Why is it So Hard to Get on The New York Times Bestseller List?
How Many Copies Do You Have to Sell to Hit the List?
What Happens If You Try to Game The List?
If You Still Want to Get on the List...
Here's Why I Don't Think It Matters
The New York Times list is the most prestigious list, followed by The Wall Street Journal and the USA Today list. The reason that the New York Times list is so hard is that they admit it is not based on sales. It is based sort of on sales and sort of on what they like.
And the only reason this information came out is because of a 1983 lawsuit by William Blatty, who's known for writing the book The Exorcist. He wrote a book called Legion that sold really well, yet was only on the list for a week. He knew that it should have been there longer.
He took his case to court and the Times defended itself on the grounds that this is a direct quote: The list did not purport to be an objective compilation of information, but instead was an editorial product.” They admitted they just didn't want stuff they thought was trashy. The court sided with the Times, dismissing this three million dollar lawsuit. But the truth was established.
The window for reporting each week closes at noon on Tuesdays and is announced on Wednesdays at seven o'clock Eastern Standard Time. That reflects the previous week's Sunday to Saturday sales period.
So how many books do you need to sell in order to have a New York Times bestseller?
The problem is there is no definitive answer because it depends on what books are being released that week and how many copies they are selling. The general thinking used to be it took five thousand sales in a week to hit the list. Now they say it's more like ten thousand.
If you're saying, "Really that's all?" Well, that is so many freaking books. It is a lot of books. Now, you can't just go buy 10000 copies on Amazon. That's not going to work.
The way the list works is there are New York Times reporting stores. Nobody knows which of the stores are New York Times reporting and which aren't.
It's kind of like being a Nielsen family, which, by the way, my mom was a Nielsen family and they came in, they took the box away because she didn't watch enough TV. Now she's older. She watches plenty of TV but that’s beside the point.
Supposedly, you can go into a store, a bookstore and ask them if they are a New York Times reporting store and they will tell you.
A Forbes story in 2013 by Jeff Bercovici talked about a company called Results Source that you would pay $211,000 and they would make you a New York Times bestseller. But The New York Times started to catch on.
They started to see that people were gaming the system, though the time they really realized that was in 2017, when a book called Handbook for Mortals written by somebody named Lani Sarem, a book which is, by all accounts, unreadable, with a terrible cover suddenly launched ahead of this book called The Hate U Give, which was this huge book by Angie Thomas and became a movie.
Handbook for Mortals became a number one New York Times bestseller in the Y.A. category, and it was from a brand new publishing house called Geek Nation that was oddly affiliated with Thomas Ian Nicholas, the guy from American Pie. Apparently, they basically figured out what bookstores reported to the list and then they ordered just under the amount that would seem suspicious, like 80 books at an independent store, 30 copies at Barnes Noble.
Apparently, they were calling stores asking, "Do you report to the list?" And a journalist uncovered this. And then all these people from the bookstores wrote in and tweeted at the journalists “Yeah I was the bookseller. We thought this sounded super suspicious.”
So what the Times started to do is they put a dagger next to the book if they suspected that it was bulk sales; the little dagger kind of means “this isn't real.” That being said, lots of people don't even notice a little dagger or know what it means. But regardless, it became much more scrupulously watched by the Times after this Handbook for Mortals conversation happened.
Now, here's the interesting thing. A lot of these Fox News guys, the way they got New York Times bestsellers is that they would basically say “Buy a ticket to this event” and the book is included in it. So that's a way to do it.
But know this: the list doesn't track cumulative sales, so say the Bible has never been on New York Times bestseller; it is only tracking sales for that week. So Don Quixote and A Tale of Two Cities sell millions of copies and are never going to be on the list.
Your chances depend on the time of year. So in February or March, it's going to be easier to get on the list. It's going to be easier to sell more copies than other books because there are fewer books being released than, say, in the fall. All of this is changing all the time.
I'm now a firm believer in the fact that there's no bad time or a good time to release a book, but there are arguments for all of them. But the point is that even if you sell 10,000 copies in that week, you are still not guaranteed. It is all murky and mysterious and there are exceptions. But for the most part, independent books, books we release ourselves, cannot make lists because of that little editorial standard snobbishness we were talking about.
There are exceptions, but in general, it has to be a book that's released by a major publisher.
And it also has to be the right kind of bulk orders. You can't order bulk copies from a printer and have that count. There is a website called Bookpal.com, which does discount bulk orders and they do report to the list. So let's say I haven't discouraged you and all you want is a New York Times bestseller and you're releasing your book yourself. Know that your chances are minimal. But set up a Book Pal account and maybe go into your local store and ask, “Hey, do you report to The New York Times?”
I'm somebody who actually has a New York Times bestselling book (I'll be totally honest, it was the e-book extended list. It still counts!) But I have seen so many authors obsess over hitting the New York Times list and basically make themselves miserable because they don't achieve this goal that 0.01 percent of authors achieve. I think it is a silly goal.
I think it is far better to focus on sales on Amazon or if you really focus on the list, something like The Wall Street Journal list or the USA Today list or The Washington Post list, where it is less of a sort of editorial thing and more based on sales.
OK, so that is it. That is today's episode. Remember, I will answer your publishing questions if you DM on the Instagram, I'm @annabdavid.
"So many authors obsess over hitting the New York Times list and basically make themselves miserable because they don't achieve this goal that 0.01 percent of authors achieve."
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