Does the bestseller list reflect books actually SOLD?

Among the comments I received for my last blogpost was this question from JMH (thanks for the great question!): “I’ve always been confused as to whether the numbers reflect books sold to the bookstores or sold from bookstores to customers. Every once in a while I see a comment that a book will come out as #8 on the list, and a single one hasn’t yet been sold to a customer.”

The answer is: the lists reflect books sold to consumers, not merely ordered by bookstores.  It’s an old and stubbornly believed myth that the bestseller list is really about how many copies are ordered by stores.  In truth, the list is all about the velocity of retail sales for that particular week.  A store could order 100,000 copies but if not a single one sells to a customer, that book will not be on the list.  And the publisher will be in big trouble.  (Which happens more often than the industry likes to admit.)

That said, a large order will help boost sales.  Remember my earlier post on the importance of the printrun?  A big printrun, and a display with tall stacks of a particular title, means consumers are more likely to see the book and pick it up.  But they actually have to BUY the book for it to register on the bestseller lists.

Another myth that’s been floating around is that a book can hit the NYT list before it even goes on sale.  Not true.  The confusion, I think, is because of the timing of that list.  Let’s say your book goes on sale on Day One.  Sales are tallied up through Day Seven.  The NYT gets back its reports from stores on Day Eight.  On Day Ten, a Wednesday, the NYT finalizes its list and faxes it out to the industry, publishers and agents alike, usually in the late afternoon. Everyone involved is notified and champagne corks pop.  Even though everyone already knows the book will be a bestseller, the actual printed list doesn’t appear in the Sunday Book Review until DAY TWENTY ONE!  That’s twenty one days after the book went on sale.

This leads to the peculiar situation of the author knowing he’s going to be on the list a week and a half before the general public.  If the book gets on the list after the first week on sale, you’ll sometimes see an ad that hails the title as an “Instant NYT bestseller!” way before the actual bestseller list appears in print.  As a result, it seems as if the author and publisher have “inside information” or the “fix was in” or “it must have been all those copies ordered.” 

No, it really is book sales.  True, not all sales (such as libraries and grocery stores) are counted.  But it IS sales.  To consumers. 

17 replies
  1. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    I’ve sometimes wondered how it’s possible for a debut author, with zero brand recognition, to make the list. Industry buzz? Huge advance? Pre-pub reviews? Co-op placement and other advertising? Reader word-of-mouth?

    I know it doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Any thoughts on that?

  2. David Montgomery
    David Montgomery says:

    A first novel can make the list (e.g., Elizabeth Kostova’s THE HISTORIAN), but usually only if it receives massive publisher support, including loads of co-op, a huge galley mailing, advertising, etc. It doesn’t happen very often.

  3. Tess
    Tess says:

    how does a debut get on the list? Major publisher support (as David Montgomery says) plus plain old-fashioned luck. All the publisher support in the world can’t make a bestseller. I’ve seen many a huge debut release flop in the marketplace. There has to be a perfect storm of many things going right at once.

  4. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    Thanks, Tess and David.

    I guess the best we can do sometimes is keep our fingers crossed.

  5. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:


    Well, I’m glad that the NYT still relies on good old consumer purchasing power.

    It also helps if the book in question is, well, a good read. The Historian was one of those rare runaway successes, but it deserved it, as did Elizabeth Kostova (who is a really great person, by the way). Do you think that word of mouth is still as important as all the publisher hooplah?

  6. Patricia Wood
    Patricia Wood says:

    Aloha Tess!
    Let me see: luck, placement, luck, publisher support, luck, be at the right place at the right time, luck…
    With less than 2 weeks to go until LOTTERY’s release it’s out of my hands now.
    *crosses fingers and throws salt over shoulder*
    I just think of that scene in MASK with Jim Carey.
    I guess the question is, Do YOU feel Lucky.

  7. l.c.mccabe
    l.c.mccabe says:

    Back in 1994-6, I worked at a B&N Superstore. It was before the rise of and the best a customer could do was reserve a copy at a bookstore before we got our initial shipment.

    So, that means my information is dated and it may have changed since that time.

