Some Observations on Bestseller Lists, December 2018

The first part of this will be a transcription of some tweets I made earlier today (transcribed to fix some spelling errors), and I’ll follow that up with some other thoughts.

First: The tweet transcription:

Watching some authors indulge in theories about why their stuff doesn’t make the NYT bestseller list and it’s the usual checklist of conspiracy, envy and aggrievement. One’s hinting his politics are keeping him out, the same week Bill O’Reilly and Tucker Carlson are on the list.

It’s certainly true the NYT lists have their own calculus which does not track 100% to pure sales. It’s also true that publishers do what they can to get their books on the list (for example, by sending touring authors to bookstores that report to the list). Obviously they do!

But these particular authors want to believe it’s something more than that; that it’s something about THEM that’s keeping them off the list. And, well. No. It’s not about THEM. They’re not that important. And even THAT’S not about them; none of us is that important.

The reasons they’re not on the list are almost certainly more mundane and disinterested: They don’t sell enough and/or they don’t sell enough in the manner that matters to the NYT and its particular list-making calculus. It’s neither complicated nor conspiratorial.

But of course they don’t want to hear that. They don’t want to believe that even if you sell “enough” to be on the list, there are other factors, like (for example) other books simply selling more that particular week. There has to be something MORE. Their ego demands it.

Which is bullshit. Here’s a thing: The Collapsing Empire sold more than 35,000 units its first week, and it also missed the NYT lists. Why? For several reasons, INCLUDING other books selling more in specific formats that week (like hardcover).

When Empire missed the NYT list, did I act like a pissy child and insinuate some grand conspiracy had kept me off the list? No; my reaction was “Huh, good week for sales all around I guess” and I got on with my life. Because I’m a grown-ass human, you see.

In sum: The NYT bestseller lists don’t care about you; no one’s trying to keep you off of them; you can sell a lot of books and never hit the list, because that’s just the way it is; if you insist there’s a conspiracy to keep you off the list, you might need some fresh air.

Second: Additional thoughts:

* One thing to keep in mind here is when we talk about “The New York Times Bestseller List,” we’re actually talking about several different lists. For example, I’ve made the NYT “list” in four separate categories: Hardcover Fiction, Combined Print & eBook Fiction, Mass Market Fiction, and the Audio Fiction. The NYT will also sometimes drop categories and add new ones — the Audio Fiction list started just a few months ago, for example, and the Mass Market Fiction list doesn’t exist anymore.

This is important because some authors do better in some formats than in others. The fellow above hinting that politics is keeping him from the list, for example, charted in the Mass Market Fiction list back in the day. If that’s where he sells the best, then it would make sense that he’s not on the current iterations of the NYT lists, because his prime sales avenue no longer has a list. And while indeed that may feel unfair if you sell well in mass market paperback and less well in other formats, it’s a) not about you personally, or b) about your politics.

* Another thing about the NYT lists these days is that in the last few years they’ve cut the number of slots on the list themselves; the lists used to go into the thirties (my first NYT bestseller ranking was #33 on the Mass Market Fiction list), and now they publish only the top fifteen in any category. There are fewer slots to go around, and thus it’s more difficult to hit the list at all. Again, that’s nothing about politics, and everything about the lists themselves becoming more selective.

* The NYT lists are targeted for complaint because they are the most famous bestseller lists, and also because, if you’re of a conservative bent, a bit of a bete noir, being that the NYT is all full of liberals and shit. But other publications track sales as well, and there does happen to be a correlation between the appearance of a book on the NYT list, and its appearance on other lists as well. It’s relatively rare for a book to show up on a Times list, especially these days in their shorter format, and not on another bestseller list somewhere else. For example, The Consuming Fire showed up on the NYT Combined Print & eBook Fiction list, the USA Today list (which covers all books in all print/ebook formats), the Wall Street Journal eBook Fiction list, the Publishers Weekly Hardcover Frontlist fiction list (and, separately, its Science Fiction list), the Audible weekly bestsellers list and the Los Angeles Times Hardcover Fiction list. This does suggest the book sold robustly, as many of these lists track different criteria, and each otherwise has its own formula for deciding what makes the list and what does not.

