The NYT is one of the most highly regarded platforms when it comes to book recommendations, but how, exactly, books make it on there is a whole other ball game. Let’s dive into two major pieces of information the Times looks at:

  1. They pull sales figures from small pools of data from small pools of sources, which means these figures may not necessarily be representative of ALL book sales comprehensively.
  2. The list of bestsellers is informed by a curated list of titles that a small group of editors pull from, almost like a screening process ultimately given to an administrator for easier “choosing” (as backwards as that may sound…).

How the NYT Bestseller List Works

In addition to these two major pieces, there are at least three major pre-requisites that need to be in place in order for a book to even be considered for the New York Times bestseller list:

  1. The author has to have gotten a traditional publishing deal, meaning they had to have written the book, assembled a list of agents, sent query letters to tens or hundreds of them, gotten a deal, and then gotten their book’s rights purchased by a publisher (AKA: sign the contract). This process alone can easily take years.What’s more, the NYT expects their books to have originated from one of the “Big 5” publishers—Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, or Simon & Schuster—which all happen to be based in New York City (you know, coincidentally).
  2. The book needs to have at least 10,000 pre-orders. To hit this number, authors rely on their platform, usually a large, faithful social media following or influence of some kind. This is important because followers are often viewed to publishers as guaranteed customers. Most authors in the United States sell roughly 500 copies in a book’s lifetime,if that. Think about it; that’s only 5 percent of what’s needed to even be considered for a shot at the NYT bestseller list. Furthermore, these books will need to be bought through a variety of bookstores and online retailers that directly report its sales to a well-known database known as Circana BookScan (formerly NPD Bookscan), which many retailers report to.

    Often, the Times will not count bulk orders, which is exactly what it sounds like—large quantities of books ranging from as little as 10 to as many as 500+ copies that customers or businesses can buy at a single time. They don’t accept these because, ironically, they’ll know authors are attempting to game the system.For some people this is, understandably, impossible.
    Otherwise, if authors don’t have the time or resources to pull it off, they have the option of buying into a guarantee placement on the list. This can easily cost over $250,000. This may answer the original question in the introduction of this post: “How in the world did this book make it on the New York Times bestseller list?”Probably money.
  3. The book needs “valid” mainstream press (i.e. The New York Times, Washington Post, etc.). This includes any media source centered around New York City or that major media sources would deem as respectable, like the Washington Post. Ironically, a major publisher and reputable media outlets almost never guarantees that a book will sell. If anything, the the title and press coverage act as social validation for editors.

Why does this matter to some authors?

Short answer: status.

Status equals attention, which equals social validation (i.e. having your work taken seriously), which equals being publicly viewed as a “good” writer. And with status, naturally, comes connections and prestige.

Think about it like choosing a college. Would you rather go to Harvard or a small state school?Even though most alumni say Harvard is grueling and intense with pressure and competition, they admit, post-graduation, that it is nice having the institution tied to their name. Why? Because it offers leverage—status, connections, and prestige.

Is it worth writing a book if it won’t be a bestseller?

Another relatively easy answer—well, actually three:

  1. If nonfiction, to promote a business: I have worked with business leaders who’ve written a book in order to drive attention to their mission, increase service costs, pivot toward a new direction, etcetera. They often want to scale their business, reach a target audience, build credibility, all that jazz.
  2. To establish yourself as a writer: As a debut author, writing one book gives you permission to write more books and get noticed/taken seriously for it. Assuming you go the traditional publishing route, many (especially large) publishers will view you as either a risk or a gamble because of your lack of social proof and/or publications. When you eventually do get your name out there, it makes it easier to continue leveraging and expanding your platform to market your other projects, as well as get bigger names to invest in you.
  3. To cater to your followers: This is especially relevant to social media Influencers and content creators. If they don’t feel like going the traditional route, they can always self-publish or hybrid publish to create a book that is specifically dedicated to their following or fanbase.

If you want to get more nitty-gritty info on the New York Times bestseller list, click on the image above to be redirected to a PDF version where you can zoom in and read more of the details.

Final Thoughts

Publishing is a business like any other—it just happens to sell books. If you want to think of the New York Times as one giant popularity contest, you absolutely can. These practices are no secret and are available to anyone with an Internet connection (albeit a little hard to find, but they exist).

Stay tuned for next week’s blog on the Wall Street Journal and how books make it on that list as well!

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