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How Best Seller Lists Actually Work (And Why To Avoid Them)


Tucker Max

Tucker Max

Chairman & Co-Founder at Book In A Box

One of the most common questions we get at Book In A Box is this:

"How do I get my book on a bestseller list?"

Our answer: you probably don't want to do that.

We encourage our authors not to chase bestseller lists, but instead focus on their business goals for their book.

This confuses them initially ("Having a bestselling book doesn't get me more business?"), but once we explain the process and tradeoffs to them, the overwhelming majority discard it, and focus more on the business goals that are far more impactful to them.

We wrote this guide for our authors, but are publishing it as a service for anyone who is considering publishing a book.

I cover everything about bestseller lists; how they work, why they're not what they seem, how they lie, why chasing them is a losing proposition, and what to focus on instead.

1. Why Every "Bestseller List" Is Always A Lie

Simply put: every bestseller list is a lie because no bestseller list measures the best selling books.

Let me repeat that, so you can grasp the gravity of what it means:

No bestseller list measures the actual best selling books.

Every single list is either only measuring a limited number of sales in a few places, or far worse, it's a curated list and a small group of people are deciding what to put on their list. And they're picking books based on what they think are "important" books, NOT based on what is actually SELLING.

I am not exaggerating one ounce. When questioned about the practice of deciding what books are "appropriate" to get bestseller status, one of the old school newspaper editors said they did not want to promote books that were, “sewer-written by dirty-fingered authors for dirty-minded readers.Yes, that’s a real quote from only a few decades ago.

You know what authors he was talking about? Henry Miller and Harold Robbins, now widely considered titans of modern literature. But that attitude is still prevalent today, and still infects how most editors think about books.

The most important bestseller list is The New York Times Bestseller List, and they are the worst culprit at this curated elitism. They readily admit that their list is only "reflective" of books that are selling at a certain number of bookstores and online retailers around the country--but NOT an actual best seller list.

You know why they have to admit this publicly? They were sued about it.

For most of the 20th century, they pretended to use a scientific method to count book sales, and claimed their list was authoritative and accurate.

And then William Blatty wrote a novel called The Exorcist (which has sold 10 million copies and became a famous movie). It sold more than enough copies to be high on the list for a long time, but initially did not appear on it.

He rightly claimed that the New York Times was intentionally excluding it for editorial reasons--the book was considered very controversial at the time--and claimed that their decision was costing him millions of dollars in sales.

He lost the case. Why? Because the New York Times defense was that “the list did not purport to be an objective compilation of information but instead was an editorial product.”

They won the case, in multiple rulings all the way up to the Supreme Court, based on the argument that the list is NOT supposed to accurate, but reflects their JUDGMENT.

It is a valid legal argument...but it also means The New York Times admitted that their bestseller list is just a popularity contest, and they select who they will and won't put in the "cool kids" club. 

It's like high school all over again.

Everyone who works in publishing has seen this play out countless times. You can see it yourself if you have access to Nielsen BookScan, the database that tracks paid sales covering about 70-80% of book outlets. The New York Times List varies greatly from the Nielsen report of actual books sold (anyone in publishing can see this, and it is a known fact).

The same thing is true, to different degrees, with the other major national lists; The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Publisher's Weekly. They count what they want, the way they want, and that's it.

2. Why (Most) Authors Should NOT Try For Bestseller Lists

Right now, you might be thinking, "OK, even if it this is all true, being a bestselling author is still a goal of mine and I want it."

OK, that's fine. I'm not telling you it can't be a goal. But before you decide to go for it anyway, you need to aware of two things:

  1. The tradeoffs involved (and they are big).
  2. WHY it is you are so eager to get it.

The Prerequisites For A Bestseller Campaign

Goals tradeoff in all aspects of life. You can't have pizza and Mexican food and Italian food for dinner. You have to pick one.

Goals for your book act the same way. You can't get everything, you have to focus on one or two goals.

This is especially true for bestseller lists. In order to even have a CHANCE at getting on the New York Times Bestseller list, you must do ALL of these things:

1. Get a traditional publishing deal. With the exception of a few fiction genres like romance and horror, The New York Times still won't recognize any book that doesn't come from one of the big New York publishing houses as being fit for their list (that's why I said it's a high school clique mentality).

This is why most of the self-published or hybrid published books that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies over the past decade have never appeared on this list--they refuse to recognize them.

Example: James Altucher's book, Choose Yourself. I helped him publish that through my publishing company (which turned into Book In A Box). It's sold over 500k copies in the past 3 years. It even appeared on the Wall Street Journal Bestseller list--but no appearances on The New York Times Bestseller list, even though it has outsold 99% of the books that have appeared on that list since his came out.

Why? Because it's not through a major New York publishing houses, so they won't count it.

