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How Do You Get On The New York Times Best-Seller List?

Short answer: Who the [bleep] knows.

Long answer: It seems obvious, right? The book was a best-seller, meaning it sold more than all the other books that weren’t on said best-seller list, correct?

Well, maybe.

Publishing insider Tim Grahl recently posted an article that outlines the eternal mystery of landing a book on a best-seller list, specifically The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. The New York Times is notoriously secretive about how books land on their list, but we do know they factor in a lot more than just sales. According to Grahl:

A small group of people look at highly selective data to decide who they deem important enough to be called a “New York Times bestseller.”

At this point, we’ve come pretty far from “the books that sell the most copies.”

Grahl explains some trends he and and a friend noticed from looking back over Neilsen BookScan numbers (the organization that tracks the large majority of book sales).

  1. If you happen to work for the New York Times and have a book out, your book is more likely to stay on the list longer and have a higher ranking than books not written by New York Times employees.
  2. If you happen to have written a conservative political leaning book, you’re more likely to be ranked lower and drop off the list faster than those books with a more liberal political slant.

Okay. Okay. You can say that, but give me some real life examples, right?

Hugh Howey’s Dust sold more than 50,000 copies in its first week, yet only debuted at #7 on the NYT bestseller list—even though it far, far outsold books that were higher on the list.


Fantastic question. Apparently, the people making the decisions about which books are selling the most copies (notice the contradiction there?) didn’t think Dust was quite good enough.

This is the problem with having these decisions made by a hidden group of people who are highly selective with their data. Real numbers don’t matter to them.

According to Grahl, the NYT also weights books differently based on where they were purchased. For example, a book purchased through Amazon gets more points than a book purchased from an indie bookstore in some random part of the country. As Grahl says, some stores just aren’t cool enough for the NYT apparently.

The company I write for published a book a few weeks ago called Retire Inspired by Chris Hogan. It’s an excellent book if you’re interested in making a gameplan for your retirement. Hogan makes a fairly dry topic interesting and fresh.

Anyway, the book sold 80,000 copies in its first week. It appeared in the top spot on the Publisher’s Weekly list and on the Wall Street Journal list. According to the Book Scan numbers, Retire Inspired sold nearly double any other book in America that week. We did everything on the up and up, totally legit. So where was Retire Inspired on the New York Times list? Nowhere to be found. We’ve had other books that made the list, so this isn’t our first time around the block.

So why did they ignore this one? Who knows. Only the New York Times and their secretive process–that absolutely isn’t a “best-seller” list–can answer that. If an author games the system, like buying thousands of books themselves simply to make a list, then I understand. But when the book sales are legit?

Why even call this a best-seller list? It’s more like the “Staff Favorites” aisle that you see at Barnes & Noble. Let’s just be honest.

So this is my PSA for all my fellow readers. The New York Times doesn’t have a best-seller list, no matter what they call it. Keep that in mind next time you see the NYT promoting its list of favorites.

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. Wow, great insight.

    Liked by 1 person

    February 5, 2016
  2. Do you think a legitimate best seller list will ever be created?

    Maybe Hugh Howey and his data guy can start one.

    Liked by 1 person

    February 5, 2016
  3. I’ve heard that the NYT list is based on how many books are sold to the stores themselves, not books sold to individuals. Like, if your publisher convinces Barnes and Noble to buy 50,000 copies of your book to put on their shelves nationwide during launch week, that will contribute to the NYT ranking. And then it doesn’t matter if B&N itself doesn’t sell a single copy of your book to actual readers. But then the book, with its large purchase ranking, can make the NYT list and grabs the attention of readers like self-generating popularity.

    However, it’s all considered a trade secret, so this is speculative. I’m guessing that no one *really* knows….except those who have a say. It would be more sensible to track it as “book sold to a reader = 1 sale”. Whether it’s an editor’s pick, or if it’s based on wholesale shipments to stores, the list is clearly skewed.

    Liked by 1 person

    February 5, 2016
  4. Reblogged this on mira prabhu and commented:
    “The New York Times doesn’t have a best-seller list, no matter what they call it.” Go ahead and read all of this interesting post on how writers get on the Times best-seller list…sounds like everything on this planet is rigged!!!


    February 5, 2016
  5. This is an outrageous conspiracy!


    February 5, 2016
  6. I am thinking that the Best Seller lists aren’t as important as they used to be. Good Reads, online reviews and Amazon reviews are having a bigger impact these days.

    Liked by 1 person

    February 5, 2016
  7. Reblogged this on La Foi Aveugle and commented:
    Enlightening read about the NYT. I’ll definitely think twice next time I look to the NYT only for a new potential book.


    February 5, 2016
  8. This just blew my mind.


    February 6, 2016
  9. This sounds so morally wrong 😦


    February 7, 2016
  10. Wow ! Thanks for this insight. I never realised. How ridiculous!


    February 7, 2016
  11. Took me a while to get around to this. It’s a bit of a joke, the NYT also only uses certain vendors to calculate. We worked with someone and they pretty much bullied us into buying the book from their preferred vendor (at a large quantity and almost full cost) so that they would get on the list. As a small nonprofit College, we spent probably 10-times more than we should have because they wanted their book on that list and ultimately the cost on our end came out of scholarships. It’s a racket and I agree with you, should just be named, the “select best sellers list” or “the staff favorites” list.


    February 9, 2016
  12. I think it really depends if your book lands in the hands of the right person at the right mood and the right time.


    February 10, 2016
  13. I work at a small indie bookstore. Publishers frequently ask us to buy large quantities of books — which can later be returned — to boost sales for the NYT list. We are what is called a New York Times reporting store; not all indies report sales to the NYT. It’s a racket, to be sure. In our store, we have a bestseller display; those are the bestsellers in our store and at independent bookstores nationwide (the “Indiebound” list).


    March 22, 2016
  14. The Perfect Author is my favourite book.
    Really breath holding… Waiting for the next release !


    April 14, 2017
  15. Helpful article, really liked it, good work.


    May 4, 2017

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