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How Bestseller Lists Actually Work -- And How To Get On Them

How Bestseller Lists Actually Work -- And How To Get On Them
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One of the most common questions we get at my publishing company, Book In A Box, is this -- "How do I get my book on a bestseller list?"

Our answer -- you probably don't want to be on a bestseller list, especially if you're an entrepreneur. We encourage our authors not to chase bestseller lists, but instead focus on their business goals for their book. This confuses them initially, but once we explain the process and tradeoffs to them, the overwhelming majority discard the bestseller dream and focus more on the business goals that are far more impactful to them.

This guide covers everything about bestseller lists -- how they work, why they're not what they seem, how they lie, why chasing them is a losing proposition, what to focus on instead, and ultimately, if you insist, how to set yourself up so your book can get on them.

Why every bestseller list is always a lie.

Simply put -- every bestseller list is a lie because no bestseller list measures the best selling books. Let me repeat that, so you can grasp the gravity of what it means. No bestseller list measures the actual best selling books.

Every single bestseller list either measures a limited number of sales in a few places, or far worse, it's a curated list and a small group of people are deciding what to put on their list. And they're picking books based on what they think are important books, not based on what is actually selling.

I am not exaggerating one bit. When questioned about the practice of deciding what books are appropriate to get bestseller status, an old school newspaper editor said they did not want to promote books that were, “sewer-written by dirty-fingered authors for dirty-minded readers.” Yes, that’s a real quote.

You know what authors he was talking about? Henry Miller and Harold Robbins, now widely considered titans of modern literature. But that attitude is still prevalent today, and still infects how most editors think about books.

The most important bestseller list is The New York Times bestseller list, and they are the worst culprit at this curated elitism. They readily admit that their list is only reflective of books that are selling at a certain number of bookstores and online retailers around the country -- but not an actual bestseller list. You know why they have to admit this publicly? They were sued about it.

For most of the 20th century, they pretended to use a scientific method to count book sales and claimed their list was authoritative and accurate. And then William Blatty wrote a novel called The Exorcist -- which has sold 10 million copies and is a famous movie. It sold more than enough copies to be high on the bestseller list for a long time, but initially, it did not appear. He rightly claimed that The New York Times was intentionally excluding it for editorial reasons -- the book was considered very controversial at the time -- and claimed that their decision was costing him millions of dollars in sales.

He lost the case. Why? Because The New York Times defense was that “the list did not purport to be an objective compilation of information but instead was an editorial product.” They won the case in multiple rulings all the way up to the Supreme Court, based on the argument that the list is not supposed to accurate, but reflects their judgment.

It is a valid legal argument, but it also means The New York Times admitted their bestseller list is just a popularity contest, and they select who they will and won't put in the "cool kids" club. It's like high school all over again.

Everyone in publishing has seen this many times. You can see this clearly if you have access to Nielsen BookScan, which is the database that tracks paid sales covering about 70 to 80 percent of book outlets. I have access because I own a publishing company, and I can see how much the New York Times List varies from the Nielsen report of actual books sold. Anyone in publishing can see this, and it is a known fact.

The same thing is true, to different degrees, with the other major national lists -- The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Publisher's Weekly.

Why most authors should not try for bestseller lists.

With all I've told you already, you may still want to hang on to your goal of being on a bestseller list. That's fine. I'm not telling you it can't be a goal. But before you decide to go for it anyway, you need to be aware of two things -- the tradeoffs involved (and they are big) and why it is you are so eager to get on that list.

The prerequisites for a bestseller campaign

Goals tradeoff in all aspects of life. You can't have pizza, Mexican food and Italian food for dinner. You have to pick one. Goals for your book act the same way. You can't get everything. You have to focus on one or two goals.

This is especially true for bestseller lists. In order to even have a chance at getting on the New York Times bestseller list, you must do all of these things:

1. Get a traditional publishing deal. With the exception of a few fiction genres like romance and horror, The New York Times still won't recognize any book that doesn't come from one of the big New York publishing houses as being fit for their list. That's why I said it's a high school clique mentality.

This is why most of the self-published or hybrid published books that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies over the past decade have never appeared on this list. They refuse to recognize them. A prime example is James Altucher's book, Choose Yourself. I helped him publish that book through my old publishing company. It's sold more than 500k copies in the past three years. It even appeared on the Wall Street Journal bestseller list. But it never made any appearances on The New York Times list, even though it has outsold 99 percent of the books that have appeared on that list since his came out.

Why? Because it's not through a major New York publishing house, so they won't count it.

