Bestelling Lists, Authors, & a Bit of Crazy


“My agent and editor started talking about ‘the list’ from the start, virtually ensuring that I’d consider myself a failure if I didn’t make it. At first, when they talked about it, I didn’t even know what “the list” was—didn’t know there was truly only one ‘list.’ Now I know! Social media allows authors who hit ‘the list’ or any other list to shout (and I’d probably trip over myself getting to FB to shout if I hit the list) which is fine once, or perhaps even twice. But it becomes unseemly and (perhaps this is the real feeling for me) incredibly jealousy-inducing when writers on social media track their ‘list’ status (week sixteen on the list!) week after week. I don’t know. Does being on the list take more oxygen than it once did? Are we choking on Listitis? (I know I’ve been guilty of shouting when I hit ‘lists’–but I like to think I’ve kept it to one shout per list.)” Anon

The New York Times Bestseller list (AKA “the list”) is the writer’s holy grail. Despite being rife with m

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” Ray Bradbury 

The New York Times Bestseller list (AKA “the list”) is the writer’s holy grail. Despite being rife with methodology that many claim to comprehend, but none can swear to understanding; despite not being a measure of selling the most books, but of selling the most books that week at those stores, every author wants the honor.

And yet, because it is considered so terribly jejune to admit that you want it, most of us toss our heads and roll our eyes when our moms and cousins ask one of these hated questions:

* Are you going to be on Oprah? (This even after her show ended.)

* Is your book going to be made into a movie?

* Are you a NYT Bestseller?

Only a few brave souls will go on record with their feelings about being (or not) a bestseller. (Which is why many of the authors here are speaking off the record below, but they are all published (most multiple times) authors from “Big 5” houses.

One anonymous author admitted to being ecstatic, even as she was a bit unsure how it all happened:

“When my first book hit the NYT trade list, I felt like I’d been handed the moon. I couldn’t believe there were all those strangers out there reading my little book. Then, my second novel debuted at number five on the NYT hardcover list, a fact we learned days before it even came out—back when no one had yet bought or read it. Crazy. Magical math? ESP? Barnes and Noble omnipotence? (It was a B&N Recommends.) I still have no idea. The List moves in mysterious ways.” Anon

Bestselling author Tish Cohen, a finalist for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, gave her feelings about “the list” in this succinct honest statement:

 “For me, I haven’t made it until I hit the NYT list. Sigh?”

Ah, “the list.”

C.W. Gornter, celebrated author of six novels said:

“I think the list creates a feeling of have or have-not among the writing community; as authors, we vie for it, long for it, and can find ourselves sorely disappointed and disillusioned when we don’t achieve it, without understanding the numerous factors behind it over which we have no control.

To me personally, the list reflects more of a popularity contest, often engineered by publishers to gild chosen titles. It does not reflect the particular merits of any book—though sometimes, it does—but rather the fact that for various reasons that remain a mystery to the majority of writers, the publisher has decided to allocate monetary resources to create buzz for said book.

Nor does the lack of transparency as to how the list is actually achieved (last I heard, it was not based on Bookscan numbers) make deciphering it any easier. To want to be on the list is to be expected: it signals to the world at large that you are a success. But success in writing can be measured by more than that. I have never made the list, but make quite a good living with my writing. Would I welcome the chance to be on it? Absolutely. Will my career implode or will I plunge into despair if I don’t? No.”

Killer of dreams, maker of literary royalty: the road to the list is strewn with broken hearts.  Two words whispered, fought over, dreamed of, and inducing more jealousy than Swiss bank accounts. I’ve heard rumors since I published my first book:

“You know, I should have been on the list—I sold more books than number 10 last week.”

How did he know that?

“If you’re over number 15 in the hardcover list, you don’t have the right to call yourself a NYT bestseller.”

Where could I get a list of these rules?

“You know, publishers pick the books they want to be on the list and then make it happen.”

 Really? How did one get anointed?

