The Ultimate Guide to Bestseller Lists: Unlocking the Truth Behind the New York Times List & Others
If you’ve spent even ten minutes within the publishing world or with an author friend, you’ve heard about the power and mystique of bestseller lists–specifically of the The New York Times bestseller list. Hitting that list has become the ultimate marker of success for an author, but the process to get there is uphill and mysterious.
I too often talk to clients and authors whose expectations are set unrealistically or whose ideas of success are wrapped up in these lists. I’d like to unravel some of the myths and reveal some of the secrets of this crazy bestseller list world.
What does it mean to hit a bestseller list?
Even in my earliest days at Thomas Nelson, author after author would ask me “How many books do I have to sell to call myself a ‘bestselling’ author?” or “How do I make my book land on a bestseller list?”
Bestseller lists have become the mark of paramount success within the publishing industry, yet they’re often met with skepticism and shrouded in mystery.
To hit a bestseller list means that your book has sold enough copies in a single weekly period to win it a spot. Various top-tier publications host bestseller lists, with the most prominent being The New York Times. Other lists include USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly.
In theory, these publications look at the raw sales data week over week of each book and then sort the top sellers into lists that are then published weekly. In theory.
We’ll get into the nuances and seemingly subjective nature of this game later in the post, but a quick note first about the way unit sales are tallied and recorded…
Nielsen BookScan is an industry-wide tool that computes book sales week by week. It’s a website offering the lifetime sales data on almost any book, to which only publishing insiders have access. In theory (again, going with the big general idea here… because reality is an enigma), the bestseller lists use the sales data housed in BookScan in order to determine placement on the list.
This gets complex, though, because not all retailers are counted in BookScan. (It’s estimated that BookScan only reports about 75-80% of all industry sales.) For example, book sales that take place at the “big box” sellers like Sam’s Club, Costco, and WalMart are not reported in BookScan. Additionally, sales through popular self-publishing platforms, such as CreateSpace, are not reported. Neither are sales from many independent Christian stores.
Even with the exceptions above, though, BookScan is considered the most respected and reliable aggregator of book sales data. You can see your BookScan number through your Amazon Author Central page. It’s a nice feature that helps authors track sales and progress.
So, BookScan is a key tool–yet not an entirely accurate tool–that informs bestseller lists.
Why do people care about bestseller lists?
Inevitably, hitting a bestseller list propels a book’s sales and an author’s career. The history of our reading society dictates that if a writer can legitimately claim to be a “bestselling author,” especially when connected to The New York Times or even The Wall Street Journal, he/she can get better and more lucrative speaking gigs, faster career jumps, bigger contracts on future books, and more. It’s a badge of honor that represents exclusive expertise and seemingly separates the “creme de la creme” from the rest.
With the onslaught of skepticism about bestseller lists (we’ll get to that in a minute) and the rise of self-publishing, I believe the weight of this badge of honor is changing–but it’s still a very powerful label to hold.
There’s no doubt that a “New York Times bestseller” tag on the front of a book offers it better in-store position, more prominent online placement, and deeper retail buy-in. Success breeds success.
What’s the difference between all the lists?
There are numerous lists out there, as we’ve said, but here’s a list of the most well-known.
- USA Today: A weekly list of the 150 top-selling books, seemingly based on objective sales numbers. Books are not listed by category, but rather altogether. It’s one long list containing a mix of all genres. Many consider it the “truest” of all lists, but it doesn’t carry the traditional prestige that The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times do.
- The Wall Street Journal: Also a weekly list and generally objective. This list seems to be based on straight BookScan data. It is organized categorically, but non-fiction is not broken down into subgenres. eBooks are counted.
- The New York Times: A weekly list–as well as a handful of monthly lists–broken down into genre categories. It’s the most well-known of the bestseller lists, as well as the most subjective and mysterious. More to come on this list in the next section…
- Publisher’s Weekly: The weekly list released by Publisher’s Weekly, a trade publication read mainly by internal folks. It’s organized by genre and closely based on BookScan data.
- ECPA: The Evangelical Christian Publishing Association bestseller list. I included this one here since many of you are in this space. It’s a monthly list, separated into categories, that represents sales of faith-based books through approximately 400 Christian retail stores nationwide.
Why the hype about the New York Times list?
As I said above, The New York Times (NYT) is the most prominent of all bestseller lists. If you ask an author which list they’d like to land on, this is the answer every time. It’s the jackpot of all jackpots!
And it’s incredibly mysterious. So mysterious, in fact, that many book marketers in recent years have made it their mission to untangle the riddle that is this animal. None has succeeded.
From an outsider’s perspective, there is very little rhyme or reason to how some books end up on the NYT list and others don’t. Nor is there much explanation for which book gets placed into which numbered slot on the list.
While the majority of the other bestseller lists rely predominantly on BookScan data and construct their lists fairly objectively as based on those numbers, the NYT is a different being. Their staff uses BookScan, as well as polls a number of different retailers across the country–which retailers, no one knows.
Their process is a secret one, and they use this retailer data to then construct some sort of subjective list. Sales numbers alone mean very little. People speculate that media appearances make a difference, that diversity in retail accounts matters, that the author’s political leaning comes into play, etc. You’ll hear people speculate all day long on what the magic sauce is that wins over the decision-makers at NYT to gift you a spot on the list. The truth is that there’s no proven formula.
During my time as VP of Marketing at Thomas Nelson, we had 16 book hits the NYT bestseller list (those were celebratory days!) and a handful of books that “should” have hit, based on their straight sales numbers, but never did.