    However, I remember that we had “out of the box” best sellers. The first time that happened it surprised me, because I thought you actually had to have sales to consumers before something could be on the NYT Bestsellers list.

    I unknowingly gave the wrong answer to a customer who called and wanted to know if Howard Stern’s book “Private Parts” was going to be on the NYT Bestseller list and would therefore get the 30% discount rather than the standard 20% hardcover discount.

    I told the caller no, because it was only being released that day. Shortly thereafter, my manager and an assistant manager started to unpack the boxes and slapped the 30% off stickers on the cover. I asked and they used the term “out of the box” best seller.

    Maybe the ability to actually pre-purchase books online before the publication date has changed the manner in which best sellers are calculated to make it more in line with my original thoughts on the matter and how you are describing things.

    Just thought I’d through in my over a decade old former bookseller perspective into the mix.


    P.S. Glad to know that you had a great time in Turkey.

  8. Craig
    Craig says:

    You know, Tess, a sure fire way to get the Bone Garden on the Bestseller list (like you need any help doing that) is to have Detective Rizzoli teach a CSI/Muggle/Crime Detection course at Hogwarts. 🙂

  9. Tess
    Tess says:

    about your experience in a chain bookstore: B&N and Borders have their own “internal” bestseller list that’s different from the printed national lists such as NYT and USA Today. So when you go into a Borders, say, and see their shelf of bestsellers, that’s just within the Borders system. Also, a sticker may designate a book a “bestseller” when it really isn’t yet on any national list — it’s just what the bookstore has labeled that book. Or there’s such a huge amount of co-op money from the publisher behind it, that the store has agreed to label it a bestseller. (This is true for those paperback “bestseller” lists you see in supermarkets — those are “designated” bestsellers, not real bestsellers.)

    The only true bestseller lists are the national ones in the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, or USA Today. And those all rely on actual sales to consumers.

  10. David Montgomery
    David Montgomery says:

    A bestselling author once told me a funny story about meeting with one of the paperback distributors some years back (one of the people responsible for putting paperbacks in grocery stores, airports, drugstores and the like). The man had a line-up of the books that were going to be the bestsellers a few months hence. He was unhappy with the selections, though, because too many of them had blue covers. So he removed #4 and replaced it with a book that had a red cover.

  11. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    hey all-we’ve been discussing the feared obsolescence of reading and here right in front of our eyes is a national stampede to buy a book!!i don’t know a thing about harry potter but apparently a whole lot of people do(including my 34 year old son in law whose birthday was yesterday and guess what he got?)-so i guess folks don’t just stand in long lines for x box or tickle me elmo-there is still hope 🙂

  12. struggler
    struggler says:

    true enough Joe – but whenever I see a ‘Top 10’ list of children’s books, JK Rowling seems to have written nearly all of them. I’m proud in a way as she’s a Brit like me, but she does appear to have something of a monopoly of the genre; the only other writers who regularly challenge her in the sales lists died 34 years ago (JRR Tolkein) or 44 years ago (CS Lewis) so it would be nice to see a greater breadth of styles and identities among contemporary children’s authors.

  13. wy82331
    wy82331 says:

    Hello Tess,
    Been sometime since I was here. I must admit I am not a blogger fan. I like to check from time to time to see what is going on in your world. WONDERFUL that you have a new book coming out. Will watch for it.
    I saw the photos of your trip to Turkey.
    Wow. I think everyone should travel, sadly everyone can’t.
    Stay well and always remember, your plenty large enough to play with the ” Big Boys.”

  14. Craig
    Craig says:

    Tess, this is off the subject but you seemed to be interested in this when it happened last year. Once again Touchstone books has released Will Thomas’ latest Barker/Llewelyn mystery, The Hellfire Conspiracy simultaneously in hardcover and softcover.

  15. Tom Young
    Tom Young says:

    After reading this and the last entry, I’m amazed the number is so low. I would have thought it was higher than your original number. But I’m still mourning the 1985, re-write of the New American Standard Bible because it was written for people with a 12th grade reading skill level and was to hard for some.

    So, the September release is sooner than the March release right? Please say yes!

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