This is relevant for a couple of reasons. One, those who kvetch about the NYT lists like to suggest that the reason people they don’t like make it onto the list is some form of graft and/or corruption; for example, in my case they like to suggest Tor has bought my way onto the list in some nefarious manner. This leads one to wonder whether Tor has also employed graft/corruption to place me on all those other lists as well. Indeed, if Tor has the ability to bribe or influence not only the New York Times but also the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and Publishers Weekly, then I have clearly chosen the correct publisher, given the effort they’ve made on my behalf. However, Tor is not my audio publisher, so I must assume that Audible has also leveraged graft/corruption for my NYT Audio Fiction list appearances. How very lucky I am that both publishers are willing to extend me such a courtesy! Although as it happens The Consuming Fire didn’t make it onto the NYT Audio Fiction list. They clearly need to apply more graft; there was a breakdown in the process.

Two, I am curious whether these folks believe politics, etc are keeping them from all the other bestseller lists as well. The fellow I note hinting that politics has kept him off the NYT lists has a single appearance on the USA Today bestseller list, as an example, and the online database for the USA Today list goes back more than two decades. I would note other conservative fiction writers have no problem showing up on the USA Today list, including ones from this fellow’s own publisher: why, as recently as this very October, one of this author’s stablemates, who is known to be politically conservative, landed not only on the USA Today list but also the New York Times Hardcover Fiction list and the Publishers Weekly Hardcover Frontlist and Science Fiction lists (again, note the correlation of appearances there). I guess personal politics as a hindrance to sales only goes so far. Unless this other publisher is also participating in graft and corruption, just like mine supposedly are.

* Do publishers and authors try to game bestseller lists? Sure! Some do! A couple years back an author got onto an NYT list by placing orders for her book and then not coming to pick up those orders; earlier than that the Wall Street Journal had to deal with authors (or other interested parties) bulk ordering business books to show up on that paper’s business bestsellers list. In each case the paper in question dealt with the attempt to game the lists by closing up that particular avenue of list-gaming. It’s more difficult than you would think to game a reputable bestseller list; certainly more difficult than the people whining about it suggest it is.

* There is no special virtue in being on a New York Times or any other bestseller list — it simply means you sold a reasonable number of books relative to other books in a specific category in that particular week. Nor does your book being on a bestseller list mean it has inherent literary or cultural value; many brilliant books never get near a bestseller list at all.

But if you are going to make a big deal about bestseller lists, and why you are not on them, then a) have some idea what you’re talking about, b) be ready to be ridiculed if you darkly hint at conspiracies when in reality much more mundane factors are at play. You’re almost certainly not being kept off the New York Times (or USA Today or Wall Street Journal or etc) bestseller lists because you’re outspoken politically one way or another, and the people who do make it onto the lists aren’t there because there’s a grand cabal doling out slots for cash or influence. If you seriously believe either of these things, you’re silly, and visibly envious and insecure, and possibly also twelve.

27 Comments on “Some Observations on Bestseller Lists, December 2018”

  1. There’s also simply matters of timing. A romance author buddy of mine routinely hits the US Today list. One of hers came out the day Superstorm Sandy made landfall. She shrugged and said “Well, darn,” but eh, there were way bigger problems than whether one author made the list that week!

    My kid books sell decently–the first Dragonbreath is hovering around a quarter million copies sold–but it sells steadily rather than in huge spikes and it mostly sells at Scholastic book fairs and things like that that don’t get tracked for the lists. Que sera, sera. There’s more to life (and personally, being in the little Scholastic catalog that kids take home and pore over is worth a heckuva lot of emotional payoff!)

