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Do the Bestseller Lists need recalibration?

99 c box sets


One of the recurring themes on bestseller lists today is the appearance of 99c box sets. A large group of authors put together older works that have had languishing sales into one large file and that file is sold as a box set, usually for the price of 99c. Indie authors have led the way with discount pricing to create volume purchasing and traditional publishers have caught on often pricing books at $1.99 and propelling a heretofore okay selling author into a high volume week. This will result in creating enough sales for authors to get their “letters”.  “Letters” refers to the ability of an author to append USA Today or NYTimes Bestseller on the cover of their books and in their blurbs.

For many readers how a bestseller list is created and what methodologies are used are of little interest. For many years, the bestseller lists didn’t even include digital book sales.  Both USA Today and NYTimes were forced to include those sales once digital books became a serious percentage of overall sales.  But now you have to wonder what those lists mean anymore. Is it just a measure of “what America is buying?” If so, is that useful to readers? or have bestseller lists lost both their efficacy and importance?

As more and more 99c books appear on these lists, I have begun to wonder about both the meaning of the term “bestseller” and what, if anything, it does for readers.  At most the lists for readers serve as a curation and discovery tool but while the Times list may have in the past represented what America is reading, it really only represents what America is buying because the great majority of readers aren’t actually reading those 99c purchases. They are buying and hoarding. [1]

For readers it seems that there is very little value in either the “letters” or the list itself. After an appearance on the list, rarely do you see a book’s ranking increase which means that readers aren’t using the lists as a buying guide. For print books, an appearance usually does include an increased print run and a bonus advance. A bonus advance is when an author gets additional money (but against royalties) for hitting the lists.  The next time around, a bookstore might order more books from a bestselling author. Many stores have special prominent placement for NYTimes bestselling books.

But for digital retailers, the USA Today and NYTimes list (and the WSJ list and the PW list) get much lower placement or no placement at all. All the digital retailers are pushing their own lists. Appearance on the list at a low price doesn’t guarantee an author placement on the list a second time around or even a third time around.  With print authors and their high priced books of $7.99 and up, it often takes several books to become a bestseller because with most books it takes time to build an audience.  This is why series books are so popular. With each book you gain new readers which propel purchases of earlier works. With low priced authors you often see one book hit and then the author doesn’t appear again, regardless of whether the author is print or traditionally published. (in other words, this is not an indie only issue)  Readers often buy at the discounted price and only at the discounted price.

Discount pricing is done with a two fold goal in mind – increase the volume of sales and increase visibility and ultimately an increase in readership. Given the downward trend of digital pricing perhaps it is of no real issue that the bestseller lists often include low priced discounted books.

I see a lot of talk about lists by authors and readers.  Ultimately the question is whether we’re buying has anything to do with what we’re reading or what we’re enjoying. If the answer is not much, then the lists may just simply show how many units a .99 priced book is moving.  For readers the lists have even less value than they did before and any usefulness as a curator of good books, if it was one, has been lost. And any meaning attached to the letters is lost as well. After all how do you know if an author earned it from a reader paying essentially .09c for their story or something else?   I’m not sure if that is helpful for readers or authors.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Cat
    Dec 08, 2013 @ 05:29:39

    I don’t pay much attention to the lists, except I do think “Yay!” when one of my favorite authors mentions making it on one. I really just buy based on what I read on blogs (comments as well as reviews). I’m guilty of buying and hoarding, only my ‘read someday’ pile has mostly biographies and autobiographies on it for some reason. (Darn Amazon deals!) But because my book budget is so limited, and I read fast, my fiction TBR pile stays pretty small. (And for some reason I read “two foal goal” above, and was very confused for a second…)

  2. TrishJ
    Dec 08, 2013 @ 05:59:42

    I used to be guilty of the .99 one click, until I figured out how many of those books I have never read.They just sit there while I purchase 2.99 or 3.99 books of my favorite authors, some of which I have already read in print. Now I tend to just buy authors I know, unless a book is highly recommended. And I don’t pay much attention to lists. They are just like polls, manipulated by the pollsters.

  3. Ros
    Dec 08, 2013 @ 07:24:45

    I think there is some value in having a book in an Amazon top 100. As a reader, if I’m browsing for new-to-me authors, that’s often how I’ll do it. I don’t think of it as a guarantee of quality or even of popularity – if I’m looking at a sub-sub-categories because I’ve got something specific in mind, the books won’t necessarily have sold many copies to get on that list. But because there is a cut off at 100, those are the books I’m likely to see. And if I don’t see a book, I won’t know it’s there and I won’t buy. So as an author, that does make a big difference to me. If a book hits a top 100 list, I do notice a spark in sales because of the visibility. But I don’t think that being in a top 100 list in an Amazon category counts as being a ‘bestseller’. Whatever that is.