Was any of this true? God knows it’s seductive, this insider baseball: The list. The list. The list. Who’s on, who’s not—who gets to have those golden words, New York Times Bestseller, plastered on their cover?International bestselling author Karen Essex has a simple answer to what being a bestseller means:

“You can finally prove to your parents that you were correct in not going to law school.”

Few, almost none, know the secrets to entering the gray lady’s scroll, while other bestselling lists are less opaque. Everyone agrees that being on “the list” is like winning the book beauty pageant, but no one will reveal the trade secrets that make the algorithm building “the list” Most agree it is a curated one—not one made up of pure math. There are list rules and strictures within “The List.”

According to the site  Dear Author. “Each publisher house has its own standard for when the moniker “Bestseller” can be imprinted on the front of a cover.   For some houses, the standard is to say “NYT Bestselling author of Book A”.   Some houses won’t allow authors to put the label on the book unless they make the print list of the Times or USA Today.   For example, there is an “extended” NY Times list and if you make it on there more than once, a publisher might allow the author to put “NY Times Bestselling Author” on the cover. In other words, at some houses, Snooki wouldn’t get to call herself a NY Times Bestselling Author.” 

 One online writers group almost broke into virtual fisticuffs over this, with one author declaring her publisher’s method (no “extended” NY Times list” authors allowed to use the moniker, versus those whose broader-minded publishers allowed all authors making any part of the list (print, digital, extended) to be used for labeling oneself part of “The List.”

It got ugly. After fighting to reach the highest rungs of a hierarchy, some want to kick down the climbers.

There’s no inoculation to list fever, and there are far more bestselling lists than ‘the list’: Wall Street JournalUSA TodayAmazonBarnes & Noble, and Indiebound for a start. List makers range in the information given out on how data is collected—below is information listed on their websites:

NYT Bestsellers Data Collection: “The universe of print book dealers is well established, and sales of print titles are statistically weighted to represent all outlets nationwide. The universe of e-book publishers and vendors is rapidly emerging, and until the industry is settled sales of e-books will not be weighted . . . The appearance of a ranked title reflects the fact that sales data from reporting vendors has been provided to The Times and has satisfied commonly accepted industry standards of universal identification (such as ISBN13 and EISBN13 codes). Publishers and vendors of all ranked titles conformed in timely fashion to The New York Times Best Seller Lists requirement to allow for independent corroboration of sales for that week.”

 USA Today Bestsellers Data Collection: “Methodology: 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, and the top 150 are published on the USA TODAY website. Each week’s analysis reflects sales of about 2.5 million books at about 7,000 physical retail outlets in addition to books sold online. Book formats and rankings: USA TODAY’s Best-Selling Books list ranks titles regardless of format. Each week, for each title, available sales of hardcover, paperback and e-book versions are combined. If, for example, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice sells copies in hardcover, paperback and e-book during a particular week, sales from each format would be reflected in that week’s ranking. The ISBN for the format that sold the most copies is presented with each list entry.”

Amazon Top 100 Bestsellers Data Collection: “About Best Sellers in Books: These lists, updated hourly, contain best-selling items in books. Here you can discover the best books in Amazon Best Sellers, and find the top 100 most popular Amazon books.”

Barnes & Noble Bestsellers Data Collection:” B&N Top 100: Book Bestsellers”

Wall Street Journal Bestsellers Data Collection: “With data from Nielsen BookScan”

Indiebound National Indie Bestsellers:  “Based on sales in independent bookstores across America. The Indie Bestseller Lists put the diversity of America’s independent bookstores on display. It’s produced just two days after the end of the sales week, and is the most current snapshot of what’s selling in indie bookstores nationwide.”

There is no place one can go and get a true list of how, in particular, the New York Times list is made—but, according to the many articles I read, and authors I’ve spoken with, the following seem to be widely accepted, though none can be backed this up with hard sourced fact:

1. “The list” captures the velocity of a give week, thus a book having high sales for one week can make the list, even while another book selling an overall far higher number for that month does not make the list.

