This post describes the rules of every bestseller list, and how to get your book on them. I wrote this for our authors at Book In A Box, but am happy to share with the world.
Before I get into the major bestseller lists and their particular rules, there are two principles that apply to all of them; 1. velocity of sales, and 2. reporting.
[Before you read this, you might want to start with this deeper explanation of how bestseller lists work (they are all rigged), and why most authors should avoid them (they don’t bring any benefit). You don’t need to read that for this post, but if you’re not sure if a bestseller strategy makes sense, then I highly recommend it.]
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 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 faster your velocity of sales–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 to hitting a best seller list. Setting a release date creates a manageable, self-contained window to concentrate your marketing efforts on, and use them as a mechanism to create this velocity of sales.
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 sell books. 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 that 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
In order to have a chance at getting on the major bestseller lists, you should 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.
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.
Example: James Altucher’s book, Choose Yourself. I helped him publish that through my publishing company (which turned into Book In A Box). It’s sold over 500k copies in the past 3 years. It even appeared on the Wall Street Journal Bestseller list–but no appearances on The New York Times Bestseller list, even though it has outsold 99% of the books that have appeared on that list since his came out.
Why? Because it’s not through a major New York publishing houses, so they won’t count it.
The Wall Street Journal and USA Today do recognize some self-pubbed titles, but it varies. There is no consistency with them.
2. Have a plan to get you 5k+ pre-orders: This cannot be a hope or a wish. If you don’t have at least 5k 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.
That means ordered or bought at a store that reports its sales to the appropriate authority. You can’t just order 5k copies from your publisher. Most lists won’t count that.
How do you get 5k 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. This is basically “cheating,” and it usually costs more than 200k (I describe it below).
If you don’t have an audience or email list who are used to buying from you, but think you’ll “go on some podcasts and throw out some tweets” and get that level of pre-orders, you’re delusional. That does not work. Only a systematic plan that is very well-executed will work.
It is HARD to sell 5000 books in a year. To sell 5000 in a week is ridiculously difficult, as evidenced that only a very small percentage of all books published each year do it.
In fact, 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 prior to your release is the best way to get the velocity of sales needed to hit a bestseller list.
NOTE: If your goal is the New York Times Best Seller List, you probably need 10k pre-orders.
The Rules Of The Bestseller Lists Matter
Even though the odds are against you, it’s not impossible to do it. But if you want to have a shot at making a 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 over 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, and this decision alone kept the book off all the bestseller lists (well, that in combination with the fact The New York Times curates its list and decided to keep it off).
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 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 own site:
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. E-book rankings reflect sales from leading online vendors of e-books in a variety of popular e-reader 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. E-books available exclusively from a single vendor will be tracked at a future date.
Let me explain this. The 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 (which we discuss below). If you sell 1000 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 they 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, and 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 & Tricks:
- For the most part, they do not count self-published books. You must be through a traditional publishing company to even have a shot at this list.
- The category and window of your release all significantly impact the number of copies required to hit the NYT bestseller list, but 5,000 copies during any one-week period is the MINIMUM. I would recommend 10,000 most of the time, to be sure.
- Have your publisher pick a down time in publishing; the less 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 NYT list doesn’t apply to the WSJ list.
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% of the nation’s book sales. Print-book data providers include all major booksellers (now inclusive of Walmart) and Web retailers, and food stores. E-book data providers include all major e-book retailers (Apple excepted). Free e-books 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 & Tricks:
- It usually takes about 3000-5000 sales to hit the WSJ bestseller list.
- You can absolutely get books that aren’t from traditional publishers on this list. I did 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 NYT than the WSJ. Rather than separate out the categories of books, the USA Today puts them all in one category.
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 Best Selling Books 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 e-book 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 e-book (E).
Tips & 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 best seller list that isn’t either on the one of the NYT or WSJ 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, things like that, though they have started to pull these out, and focus more on “real” books. Thus the curation.
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 “best seller” 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.
Why does this matter?
Well, it is an essential question if you want to call your book a bestseller. The rules for calling yourself a bestseller from any of the above outlets are clear.
What are the rules for calling your book an Amazon bestseller? It’s an open question, and a lot of people abuse it.
To show how easy it is to game this “bestseller list”, one of the most brilliant marketers I know, Brent Underwood, took a picture of his foot, published it as a book, and hit #1 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 questionable status symbol.
Methodology: Pure sales, just on their platform. Updated hourly. 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 8 hours of sales are weighted evenly, thus making it a trailing algorithm.
Tips & 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 ~500 sales to make the Amazon Top 100.
- It usually takes about 2000 sales in a day to hit the Amazon Top 10.
- To get to #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 1000 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–that you get on the 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, not.
I would estimate that a LARGE number of books that hit the bestseller list are bought. 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 (yes, that’s what it costs, at least) to see your name on the NY TimesBestseller List is worth it to you, then go for it. Just be upfront with yourself about what you are doing and why.