First thing’s first: if we’re gonna talk about bestseller lists, we’ve gotta talk about Circana (formerly known as Nielsen BookScan). Circana is essentially the holy grail of book sales. They cover “approximately 85% of trade print books sold in the U.S. through direct reporting from all major retailers, independent bookstores, and many others”, according to their website.

Although they’re not 100% accurate of all sales, they’re pretty darn close and offers the closest snapshot we have into book sales as a whole.

So what does this mean and how does it relate to the major bestseller lists, like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Indie Next, or USA Today? Well, bestseller lists are not 100% accurate of all book sales (as described by Circana). There is often a “curation process” and many try to “game the system” in order to acquire notability, credibility, and prestige.

These lists are often not fair to independently published authors as opposed to well-known authors, like Colleen Hoover (who, fun fact, was originally self-published), or even readers as a whole since they often don’t reflect the raw data presented by Circana, which primarily concerns itself with traditionally published titles.

What did I discover?

Out of curiosity earlier this year, I decided to compare all four of the major bestseller lists that were listed above—NYT, WSJ, Indie Next, USA Today. To keep my research as accurate as possible, I focused on sales recorded at the end of October 2022 (some of these sales were reported to these lists in early November, just in case you decide to fact check me).

I compiled the top 10 books from each list into my own spreadsheet as seen below:

As I started recognizing some patterns with the titles, I color-coded the ones that appeared more than once across these lists…

…and this is what I discovered:

  1. Only 1 book was featured across all four bestseller lists, and it was Rachel Maddow’s Prequel. Her book launched on October 17, 2023, so this tells me that it had made a HUGE splash by the end of the month.
  2. Britney Spears’ The Woman in Me and Adam Grants’ Hidden Potential was featured three times. Both their books were released just one week after Rachel’s. I was baffled to see they weren’t featured on the NYT, but I wondered if it was maybe because the sales figures hadn’t kicked in for them until later (?).
  3. 5 other books were featured just twice across these lists. I’m not entirely sure what this means, but if I had to interpret it myself, I would say it shows these books are doing moderately well across the board (in comparison to the former three listed above).

So, what does all this mean?

It means don’t believe everything you see. A book that’s #3 on one list doesn’t mean it’s #3 on another—it might not even be featured at all!

This also opens up a conversation around what it means to have transparency and truthfulness in what books are being featured and hyped by their publishers (which are almost all very large). These lists will almost never directly reflect Circana, which is the closest, realistic snapshot we have into the sales of certain books.

What do you think? Do you have any thoughts or interpretations on this?

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