By most standards, I’m still new to the publishing industry.
It’s been just eight years since I worked on my first book launch campaign, but since that time I’ve worked with hundreds of authors in just about every marketing capacity you can imagine. I’ve played the role of publicist, community organizer, web developer, social media expert, and on and on.
In my various roles, I’ve bumped into The New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists many times.
I’ve helped launch two No. 1 New York Times bestsellers, and several top-five bestsellers. At one point, five of my clients had books on the NYT list at the same time. While I haven’t tracked The Wall Street Journal list as closely, I’ve had quite a few hits on that list as well.
I also have my hands in a few launches right now, some now finishing up, and some just getting prepped for later this year—and more and more, I’m in awe of the complete disaster that are major bestseller lists.
As I’ve prepped to write this article, I’ve had trouble organizing all of my thoughts, data, stories, and sources into one cohesive narrative, so instead, I’ve decided to list point-by-point, in no particular order, the things I’ve either personally witnessed or experienced via one of my clients or colleagues in the publishing industry.
My goal is to shed some light on what really goes on with the two top bestseller lists—The Wall Street Journal and New York Times—and offer some information to authors who are hoping to hit them one day.
BESTSELLER LISTS: WHY DO THEY MATTER?
It’s true, bestseller lists are becoming obsolete. There are plenty of books that, despite never gracing the pages of WSJ or NYT, go on to sell thousands of copies, and have a great fanbase. However, the fact remains that having a New York Times or Wall Street Journal bestseller can greatly enhance your career.
Since the publishing industry still shows great deference to these lists, finding your name on them significantly impacts the advance on your next book contract.
If you’re a nonfiction author, and particularly if you write business books, bestseller lists mean more speaking gigs, higher consulting rates, higher visibility, and an enhanced reputation. They also mean more sales. If your book is a bestseller, it all of a sudden gets more copies on bookstore shelves and other promotions. It’s a self-feeding system.
Bestseller lists also mean more appearances in the media. NYT bestsellers get phone calls and emails from the media. And let’s face it: It matters because it’s pretty damn cool to be a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author. But the bottom line, especially if you have anything to do with the traditional publishing industry, is this: WSJ or NYT bestseller = more money for authors, publishers and agents.
WHAT EXACTLY IS A BESTSELLING BOOK?
If you ask a typical person this question—someone who has never descended into the muck of the behind-the-scenes reality of the bestseller lists—they’ll of course answer something like, “It’s a book that has sold tens of thousands of copies,” or, “It’s the book that has sold the most copies.”
Here’s a brief intro to how it really works. Further points will go deeper into some aspects of this.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL BESTSELLER LIST
WSJ builds its list based on the sales figures it gets from Nielson’s BookScan. In general, if you sell the most books in a category as reported by BookScan, you will hit No. 1 in that category on The Wall Street Journal bestseller list. Makes sense, right? Except that BookScan doesn’t track all purchases. It doesn’t include sales made through some big-box stores, such as Walmart and Sam’s Club, which doesn’t affect most of us. However, it also doesn’t include sales from CreateSpace and other self-publishing platforms, which affects thousands of authors.
But overall, BookScan is the most accurate data source, and reports about 75 percent to 85 percent of book sales, depending on who you ask.
More on The Wall Street Journal later.
THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER LIST
A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, as the saying goes.
NYT keeps a tight lid on its process for selecting bestsellers. It is known that NYT samples its own list of certain booksellers across the country—though which ones make the cut are a tightly guarded secret—then look at the data with wise NYT brains, and decide whom they think should be on the list.
It’s said that this is done to keep people from gaming the system, which is partially true. But it’s also done so that The New York Times can have a say about which books get the extra credibility of being named a bestseller.
I’m certainly not the only one who sees potential problems with this system.
Remember: NYT and WSJ list = more money.
So a small group of people look at highly selective data to decide whom they deem important enough to be called a “New York Times bestseller.” At this point, we’ve come pretty far from “the books that sell the most copies.” We’ve laid some groundwork, so now I can share the really weird stuff.
WHO DOES NYT LOVE?
A friend of mine has access to the weekly Nielson BookScan numbers—that organization that tracks 75 percent to 85 percent of book sales. Last year, he decided to go back and compare BookScan numbers to the NYT bestseller list to see if he could find anything interesting.
Since NYT does its own secret reporting and choosing, he wanted to see if he could find any signs of bias.