2. Have a plan to get 10,000+ pre-orders. This cannot be a hope or a wish. If you don't have at least 10,000 pre-ordered books -- through sales channels that The New York Times sees as valid and counts in their list -- you probably won't hit the list. This means ordered or bought at a bookstore that reports its sales to the New York Times, or through Amazon or iBooks, or some of the other major channels that the New York Times counts. You can't just order 10,000 copies from your publisher. They won't count that.

Even if you get a corporation to sponsor you and actually buy all those copies, you have to route those sales through a channel that The New York Times counts or they ignore them for the purposes of the list. And even better, they often won't count any bulk sales, which means your book sales have to be done individually.

Many experts will tell you that you only need to sell 5,000 books to hit the bestseller list. That's not wrong, but 5,000 doesn't work many times. In my experience helping dozens of authors work through this process, if you are an unknown author, the bar is higher. The 5,000 number is applicable to known authors and books that have already been on the list, but it is very dangerous for first time or non-established authors.

How do you get 10,000 pre-orders? There are two basic ways to do this -- you already have an audience who is willing to pre-order your book or you spend a lot of money to buy your way onto the list. The latter is basically cheating, and it usually costs more than $200,000. I explain how it works at the bottom.

If you don't have an audience or email list who are used to buying from you, don't bank on podcast and Twitter promotions to find that audience. It won't work. Only a systematic and well-executed plan will.

3. Get mainstream press to validate your book. This is not 100 percent necessary, but the more mainstream media press you get, the more the book editors at The New York Times will consider your book to be valid. I was very serious when I said that this is a popularity contest, and to be popular, you have to show up at the right places -- at least the right places to the Times.

When I say mainstream media, I mean any media source centered around New York City, or that the coastal media elite read and take seriously. Like I keep telling you, they are elitist snobs. They don't count anything not in their universe, no matter how much it sells. By the way, this only about social signaling because mainstream press almost never sells books. This is only about getting the editors at The New York Times to take you seriously.

Related: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Writing a Book

What's the tradeoff?

The tradeoffs of this approach are many:

1. There's no guarantee you get a deal. It takes a huge amount of time and effort to find an agent to represent you to a traditional publisher, and it's very hard to do a good book proposal that will appeal to a publisher. If you make it that far, then you have to get offered a book deal -- which in this day and age, you will not get without having a large audience to sell into already. Many people put all this work in and never even get offered a deal.

2. Your book will take at least 18 months to publish. And that's from the day you sign the deal, not the day you start looking. And honestly, it will probably take longer than 18 months.

3. You no longer own your book. You are literally selling them not only the upside profits of the book, but more importantly, you are selling them control of your intellectual property. Once they own the book, they only care about selling copies. You can no longer do anything with that book that doesn't involve paying them for copies of it. If you want a book to help you promote you or your business, this is greatly restricts your options.

4. They could make you write a book you don't want. You want to position yourself as an expert in something, but they don't think it appeals to enough people. They don't care about you or your business; they only care about selling copies of books, so they'll make you go broader. They will make consistently terrible aesthetic decisions that will ruin your content for your purposes, because publishers only care about selling books.

5. You do all the work to sell it. They do no marketing. I cannot emphasize this enough. Publishers expect you to do all the work of selling the book for them. They don't have a plan to sell 10,000 copies your book. That's your job.

Why these tradeoffs screw entrepreneurs.

I want to be clear. Though the trade-offs are the same, the advice here is geared towards entrepreneurs, especially the type we work with at Book In A Box, and not towards professional writers.

There's a big difference between entrepreneurs who write books and professional writers -- at least in terms of what goals they should pursue. The tradeoffs I explained above exist for both groups, but they impact the different groups in different ways.

Professional writers are people who write and sell books for a living. Their whole job is to write books that sell a lot of copies, because that is how they make money. So for them, working with traditional publishing and pursuing bestseller lists can make sense -- though often it does not.

Most entrepreneurs are not professional writers. They don't have the time to sit down and spend a year writing their ideas into books. For them, a book is not the end goal. A book is a way to reach another goal. It can earn them authority and credibility in their field. It can drive clients and leads to their business. It can get them speaking gigs, and it essentially acts as an amazingly effective multi-purpose marketing tool to get them visibility. They don't need to focus on selling copies. They need to focus on writing the best possible book for the goal they want to achieve.

And before you ask -- not selling copies and making money from a book are not always the same thing. If you are using your book as a marketing tool to get you something else, like authority and visibility in your field or to draw clients to your business -- then what matters is not selling copies or hitting a list, it's the impact your book has with your intended audience.

