How the New York Times Bestseller List Works

There’s a lot of confusion and mystery surrounding the venerable New York Times bestseller list. And while it is a great honor to be on it, it is not the end-all, be-all for many reasons. Here are my Top 10.

#1: The NYT List is Relative to a Specific Week
In the music industry, awards are given for the amount of copies sold. It’s easy to judge someone’s success based on if they got a “Gold Record” (for selling 500,000 copies) or “Platinum Record” (1 million copies sold).

Publishing is nothing like that. A book will land on the NYT Bestsellers list if it sold “the most” books in a certain category in a certain week. Getting on the list is not an indicator of overall sales or success, but merely a marker of who-was-buying-what in a certain time period.NYT

#2: The NYT List’s Relativity Means Some Bestsellers Might Not Get On At All
Say Bill Clinton releases his autobiography. Obviously it’s going to sell huge. Say it’s released the same week as a biography of Steve Jobs, a Michelle Obama cookbook, a huge TV show tie-in book, and a book by the Navy SEALS who took down the Taliban. All big sellers on the list that week. Your book about Abraham Lincoln might sell 50,000 copies, but not make it on the list because the others sold so much more. Your friend’s book about George Washington released six months later might skyrocket up the list with half the sales because it didn’t go up against such strict competition.

#3: The NYT List Doesn’t Count Books Sold At All Stores
Only “certain vendors” with a relationship with the NYT report their sales to the list. Some don’t, even if they are huge book sellers. This includes Target, Costco, and Walmart. Considering there are more than 10,000 of just those three stores, that’s a lot of books that don’t count toward the list. Amazon does report to the NYT list, but most Internet retailers don’t.

#4: The NYT List Doesn’t Count All Copies of Books Sold At Once
If you buy 10 of your favorite book on Amazon to give as gifts, the online retailer will only report one copy sold to the NYT list. Insanity I cannot explain.

#5: The NYT List Rewards Categories that are Wildly Different
In music, a Gold Record in the Country category means the same thing as a Gold Record in the R&B category. Not so with publishing.

There isn’t just one NYT List: there are several. Some categories are narrow, such as “Children’s Picture Books” which only includes children’s picture books; and some are not, such as “Advice, How-To & Miscellaneous” which includes business, productivity, humor, wellness, nutrition, psychology, pregnancy & childbirth, childrearing, do-it-yourself books, gardening, decorating, and cookbooks. Some categories are broken down by Hardcover and Paperback separately, some are combined, and some are inexplicably separate and then suddenly combined like the “Advice, How-To & Misc” list.

Getting on some lists is much easier than getting onto others, since it’s relative. A #1 NYT Bestseller in one category could have sold 10 times as many copies as the #1 Bestseller in a different category. Similarly, the #1 NYT Bestseller in one category might have sold considerably less than the #21 book of a more competitive or crowded category that didn’t get to make the list.

#6: The NYT List Has A Different Number of Spots for Different Categories
There are 25 slots on the “Fiction Hardcover” list, only 20 spots on the “Advice, How-To & Miscellaneous” list, and just 15 slots on the “Young Adult” list. So again, some categories are easier to get on the List than others because their List has more spots.

#7: The NYT List Doesn’t Include All Types of Books
According to the NYT, there are entire categories of books they do not track including: “perennial sellers, shopping guides, comics, reference and test preparation guides, required classroom reading, textbooks, journals, workbooks, calorie counters, crossword puzzles and self-published books.”

#8: The NYT List Does Not Necessarily Mean Huge Sales
You can break onto the NYT List in certain categories with sales as small as 3,000 copies sold. It all depends on the category and what else you’re competing with in a certain week. 3,000 copies. Can you believe it? That’s because as I explain over here, far, far less books are sold overall each year than you think.

#9: People Can Buy Their Way on to the NYT List
If you can get on with as little as 3,000 copies sold and you place a big order with a wholesale bookseller the week your book comes out, you have a pretty good shot of making the list. There are brokers who will arrange the whole thing for you starting at around $40,000. It’s out-of-reach for most first-time authors unless you’re a billionaire who wants to buy the title for himself, or a media baron who wants to make his girlfriend feel good about her cat book. Gross, but true.

#10: The NYT List is Sometimes Wrong
Again, unlike the music industry, there is no official recording entity that tracks books sold. And publishers keep their numbers super secret. That can lead to errors: books on the list that didn’t really earn a spot, and books that sold amazingly and were overlooked. I’ve seen it happen. Publishers and authors have to grin and bear it though because to complain is to risk being blackballed by list that is essentially managed by a for-profit media company with their own publishing imprint.

Summary: Nice Work If You Can Get It…
All of this is not to say I hate the NYT List. On the contrary, I love it because I’ve been on it 3 times. It can help you as an author sell future books both to publishers and the public. But I’m a Libra and fairness is deeply rooted in my soul. It is not a fair list.

If your wonderful book doesn’t make it, remember that there are many other marketing tools that can help propel your title just as well: other newspaper lists, awards, editor’s recommendations, reviews, and word of mouth. If your book is good, people will find it and love it!

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