blog at http://www.ebmv.blogspot.com/

  8. Question the methodology, question whether it adequately captures all of the relevant Self-published universe, but don’t question Dan Lubart’s integrity or intent in trying to make analytical sense of an extraordinarily complex (and inherently flawed) data set.
    I first met Dan last year, when he was gracious enough to provide my partner & I some statistical background insight for our company, LibroMoto, an eBook Flash-Sale start-up. This was pre-Harper, and at the time he was quite independently struggling with many of the same issues for his own company IObytes, and its clients. He had no incentive to help us, but over a number of conversations, it became clear that that is just who he is. Dan is passionate about developing real, statistically rigorous tools for us all to better understand what’s happening across the marketplace.

    Dan (together with DBW, Mike Shatzkin, et al) is providing a genuine service that – while not perfect – is a truer reflection of reality than anything else available to the industry at large at the moment. And he’s doing it outside his day to day accountabilities @ Harper. And, as Mike points out, if they are seeking some nefarious advantage, ‘Harper has an embarrassingly small number of slots!’ on that list. Good on Dan for taking this on – And good on Harper for not keeping him all to themselves!

    1. Bob,

      It’s all well and good that you can vouch for his character, but from my viewpoint I don’t know Dan Lubart from Adam. All i know is that one day he appeared with a secret system for measuring ebook market ranking, and that the next day I learned that he wasn’t just a founder of a startup but also a VP at HarperCollins. Is it wrong to wonder what else might DBW be hiding from us?

  9. Nate, Nothing wrong at all – we need Digital Reader to parse/reality check any new eBook metrics model – Why not reach out to Dan directly?

    1. I did, actually. I reached out to him via Twitter, thought that account and his website both look dead. That’s not enough effort, I’ll admit, but I didn’t try harder because I already knew Jeremy and he was inside the project.

      And while I didn’t communicate with Dan, I did exchange emails with Jeremy Greenfield on Monday.That’s how I got some of of my background info.

      I also contacted Jeremy on Tuesday (before I posted this article) with my concerns. He did not wish to speak on the record, and while I can’t hold that against him in the post it did set off my radar. That added bit of secretiveness only worsened how I felt about the undisclosed information.

  10. Let me take a crack at this:

    1: We have no way of knowing what’s going on inside Dan Lubart’s head, or why DBW chose to work with an analyst with an obvious conflict of interest (and the fact that the first list doesn’t have a lot of HarperCollins titles on it doesn’t remove the fact that there’s an obvious conflict.) All we know is that there IS a conflict of interest, and DBW failed to reveal it until pressed by Nate.

    2: Journalists do NOT say that the only way they’ll talk about a subject is “off the record”. That’s what their sources say. If the only way that DBW was willing to give Nate an explanation was off the record, Nate is fully entitled to draw the conclusion that DBW is hiding something.

    3: Mike, the methodology of the DBW list (much of which is secret) makes it inherently biased against both self-publishers (who sell most of their titles at a low price) and non-Agency publishers, whose titles are discounted. Take two titles, a self-published one selling for $3.00 and a Big 6 title selling for $12.00. If you look at quantity alone, if the self-published title and the Big 6 one sell the same quantity, they would rank at the same place on the bestseller list. Once you add in price, the self-published title would have to sell four times as many copies to have the same ranking as the Big 6 title. That gives an enormous advantage to the publishers who hire you as a consultant. (And perhaps, that’s a reason why you’re so enthusiastic about the DBW list.) Do you consult with or provide paid services to DBW or F+W Media?

    4: In addition, Mike, in many decades of publishing, to my knowledge, no recognized compiler of best-seller lists has included the sale price in determining the rankings. Why is price suddenly such an important part of the equation? Does DBW, which primarily reprints press releases from other people and unedited blog posts, along with hosting sponsored and for-fee webinars, have either the credibility or experience to justify changing the rules in this way?

  11. Responding to your numbered points, Len.

    1. There are very few people with any real history or perspective on this problem. Lubart was working on it for a year or more before HarperCollins hired him, and he has maintained the company he started since they did (with their approval, obviously.) He has data going back years and expertise with the data going back years. That’s why Harper hired him.

    Here’s my first post citing him, and it is from 14 months ago:
    http://www.idealog.com/blog/amazons-sunshine-program-is-another-wake-up-call-for-the-big-six/

    There are very few such people and I’m not sure whom else DBW could have partnered with, let alone anybody better. As for the notion that DBW somehow “concealed” Dan’s affiliation, it is really beyond paranoia to suggest that.

    Google him. Dan’s LinkedIn page is the FIRST link Google gives you if you look for him. The Harper job is at the top of his profile. The idea that this is some sort of secret being concealed is really silly. Sometimes when you don’t know something, it isn’t somebody else’s fault for not having told you. And when you don’t even take the step of Googling something you think is important, then it is really amateur hour to complain about what you didn’t know!

    2. That’s an interesting rule you have there for journalists being on or off the record. I’m not aware of it being formulated or applied by anybody else. But that’s between you and Jeremy Greenfield. I’m not his mother and I’m not his boss.

    3. I think you misunderstand the application of price in the list. Although I have previously ADVOCATED that ebooks require a “box office” type bestseller list instead of a “unit” bestseller list, that’s NOT what they’re doing. They’re counting units. So the unfair advantage is to the LOW-priced books, not the high-priced books.

    Does it embarrass you at all that the facts completely reverse your argument?