Here are two conclusions he gathered from his own personal research, comparing real BookScan sales figures to the books deemed by NYT staff to be bestsellers:
- If you happen to work for The New York Times and have a book out, your book is more likely to stay on the list longer and have a higher ranking than books not written by New York Times employees.
- If you happen to have written a conservative-political-leaning book, you’re more likely to be ranked lower and drop off the list faster than those books with a more liberal political slant.
And another point:
Why the separate lists for digital and print copies?
From an author’s standpoint, this is maddening. I’ve been involved with book launches that have sold more than enough copies to hit the bestseller lists, but because the numbers were split between digital and print, they didn’t make it. How arcane, and antiquated. In what world does it make sense that it matters whether I buy the book in paper or in digital format? I still bought the book. I still thought it was worth the money. But for some reason, the NYT and WSJ lists think paper counts as a sale more than digital.
Arcane and antiquated are the only nice words that can be used here. Readers aren’t concerned about modality, so why are bestseller lists?
HOW TO LAUNDER YOUR BOOK PURCHASES
Let me change gears here and give at least one reason lists have for making so many weird rules. The bestseller lists are forced to jump through a lot of hoops, because people are constantly trying to game the system. If I’m a rich person and I publish a book, what’s to stop me from just buying 20,000 copies of my own book and putting myself on the list?
I think we can all agree that while we want the bestseller lists to reflect the bestselling books, we don’t want people to be able to buy their way onto the lists either, right? So the bestseller lists try to put some checks and balances in place to make sure people can’t do this.
So what happens? Book launderers start popping up. And how does book laundering work?
Let me explain:
Step 1. Find a book laundering firm. There’s a handful of them out there. ResultSource is the most well-known.
Step 2. Write them a check to cover their fee. They don’t work for free, after all.
Step 3. Write them another check—for your books. This check is to buy copies of your book. It depends on the campaign, but it’ll always number in the thousands. We’re trying to hit the bestseller lists here, after all.
Step 4. The firm launders the sales. It hires people all over the country to buy books through various retailers one at a time, using different credit cards, shipping addresses and billing addresses. This allows the sales to go through and show up as individual sales, instead of bulk purchases. These sales then get reported to Nielson BookScan.
Step 5. Pop the champagne corks. You’re now a bestseller.
If you think I’m making this stuff up, I have two sources that back this up:
- The Wall Street Journal
- The word of an insider—a friend who used to work for one of these firms, and headed up the book laundering side of the business. The person quit when they became sick of the lack of ethics and morals in the entire operation; they explained the whole system to me.
WHAT ABOUT BULK PURCHASES?
Now we’re getting into a truly gray area. Up to this point, I think we can all agree on two things:
- Individual sales should count. If I walk into a bookstore or log on to Amazon.com and purchase a copy of a book that sale should count on the bestseller lists.
- Huge bulk purchases from the author shouldn’t count. If you decide to order 10,000 copies of your own book, that shouldn’t automatically put you on the NYT bestseller list.
But what about in between?
What if an online book club wants to purchase 50 copies of your book—one for everyone in the group? Should those count as 50 individual copies, or as one bulk purchase?
What if one of your clients is bringing you in to speak to their entire department of 108 people, and wants to buy a copy for everyone in attendance? Should that count as 108 individual copies, or as one bulk purchase?
What if an association wants to buy a copy of your book for each one of its chapters, which are in more than a couple of hundred cities across the United States? Should those count as a couple hundred individual sales, or as one bulk purchase?
What if someone wants to buy 10 copies of your book to give away as Christmas presents?
What if a company wants to buy 1,000 copies of your book to give away to all its new clients over the next two years?
Do those count as individual copies, or as one bulk purchase?
Here’s where it really starts to get fuzzy, because in each of these cases, individual people are getting a copy of the book. Sure, they may not read it, but how many books line your own bookshelves that you’ve never gotten around to reading?
Different people will have different opinions on each of these scenarios.
If I’ve worked hard to build a fanbase or client base that will purchase multiple copies of my book, shouldn’t I get credit for those? But if I, as an author, go around and buy copies of my book in multiples of 50 and 100 and then store them in my garage, those probably shouldn’t count.
This is where the bestseller lists run into trouble. It’s extremely hard to police this sort of thing. What would you do?
HOW TO BUY YOUR WAY ONTO THE BESTSELLER LIST
We’ve already talked about the book laundering scheme, but here’s another way to pull off the bestseller list with sheer brute monetary force.
