Landing a spot on the New York Times Bestseller list is an author’s Olympic Gold Medal. It is one of the quickest ways to become a household name, and it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you make the List and you’ll sell a ton more books.
So how do you crack that code? What’s the secret?
Like many authors, I was a bit naive in my thoughts on the subject. I believed the list was a unit sales ranking system. Sell more books or the most books, and boom – you’re on the list.
Unfortunately, that isn’t really how it works. The truth is a little bit more of a gut-punch to your average author. Seems to me, there are some ugly truths about publishing and this one was, for me, perhaps the most disappointing.
Do keep in mind that the “exact” method of NYT bestseller calculation is a trade secret. In other words, much like credit scores and FB algorithms, we can only glean the “system” indirectly. However, these seven methods have all been validated as components – we just don’t how much weight each carries.
The most important factor to be aware of is the NY Times own words: The creation of the list is a survey, not a science. From that statement we can conclude that we’re not just counting and analyzing numbers here, we are inserting opinions and feelings.
And from the research, we know these are all factors to making that list (Try not to break anything after reading these).
1. Know a lot of influential people
Because the calculations are based on surveys and because the surveys ask for opinions regarding a book’s potential…yes, potential…popularity, knowing people in the business is a good way to get on the list. What sort of individuals? Publishers, book buyers, distributors, and retailers. It also helps if your book is already on the survey’s “check-list.” which is a list of books the Times “thinks” will be bestsellers and which the respondent just checks off.
Like a “hot” stock, anticipation and hype go a long way. You can guarantee that JK, Stephen King, and Brad Thor are going to be on the bestseller list the moment they hit publish. True, they will probably sell a million copies, but you can see that no one actually waits around to calculate those sales.
3. Work there
One of the biggest criticisms the Times has faced is that their employee’s books always make the list…always. That means there is more than a little “in the club” mentality going on in the selection.
4. Hire people to buy your books
When people have manipulated the Amazon system, there is always outrage and stories. We here a little less about that manipulation from the Times list but it is just as rampant. Some agencies will ensure, in fact, guarantee you a spot on the list. You just need the right amount of money. The NY Times’ list includes something called “Fast Sales.” If you can get an agency to purchase your books from multiple locations in the same week, you will gain a place on the list. It won’t last longer than the money spent, but hey once you’re a bestseller, you’re a bestseller. Of course, you need somewhere between ten and two hundred thousand for the buy-in.
5. Get them to double count your books
Well, you don’t have to get them to because they’ll often do it themselves (see items #1 and #2). In short, retailers, wholesalers, etc. count your sales when the books are purchased in bulk and again when the consumer makes the purchase. When an author sells a hundred thousand books in the first week, often that includes the books bought for distribution and the books purchased by consumers.
6. Practice the “right” politics
Another criticism of the list is that the folks making the final decision like one political leaning more than another. If you don’t practice their brand of politics, then your book will not last as long on the bestseller list…or might not even make it regardless of sales. Remember that checklist on the survey? Yeah, just don’t make a book an option and “poof” it’s gone.
7. Sell Books by writing a great story people love
Of course, even with all the flaws and manipulations a great book that people love works. Writing a great book is the only pathway for independent authors and the primary method they’ve used to breach the ranks of the list. Unfortunately, it is also the most difficult path.
So should you give up your bestseller list dream? No, absolutely not. But don’t make it the litmus test for your success or use your absence from the list as a commentary on your skill or talent. Do what you love to do—write a great story and write it the best you can.
There is a business to writing, and those are the things you will ultimately need to learn, embrace, and practice if you want to be a household name.
Fortunately, there is another important list. It’s called Amazon, and although people also manipulate the numbers there, Amazon is pretty much a straight shooter with their bestseller calculations…it’s based on unit sales.
In my humble, Amazon bestseller opinion, that’s the place every Indie Author should put their focus. Let the elites and the celebrities and the book royalty have their NY Times list because we have our club…and there is cookies and coffee.