    I think it’s the case that print sales on bestseller lists are estimates, isn’t it? And it’s all a bit arbitrary because not all sales are included – do Walmart sales get counted these days or not? And online sales of print books?

    I’m not really bothered about being able to use the letters. But it would be nice to sell a lot of books. ;)

    As a side note, I loathe those 99c box sets. It’s dollar store tactics and it just makes me assume that they are dollar store products – cheap and nasty.

  4. Courtney Milan
    Dec 08, 2013 @ 08:02:46

    For what it’s worth, getting letters is probably not useful for domestic sales, but I think it plays a role in getting foreign sales, especially for indie authors where foreign publishers don’t quite know how to judge us yet.

  5. Laura Florand
    Dec 08, 2013 @ 09:05:25

    Yes, to what Jane said, and yes to what Ros and Courtney said as well about the values of it.

    I do think it’s an issue and there will be changes made to the list criteria at some point, probably fairly soon. But I don’t really blame authors who are taking advantage of the boxed set possibility now; they’re doing smart marketing for their point in time in this publishing upheaval, because that acquisition of letters means a lot to them and they hope it will mean a lot for their careers. It definitely creates a glut of boxed sets; I don’t think it’s sustainable and so I think it will right itself over time.

    But yes, the lists have less and less relevance to me personally as a reader. I go more and more by name recognition. If it’s an author I’ve never heard of, who has “letters”, then I tend to assume it was just through a boxed set or similar sale.

    But I’m not sure we always have an accurate idea of reader discovery? We tend to assume things, based on internet interactions, but whenever I am in bookstores and libraries doing talks, I’m reminded that there are a huge number of readers who still trust labels like NYT and are influenced by them. Of course, those bookstore/library browsers who don’t rely much on internet are very hard for digital or self-published authors to reach so it’s almost as if two branches of readership are being created now: those who use the internet for discovery at least some of the time and those who don’t use it at all. I think there are quite a lot of the latter, an estimation based anecdotally on people I meet when I do talks. And I think those who aren’t keeping abreast of what’s going on with digital and self-publishing do still instinctively value that label of NYT/USA Today.

  6. Noelle
    Dec 08, 2013 @ 10:14:07

    That’s so true about how the glut of boxed sets can’t be sustainable. I think they’ll pretty much go away once authors figure out how little they’re getting from them now. I was part of one really successful boxed sex over the summer (which has now been unpublished), and they were still new enough then that a decent percentage of buyers were actually reading them – so it was great for gaining new readers. It was unquestionably the best promo opportunity I’ve ever done, but they don’t work that way anymore.

    I think authors are still going into them thinking the primary benefits are the “letters” and the marketing–that is, people will read their stories in the bundle, like them, and buy their full priced books. The problem is that the boxed sets are just not being read anymore, since there are so many of them out there. The majority of people buy them but never read them. So all authors are getting is potentially a best-seller title (which is a great ego-boost, I’ve got to say, but means nothing in selling another book) and around $.03 per unit sold (in the case of a 10-book set).

    Another interesting aspect of this topic is that authors have a decent chance of buying their way onto a bestseller list with a BookBub ad. Pay $500 for a spot on their Contemporary Romance list, and there’s a pretty decent chance of making the USA Today list. The same issue applies, though. Letters aside, it’s only helpful if people actually read the book they buy, which isn’t happening with huge numbers of $.99 books. I do think there’s a better chance of people reading an individual book at $.99 than a 10-book boxed set, and at least a single author is keeping all the earnings.

    Pretty soon, someone is going to land on the next promo opportunity that really works (until everyone else jumps on board), and the boxed sets will gradually go away. What I don’t think is ever going to change is that a lot of readers have to read and love a book for it to be genuinely successful.

  7. Cynthia Sax
    Dec 08, 2013 @ 10:40:53

    The letters matter.

    Book bloggers, review sites, and other influential folks are more likely to work with or cover a writer with New York Times Bestseller attached to her name. That promo advantage alone will make a difference. Success breeds success.

    Will it mean less when every writer is a New York Times Bestseller? Sure. But right now, it matters and it will make a difference in careers. I think it is dang clever and I wish I had thought of it before the market became so crowded.