You want to understand the difference between bestsellers and impact? Read this article about what a book has done for this entrepreneur. It tripled incoming leads to her business, doubled her revenue in two years, established her as a keynote speaker and got her media in every important retail outlet. The book was resounding success in all ways for her -- and it sold less than 1,000 copies.

Selling copies matters if book sales are your only revenue stream -- which is only true for professional authors. For people in business, a book has an entirely different purpose, and that often has no correlation with selling copies.

Why do you want a bestselling book?

All this being said, it does make a lot of sense for professional writers to focus on bestseller lists. It is a status marker for the writing and publishing industry, and it does help them get better deals from publishers in the future. This is all true.

The smart professional writers look at bestseller lists as a necessary evil in their industry. Get a smart long-term plan to hit the lists, work the steps, and then once they been on a few times, they ignore them. They focus instead on selling books directly to fans, which often makes them more money.

For entrepreneurs whose main revenue source is their business, and they use books as marketing tools, I can tell you this -- hitting a bestseller list creates very few tangible results for your book. It doesn't get your book much more attention. It doesn't help sales much. It doesn't get in front of many more clients or help your marketing.

I'm not saying it has zero effect. It can have some. Almost all of the impact of hitting a bestseller list is personal and social impact. There is not much business or sales impact, and when you measure the low impact against the high trade-offs, it's a bad decision. This is why almost all of our authors don't end up pursuing it.

It's usually about status.

The people we see who are most obsessed with bestseller lists are the authors who view it as a status marker. They feel if they can make the list, people see them differently, and they'll feel differently about themselves.

For these authors, striving for a bestseller list is about making them feel important. There is no real business reason. The unstated implication when an author says "I want a bestseller" is usually because they simply want to brag and feel important.

This desire to buy status is why you've seen an explosion of "bestselling authors" popping up over the place recently. What really happened was a few scammy marketers figured out how to manipulate the Amazon bestseller rankings. In short, they help people crank out a crappy book, buy their way up these obscure mini-categories, and call themselves bestselling authors.

To show how ridiculous the abuse of this bestseller list has become, one of the most brilliant marketers I know, Brent Underwood, took a picture of his foot, published it as a book, and hit no. 1 in with it. He detailed everything here, called out the whole group of people who sell this, and it's a great read. It pulls back the curtain on this blatant buying of status.

Look, I am not judging anyone's desire to raise their status my writing a bestselling book -- I put three books at no. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list myself, so obviously, I am guilty of this desire. My ego is fragile and needs recognition and validation, just like everyone else.

But understand this -- a bestselling book might make you feel good for awhile, but it will not get you any real respect or fill any holes in your soul. I say that from personal experience. And if you recognize status as the reason you care about being a bestselling author, the best thing you can do is admit this to yourself. If you admit it, you can focus fully on that goal, make a realistic plan, and give yourself a realistic shot at actually hitting it.

But don't pretend that having a bestselling book is for a business reason that it's not. For those authors who see a book as a marketing tool to get something else you value -- and the ego portion is not very important -- the conclusion is obvious. It makes zero sense for most entrepreneurs to chase a bestseller list.

You'll have to spend upwards of two years trying to get a book deal, sell the rights and royalties to the book to a publisher, spend all this time and money promoting it, just so you can say you are a bestselling author. Doing this usually prevents you from reaching the goal that actually matters to you -- having your book reach the right people at the right time.

If you are convinced, then stop reading. If you don't care and still want to get on a bestseller list, then keep reading.

How to get on every bestseller list.

This section describes the rules of every bestseller list and how to get your book on them. Before I get into the major bestseller lists and their particular rules, there are two principles that apply to all of them -- velocity of sales and reporting.

1. Velocity of sales is key. 

In this case, velocity of sales is defined as "amount of book sales within a specific period." Selling 5,000 books in a year is a pretty solid performance, but it’s not not going to get you on any of the big bestseller lists. Concentrate those sales in a week, though, and now you’re looking at possibly hitting many of those lists.

That is the key concept you must understand for bestsellers lists -- it's not how many books you sell, it's how many you sell in a given time. The time frame changes depending on this list, but the more velocity of sales you create -- meaning the more sales you pack into the shorter period of time -- the better.

This is why setting a release date and concentrating your marketing around it is so important. Setting a release date creates a manageable, self-contained window to concentrate your marketing efforts on. Use them as a mechanism to create this velocity of sales.

Related: The Entrepreneur's Complete Guide to Ghostwriting

2. Reporting sales is key.

Like I explained in this piece, not all book sales count for all lists, because there is no list that actually measures all book sales from all outlets. In the purest sense, there is no such thing as a "real" bestseller list.