For example, I remember a specific book that got decent media, powerful influencer support on social media, and good (but not great) pre-orders. That first week we hit about 2,000 units. It’s the kind of launch that’s pretty strong, but we sure didn’t expect the NYT list. But when that list came out, there is was! In the top ten on the “Advice/How To” list. What??!
In contrast, we published another book a few months later that got killer media attention and strong influencer promotion. We ran a strategic pre-order campaign, all with an eye on the NYT, and ended up with sales numbers close to 17,000 at launch day. We were so pumped and confident we’d hit the list! But list day came, and that book was just not on there. We’d blown the sales numbers out of the water, but it didn’t fall into the favor of the powerful folks at NYT. Books in its category in the numbers 3-8 slots on the list all had far fewer units than 17,000. Talk about frustrating!
Do people really game the system?
In recent years, as I said before, people have gotten really into trying to game the system, to beat this NYT mystery.
There are companies out there, ResultSource being the most well-known, that exist almost exclusively to help authors hit the NYT list. Essentially, they do what some people call “laundering” books. What I mean by that is they charge the client lots of money for their services, plus they require that the client pay out tens of thousands of dollars to buy their own books. The company then uses that money to strategically buy books through various retailers at various times in order to “trick” the system into thinking the public has organically bought thousands. Oftentimes, those “author-bought” books just end up going to sit in a warehouse somewhere.
It used to be that these types of companies could practically guarantee that their methods would land a book on the NYT list. Call it ethical or not (the debate wars on!), authors saw it a promotion strategy and an investment into their career… Pay for the “NYT bestselling author” tag on their books and their resume now, see a jump in opportunities in the future.
Nowadays, though, even these types of companies can’t always work the system. The NYT is always changing its algorithm, perhaps for the very purpose of keeping shrewd book folks from figuring it out. In order to maintain their prestigious brand and enigmatic ways, the NYT has to fight to keep people from manipulating the system.
So how can I ethically hit the New York Times list?
The authors with whom I’ve worked to hit the list have done so without the help of an outside company like ResultSource. You might call part of it luck, as one clearly has to win favor with the gods of the NYT–but I’ll list below a short list of initiatives that authors do in order to attempt to hit it and other bestseller lists.
- Big-time pre-order campaigns. A bestseller list is ranked based on a week’s worth of sales data, so you need an uber hefty single week of sales in order to hit it. The best way to do this is to wrack up huge pre-order numbers, as all of those sales made prior to release day count toward the book’s first week in the marketplace. Begin the pre-order campaign months out and incentivize people to purchase with over-the-top extras.
- Bulk purchases made before launch day. Pile up book sales prior to launch day–so that they’ll count toward the first week–through bulk purchases. Sell to churches, small businesses, non-profits, events and conferences, etc. The caveat here is that bulk buys, if large enough, might be flagged by the NYT and seen as illegitimate, or that book will appear on the list but with a dagger symbol beside it, indicating that bulk purchases were involved. Many consider the dagger to devalue the worth of a list appearance.
- Major media appearances. People often point to media as a driver toward NYT placement, but I’ve seen that myth fall totally flat. However, when people are running these big campaigns and want to cover all their bases, they usually hire a rockstar publicist to get them top TV and magazine placements.
Basically, you need to get lots and lots and lots of pre-orders in a strategic fashion–and you need to cross your fingers, spin around three times, pray to the publishing gods, and dance a jig. And then hope… that you maybe hit the list.
Let’s look at the big picture…
Somehow, the NYT has become the thing, the ultimate marker of success for an author. It’s The Holy Grail of the book world, and the company continues to do a phenomenal job of marketing themselves in this way.
It’s incredibly frustrating, though, when the supreme label of success is tied to one giant riddle. It’s a crapshoot that requires lots of money and time with no guarantee of return.
You’re playing a game that you don’t know the rules to. And you can’t figure out the rules because they change all the time.Seeking a spot on the New York Times bestseller list = playing a game that you don't know the rules to. Click To Tweet
Because of these bestsellers lists, we too often see campaigns that create a massive sales spike during the first week–and then quickly taper off to almost no sales. People focus on week one so intentionally in order to get the numbers high enough to hit a list, that they don’t think about the days and weeks after. And so the book spikes, and then dies.
Is this the publishing industry we want to create? Are these the strategies that we want to pump our heart, time, and resources into?
I mean no harm to the New York Times, and I am certainly not here to pick a fight with bestseller lists, but I do want to suggest something…
What if we redefined success?
I encourage authors to list out very specific and measurable goals at the beginning of a book campaign, and to let those goals set the bar for a book’s success.
Together, let’s blow up the myth that the NYT list is the sole definition of success. Instead, focus on your set of specific goals–or even focus on other lists. Perhaps, let the most objective and data-based lists be part of your marketing plan strategy.Let’s reframe the myth that the New York Times bestseller list is the sole definition of author success. Click To Tweet
And even beyond that, go back to your original intent in writing this book. Why did you write it originally? Most likely, it was because you felt you had something worthy to share, some bit of information that could add value to your readers’ lives. If you get books in hands and begin to share your message, isn’t that success?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for selling books–lots of books–organically and ethically. The competitor in me fights for crazy marketplace victory and for more than just a “loosey goosey” definition of success. But I encourage you, authors and marketers, to get out from under the obsession with the NYT list. There are far more important markers of success. Let’s reframe it in our industry and in our minds.