Otherwise, stick around so that you can gain a further understanding of what it actually means and what it truly takes to get on the New York Times Bestseller list.
Because it could impact your path to get there…
Why do authors want to get on the New York Times Bestseller list?
Getting published in the New York Times Bestseller list is traditionally regarded as the gold standard in the publishing world. While many notable bestseller lists exist in the publishing world —The Wall Street Journal bestseller list for business-themed books, for instance—the New York Times Bestseller list, published weekly since 1931, is the oldest and most prestigious list.
To that extent, getting your work published on the list is a major deal–but there are “rules” that bars many ridiculously great authors from ever reaching this status.
Getting published on the Times’ list not only raises your profile as an established author but can offer many more opportunities.
Here are some benefits of becoming an NYT Bestselling author:
Land future writing contracts with established printing houses
Broader industry recognition
Establish you as a major thought leader and expert
Perhaps the most important thing to understand about the New York Times Bestseller list is that it is an evolving list.
It always has been and, as historical and more recent trends seem to suggest, probably always will be. To be fair, it is not only the Times.
Only as recent as 1995 did the Los Angeles Times begin to count paperbacks again on its bestseller list.
Further back in time, in 1961, the Chicago Tribune more infamously denied certain high-selling books that it considered to be “sewer written by dirty fingered authors for dirty-minded readers” from appearing on its Bestseller list.
Various genres and classic works of literature have historically not appeared on the New York Times Bestseller list. The recent explosion of E-books (The Times began counting them in 2010), self-published books, and audiobooks have also contributed to a more evolving list.
How do best seller lists work?
The New York Times Bestseller list is made up of various lists divided by different categories such as fiction and non-fiction, hardcover, paperback, Ebooks, audiobooks, and various book genres.
For you, the aspiring writer whose goal it is to be published in the their Bestseller list, probably the most important thing to know is what is worth writing if you are to get your work published on the list.
Again, The New York Times does not consider various categories for their bestseller list. A helpful article published on their site about their various guidelines and scoring method clarifies the matter.
Here is what those guidelines state:
“Among the categories not actively tracked at this time are: perennial sellers, required classroom reading, textbooks, reference and test preparation guides, e-books available exclusively from a single vendor, journals, workbooks, calorie counters, shopping guides, periodicals and crossword puzzles.”
Cookbooks, contrary to popular belief, are included, as are religion, spirituality, and faith books.
The NYT Bestseller “List” is Not a True Measure of Bestselling Status
It may seem contradictory and still remains controversial to say but it is nonetheless true: The New York Times Bestseller list does not represent a true best-seller list–that is, when accounting for actual total sales.
Just what constitutes “Bestseller” status has been the decades-long battle – legal, political, commercial, and otherwise between—the Times, various authors, and book publishers.
Like any traditional gatekeeper, the Times has its set of rules, standards, and procedures. As such, they hold the “keys” as to “who” gets in…and who is left out (even if they’re deserving).
It is best to think of New York Times Bestseller status as something that is subjective in nature. A book that becomes a New York Times Bestseller doesn’t necessarily have to sell millions of copies, or hundreds of thousands, for that matter. While book sales do meet the subjective criteria that the Times uses, it is a specific kind of “book sale” that counts toward New York Times Bestseller status.
Moreover, given the explosion of online sales and the diminishing number of traditional brick-and-mortar bookstores (and, consequently, bookstore sales) the sales methodology behind how books are counted has influenced which books appear or do not appear on the list.
As explained in a recent article about how to become a best-selling author and how to appear on a bestseller list, it’s stated that the New York Times in particular, when tallying books for bestseller status, considers:
Books that sold in a very specific time period: The Times does not track cumulative sales. Hence, why the Bible, the best-selling book of all time, will not appear on the list. Books like Don Quixote and The Tale of Two Cities, worldwide beloved classics that have sold millions over the years, also will not appear. Dan Brown’s Davinci Code, however, will appear, as it did for several years between 2003 and 2006.
Books sold at very specific places: certain book sales are “weighted” more favorably depending on where they originate. Bulk sales, under certain conditions, are counted toward bestseller status; ebooks published by a sole vendor are not, etc.
Again, the Times explains this in more detail on their site.
What Writers Need to Know About the New York Times Bestseller List
Even though it retains its prestigious reputation, The New York Times Bestseller list has been the subject of much controversy. Charges of “curated elitism,” an overreliance on books published by the major New York publishing houses, questionable methodologies, bribery, editorial and political bias have prompted lawsuits and intense debates among authors, book publishers, and industry executives.
A 1983 lawsuit by William Beatty, an American writer best known for his novel The Exorcist and 1973 movie by the same name, is a case in point.
While his book Legion sold many copies during its initial publication—enough to earn a comfortable spot for a while on the Times’ Bestseller list—his book appeared on the list only for one week.
Sensing bias and claiming that by it not remaining on the Times’s list his sales were being hurt, Beatty took his case to Court. In Court, the Times defended itself on grounds that “The list did not purport to be an objective compilation of information but instead was an editorial product.” The Court sided with the Times, dismissing a $3 million lawsuit.
Think of it like this: The New York Times is the newspaper equivalent to a prestigious university and fashionable high-end clothing brand. When it comes to getting on their bestseller list, just as it is for gaining admission to, say, an Ivy League School, few get in.
For those that do, they did their due diligence, worked incredibly hard, made great contacts, followed the rules, met the editorial standards, among other things.
How to Get on the New York Times Bestseller List
If you really have your hearts set on becoming a New York Times bestselling author, here are some of the things you’ll have to do in order to make it happen.