2. There are stores deemed “New York Times Reporting” stores. Supposedly, some publishers and authors, aware of these stores will go all out to hit them within one week. Thus, gathering the velocity.

3. According to Wikopedia (yes, not always accurate—but this story of ‘leading data collection’ is often reported): The Times provides booksellers with a form containing a list of books it believes might be bestsellers, to check off, with an alternative “Other” column to fill in manually.It’s been criticized as a leading technique to create a best-seller list based on books the Times thinks might be included.

According to the NYT “Readers Representative” (data is from 2009) “the above is not quite accurate. “Another misconception is that booksellers are surveyed only on a list of titles determined by publishers’ shipments, keeping “sleeper” books — distributed in smaller numbers — off the list. That is not the way it happens. Instead, some companies dump all of their book sales to The Times, while others fill out an online form based on the previous week’s best sellers and including space for unlisted books that have sold well.”

4. Some try to manipulate lists by bulk buying—which is frowned upon (more below) and often found out—or by underpricing. I’m unclear on exactly how underpricing works, but it’s along the lies of giant retailer (such as Amazon) offering or agreeing to lower the price for an E-book (such as lowering the price from 11.99 to 1.99.) The author, friends of the author, etc., all shout out the bargain price. Then, the book, at this low price, shoots up the Amazon E-book list, enabling authors to write phrases such as “Number-one bestselling Kindle Kabbalah mystery!” Often an author will hit “the list” for a week through this method, and thus be forever deemed a “New York Times Bestseller. Then this book drops to it’s usual ranking.

5. There are services and sites devoted to quid-pro-quo for authors, meant to skew sales and rankings, and preying on self-published authors. And then there is the straight-up buy-in, reported on by Jeffrey Trachtenberg, Wall Street Journal in the article: “The Mystery of the Book Sales Spike: How Are Some Authors Landing On Best-Seller Lists? They’re Buying Their Way”. According to WSJ, “authors hired a marketing firm that purchased books ahead of publication date, creating a spike in sales that landed titles on the lists. The marketing firm, San Diego-based ResultSource, charges thousands of dollars for its services in addition to the cost of the books, according to authors interviewed.”

One author using the service said she didn’t know how ResultSource managed to skew sales so that the books landed on bestseller lists. “It’s a secret sauce,” she said.

Hmm… the last time I read the claim of “secret sauce” as the reason for a business success, it was attributed to Bernie Madoff.

After reading reams of supposed ‘inside scoops,’ I still can’t figure out a take-away. It seems too facile to deem anything (except buying one’s way onto a list) as something deserving of finger wagging. Jealousy and hope make for odd stews. Knowing insider-baseball can be as much loss of innocence as information-is-power (like learning the genesis of bright purple blurbs, or finding out the truth of a publisher’s reassurance that “you’ll have a social-media campaign!” means “good luck tweeting, honey.”

One author friend, one with his head tied on especially straight and smart, said this when I gathered quotes for this essay:

Marketing and sales are not my area of expertise. I do what I can and will be pleased, of course, if “The List” happens to me. But I focus on what I can control, the quality of my work. Anon

In the end, yes, Virginia, there is truth in basic advice, it does come down to living by those axioms which keep us honest, even as we pray to be touched by the Fairy Godmother of “The List.”

On the other hand, there isn’t a damn thing wrong with dreaming.

“I don’t care who you are. When you sit down to write the first page of your screenplay, in your head, you’re also writing your Oscar acceptance speech.” Nora Ephron

We have a hundred sides fighting inside us. We are like salt and snow.

Checking the list, hoping a frenemy didn’t make it. Being truly grateful at how deep a lens your friend brings to a story, and then feeling snarled and small when he hits “the list” and it seemed like a little part of you just died. We’re both parts and it’s okay to admit to the green monster in the shriveled corners of our hearts, but we must be on guard against being overtaken by coldness. If we’re not willing to appreciate the beauty brought forth by others, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to write our own.




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One Comment

  1. Posted January 14, 2014 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

    Very good article, Ms. Meyers

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