  2. I read an interesting post by an author I admire who talked about being given a choice by her editor if she wanted her book to come out in September or February. The publisher felt that she was likely to hit the bestsellers list if it was in February, but unlikely in September. But, the number of books she was projected to sell in the first week if she launched in September was higher overall than the February projection. It’s just February had little competition.

    She ended up picking September, and to this day she hasn’t has a NYT bestseller. But, she doesn’t mind. Her books sell well enough and she has passionate fans. Which seems sensible to me 😁

  3. Speaking of the Scholastic Book Fair, I /always/ got in trouble for overspending my limit. But oh, the joy when the books came in!

  4. Ursula Vernon:

    Yeah, the “selling steadily” thing is the key for me too. I do well enough these days to have books in the lists for a week, but it’s the fact they sell steadily year in and year out in backlist that keeps my lights on.

    And also yes to “timing matters” — and it matters in different ways for different lists. The Consuming Fire coming out on October 16 was good for getting me on the Combined Print & eBook list, which is a weekly list, but not great at all for the Audio Fiction list, which is a monthly list, which meant my book had only two weeks of sales to compete against other books in the category. C’est la vie.

  5. Those Sad Puppies who complain about not making the NYT Bestseller List(s) (or the MURDOCH STREET JOURNAL Bestseller List either – fancy that!) ignore that a lot of highly successful authors rarely if ever make any Bestseller Lists…but their books have a Long Tail and stay in print for years, which is far more important than being on any Bestseller List. (I say this knowing my wife’s books have hit No. 1 on the NYT Young Adult Bestseller List on several occasions – occasionally they even stay on the List for a few weeks, too!)

    If they want to make a lasting impact, maybe they should angle their books towards that instead – I’m sure there a plenty of Very Fine Persons who will keep them afloat creatively and financially….

  6. Slight tangent here, but someone (I forgot who) once told me that what is made to look like bestseller placings in supermarkets (here in the UK: Asda and Tesco. In the US, presumably Walmart?) and some chain book stores (Waterstones) are not actually based on sales. Instead, it was claimed that the slots themselves are sold to publishers as a form of paid-for advertising – just as publishers have to pay the shops for a book to be put in the “3 for 2” offers. So there are shelves with nice little numbers (#1 to #20) but those numbers just indicate how much a publisher had to pay to place their book on that position, with maybe a few obvious bestsellers thrown in for free to make the list look more authentic to shoppers. Supposedly it works as a self-fulfilling prophecy to some extent (people pick up the books from those shelves before any other, ergo they get sold more), and the shops don’t necessarily put a lot of narrative around the shelves to avoid outright lying (i.e. they might say “Top Sellers” somewhere but not actually claim that they are official sales rankings of any sort). If what I was told is true (and please feel free to correct me if not), then I can understand why some people might be sceptical about bestsellers lists in general. It wouldn’t excuse the political paranoia, but the presence of highly visible bad apples / dishonest examples could make someone cynical about sales ranks in general.

  7. Maybe you’re not on the best selling list because your dickhead politics come through in your writing and people of a more moderate bent don’t buy your stuff. (No, peckerwoods, you are not in the majority. 46%)

    I find politics – and arguing politics – entertaining but I don’t spend my entertainment dollars on politics. There are *free* websites for that.

  8. @Dana – are you suggesting that there might be some sort of correlation between the whether a person tends to buy a lot of books, and where a person falls on a socially conservative/liberal axis? What a remarkable hypothesis!


  9. Sarcasm aside, let’s not make the assumption conservatives are any less well-read than liberals (particularly in the genre of science fiction).

  10. I always assume the reason I’ve never hit the bestseller list is all about me. To wit my complete and utter ignorance when it comes to marketing. I am shit at publicity and hate asking people to buy my books. So unless I can eventually partner with someone who does know how to market I’m unlikely ever to reach that benchmark.

    It’s one of the reasons I ghostwrite fiction. Someone else can be responsible for getting the word out. I get paid by the word.

    Although I have been contemplating a work of non-fiction. Surprising really. I’m not really a non-fiction kind of gal.

