So you want a bestseller? If you’re going to compete against 200,000+ books per year in the US, you better understand how the lists work. (Photo: See-ming Lee)
This will be a short post, but it’s one I’ve wanted to write for a long time. Special thanks to my book agent, Steve Hanselman, for help.
Having had two bestsellers (and preparing to launch what I hope will be a third), I’m constantly asked about how bestseller lists work. It can be a very complicated subject, but I’ll provide a summary of the major lists below, with the bonus of a brand-new list you’ve never seen: The Amazon Monthly 100.
The New York Times
At the top of the heap of all the lists, of course, are the publishing industry standards: The New York Times Bestseller lists. Yes, “lists.” There are a lot of NYT lists: in fact, now 20 weekly and 3 monthly lists. Check them out here. The 4-Hour Workweek is still appearing here at #10 this weekend, more than five years after publication! It’s been a wild ride.
The New York Times list is what they call a “survey,” based on a proprietary and closely-guarded list of accounts they poll weekly for sales. It’s tabulated Sunday to Sunday, which is why I prefer to launch on Tuesdays instead of Thursdays, two common options for publishers (nope, you can’t just launch at retail whenever you like)…
The Times uses a methodology for filtering these reported sales that excludes books which are reported too narrowly. For example, if only a few accounts are reporting significant numbers, and most are not reporting any, they will automatically exclude this title. Ditto if a lot of bulk sales (high-volume sales to one customer) are reported without the balance of a broad reporting profile. You may have noticed the “dagger” next to titles on their lists–that means bulk sales have been reported, but a lot of “normal” sales too, so the title makes it. Often titles that do well across the board are not even tracked on the list. Note to authors: it is the publisher’s job to make sure NYT have a copy of the book and are tracking it. Independent bookstores are known to be central to success on the Times’ lists, so if they turn their nose up at your book, you are toast, alas.
Nonfiction books that deal with advice, how-to, political and a host of other prescriptive and practical matters (including some religion) are treated by the Times separately from all other non-fiction. They are given the shortest of all the lists, the 10-slot weekly “Advice/How-To” list, sometimes referred to as the “Mt. Everest of lists.” To make matters more confusing, the Times refuses to track eBook sales for all this “lesser” non-fiction! This all means that many worthy and popular titles fail to make the shorter Advice/How-to list and are then doubly damned by being ignored on the NYT eBook lists… even if they had enough sales to make both lists in the broader “Nonfiction” category. I’ve seen authors petition for reclassification precisely for this reason. It can make the difference between “New York Times bestseller” on the cover and resume, or not.
The Wall Street Journal and USA Today
All of these vagaries don’t apply to the other major lists, like the Wall Street Journal list, which is based strictly on Nielsen Bookscan reporting (estimated to be about 75-80% of the actual market on most general trade titles) and includes eBooks, without filtering out types of non-fiction. This is sometimes referred to as a “compiled” list. Bookscan will remove books from its reporting that are selling in bulk in only a few outlets, so they keep the lists true in that way.
Some say the truest of all the lists, which tracks all formats of a single title rolled up into one number that is then ranked against all other types of books (fiction, nonfiction, children’s), is the USA Today list. Unlike the Times, everything fights against everything else, like the old UFC with no weight classes. Like the Times, it’s a survey based on a list of polled outlets, but there is no attempt to separate or filter categories or types of books (e.g. advice/how-to).
Now, The Amazon Monthly 100
If you’ve ever wondered like me what a pure listing of all new hardcovers would look like, regardless of subject matter, the below list provided to me by Amazon — which I’ll call the “Amazon Monthly 100” — is probably the closest you’ll ever get.
I could see some variation of this list becoming the new standard in bestseller lists.
The normal Amazon top 100 is usually calculated on an hourly basis. The below list of the top 100 hardcovers was calculated over a MONTH (July). Making it a month is important, as this duration removes all one-week wonders and most pay-for-play (buying your own books to hit the list).
If you read through these top 100 for July, you’ll see many books that never made the other lists.
Can you spot them? Would you like to see a list like this every month, or something like it? Let me know and I’ll try and deliver!
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