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they KNOW what we READ

What do Amazon.com's local bestseller lists say about our reading habits? Well, for one thing, that we care more about our belt sizes than our brains.

The bestselling books in Pinellas Park are Protein Power, Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution, and Hannibal, Thomas Harris' sequel to The Silence of the Lambs.

Three diet books!

In St. Petersburg, people are reading about mental health and where to go on a weekend getaway. In Clearwater and Brandon they're investing in books about investing. The most popular book in Tampa is a fishing guide published seven years ago.

Generally speaking, Tampa Bay readers are more interested in their bellies, their kids and their kids' bellies (Slim & Fit Kids is No. 6 in Tampa) than they are in great literature. A couple of high-minded tomes are selling well, but the bestselling fiction is along the lines of Florida Roadkill, a rollicking crime novel.

How do we know all this? The information is right there on Amazon.com. Not content to publish a list of national bestsellers (John Grisham's The Brethren is No. 1 at the moment), the Internet retailer is now posting bestseller lists for cities from Key West to Fairbanks, Ak., and beyond. For some towns it also lists popular compact discs and movies.

In Romania, they're watching John Travolta in Broken Arrow.

Amazon.com generates its lists, which it calls "purchase circles," by keeping track of which books (or CDs or movies) it sends to which ZIP codes. Practically every mail order company does this, but Amazon.com is a pioneer in publishing the information and using it as a sales tool.

"We put it there to help people make purchase decisions, and for entertainment as well," spokeswoman Kay Dangaard said.

It's ingenious marketing. If you find out everybody in your city is reading Patricia Cornwall's Point of Origin (it's No. 1 in Safety Harbor), you might want to read it too, lest you be excluded from cocktail party conversation. Amazon.com updates the lists weekly or monthly, depending on the size of the community.

Still, a question arises: If the Grisham novel is the bestselling book nationwide, why isn't it in any of the purchase circles in the Tampa Bay area? Why haven't other national bestsellers _ the Harry Potter books, Tuesdays with Morrie _ made the lists, either?

Because, as it turns out, purchase circles don't reflect which titles are selling best overall. Instead, they say which books are selling better in a given place than they are in the general population.

They reveal a city's unique interests. Object Technology: A Manager's Guide isn't a big seller in Raleigh, but it's a sensation in St. Petersburg. It's No. 3 on the city's list.

Sometimes the purchase circles are hard to fathom. Slam Dunk Saturday, a young readers' book, is No. 2 in Tampa. But why? Did an elementary school order copies for all its second graders? Are masses of Tampa Bay 8-year-olds going online with their parents' Visa cards? There's no telling.

Those questions aside, the Amazon.com lists are fascinating because of what they say about us. Like traffic patterns and Tampa Bay Lightning season-ticket sales, they define us as a people, revealing what concerns us most.

Turns out we're kind of shallow. If there's one literary idea we all share, it's that we really need to cut back on the carbohydrates.

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The body of evidence for this is corpulent. Sugar Busters and Gary Null's Ultimate Anti-Aging Program are popular in Clearwater. Body for Life is No. 2 in Plant City. Six of the top 10 titles in Brooksville are diet books, and two of the top three were written by Suzanne Somers. Maybe her parents live there.

St. Petersburg readers are also thinking about their waistlines (The New Beverly Hills Diet is No. 9), but that's not all they're thinking about. The city is the best example of what's interesting _ and perplexing _ about purchase circles.

Let's start from the top. The No. 1 title in St. Petersburg is One Tank Trips With Bill Murphy, in which the WTVT-Ch. 13 anchor suggests daylong getaways in the Tampa Bay area. Makes sense; no doubt the slim paperback comes in handy when guests arrive.

It also makes sense that two Florida nature books and Saffron Sky: A Life Between Iran and America, by St. Petersburg author Gelareh Asayesh, are among the top 10.

But what is Kokoro, a 19th-century Japanese novel, doing at No. 4? St. Petersburg is the only place in America where it is listed as a bestseller. Why here? Did a large reading group order a few dozen copies? Or are St. Petersburg readers suddenly concerned _ as the novel is, according to Amazon.com _ "with man's loneliness in the modern world"?

Who knows?

The most unusual entry on the St. Petersburg list is the No. 2 book, Culture & Mental Illness: A Client-Centered Approach.

Light reading!

Wait, there may be explanation. Author Richard L. Castillo says on Amazon.com that the $47.95 textbook "is intended for undergraduate and graduate level courses in anthropology, psychology, psychiatry, nursing, social work, and public health programs."

Is it a required text? Could college students be ordering enough copies to make the book a bestseller?

If so, the colleges don't know about it.

"I've talked to a bunch of folks over here and that title just doesn't ring a bell," Eckerd College spokesman Ross Bannister said. The St. Petersburg Junior College Bookstore doesn't carry it, suggesting it's not required reading at SPJC. University of South Florida spokeswoman Lisa Cunningham said USF isn't using it, either.

Here is one more tantalizing fact, just to add to the mystery: According to Amazon.com, customers who bought Culture & Mental Illness also bought ... Kokoro, the Japanese novel.

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When we are told a book is a bestseller, we assume it is selling lots and lots of copies. That is a fair assumption when the book is on a New York Times bestseller list. The newspaper won't say how many copies a book must sell to get on the list, but the Atlantic Monthly once estimated the number at 40,000-50,000.

But what does it take to be a bestseller in St. Petersburg? How many copies of Culture & Mental Illness have sold locally? How many had to sell before it made the Amazon.com list? And how many more would have to be shipped before it reached No. 1?

Amazon.com knows these answers, but it isn't telling.