  11. A tangential thought on bestsellers lists: there are some things that look like bestsellers lists which, as far as I know, aren’t. For example, supermarkets and some chain book stores have shelves marked “Top Sellers” or “Bestsellers” or “Book Chart”, with positions marked like a rank (#1 to #20). Much as this looks like a bestsellers’ list, it is not generally determined by the sales ranks of books, or not exclusively so. Instead, placing a book on that shelf is often a paid-for advertising opportunity that the chains offer publishers. It can work like a self-fulfilling prophecy (those books will get looked at by more shoppers, and sell more copies), but in the end, it’s a method of hoodwinking people.
    Disclaimer: I was told this, or i have read it somewhere, but googling, I can now only find a post asserting that “this used to be true, but it isn’t any more” at Waterstones shops in the UK. Personally, I don’t believe that Waterstones (or Tesco, Asda et al) are likely to have suddenly gone honest after years of being crooked, so I still eye those shelves with distrust.

    So, with fake bestsellers lists out there, a degree of scepticism is perhaps justified. On the other hand, personal political paranoia isn’t justified, and a sensible person would look into the info about a specific list before asserting its unreliability, but there are certainly some lists which aren’t very meaningful.

  12. I’ve never been on any best seller list. I assume it’s because of all the prejudices against those of us who have never written a book.

  13. A second thought: I am fairly sure that Amazon Sales Ranks can be gamed. And, based on watching one particular book this summer, I strongly suspect that Amazon’s publishing arm is allowed to game their system more than other publishers are.
    A nonfiction book on a niche subject by a debut author achieved thousands of ratings and hundreds of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, several months before being published, and months before being a “Kindle First” book. Meanwhile, as a reader who occasionally got his hands on an ARC, I found it was impossible to write reviews of books by other publishers before their official publication date. So Amazon’s publishing arm seems to get licence to use tricks that Amazon’s algorithms prevent for other publishers.
    I love Goodreads and buy almost all my books from Amazon, but if I am right about Amazon’s publishing arm being empowered to cheat / game their system, then this could be pretty worrying for the publishing industry.

  14. re Karellen – “@Dana – are you suggesting that there might be some sort of correlation between the whether a person tends to buy a lot of books, and where a person falls on a socially conservative/liberal axis?”

    No I was commenting on the political make-up of the book buying public (which is not quite as far to the right as the right wants to believe.)

    Even if the right-wingers buy an equal number of books per person, there are less of them. Sorry if that wasn’t clearer.

  15. Here in Denver there is a book store which often notes book on a “Employee Recommended” list and posts it on the bookshelf. Those are the books I buy. Has never led me wrong. I personally know it’s real designation from actual employees. Hope rhat never changes. Not everything is corporate greed related.

  16. It’s been my experience, as I aged and my reading tastes became more eclectic, that certain subgenres of sci-fi are ghettos of just plain bad writing. If a writer believes that some humans are incomprehensible evil sub-human monsters, and that other humans are upstanding good guys who need no examination, then they tend to be lousy at writing convincing characters, let alone interesting ones. If the writer believes that only white men matter enough to be heroes or 3-D characters in his world, only a subset of white men are likely to find the main characters interesting or even relatable. Everyone else will likely not care, or be actively offended if the secondary non-white-male characters are stereotypes or passive props supporting the main characters. Remember Dorothy Jones Heydt’s Eight Deadly Words: “I don’t care what happens to these people.” Unrealistic, unrelatable characters do not lead to interesting, character-driven plots; they tend to be pawns driven by the plot instead. Readers don’t actually care about a random string of events; they care about people. They are reading the writer’s story to find out what happens to people the author made them care about. If they don’t care about the characters, the plot is meaningless. Thus, bad writing that will not sell much.