2. Have a plan to get you 10k+ pre-orders: This cannot be a hope or a wish. If you don't have at least 10k pre-ordered books--through sales channels that The New York Times sees as valid and counts in their list--you probably won't hit the list.

That means ordered or bought at a bookstore that reports its sales to the New York Times, or through Amazon or iBooks, or some of the other major channels that the New York Times counts. You can't just order 10k copies from your publisher. They won't count that.

Even if you get a corporation to sponsor you and actually buy 10k copies, you have to route those sales THROUGH a channel that The New York Times counts--or they ignore them for the purposes of the list (yes, this is a total racket).

And even better, they often won't count any "bulk" sales, which means those sales have to be done individually.

Many "experts" will tell you that you only need to sell 5k books to hit the bestseller list. That's not wrong, but it doesn't work many times. In my experience helping dozens of authors work through this process, if you are an unknown author, the bar is much higher than 5k. The 5k number is applicable to known authors and books that have already been on the list, but is very dangerous for first time or non-established authors.

How do you get 10k pre-orders? There are two basic ways to do this:

  1. You ALREADY have an audience who is willing to pre-order your book, or
  2. You spend a LOT of money to buy your way onto the list. This is basically "cheating," and it usually costs more than 200k.

If you don't have an audience or email list who are used to buying from you, but think you'll "go on some podcasts and throw out some tweets" and get that level of pre-orders, you're delusional. That does not work. Only a systematic plan that is very well-executed will work.

3. Get mainstream media to validate your book: This is not 100% necessary, but the more "mainstream media" press you get, the more the book editors at The New York Times will consider your book to be "valid." I was very serious when I said that this is a popularity contest, and to be popular, you have to show up at the "right" places (at least, the "right" places to them).

When I say "mainstream media" I mean any media source centered around New York City, or the coastal media elite read and take seriously. Like I keep telling you, they are elitist snobs. They don't "count" anything not in their universe, no matter how much it sells.

By the way--mainstream press almost never sells books. This is ONLY about getting the editors at The New York Times to take you seriously, not about selling books.

What's The Tradeoff?

The tradeoffs of this approach are many:

  1. There's no guarantee you get a publishing deal: It's a huge amount of effort to find an agent to represent you to a traditional publisher, and it's very hard to do a good book proposal that will appeal to a publisher, and then you have to get offered a book deal--which in this day and age, you will NOT get without having a large audience to sell into already. Many people put all this work in and never even get offered a deal.
  2. Your book will take at least 18 months to publish: And that's from the day you SIGN the deal, not the day you start looking (and it'll probably take longer than that, honestly).
  3. You no longer own your book: You are literally selling them not only the upside profits of the book, but more importantly, you are selling them control of your intellectual property. Once they own the book, they ONLY care about selling copies. You can no longer do anything with that book that doesn't involve paying THEM for copies of it. If you want a book to help you promote you or your business, this is greatly restricts your options.
  4. Publishers might make you write a book you don't want: You want to position yourself as an expert in something, and they don't think it appeals to enough people? They don't care about you or your business, they only care about selling copies of books, so they'll make you go broader. They will make consistently terrible aesthetic decisions that will ruin your content for your purposes, because publishers ONLY care about selling books. 
  5. You do all the work to sell it: They do no marketing. I cannot emphasize this enough--publishers expect YOU to do all the work of selling the book for THEM. They don't have a plan to sell 10k copies your book. That's YOUR job.

Why these tradeoffs screw most authors

I want to be clear: though the trade-offs are the same, the advice here is geared towards authors (especially the type we work with at Book In A Box), and NOT professional writers.

I want to explain the difference between "professional writers" and "authors." For the purposes of this article, an author is anyone who writes a book.

In the current world, most authors have another primary job. A CEO of a company is the author of his book, but no one would call him a writer, at least as his profession.

A professional writer is someone whose ENTIRE JOB is writing books and nothing else.

So for example, Barack Obama has written two books. He's an author, but his main job is being a politician. Malcolm Gladwell has written five books. He's a professional writer, that's his main job.

There's a big difference between the two, at least in terms of what goals they should pursue. The tradeoffs I explained above exist for both groups, but they impact the different groups in different ways.

Professional writers whole job is to write books that sell a lot of copies, because THAT is how they make money. So for them, working with traditional publishing and pursuing bestseller lists can make sense (though often it does not).

At Book In A Box, our authors are not professional writers. They are C-level executives, entrepreneurs, consultants, coaches, speakers, and other successful people who have books in them, but don't have the time to sit down and spend a year writing their ideas into books. We solved that problem for them--with us, they can get their ideas into a book in their words, quickly and easily.

