The Dirty Little Secret Of Bestseller Lists That Everyone Should Know

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Book bestseller lists are everywhere. Amazon has one, as do most large newspapers and other publications. Perhaps the most widely known bestseller list (at least in the US), is the New York Times. Making it onto the NYT bestseller list, even for a short period of time, can give an author a huge boost in sales and prestige.

But exactly how do bestseller lists work? Are the books listed really bestsellers? I did some digging to find out, and you’ll be surprised at what I learned.

New York Times Bestseller List Cloaked In Mystery

How do authors make this prestigious list? No one really knows, except for industry insiders. It’s a tightly held secret. According to this Fast Company article, the NYT doesn’t use actual sales to compile their list:

It is a well-known fact among publishers that the New York Times gets its book sales data from a scattered few bookstores (like the Nielsen’s) and it doesn’t take into account the actual sales of the books (which does in order to rank), but how many books were shipped to these particular sampling of stores in anticipation of sales.

The article also says large publishers know the “secret” to getting on the list, which is why most of the books you’ll find there are from one of the large publishing houses.

Does this mean the NYT bestseller list is accurate? Meh. In some ways yes, but in many ways no. For example, author Amanda Hocking, who rose to fame by selling over one million ebooks on Amazon. But she has never been on the NYT bestseller list. Though authors who have sold much less, have found themselves on the list.

The Wall Street Journal’s Dirty Little Secret

Another prominent bestseller list comes from the WSJ. I should qualify this by saying they focus on business-oriented books.

This article posted on the WSJ (at least they’re open about it) says many authors who get on the list, see a spike in sales, and then drop off the list – along with their sales. In one case, after an author’s book came off the list sales dropped by a whopping 99%. What’s the deal? The article sums it up pretty nicely:

But the short moment of glory doesn’t always occur by luck alone. In the cases mentioned above, the authors hired a marketing firm that purchased books ahead of publication date, creating a spike in sales that landed titles on the lists. The marketing firm, San Diego-based ResultSource, charges thousands of dollars for its services in addition to the cost of the books, according to authors interviewed.

But the article says that it’s a mystery how ResultSource buys the books in a way that will get it on the WSJ bestseller list. Does it really matter? The result is the same: the list isn’t a true representation of a book’s real sales.

Nielsen Bookscan compiles bestseller lists for several publications, including the WSJ. The company claims to have checks and balances in place to prevent manipulating the data. However, as the article points out, Nielsen Bookscan goes off of bulk sales, not individual sales. This means an author buying up large quantities of their own books qualify, as do corporate purchases, regardless if they intend to resell or give them away as gifts.

Amazon Tries To Stay Honest

Amazon’s bestseller lists (they have a list for several categories of books) appear to be a true representation of sales. Their lists are updated hourly, changing as the tide of book sales increases or recedes.

I don’t know the nitty gritty of how they compile their list. However, I do know the number of sales in a short amount of time weighs heavily on what books make it and what books don’t. Unlike other companies, Amazon doesn’t count books bought by authors themselves. They do keep track of IP addresses, credit card information and other metrics to help them sniff out shady authors.

Amazon gives a little transparency by providing a brief, kind of vague, description of how their bestseller lists are compiled.

Are Bestseller Lists Worth Paying Attention To?

This is the big question. If lists can be manipulated by the author and publishing houses, how much attention should we give to them? I personally think they deserve at least some attention because a book on any large bestseller list will generate a lot of interest, and a lot of sales.

I will sometimes use bestseller lists as a way of finding books to review and recommend. But I will also take them with a grain of salt. As should you.

Full Disclosure: I’m an Amazon Affiliate.

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