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Blog 09.16.2019

How Books Get on the New York Times Bestseller

The New York Times has been publishing bestseller lists since 1931. Today, there are many competing lists both in print and online, but the ones in the Times remain influential. Getting a book onto the lists is a sign of prestige. Publishers are thrilled to plaster the words “New York Times Bestseller” on the covers of their books.

What does it really mean, though, to say that a book is a New York Times bestseller? The Times doesn’t count every book that is sold in the country. So how do the lists really work?

The Secret Formula

The Times describes in general terms how it counts book sales, though it doesn’t divulge specific information. It says it gets weekly reports from “thousands of diverse selling locations,” including chain and independent bookstores, supermarkets, newsstands, big box stores, university bookstores, and online sellers.

Presumably, the Times doesn’t mention which specific stores or sites it tracks because it doesn’t want authors or publishers to try to game the system. Nevertheless, many have tried, buying large quantities of their own books. Sometimes it works, but more often it doesn’t.

How Many Book Sales Does It Take to Become a NYT Bestseller?

The Times shows how long each book has been on its bestseller lists, but it doesn’t reveal how many copies of the books were sold in the stores that the Times tracks. It appears to be a closely guarded secret. That doesn’t stop people from guessing. Some say you have a chance if you sell 5,000 to 10,000 books per week in the tracked stores. Others say that unless your book is published by one of the big New York publishing houses it doesn’t matter if you sell hundreds of thousands of books, you’ll never make it onto the NYT bestseller list.

Tips and Tricks for Getting on the Bestseller List

Author Tim Ferriss, who has had several books on the New York Times lists, has some ideas for how writers can do the same:

  • Launch a new book as early in the week as you can to get it off to a good start. That’s because, according to Ferriss, the Times starts each week’s count on Sunday. Most books launch on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If that’s the choice you have, pick Tuesday.
  • Try to get wide distribution. The Times may ignore any books that are selling in only a few stores.
  • The Times may favor sales from independent bookstores, so you have a better chance if those stores stock your books, and your books do well there.

It’s not worth it to try to buy up your own book. One author, according to a story in the L.A. Times, paid more than $200,000 to a company that claims it can get books on bestseller lists. The company bought up 11,000 copies of the books, being careful to spread out its purchases across the country so that they looked like legit individual sales. The tactic worked and landed the book on top of one of the New York Times bestseller lists — for one week. Then it disappeared from the list. Though some famous authors are said to have successfully gamed the bestseller list in the past, it’s far too risky and expensive to try now.

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