Publishers pay to get books on WH Smith 'bestseller' charts, say industry insiders

WH Smith customers could be forgiven for assuming the retailer’s “bestseller” charts are a ranking of the page turners flying off its shelves.

Yet customers who purchase a novel or autobiography displayed in the top 100 chart may be buying a book not nearly as popular as its placement suggests.

In some cases, the chart position is based not on sales, but how much a publisher has paid to have its title billed a "bestseller", industry insiders have said.

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One former WH Smith employee revealed when he worked at the high street chain, staff were instructed to display author and TV presenter Richard Osman’s novel The Thursday Murder Club in the number one slot, regardless of sales figures, because publisher Penguin Random House had paid for the space.

WH Smith remains a familiar sight on Scottish high streets. Picture: Scott Reid

“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,” claimed Barry Pierce, who worked at WH Smith as a sales associate from 2020 to 2021.

Mr Pierce and his colleagues received “no data or rubric to follow” when putting together their bestseller chart and understood the bestseller chart comprised books that WH Smith wanted to “push” and was treated as a “promotional space”.

“Often … our area manager would come in and rearrange the chart so certain books [would] appear higher,” Mr Pierce said.

Industry figures, who backed up Mr Pierce’s account, maintained such agreements have long been part of the way publishers and retailers have done business.

James Daunt, managing director at Waterstones, the UK’s largest bookshop chain, said it was commonplace for other retailers to exchange spots in their charts for money.

He said Waterstones itself previously made around £27 million a year from publishers for positions in its “bestseller” charts until 2011, when Mr Daunt put an end to the deals following his appointment – a decision he says has helped the business “thrive”.

“Since I took over in 2011, Waterstones has never taken one penny to place books,” he said.

"The year before, Waterstones took £27 million [from publishers].

“Since stopping taking money in this way, Waterstones has thrived … you sell a lot more books when you let booksellers get on with their job.”

The retail boss said shops will often bet on the titles they believe really could reach the top of the charts, with extra sales coming from their placement becoming a “self-fulfilling prophecy”.

“As a consequence,” Mr Daunt said, “you get almost no change in the authors that are bestsellers. You get very few new voices coming through.”

Mr Daunt said payment for placement in bestsellers charts takes place throughout the industry, including leading supermarkets, with companies looking to maximise revenues from premium shelf space.

Claire Askew, a poet and crime fiction writer, said she had felt “naïve” for not realising sooner the ways in which some retailers “curate” their book charts.

She said: "Decisions are made carefully by publishers and the stores’ buyers for maximum sales."

But one respected industry insider expressed surprise at the practice, and suggested the public is being misled. “If something says chart, I think 99 per cent of consumers would assume it was exactly that,” they said.

WH Smith said in a statement: “Book charts differ across our estate reflecting our different customer bases in High Street, Travel and Online, plus local market conditions and consumer interests

“Our charts combine sales performance with forecasts of which books our buyers anticipate will be bestsellers, which ensures our customers are offered the most relevant range in every store. It is not possible for publishers to buy specific positions in our book charts."

When asked if it is possible for publishers to guarantee a spot in a given range in the chart, such as the top five, the retailer did not respond.

Penguin Random House declined to comment, and a representative for Richard Osman did not respond to requests for comment.

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