  8. kt grant
    Dec 08, 2013 @ 10:55:14

    For most authors, hitting a list means recognition and more sales. Some readers see an author has hit the NYT or USA Today and will buy the author’s books versus an author who hasn’t hit a list. Some authors who have done boxed sets and hit the NYT or USA Today see a major rise in sales in their back lists.

    I worry that .99 cents will be the mainstay, especially for self publishing, regardless of the length of a book. I can understand .99 cents for a novella length, but pricing a full length title close to 100,00 words at .99 cents? Most authors want to make a living at writing. I just can’t see anyone doing that with pricing their books at .99 cents unless that have a massive quantity of books out there for purchase.

    Also shouldn’t there be a minimum page or word count to hit a list? Some of these short stories are hitting at under 50 pages or less, especially if the author is a big name.

  9. Cynthia Sax
    Dec 08, 2013 @ 10:59:30

    And I don’t see the difference between this and the numerous writers who became NYT Bestsellers by being part of a print anthology with a big name lead writer.

    I also think it is a great problem to have. We have too many people willing to work together to help each other achieve individual goals. It shows us how tight and supportive the folks in Romanceland are. This is why I love being a romance reader and writer.

  10. Cynthia Sax
    Dec 08, 2013 @ 11:06:44

    @kt grant: IMHO… short stories and novellas aren’t easier to write than novels and they certainly aren’t easier to promo (many larger sites won’t even review or cover them). Usually the only reason they make the lists is BECAUSE a well known name wrote them.

  11. Mzcue
    Dec 08, 2013 @ 12:41:56

    Participating in a multi-book box set should probably be seen by up and coming authors as a kind of advertising rather than anything else. Even if many purchasers fail to get around to reading included stories, the authors’ names receive exposure that may help in the long run. Latent branding helps paves the way for recognition down the line. There’s that sense “I think I’ve heard of that author before” flash that can make a shopper choose one purchase over another.

  12. library addict
    Dec 08, 2013 @ 12:57:41

    I quit buying the 99¢ bundles as they are a pain to split back into indivicual books. Often the formatting is different in each book with no good TOC. So I am done with them no matter how good a “deal.”

    Readers may not pay much attention to the list, but I know my library does. It’s not posted on the Overdrive site when I checkout digital books. But they still post the NYT list and have a display of books on said list near the checkout area.

  13. Lindsay
    Dec 08, 2013 @ 14:25:41

    I’m in an odd situation where I personally don’t pay attention to the bestseller lists anymore (I used to discover new authors that way, now I read blogs for that with far more success!) but my other job as a bookseller means that I need at least passing familiarity with the books on multiple lists because those are the ones customers are asking about, and if they’ve come in on a mission for one it’s fairly unlikely they’re going to change their minds until we have the book in their hands and they’re reading the back flap (or asking me what it’s about and I’m reading the back cover upside-down as I show it to them).

    I usually read reviews or synopses of the top books on NYT, Globe and Mail, and right now NPR’s best books, but a big part of that is I love genre fiction but just can’t get into regular fiction, and that tends to be what’s on those lists and what customers are asking me about. I’m lucky that it’s a big bookstore with a lot of staff so I can often find someone who has read that book or knows more about it, but since the majority of traffic revolves around fiction best-sellers, I have to know something about it. I just read The Circle thanks to NPR’s best book list, and while I’m glad I read it, it was two days of feeling like I’d picked up a high school english reading assignment. Definitely needed some unicorn chasers after that.

    For boxed sets, I used to buy them but enough sat in my “someday” list that I now only buy them if I know at least one of the authors involved. I do have an author I enjoy who puts forth full-length books in these boxed sets, promos them hard, and they’re fabulous. I have found some new authors this way, but I also know she’ll eventually release the book by itself (but for 99 cents I generally won’t say no, and will usually read at least one of the other books in the set).

    I specifically try to review boxed sets on Amazon or Goodreads when I buy AND read them, because they generally don’t get very many reviews, and they’re often not terribly helpful. I do still use Amazon reviews for authors I’m unsure of and can’t find posted here or other review/recommendation sites (or, in the case of The Circle, to find out if I was totally out of my mind on some aspects of it after I’d read it!).

  14. @mostlybree
    Dec 08, 2013 @ 16:50:03

    @kt grant:

    Also shouldn’t there be a minimum page or word count to hit a list? Some of these short stories are hitting at under 50 pages or less, especially if the author is a big name.

    I don’t know, that seems almost backwards to me. I think selling 15,000 words for a $1 is a more impressive achievement than 1,000,000.