  17. Back in the early days of my career in book publishing, we had a Well Known Fantasy Author who had a popular series that FINALLY hit the NYT list for us in hardcover. It debuted at #15. There were only 15 slots per list, and only 4 lists: hardcover fiction, hardcover nonfiction, mass market (fiction almost by default) and paperback nonfic. (I think. I have it in my head there was ppk nonfic, but it could have been general trade ppk which was mostly nonfic at the time.)

    ANYWAY, when that book hit the NYT list, we were surprised, because it had “only” moved 50,000 copies out the door. There was a mood both of “yay, bestseller!” and “oh shit, people aren’t buying so many books if that’s all it takes to hit the list.”

    OTOH, it came out in a “light” week, when there weren’t a ton of new Stephen King/Tom Clancy/Nora Roberts–level books dropping.

    This was last century, so before ebooks were a thing. The number of hardcover sales to hit bestseller is now lower, because ebooks have cannibalized some of those sales. Mass market bestseller lists are gone, because ebooks cannibalized even more of those. The NYT expanded its lists, both in variety and in number of slots, for reasons I can only hypothesize about, but which I suspect were in response to the technological shakeup in the market and publishers’ complaints. (I mean for starters, the NYT didn’t even track YA books until Rowling’s success forced them to rethink it.)

    Which is my very long-winded way of saying, (1) No one should assume they know how many books it takes to hit a bestseller list, because (2) The conditions to hit the list change over time and indeed are different week-to-week.

  18. Not a writer here. But honestly, if I find a book is on a bestseller list, that makes me look a bit sideways at it – not because it’s automatically a bad book, but because my personal tastes don’t usually line up with such books. (Fiction, at least.) Unless they’re your books, in which case I’m all over them, because there’s this happy thing sometimes where what I like matches up with what a lot of other people like. And no I am not just sucking up. It’s actually weird when that happens in my corner of the universe.

  19. Me too, Helene. I have found this to be true not only for the likes of Stephen King, but all the way down the line.

    Speaking of King, I was in Half Price Books the other day and they had many, many copies of his new $20 short story, “Elevation.” I suspect that was the Sunk Cost Effect—person buys something WAY not worth the price, realizes mistake, figures he might as well recoup some of the lost funds. Thus, methinks publisher pricing decisions also have a lot to do with a book’s success. The plot of “Elevation” sounded uninteresting to me so I doubt I’d have bought it as a stand-alone at any price, but I recall a number of instances in the past where I would have liked to have a book on my shelf but thought the price was ridiculous, so that was one lost sale.

  20. Any 12-year-old – or 8-year-old – that a) had a book worth publishing, and b) was even remotely in contention for bestsellerdom, would be a phenomenon in him or herself … ;) . He or she would be All Over The News, and probably result in being a bestseller that way. (Emotionally 12 – or 8 – is another matter, of course. I’m just being nitpicky.) And, on the main topic, what I like reading is people’s best book of the year columns and noting which books get repeat mentions. Goodreads is also helpful.

  21. @rochrist – The Scholastic book fairs were SUCH a part of my childhood. My royalty rate on them isn’t great because list price on their editions is so low, but it’s low in the best of causes, and I begrudge nothing. I lived for those little catalogs and I know there’s kids out there doing the same.

  22. Ursula Vernon: Elementary school librarian here. The kids LOVE your books. And I think some of the best kids books are by authors you don’t see on the bestseller lists or winning awards. They are the ones (usually in series, like your Dragonbreath and Hampster Princess books) that kids just continually go to and know what they’re getting and love them year after year. Korman, Gutman, Holm, Lubar and such. Thanks for being awesome!

  23. “There is no special virtue in being on a New York Times or any other bestseller list…”

    There may not be any personal virtue in it, but from the stickers and the mentions in author bios and other ancillary signs, publishers clearly assume there is a business virtue in being on the NYT lists. Anecdatally, the NYT lists are mentioned more than any of the others, so it’s not surprising that people kvetch about the Times system, try to game it, and so forth. It’s an intransparent system atop a winner-take-all tournament of lists, so, yeah, people will think all kinds of odd things about it.