I was brought in to play a small role in a book launch a few years ago. Leading up to the launch date, I was on a few conference calls that outlined the author’s strategy for hitting the NYT and WSJ bestseller lists for a book.
Here are a few things the author did to make it happen:
- Hired two high-end book publicists to get him booked on as many television interviews as possible.
- Purchased full-page ads in national and local papers across the country.
- Ran advertising in Times Square in New York City.
- Paid the fee for the book’s publisher to have the book placed on the front tables at Barnes & Noble.
- And my favorite: He hired people all over the country to go into their local Barnes & Noble and purchase every copy of the book one at a time with cash.
Did it work? Yes. The book debuted on the NYT and WSJ bestseller lists. Of course, the following week the book dropped off the lists, and was never seen again. Ninety-five percent of the sales happened in the first week. But the author, for all time, can be referred to as a “New York Times bestselling author.”
WSJ or NYT bestseller = more money.
IT’S THE GOOD, HARDWORKING AUTHORS WHO GET SCREWED
As I type this, there’s a huge shift happening inside the bestseller lists.
I’ve been on calls with people from two major publishers, and they can’t seem to give me a straight answer about how books are being reported and what is making the lists. They can’t tell me because they don’t know.
They don’t know because the lists keep changing the rules without telling anyone. Apparently, WSJ‘s list has tightened its rules on bulk purchases. A recent book supposedly sold enough individual copies to make the list, but then was thrown out, because it had also sold a lot of bulk copies.
This, of course, makes no sense, but as an author you’re at their mercy.
One of my clients has worked really hard to establish great relationships with their clients, who are now interested in buying the author’s new book in bulk, but with the new rules we’re not sure what to do. Should we go ahead and let them order in bulk, and potentially get the book blacklisted?
This author has done the work ahead of time to make the book successful, with the goal of hitting one of the major lists, and now it could very well be for naught.
When the rules are fuzzy, hidden, and constantly changing, what can you possibly do?
A while ago, a colleague of mine wanted to run a campaign to his author platform for his new book.
He checked with his publisher to see if they could take the orders through his own website, so he could give special bonuses to early purchasers, and still get them counted as sales through one of the major book chains.
The publisher checked on it and said they could. He asked if they were sure. They said yes.
The author ran his campaign, sold thousands of books, and then turned in all the names and orders to his publisher. They sent the list to the retailer.
The retailer decided they didn’t want to do it. Since the publishers have made the retailers their customers instead of the readers, they didn’t want to push too hard to get the retailer to accept the deal. So they caved, and told the author “sorry,” but there was nothing they could do.
Huge investment of time, money, and effort to become a NYT and WSJ bestselling author. Time, money, and effort that had paid off in enough sales, that got thrown out and never saw the light of day.
YOUR BOOK ISN’T QUITE GOOD ENOUGH
Hugh Howey’s Dust sold more than 50,000 copies in its first week, yet only debuted at No. 7 on the NYT bestseller list—even though it far, far outsold books that were higher on the list.
Fantastic question. Apparently, the people making the decisions about which books are selling the most copies (notice the contradiction there?) didn’t think Dust was quite good enough.
This is the problem with having these decisions made by a hidden group of people who are highly selective with their data. Real numbers don’t matter to them.
YOUR BOOK WASN’T PURCHASED AT THE COOL BOOK STORES
Here’s another article for you to take a look at. It’s short but to the point.
The New York Times samples different stores across the country and weighs book sales based on where they are purchased.
What does this mean?
It means that a hardcover copy of your book purchased on Amazon.com is counted differently than the same hardcover book purchased at indie bookstore X.
At this point, do I really have to say how ridiculous this is, and how it punishes authors and readers alike?
WHAT CAN BE DONE NOW?
As authors, what can be done with this?
Yes, WSJ and NYT list = More money.
And it’s hard to ignore that, but we must. The only answer to this debacle is to stop worrying about hitting the major bestseller lists.
At this point, the results are so far outside of an author’s direct control, that it doesn’t make sense to make these lists a goal anymore.
Instead, focus on the reader.
Make your book available at the stores or websites your readers buy books from, in the formats they buy in. Make it easy to buy and easy to read.
Don’t make the lists your customer. Keep the reader your customer—the people you’re really writing books for.
Tim Grahl, founder of Out:think, where he helps authors connect with readers and sell more books. Tim is also the author of Your First 1000 Copies: The Step-by-Step Guide to Marketing Your Book.