  15. Bev
    Dec 09, 2013 @ 05:59:06

    If the lists define that to qualify a “book” must contain a minimum of x number of words, then yes a short story or even sometimes a novella wouldn’t be able to make its way on.

    But I think the issue here is pricing per the post. In the print world, this price discrepancy — for the New York Times — was solved by format and parcelling them off into their own sections. Hardcovers, being the priciest of books, couldn’t really compete with mmpb because the price difference was sometimes so great that it was considered the mmpb had an unfair advantage over hardcovers. The same was said of trade books.

    For digital books, there is no format discrepancy but there can and, as we’ve seen, many times is a HUGE price difference. How does a book selling at $7.99 compete with a .99 box set of 5-12 books?

    I think the lists WILL change. I think they will have no choice but to change in order to make the lists more meaningful to both readers and authors alike. Hitting a list SHOULD in theory do all the things Jane listed above. If it’s failing to do that, what is the point of the list–at least here in the US?

  16. Marilynn Byerly
    Dec 09, 2013 @ 09:59:02

    The NY TIMES paper bestseller list numbers have always come from the amount of books PRINTED and sent to stores, not SOLD, so price has never been an issue.

    The biggest value a bestseller list has for an author is discoverability. An author can build a fan base with that first appearance on the list. The trick is to build from that point.

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  18. Justine
    Dec 09, 2013 @ 13:21:02

    My public library buys based on the bestseller lists and only accepts donations of items on the bestseller lists. They claim it’s not worth the processing costs to add donations to the collection unless the book is in presumably high demand.

  19. Anonymous
    Dec 09, 2013 @ 13:30:58

    I personally think that boxed sets are a great way to pool author resources. Not only do you all get to benefit from each other’s fan base, but it’s also fun. Yes, you can stick a book in there that maybe needs some massaging, not because it’s bad, but because no one has discovered it yet. I will say this though (I’m in one of the boxed sets you highlighted above, but I’m writing this response under a different name so that no one thinks I’m trying to drive them toward my set in particular), boxed sets aren’t a magical way of getting on a list. I’m a part of another set and I can tell you, most are destined to fail if that’s what you’re aiming for. I still believe very strongly that you need to have a good set up to even stand a chance at it. The set I’m a part of we took great care in only putting up full length novels and novels that are well written/edited/formatted. Yes, we priced at .99 but if you look at this more as a sale to help boost visibility then I don’t see the problem, .99 shouldn’t be looked at as “oh those must be crappy quality books if they’re pricing them that way” instead look at it like “you may not have heard of us, so why not take a chance and if you don’t like it you’re only out a buck”.

    I should also note each of us had a significant fan base to begin with. We didn’t all come together in the hopes that maybe someone would buy our books and catapult us into the top 100 long enough to get on a list because we’re a bunch of no talent hacks who couldn’t make it any other way. Even without the set we were selling very, very well. And I do believe that’s part of our success with this set, we had a substantial newsletter list to promote to all together. BB no longer allows multi-author boxed sets to promote there, which means you have to do a LOT more grunt work on your own. Just because we hit the list as a set and at .99 shouldn’t make our success any less valid than someone who does it at 3.99-12.99. It still takes a lot of work, blood, sweat, and tears to make it happen. Maybe the monicker doesn’t hold much sway anymore, but I know our set is getting read because of the uptick in newsletter subscribers I’ve gotten, emails from new readers gushing about a series that until now had been struggling. When you’re known for a particular series, trying to get readers interested in a new one can be difficult. This has been an excellent way to discover a new fan base for a different series that I really love writing about.

    I do suspect USA Today/NY Times will eventually change their stance on boxed sets, but until then, no one is doing anything wrong or shady. And like I said, just because you’ve made a set, do not expect to hit a list or even the top 100, it’s still super hard to do.

  20. Lynne Connolly
    Dec 09, 2013 @ 14:31:15

    I’m talking as a reader here. Yes, I’m a writer, yes, I have a box set out, but I’m laying that aside for now.
    Is it me, or are there a lot of defensive posts in this thread? I know a writer’s lot is not always a happy one, but there seems to be more defensiveness in the air than there used to be. I don’t think anyone meant for their comments to be criticisms. More comments on is it changing and why.
    Reading, apart from my non-fiction and review work is a leisure activity. I do it for relaxation. So if I get tired of box sets that I’ll never read, I’ll look for something else and modify my reading behaviour. I’m not doing it with a calculated plan to feed starving authors, or to starve them. I’m just moving on.
    BTW, I like library addict’s comment. Yes indeed, those box sets are a pain to split up into separate books. I can read one or two and then they linger on my reader.

