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Everything You Wanted to Know about the
Bestseller Lists (But Were Afraid to Ask)

BY ELAINE ISAAK

This year my RWA chapter asked a simple question of its members: What do you need to get to the next level? As the Published Author Network (PAN) liaison, part of my job was to take the answers from this survey and turn them into challenges, and find speakers who would help our members get there. A few of our published members answered, “A bestseller!” Rather than shrug this off as a facetious response, I decided to do some research and offer a presentation on how the bestseller lists work and what might be done to get a better shot. Herewith, the results of my study (so far).

There are actually four lists, compiled in different ways:

  1. The Holy Grail of authorial achievement: The New York Times. Generated by a survey of more than 3,000 stores, the NYT list is still the summit. It now breaks out titles by hardcover, trade, fiction, nonfiction, and children’s.

  2. The USA Today list combines all types of books on one list, using data provided by booksellers and combining various formats to determine the book’s total.

  3. Publishers Weekly compiles its list using Bookscan point-of-sales data, which represents only about 65 percent of actual books sold.

  4. The relatively new BookSense indie list, for which each participating independent bookstore sends a ranked list of local bestsellers for compilation into the aggregate.

Amazon.com also compiles lists from its data, which are updated hourly and can be examined by various genres and subgenres. These are very useful for looking at what’s hot, and for getting a quick idea of the range of works in your area, especially regarding self-published or e-first books. But the Amazon lists do not yet have the cachet of the traditional lists, nor have they attracted the same level of academic inquiry.

The bestseller lists measure sales velocity: selling fast in a short period of time. All of my promotional strategies for a new release involve selling as many as possible during that first month and, ideally, during the first week the book hits the shelves. There are many books that sell more copies than some of the titles on the bestseller list, but do so more gradually, so they never actually hit the list.

In the U.S., the five major publishers—Random House, HarperCollins, Time Warner Publishing, Penguin USA, and Simon & Schuster—are responsible for about 80 percent of bestsellers; the five majors together with the next five largest publishers—Macmillan, Hyperion, Rodale Press, Houghton Mifflin, and Harlequin Enterprises—control around 98 percent of all U.S. bestsellers. You can further break down which imprints have the most titles on the list for the longest period of time. For example, in mass market at Publishers Weekly in 2006, Berkley, Jove, Bantam, Pocket, and Avon appear at the top. However, there are some interesting anomalies further down, like Warner Vision, with the highest number of titles—25—reaching the list, but only staying there for a collective 27 weeks.

If you were at NINC’s 2011 conference, you heard Carolyn Pittis of HarperCollins point out that the NYT fiction list has 780 slots per year. Only 100 of those are actually open slots: the others are already accounted for by the “name” authors when their new books come out (Tom Clancy, Danielle Steel—you know the ones we’re talking about). It’s not that these names are carved in stone, exactly, but rather that their books represent guaranteed sales volume. So, Carolyn’s analysis continued...in 2010, there were 288,355 traditionally published titles—making your chances of hitting the NYT list about two in 10,000. Your chances of getting struck by lightning are only one in 10,000, so you’re still more likely to be a bestseller!

What about those “name” authors who are already on one of the lists? We have a few NINC members who enjoy this happy status—and I don’t intend for my research to in any way detract from their   

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