Each list has their own method of counting sales, and each list only counts a fraction of places that books are sold. Amazon only counts books sold on Amazon. The New York Times only counts the physical bookstores that it tracks (and a few online sellers, but weigh them differently).

I'll describe the counting methods of each list below, but the point is -- you must know the way that lists counts sales, and then focus on creating velocity of sales in those ways only.

The prerequisites for a bestseller campaign.

1. Get a traditional publishing deal. I explained why above, but this is step one if you want to have a New York Times bestseller. It is not crucial for a Wall Street Journal bestseller, and it means nothing for Amazon.

2. Have a plan to generate pre-orders. Barring some extreme stroke of luck, the only way I've ever seen first-time, or lesser known, authors hit any significant bestseller list is by first creating a large platform with an installed audience that is waiting for the book, then selling the book into that audience.

Simply put, creating an audience of buyers for your book who pre-order prior to your release is the best way to get the velocity of sales needed to hit a bestseller list. Like I said before, there are two basic ways to do this -- have an audience you is willing to pre-order or spend a ton of money to buy your way onto the list.

3. Design your campaign around the rules of the bestseller list. But if you want a shot at making the list, you must understand how bestseller lists work, so you don’t accidentally do something that interferes with the possibility of hitting the list.

For example, when Marc Ecko’s book, Unlabel, came out in 2013, it sold more than 15,000 copies the first week. This was more than enough to hit the New York Times bestseller list, but the publisher had improperly listed Ecko’s book as an art book instead of a business book. That decision alone kept the book off all the bestseller lists. 

Know the rules to bestseller lists, because breaking them can keep your book off the list, even if it deserves to be there.

The New York Times bestseller list.

This is considered the most important bestseller list, and the only one that people tend to talk about by name. If you make this list, you put "New York Times bestseller" on the top of your books. Every other list generally gets a "National bestseller" headline.  

Methodology

The weekly bestsellers are calculated from Monday to Monday. Here is how they describe their methodology on their website -- "Rankings reflect sales reported by vendors offering a wide range of general interest titles. The sales venues for print books include independent book retailers; national, regional and local chains; online and multimedia entertainment retailers; supermarkets, university, gift and discount department stores; and newsstands. Ebook rankings reflect sales from leading online vendors of ebooks in a variety of popular ereader formats. Ebook sales are presently included for all adult categories (fiction, non-fiction and advice) except for graphic novels, and all children's categories with the exception of picture books. Titles are included regardless of whether they are published in both print and electronic formats or just one format. Ebooks available exclusively from a single vendor will be tracked at a future date."

As I mentioned before, the New York Times list is a survey list, not a tabulation of total sales. This means that they poll a curated selection of booksellers to estimate sales. They literally decide which bookstores and retail outlets are important and then only count those sales, ignoring all other sales. They also heavily weight independent bookstore sales. This is because they think that the type of people who shop at indie bookstores are more serious readers and thus their reading decisions deserve more attention. I'm serious, they have said this in public.

They also focus on individual sales, and try to not include bulk sales in their calculations. They do this to prevent people from buying their way onto the list. If you sell 1,000 copies to a company as part of a speaking engagement deal, this is a great way to move copies and make money, but it’s not very effective for hitting the list, because they won't count it.

And notice how they say that won't count ebook sales from only one source? This is a direct shot at Amazon. They don't like Amazon, and they don't think ebooks are real books. They don't want to see their ebook list dominated by Amazon's Kindle list.

Make no mistake about it -- this is all just as elitist and snobbish as it sounds. They only recently started including ebooks in their lists, and they still heavily discount ebooks that have no print edition. Yes they track them, but they count their sales as less.

The reality is that even though the New York Times list is seen as the most prestigious, in many ways it's the least connected to actual book selling reality.

Tips and tricks

  • For the most part, they do not count self-published books. You must work through a traditional publishing company to even have a shot at this list.
  • The category and window of your release significantly impacts the number of copies required to hit the New York Times bestseller list, but 5,000 copies during any one-week period is the minimum. I would recommend 10,000 to be sure.
  • Have your publisher pick a down time in publishing. The fewer big books you have to compete with, the better.

The Wall Street Journal bestseller list.

This list is not as prestigious as the New York Times list, but for business books at least, carries almost as much social capital. And most of the weirdness and elitism from the New York Times list doesn’t apply to the Wall Street Journal list.