For them, a book is not the end goal--a book is a way to reach another goal. It gets them authority and credibility in their field, it drives clients and leads to their business, it gets them speaking gigs; it essentially acts as an amazingly effective multi-purpose marketing tool to get them visibility. They don't need to focus on selling copies, they need to focus writing the best possible book for the goal they want to achieve with their book.

And before you ask the question, selling copies and making money from a book are not always the same thing. If you are using your book as a marketing tool to get you something else (like authority and visibility in your field, or draw clients to your business), then what matters is NOT selling copies or hitting a list, it's the IMPACT your book has with your intended audience.

You want to understand the difference between bestsellers and impact? Read this article about what a book has done for Melissa Gonzalez.

It tripled incoming leads to her business, doubled her revenue in two years, established her as a keynote speaker, and got her media in every important retail outlet. It was resounding success in all ways for her...and it did it selling less than 1000 copies.

Selling copies matters if book sales are your only revenue stream--which is only true for professional authors. For people in business, a book has an entirely different purpose, that often has no correlation with selling copies.

WHY Do You Want A Bestselling Book?

All this being said, it DOES make a lot of sense for professional writers to focus on bestseller lists. It IS a status marker for the writing and publishing industry, and it DOES help them get better deals from publishers in the future. This is all true.

The smart professional writers look at bestseller lists as a necessary evil in their industry, get a smart long term plan to hit them, work the steps, and then once they have been on a few times they ignore them. Then, they focus on selling books directly to fans (to make more money), not hitting bestseller lists (which often means less money).

For authors whose main revenue source is their business and use books as marketing tools, I can tell you: hitting a bestseller list creates very few tangible results for your book.

It doesn't get your book much more attention. It doesn't mean much for your business.  It doesn't help sales much. It doesn't get in front of many more clients or help your marketing.

I'm not saying it has zero effect. It can have some effect. But there is a catch.

Almost all of the impact of hitting a bestseller list is personal and social impact. There is not much business or sales impact, and when you measure the low impact against the high trade-offs, it's a bad decision. This is why almost all of our authors don't end up pursuing it.

It's Usually About Status

The people we see who are most obsessed with bestseller lists are the authors who view it as a status marker that they can reach that will make people see them differently, and thus feel differently about themselves.

For these authors, striving for a bestseller list is about making them feel important. There is no real business reason. The unstated implication when an author says "I want a bestseller" is usually something like, "I to brag to people about this and feel important because of it."

This desire to buy status is why you've seen an explosion of "bestselling authors" popping up over the place recently. What happened is that a few scammy marketers have figured out how to manipulate the Amazon "bestseller" rankings. In short, they help people crank out a crappy book, buy their way up these obscure mini-categories, and call themselves "bestselling" authors.

To show how ridiculous the abuse of this "bestseller list" has become, one of the most brilliant marketers I know, Brent Underwood, took a picture of his foot, published it as a book, and hit #1 in with it. He detailed everything here, in this great read. It pulls back the curtain on this blatant buying of status.

Look, I am not judging anyone's desire to raise their status my writing a bestselling book. My god--I put three books at #1 in the New York Times Bestseller List, OBVIOUSLY I am guilty of this desire. My ego is fragile and needs recognition and validation, just like everyone else.

But understand this: a bestselling book might make you feel good for awhile, but it will not get you any real respect, or fill any holes in your soul.

I say that from experience.

And even if you recognize it that status as the reason you care about being a bestselling author, the best thing you can do is ADMIT this to yourself. If you admit it, you can focus fully on that goal, make a realistic plan, and give yourself a realistic shot at actually hitting it.

But don't pretend that having a bestselling book is for a reason that it's not. For those authors who see a book as a marketing tool to get something else you value, and the ego portion is not very important, the conclusion is obvious:

It makes ZERO sense to chase a bestseller list.

You'll have to spend 2+ years trying to get a book deal, sell the rights and royalties to the book to a publisher, spend all this time and money promoting it, just so you can say you are a "bestselling author"--especially because doing this usually prevents you from reaching the goal that actually matters to you; having your book reach the right people at the right time.

ADDENDUM: The Special Case Of Speakers

There is one place where having a New York Times Bestseller on your resume used to help a lot: getting paid speaking gigs.

This used to be true. It's far less true now. There are so many speakers who claim bestseller status (mainly through Amazon, which I explained above), that it's credibility has been much watered down.

For speakers, the new status symbol is a TED talk. If you've given a TED talk, even a TEDx talk, that is the high water mark for status on the speaking circuit, and the thing that drives high prices. If speaking the main goal for you book, that's where you want to focus, not on putting your book on a bestseller list.

[NOTE: If you've decided to not try and hit a bestseller list, you can stop reading here. If you still want to hit one, fine, we'll have a piece coming next week that will walk you through that.]


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