    And as for me being part of the publishing establishment: yes, I am. It is not a secret (check MY LinkedIn page…) that I program the annual January Digital Book World conference (although I don’t have anything to do with the DBW blog, which is Jeremy’s activity. ) I was asked to hear them out on the methodology they applied to the list and I did. I wrote a post about it and said that I thought that the great value they brought was TIERING the list by price (which is different from WEIGHTING it by price.)

    So the DBW conference is a very good client of mine, yes. The Big Six publishers not so much. This year I’ve had one assignment with one of them that might account for 5% of my revenues for the year.

    I may be wrong, but I’m not “bought”.

    4. They didn’t use the sale price to DETERMINE the rankings. They used it to provide CONTEXT to the rankings. Which old-style lists did inherently because they were divided by format (hardcover, trade paper, mass-market paper). In fact, it was USA TODAY that changed the mold by doing a consolidated bestseller list across formats.

    DBW’s credibility is whatever it is. Lots of people have questioned the accuracy or veracity bestseller lists in the past, including that of The New York Times. That’s fair game. But you tell me whether you’ve read nearly as much about the methodology of anybody else’s list (NYT, USA, Amazon, Bowker, PW, or anybody else) as you have about theirs. You haven’t.

    And I would never suggest that any of the others, including Amazon’s, are rigged or invalid. I think you and this blog should be a bit more circumspect about directing that accusation at DBW.

    Really, all the evidence you need that no “fix” is in is to look at Harper’s standing on the list. But evidence doesn’t seem to matter much when the indie world complains about the establishment.

    1. Mike, while I have given and received info off the record before, that was not the right policy for this particular situation.

      And as for not knowing Dan’s ties to HC, I read the press release, author bio, and everything else posted by DBW. They were careful to describe his relationship to IoByte but there was no mention of the fact that he worked at HC. Considering that the press release specifically mentions Dan as the managing partner of IoByte, there was indeed a correct spot for DBW to also mention his position at HC. It would have taken 4 words to pass along the information. That absence is a failure to disclose.

      And everyone else who is mentioned in the press release includes the name of their company/employer. Should we have fact checked all those people as well? From now on I think I will, but at the time I had assumed that DBW would share all the relevant info.

  12. Mike, you make a lot of assumptions:

    1) By Dan Lubart’s own admission, he has very little publishing experience. If all it takes is a small amount of experience to become “the only person” who can possibly pull this list off, then I would say that almost anyone with any industry analysis or market research experience could do it.

    2) It’s not the reader’s responsibility to say “Gee, I wonder if the guy doing the research works for the sales department one of the biggest publishers in the world. I think I’ll go do the research.” It’s the responsibility of the parties involved to disclose the potential conflict of interest up front. Otherwise, it looks like they have something to hide. After all, YOU felt that it was important enough to reveal on your own blog. Why didn’t DBW, or Lubart, do it?

    3) Here’s a direct quote from Lubart’s own description of his methodology:

    “8) Titles are ranked by final scores and also grouped into sub-lists by price (four separate price-band lists: $0 – $2.99; $3.00 – $7.99; $8.00 – $9.99; and $10.00 and above)
    9) Minimum price that appeared at any point during the week on any retailer is used for determine price band (assumption that low price is an important driver of ranking)”

    I reiterate: Why sort out eBooks by price? If eBooks are, to your mind, just another binding, then why not sort all the titles with the same binding together? There can be a huge difference in the prices of hardcovers, for example. It makes sense to sort by genre, but by price? And why is the assumption that low price is an important driver of ranking? There’s certainly price elasticity for any given title (you do understand price elasticity, don’t you, Mike?). but there’s little or no cross-title elasticity.

    By the way, for some reason, DBW has taken their bestseller down from the front page and hidden it behind their search engine. Possibly the kitchen is getting a little too hot for them.

    Does it embarrass you that I’ve torn all your arguments apart?

    4) I give you credit for admitting that you’re being paid by DBW. Now, let’s go a little further. You position yourself as an independent expert on the book industry to the public, press and courts. Who are your other clients? Are you currently being paid, or within the last 12 months have you been paid, either as a consultant or contractor, by any of the Big 6 publishers, their ad agencies, PR agencies or legal counsel? A yes or no answer will suffice. The public needs to know exactly who’s paying for you, so that they can judge your independence. “Trust me” is not an acceptable answer.

    Finally, I know that you’ll continue to respond and respond until you get the last word. I don’t know if your clients know you’re using their billable time to do this, but if they’re willing to pay you to do it, then be my guest.

  13. @shatzkin

    >>>I think you should stick to accusations that you can back up. They’d be much more effective.

    We have the entire frikkin history of Big 6 publishing for the past 30 years to examine. When have they ever lowered prices? $25-$35 and up for hardcovers (and don’t weasel out of this shit by citing bookseller discounts — that’s what they won’t let Amazon do with Kindle books), no matter what the page count. They’ve gotten used to pricing *objects* and now that they object has been stripped down to the essential — the words — they cry that they can’t compete. They are the only industry that runs counter to sensible pricing rules. If they had produced the iPad, it would have been $999.99. To “protect the value” of it.

    >>>“We must do everything in our power to uphold the value of our content against the downward pressures exerted by the marketplace and the perception that ‘digital’ means ‘cheap.'”

    Carolyn Reidy’s Two Worlds
    http://www.mediabistro.com/appnewser/carolyn-reidys-two-worlds_b128

    >>>So, in other words, because YOU believe that the only logical reason for agency would be if a publisher believed they could sell more or the same number at a higher price, that must mean THEY believe it, even though none of them have ever said it

    What the hell are you even trying to say here? Do you even know? Are you saying they want to price higher to *restrict* sales? Yet then cry that they can’t compete because no one buys their *overpriced* eBooks?

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