#1 – Know What the NYT List wants
A Stanford Business School analysis done years ago concluded by saying that the “majority of book buyers seem to use the Times‘ list as a signal of what’s worth reading.”
Knowing what the Times regards as a bestseller is important because it provides a helpful window into this segment of the bestselling publishing world (which has evolved past just the Times in recent years).
It helps to know what is currently passing for a New York Times Bestseller.
Simply start with the category in which you would like to be published: fiction, non-fiction. Beyond that, genre: history, political, fantasy, science-fiction. It helps too to know who the Big Players are.
The Times is known to favor the Big New York publishing houses. Who are these? What are their submission guidelines? Who are some agents known for working with them?
#2 – Obtain fast and diverse sales
In the age of digital self-publication and promotion, the traditional publishing route is virtually a thing of the past.
Not so for a New York Times Bestseller. Unlike selling on digital mediums where you can become a Bestseller by selling your book on, say, Amazon, to whomever, wherever, becoming a New York Times Bestseller follows a different system.
To achieve bestseller status on the Times not only do you have to sell at least 5,000 – 10,000 copies in one week, but these sales have to be diverse sales.
That is, you cannot sell 10,000 books to a pre-existing list of followers through a personal website or thousands from only one marketplace like Barnes and Noble.
Rather, these sales must flow from retailers across the country and in different geographical locations—everything from Big-Box chains like Barnes and Noble and Walmart, small independent book stores, E-commerce giant Amazon, university bookstores, etc.
It is worth noting that the public does not have access to who the aforementioned retail outlets are. To prevent possible abuse from those looking to rig the system.
But the thing that is discrediting the NYT Bestseller List further and further is the fact that you can sell many more books than what is required, but would still not make it on the list.
Therefore, Amazon sales only (where 64% of books are purchased!) will not count on their own.
#3 – Build a Strong Author Platform
For first-time and lesser-known authors it is especially critical to have a pre-existing audience before attempting New York Times bestseller status.
This is how you can start to build your author platform and audience:
Be active on social media: it goes without saying, people—potential followers, collaborators, industry leaders, publishers, agents, and readers—exist in the digital space. Find them, connect with them, and collaborate, if possible.
Be already building credibility / expertise on your particular niche / topic / passion: write a weekly blog, as an example. This is perfect practice to hone your writing skills, develop your voice and writing styles, conduct research for your eventual book. The goal is to establish trust and credibility.
Collaborate with others in your particular area for more knowledge and broader exposure: if you want to get in with the Big Wigs you got to know your stuff. Once you have built up some credibility you can leverage this and reach out to important figures in your field. It is a win-win-win for you, the person you are reaching out to and the audience that is set to gain important information from the two of you.
Engage with your audience: Assess your audience’s “book pulse:” how hungry are they for your words of wisdom, unique insight, creative mind? What questions are you asking them? What have they had to say about your previous blog posts, vlogs, tweets, etc? Are they genuinely impressed, suggesting you write a book perhaps?
Maybe they are giving you more fuel for your book—telling you about things you had previously not known before, mentioning other books that further your expertise? Engagement is key. What, if any, do you have with your audience?
#4 – Have a Pre-Order List Before Your Book Launch
You should have such a list for any book you seek to publish. For a potential New York Times Bestseller it is especially important from a sales perspective.
Rob Eager, a notable book marketing consultant, explains that, in the case of a New York Times Bestseller, all pre-orders sold before a book launch are counted during the first week of official sales.
So, for instance, 5,000 sold during pre-release and another 5,000 during the first official week equals 10,000 total books sold—a critical number to reach during the first week for New York Times Bestseller status.
Having a pre-order list works hand-in-hand with a pre-existing audience. If you already have the audience it is, of course, easier to have a ready pre-order list. If you are successful enough to have both of these before launch you are in good shape.
#5 – Exchange speaking fee for a bulk book purchases
While it may not be the best course for everyone, speaking engagements are incredible opportunities to double-down on your writing endeavors and entrepreneurial goals more broadly.
They are not only great confidence-boosters but serve as great book marketing opportunities.
Exchanging speaking fees for a bulk book purchase is especially important during the pre-order phase because it allows you not only reach a broader audience (and hopefully make more sales) but allows you to meet the Times’ requirement that book purchases be in different geographic areas.
New York Times Bestseller Status vs. Writing as Means to an End
Given the age of digital entrepreneurship where self-publishing a book continues to gain significant traction, effectively taking down the traditional barriers of entry—publishing industry contacts, top-notch agents, and costly marketing plans—it is really up to you to figure out your writing goals.
Traditional publishing with the aim of appearing on an internationally-recognized Bestseller list like the Times versus self-publishing with the aim of achieving personal / business goals (and potential Bestseller status just not in the Times) is a tradeoff you’ll have to consider.
Remember publishing a book is not an end in and of itself. With its ability to boost your name, reputation, and authority, not to mention, depending on your industry, land you more consulting clients and speaking gigs, writing a book can open up some pretty amazing doors. A successful published book is a marketing tool like no other.
Whatever path you choose, keep in mind that achieving Bestseller status in places other than the New York Times Bestseller List has been proven to land equally promising and lucrative opportunities.
And we are just in the beginning phases of this amazing trend. Self-Publishing School is here to help.
Gabe Muniz is a native New Englander with a passion for local politics and educational reform. His personal blog honestgabetalks focuses on the state of urban America where he writes on various social, economic, and political topics. When he’s not debating politics with friends and family, he can be found hiking with his lovely wife, reading a good book, and playing basketball. His blog can be found at HonestGabeTalks.com.