"Competitive information," spokeswoman Dangaard said.

This much is clear: Many titles that appear on the Amazon.com lists are not selling particularly well in local bookstores. An example is Frank Sargeant's Secret Spots: Tampa Bay to Cedar Key, the 1992 paperback that is No. 1 on Amazon.com's Tampa list.

"I'm very fond of Frank and he's a neighbor of mine, but it has been quite a while since someone has asked for one of his books," said Carla Jimenez, co-owner of Inkwood Books in Tampa. "I guess everybody's already out fishing."

Jimenez was asked about Amazon.com's other bestsellers. Slam Dunk Saturday?

"We've sold a few, but not recently."

California Blue, a book for young adults?

"It hasn't done particularly well here."

How To Incorporate and Start a Business in Florida?

"We haven't sold any or had any requests."

Florida Roadkill, by Tampa Tribune editor Tim Dorsey?

"That book has done very well here, and continues to sell," Jimenez said. "We're behind that book."

Why are so few Amazon.com bestsellers doing well at Inkwood? The answer may have something to do with the kinds of titles Amazon.com customers are ordering _ namely, books about how to and where to. Jimenez theorized that people use the Internet when researching how to lose weight, buy a car or whatever. When they click their way to Amazon.com, they order a book on the subject.

At Inkwood Books, by contrast, "people are definitely reading books that aren't practical," Jimenez said. So maybe there is a literary life in Tampa Bay.

If Inkwood were to create its own purchase circle for Tampa, it would include books by Carl Hiaasen, Connie May Fowler and James Hall (both of whom had signings there recently), Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Cunningham and Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. There would also be poetry and biography on the list.

But then, Inkwood isn't going to create a purchase circle, or even do any formal customer-profiling, for that matter. Jimenez's idea of market research is remembering customers' names and knowing what they like to read. There's only way to get a book recommendation from her: go to the store and introduce yourself.

"We don't have a Web site," she said.

Here's what we're reading

These were the bestselling books in some Tampa Bay communities as of Monday, according to Amazon.com. To see more local bestseller lists, go to http://www.amazon.com and click on "Purchase Circles."

ST. PETERSBURG

1. One Tank Trips With Bill Murphy.

2. Culture & Mental Illness: A Client-Centered Approach, by Richard L. Castillo.

3. Object Technology: A Manager's Guide, by David A. Taylor, Ph.D.

4. Kokoro: A Novel, by Natsume Soseki.

5. Saffron Sky: A Life Between Iran and America, by Gelareh Asayesh.

6. So Long A Letter, by Marimba Ba.

7. A Solitary Blue, by Cynthia Voight.

8. National Audubon Society Field Guide to Florida.

9. The New Beverly Hills Diet, by Judy Mazel.

10. Native Florida Plants: Low-Maintenance Landscaping and Gardening, by Robert G. Haehle and Joan Brookwell.

TAMPA

1. Frank Sargeant's Secret Spots: Tampa Bay to Cedar Key, by Frank Sargeant.

2. Slam Dunk Saturday, by Jean Marzollo.

3. California Blue, by David Klass.

4. How to Incorporate and Start a Business in Florida, by J.W. Dicks and Franklin M. Mount.

5. Florida Roadkill, by Tim Dorsey.

6. Slim & Fit Kids: Raising Healthy Children in a Fast-Food World, by Judy Mazel.

7. How to Form Your Own Corporation in Florida, by Mark Warda.

8. A Field Guide to Snakes of Florida, by Alan Tennant, Kenneth L. Krysko and Richard D. Bartlett.

9. Florida Wildflowers in their Natural Communities, by Walter Kingsley Taylor.

10. Advice to Artists in a Postmodern Era, by William V. Dunning and Ben Mahmoud.

CLEARWATER

1. How to Make Money in Stocks, by William J. O'Neil.

2. Where's Harry?: Steve Stone Remembers His Years With Harry Caray, by Steve Stone.

3. The Eight New Rules of Real Estate, by John A. Tucillo.

4. Gary Null's Ultimate Anti-Aging Program, by Gary Null.

5. Who Moved My Cheese?, by Spencer Johnson.

6. Sugar Busters!, by H. Leighton Steward et al.

7. Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem, by Simon Singh.

8. Front Row at the White House, by Helen Thomas.

9. Monica's Story, by Andrew Morton.

10. All Too Human, by George Stephanopolous.

PINELLAS PARK

1. Protein Power, by Michael R. Eades.

2. Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution, by Robert C. Atkins.

3. Hannibal, by Thomas Harris.

PLANT CITY

1. Pop Goes the Weasel, by James Patterson.

2. Hannibal, by Thomas Harris.

3. The Carbohydrate Addict's Lifespan Program, by Rachel F. Heller and Richard Ferdinand Heller.

BRANDON

1. The Motley Fool's You Have More Than You Think, by David Gardner et al.

2. A+ Certification Exam Guide, by Michael Meyers.

3. Vittorio the Vampire: New Tales of the Vampires, by Anne Rice.

BROOKSVILLE

1. Protein Power, by Michael R. Eades.

2. Suzanne Somers' Get Skinny on Fabulous Food.

3. Suzanne Somers' Eat Great, Lose Weight.

PORT RICHEY

1. Angela's Ashes, by Frank McCourt.

2. 'Tis, by Frank McCourt.

3. Hannibal, by Thomas Harris.

INVERNESS

1. Suzanne Somers' Get Skinny on Fabulous Food.

2. Sugar Busters!, by H. Leighton Steward et al.

3. The Carbohydrate Addict's Lifespan Program, by Rachel F. Heller and Richard Ferdinand Heller.

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