Methodology

How they describe their methodology, from their site -- "Nielsen BookScan gathers point-of-sale book data from more than 16,000 locations across the U.S., representing about 85 percent of the nation's book sales. Print book data providers include all major booksellers (now inclusive of Wal-Mart) and web retailers, and food stores. Ebook data providers include all major ebook retailers (Apple excepted). Free ebooks and those sold for less than 99 cents are excluded. The fiction and nonfiction lists in all formats include both adult and juvenile titles; the business list includes only adult titles. The combined lists track sales by title across all print and e-book formats; audio books are excluded."

This is about as fair and reasonable as you can get, very much the opposite of the New York Times list.

Tips and tricks

  • It usually takes about 3,000 - 5,000 sales to hit the Wall Street Journal bestseller list.
  • You can absolutely get books that aren't from traditional publishers on this list. I helped do it with James Altucher's Choose Yourself, Josh Turner's Connect and many others.
  • There's not much trick here. Just get the sales, and you can get on this list. The important thing is making sure all of the sales come from different people and are during the opening week. Bulk sales are not counted.

The USA Today bestseller list.

This list used to be pulled straight from Nielsen Bookscan, but they recently changed and started making it a curated list, more akin to the New York Times than the Wall Street Journal. Rather than separate out the categories of books, USA Today puts them all in one category.

Methodology

From their website -- "Each week, USA Today collects sales data from booksellers representing a variety of outlets: bookstore chains, independent bookstores, mass merchandisers and online retailers. Using that data, we determine the week's 150 top selling titles. The first 50 are published in the print version of USA Today each Thursday. The top 150 are published online. The rankings reflect sales from the previous Monday through Sunday. USA Today's bestseller list is a ranking of titles selling well each week at a broad range of retail outlets. It reflects combined sales of titles in print and electronic format, if available. For example, if Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice sells copies in hardcover, paperback and ebook during a particular week, sales from each format are combined to determine its rank. The description of a title and the publisher name refers to the version selling the most copies in a particular week -- hardcover (H), paperback (P) and ebook (E)."

Tips and tricks

This list is not really looked at as a prestigious list. If you hit it, that's great, but I have rarely seen a book on this bestseller list that isn't either on the one of the New York Times or Wall Street Journal lists.

What makes this list so strange is that you'll see all kinds of things that don't show up on the other lists -- sudoku books, cookbooks, maps. They've recently started to pull these out and focus more on real books, but you'll still see some.

The Amazon bestseller list.

Personally, I don't think Amazon has a bestseller list. What they do is rank the sales of their books. Even on the page that they call their "bestseller" page, it says "Our most popular products based on sales. Updated hourly." So it's not really a bestseller list, it's just the top 100 sellers from their site.

What are the rules for calling your book an Amazon bestseller? It's an open question, a lot of people abuse it, and I already linked to the Brent Underwood piece that called out this whole group of people who sell this service. But you can use them if you want. A lot of people do.

Methodology

Pure sales, just on their platform. They do seem to have an algorithm that ranks the books in a trailing sales fashion. For example, if you sell 10 books in one hour, and then none the next, you don't just fall off their list that hour. You go down some spots and keep falling, unless you start selling more books.

No one knows what Amazon's algorithm is, and anyone who says they know for sure is probably lying -- unless they work for Amazon. What most people are seeing is that the past eight hours of sales are weighted evenly, thus making it a trailing algorithm.

Tips and tricks

  • If you want to rank on Amazon, focus all your marketing efforts on one day -- your release date, for instance.
  • On an average launch day, it should take about 500 sales to make the Amazon Top 100. 
  • It usually takes about 2,000 sales in a day to hit the Amazon Top 10. 
  • To get to no. 1 in a subcategory, it takes very few sales. Usually 10, depending on the category.
  • Don’t try to cheat this. Amazon is in a better situation than anyone -- by tracking IP addresses and credit cards -- to know if you are gaming the system. You won’t get on their list without legitimate sales, so focus your energy there instead of gaming the process. Buying 1,000 books yourself won't work. Amazon absolutely watches this and will punish you.

The Cheat Code -- buying your way onto the list.

Services exist that will guarantee -- for a large fee, usually over $200,000 -- that you get on The New York Times bestseller list. They are very expensive, and for the most part, if you read the fine print, their results are not actually guaranteed, despite what they claim in their ads.

I have never used one directly, but I know the three major companies well, because we've had clients who used them, and the results have been mixed. Sometimes they work well; other times, they don't.

I would estimate that a large number of books that hit the bestseller list are bought. I would say 50-100 per year, on average, for the last decade at least. And like I said before, buying a place on the list is a pure ego play. If spending $200,000 to see your name on the New York Times bestseller list is worth it to you, then go for it. Just be upfront with yourself about what you are doing and why.