Friday, January 27, 2017

The New York Times Bestseller List: It’s Not What you Think (by L. A. Kelley)


With little fanfare, October 12, 1931 heralded the arrival of the New York Times Bestsellers list. The first list was small with five fiction and four non-fiction titles. Intended only for readers in New York City, its purpose was purely marketing to draw readers to the review pages and increase sales of the newspaper. The list proved popular among readers and publishers and quickly encompassed other cities. In the 1940’s one national list supplanted the different city lists and by the 1950’s being on the bestseller list was the publishing gold standard. Mega-chain stores such as Barnes and Noble even adopted the list in their own book marketing plans, adding to the cachet.

With the modern age came changes. Until several years ago the Times didn’t count ebook sales. Now it has a separate list, but there still exists print snobbery. Ebook and print sales aren’t totaled. Getting on the list depends on print sales only. List is actually a misnomer. The Times produces eleven categories; Hardcover Fiction, Hardcover and Paperback Non-Fiction, Trade Paperback Fiction, Mass-Market Fiction, Hardcover and Paperback Advice, Miscellaneous and How-To, Children’s Picture Books, Children’s Chapter Books, Children’s Paperback, and Children’s Series. Once a book is on a list subsequent paperback or hardcover editions always have New York Times Bestseller slapped on the cover even if the book hasn’t been on the list for years or only made it for a day.

How is the List Compiled?

Nobody knows, at least nobody who’s talking.

Yup, that’s right. Remember I said the list was a marketing tool with the original intent to draw readers to the review pages and, hence, increase sales of the newspaper. The same holds true today. Marketing tools are protected as proprietary information, so the data compilation process is a closely guarded trade secret.

The list is supposedly gleaned from reports issued directly to the Times by leading booksellers in over twenty cities. (Apparently, nobody cares what you read in Middle of Nowhere, America.) The reporting vendors represent a mixture of large independent booksellers and national retailers. The Times doesn’t require proof or verification and can place a book on the list that it feels will have general interest to its readers. This means the list is a survey and not a tabulation of sales. The stores can report their big sellers or what they think will be their big sellers. Who are these vendors? Amazon and Barnes & Noble publicly release sales data so they probably contribute. Walmart doesn’t, so maybe not.

Pre-orders heavily influence rankings, which is how a book appears even before the publication date. Numbers aren’t everything though. The New York Times has sole discretionary power over the list. Sales are weighted and print is rated better than ebook. So how many books does it take? No hard and fast rules exist; placement is determined by the Times. The general belief is between 15,000-20,000 print units, but sales of nonfiction titles can be much less. Some have made it onto the list with as little as 1500. Books with sales concentrated over a short time have a better shot than books with sales over an extended period which is why publishers sweat presales. Ebook and print numbers aren’t combined, so a book without at least 5000 presale print orders isn’t in the running.

Of course, the book has to be sold through one of the mysterious venues that reports to the Times. With a few exceptions, the list snubs self-published authors and doesn’t consider them worthy of making the print list. Another rule is that an author must be published through a major New York publishing house. That means having an agent with push. Indy presses need not apply.

Buy Your Way to Fame

Got a spare $200,000 hanging around and you might buy your way onto the list. For a tidy fee, certain marketing companies boast they can design a sales platform that includes purchasing thousands of copies of your book from different sellers that are part of the survey system. Of course, you still need a contract from the right publishing house. The Times insists it has rules in place to prevent cheating, but since it won’t release how data is compiled, who knows? Frankly, any author I know who already had $200,000 wouldn’t waste a penny of it buying cartons of his or her own book.

What Does This Mean for the Self-published or Indy Author?

The same thing it always did. Achieving success is like climbing a mountain in a blizzard with sandbags tied to your ankles while someone beats your head with a stick. It’s not impossible, just painful, time-consuming, and filled with frustration. The good news is many authors never hit the list, but still make a living with ebooks, indy presses, and self-publishing. The New York Times Bestseller List continues to exert influence, and certainly enhances a career and boosts sales, but the cachet has faded. More publishing options are available. Many readers don’t care about the list and gladly chance an unknown author.

So the next time you see the New York Times Bestseller List posted at Barnes & Noble or a book with the cover sticker on Amazon think twice about whipping out that credit card. Remember only quantity not quality got the ranking. And to fellow authors—keep the creative juices flowing and don’t get discouraged. Someone will always be better than you at marketing, but your book can find a way to readers’ bookshelves, too.

One Enchanted Evening
Belong to Amazon Prime? One Enchanted Evening is free on Kindle Unlimited. It's not on the New York Times Bestseller List.

L. A. Kelley writes sci-fy/fantasy adventure books with humor, romance, and a touch of sass. 



Diane Burton said...

Excellent post, L.A. Sometimes, a casual comment by a celebrity can make a book zoom to the top. I liked your slogging up a mountain analogy. :) In the end, all we can do is write the best book we can.

Maureen said...

Love the post, very informative- yet, mysterious. ;) It's nice to have this highlighted, as there are so many misconceptions about books and sales. Thank you!

Elizabeth Alsobrooks said...

Good info and keep on writing!

Abigail Owen said...

Great post Linda! I wasn't aware of any of that. Thanks!

Francesca Quarto said...

Thought your article very informative on this sacred cow of literary marketing. Loved the cartoons too. A nice change from the political dust up that's turned into a tsunami!! Thanks much for your efforts.

Francesca Quarto

CJ Burright said...

I confess, a lofty list title on the cover has never influenced me to buy anything!

Nancy Gideon said...

Great post! Whew! Getting on the NYTimes list is one less thing I have to worry about! See, there's an upside!