WITH a flurry of customers whisking around him, Dennis Dougherty reaches into his pocket and pulls out a copy of the Village Voice's bestseller list. ''I've got to know what people are reading so I can stock it, display it, have as many on hand as is needed,'' says the head of the Barnard Book Forum, looking very unbookish with three earrings and as many tattoos. Mr. Dougherty's sentiments aren't uncommon. Bestseller lists are to publishing what Nielsen ratings are to TV - a way of recognizing what's hot, for better or worse, and what's not. But now the lists themselves are coming under renewed scrutiny, stirring perhaps the biggest snit since Norman Mailer last put pen to paper. In the wake of a scandal that rocked the prestigious New York Times bestseller list this summer, editors are reviewing how such rankings are compiled - and whether they can be manipulated. The soul-searching is understandable. A coveted spot on a bestseller list can make a good book even better profits. It can earn authors extra bonuses and speaking fees. Then there's simply the aura of making the list. ''It has a snowball effect. The fact that a book has been identified on the list makes it more well-known, and then more people want to read it,'' says Nora Rawlinson, editor in chief of Publisher's Weekly, which along with the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal publishes a national bestseller list. While no one has yet come up with a formula to guarantee a bestseller, many have tried. Which brings up the case of the latest alleged attempt. This summer, Business Week magazine reported that the authors of ''The Discipline of Market Leaders'' developed a complicated scheme to guarantee their book would end up on the Times's and other bestseller lists. Authors Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema and publisher Addison-Wesley, according to the magazine, bought more than 10,000 copies of ''The Discipline of Market Leaders.'' The article also suggested that the consulting firm the two authors work for funneled bulk purchases by corporate clients of another 30,000 to 40,000 copies to small and independent book stores they believed reported weekly sales to the New York Times. The alleged goal was to inflate sales to land a spot on the list. ''Discipline'' made it to the Times's list and became Business Week's No. 1 bestseller. (Business Week ranks business books only.) Both authors and Addison-Wesley deny the magazine's allegations. ''I think in theory it may be possible [to manipulate the list], but in order to do it you'd have to spend so much money and so much time it would be counterproductive if you only wanted to increase sales,'' says Charles McGrath, editor of the Times Book Review. ''The only way it would make sense is if you had another agenda, as was alleged in the Business Week piece.'' For years, the publishing industry has been filled with rumors of wealthy corporate magnates orchestrating purchases of their own biographies for the satisfaction of becoming a bestseller. Large publishing houses routinely try to hype sales with advertising and big promotions at national chain stores. But it took the Business Week investigation to prompt the New York Times and other publications to reexamine the way their lists are compiled. While most editors are reluctant to share details that may make it easier to manipulate sales figures, they do give general outlines of their approach. Both the New York Times and Publisher's Weekly lists reflect retail sales in general-interest bookstores. They call a certain number of independent bookstores each week to get sales figures. That is combined with lists of top sellers from major chain stores, like Barnes and Noble. The results are then weighted according to such things as a store's size and geographic location. ''Every three years we also do a census so we can see how much the industry is changing,'' says Michael Kagay, the Times's editor of news surveys, noting they have mechanisms in place to screen out bulk purchases. The Times also uses a practice known as ''churning,'' in which they slowly but constantly change the bookstores they use to collect data. The Wall Street Journal publishes the actual retail sales figures from the four largest bookselling companies in the country each week. It simply gets the lists, adds them up, and ranks them in order. That allows the Journal to beat both the Times and Publisher's Weekly by at least 10 days. But it ignores sales in independent bookstores. ''Our list is a precise, accurate account of buying patterns in stores run by the largest book-selling companies in the country,'' says Richard Tofel, an assistant manager editor of the Wall Street Journal. ''It doesn't pretend to be more, and it isn't less than that.'' Many specialty papers, such as the Village Voice, which Dougherty relies on to reflect young people's reading habits, also use bookstore surveys to develop lists. But some are admittedly less scientific. While each list has its own integrity, few people believe any can be made foolproof. ''I don't know how you safeguard against [manipulation],'' says John Baker, editorial director of Publisher's Weekly. ''If someone's determined and they've got the money to do it, they probably will.''