  21. Zoe York
    Dec 09, 2013 @ 15:04:58

    Re-packaging backlist titles into an anthology with new works from up-and-coming authors, or a group of backlist titles from successful authors…that’s not a new practice. Being able to sell it at .99 cents is the only thing that’s new right now. Yes, offering a crazy bargain is getting a lot of people on the lists sooner in their careers than maybe would have happened in the past.

    But there are still many, many books on the list at full trade price…indie published and otherwise. I’m pretty sure Marie Force just hit both lists again with her newest release, and she doesn’t discount. And there are plenty of authors who are trying the .99 cent thing and not getting anywhere near a list.

    The sky is not falling. It’s still really hard to move 25,000 copies of a book in a week, and authors who only manage to do that once fade into obscurity just as quickly as their peers.

  22. Chicklet
    Dec 09, 2013 @ 15:38:38

    I stopped using the bestseller lists as reading-list suggestions after I worked in a bookstore in the late 1990s and learned how the publishers and big-box retailers gamed the system to manipulate the lists. The last straw was when the Big Six publishers acted like a bunch of whiny babies about the Harry Potter books dominating the NYT Bestsellers list, until NYT created a separate Children’s list.

    As far as I’m concerned, if a book bundle sells enough copies to hit the bestsellers list, it’s as legitimate as when a backlist book gets increased sales due to a film/TV adaptation or mention. (My favorite story about this is from 1998, when Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States had a sales increase of 20% after the book was mentioned in Good Will Hunting.)

    In short, sales are sales, and if a book bundle sells as many copies as a new book, it should be on the bestsellers list. The new book isn’t more deserving just because it costs more to buy it.

  23. Andrew Landis
    Dec 10, 2013 @ 19:26:22

    I agree with Marilynn about discoverability for new authors. If you look at the list of the NY Times Young Adult Best Seller list for the last say six months or so, you’ll see the same 4-6 writers (very talented) who remain there week after week. That doesn’t allow much space for other writers to get noticed very easily. Nailing one of those sweet spots doesn’t guarantee success, but it would definitely open doors.

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  25. E. Brian Rose
    Jan 06, 2014 @ 00:24:03

    Aside from the number of books costing under a dollar that make it to the lists, there are also those that buy their way there. I just wrote an article on my blog about how easy it is to write a check and hire the right company…. and whammy you’re a New York Times Best Selling Author for life!

  26. Sebastian
    Apr 11, 2014 @ 03:59:56

    There are

  27. Kate
    Apr 16, 2014 @ 08:17:48

    While I still generally give books with that magical phrase on the covers the benefit of the doubt, as a reader, the doubt is definitely there now, when it didn’t used to be. Before the boxed set craze, I got burned once (and it’s amazing that the ONE time was enough) by purchasing a full priced book by a “lettered” author. I literally thought to myself, “Well, she’s NYT bestseller. It’s bound to be good. I have found myself a new source of great reads!” I was very wrong. The book made my DNF list by about chapter two. I don’t know that there is any way to find out exactly what earned her those letters, but it doesn’t matter. The way I look at the NYTB designation had been changed.

    As a writer, I will admit I do still crave those letters myself. It’s validation–something all writers need like oxygen. I mean, I have a bunch of relatives and friends who smile politely when I tell them I write romance. To them, I’m eccentric. But if/when I make one of the lists, I know their perception of me will change. MY perception of me will change.

  28. Patricia
    May 09, 2014 @ 18:43:03

    I used to love following the Bestseller Lists; it was how I decided which books to read and I always found great ones and great authors. But over the last year I have found that there are more an more “adult content” type books showing up. Somehow, it seems unfair that authors who write “smut” books can get “letters”. Somehow it doesn’t seem fair to authors who write great books. So now, I have found that I look for the authors that get nominated for awards and are featured at the more well know International Author Festivals.

  29. Judy
    May 14, 2014 @ 17:52:35

    Wow! This has opened up my eyes in a huge way. I’ve been telling my husband for the
    Past few weeks that I don’t understand the boxed set craze. Then last week I saw an author whose book was in a box set redo the cover to include NYT bestselling author, and I thought, wait a minute… Is it that easy? Then today I saw that another boxed sex had made another list and it finally bugged me enough to google it and found this article. Wow. I have never bought a book because of letters, I usually just check reviews, but now I’m even more adverse to box sets than I was before. I’ve never bought one because I judge them for being so cheap… But man… Now I’ll be shaking my head everytime I pass one on amazon top 100.

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