writing

The Truth About Bestseller Lists

Every writer probably at some point dreams of seeing their name on one of several bestseller lists. The most prominent list (at least in the U.S.) is the one published by The New York Times, but there are many others including U.S.A. Today, Publishers Weekly, and Amazon.com. Other countries have similar lists: The Sunday Times in the U.K., Sydney Morning Herald in Australia, and The Globe and Mail in Canada are just a few. Being on the bestseller lists (particularly at #1) is seen by many as the ultimate badge of writing success, including myself.

Having your book on the bestseller list means you’ve made it, right?

Or does it?

There’s a dirty little secret about the bestseller lists, one that I didn’t learn until a couple of years ago myself. I bet most others don’t know it either.

The New York Times bestseller list has nothing to do with actual sales. Nothing. (Well, next to nothing). In other words, the #1 bestselling book in the U.S. really isn’t the best selling book in the country.

How does that work?

It has to to with the way the publishing industry works. When one of the major publishing houses prepares to launch a new title, they begin marketing to the bookstores, through trade publications, wholesaler’s catalogs, etc. Through the wholesale companies, bookstores order copies of the upcoming book to be delivered upon release. It is the number of copies ordered by the bookstores that forms the bestseller lists. It is a measure of anticipated sales, not actual sales. (Those same bookstores can and will return any unsold copies to the publisher. It’s in the contract).

Thus, a novel by John Q. Smith can be the #1 bestseller before you can even find a copy on the self.

This came as a shock to me. All this time, I’d seen those lists and assumed the top ten books were there because they had, you know, sold the most books. I thought that’s what “best seller” meant. Go figure.

Now that I actually know how the system really works, I have drawn some implications for the rest of us mere mortals who dream of making a career out of writing.

First, it means that unless your work is published by one of the major publishing houses (in the U.S. That means Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, MacMillen, Penguin Random House, and Simon and Schuster) you will probably not get your work on The New York Times bestseller list. Small publishers seldom have the marketing wherewithal to get their titles competitive with the Big Five. And bookstores will basically never pre-order a self-published title; don’t hold your breath.

If you are self-published, or published by a small press, your best bet is to ignore most of the best seller lists. The only ones you need to pay attention to are the rankings at retailers like Amazon.com. They actually reflect your actual physical sales, as well as an idea how those sales compare to other titles. Your ranking is an easy and accurate way of seeing how you’re doing. And believe me, if your book reaches #1 on Amazon, you truly are a success.

Ignore the rest of them.

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