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What Does Bestseller Title Really Mean?

What exactly is a bestseller?

I had a reader email me and ask why a certain author had “International Bestselling Author” on her website and what exactly that meant.   There are authors who are now labeling their books “Number 1 Kindle Bestseller”. Publishers Weekly noted that Snooki’s A Shore Thing (which is categorized as a romance) only sold 8,998 copies yet made it onto the NYTimes extended list at 24.   Wall Street Journal reported that Laura Lippman’s book sold 4,000 copies on the week it was on the list. Some authors have USA Today Bestseller and others have National Bestselling author and now we have Number 1 Kindle Bestseller.

What does it all mean?

Let’s take it from the top.   Probably the best known and most prestigious list is the New York Times Bestseller List.   The list printed in the paper every Sunday is divided into the following categories: Hardcover Fiction, Hardcover Non Fiction, Paperback Trade Fiction, Mass Market, Paperback NonFiction, and Children.   There are additional categories published online.

The Times list is a bit of fiction. Began in 1942, the Times list is published every Sunday, but it is not based on actual sales.   How the list is exactly compiled is considered a trade secret but this is what is known.   The Times prepares a list of expected bestsellers (based in part on past performance and on wholesale preorders and what the publishers tell them should be on the list) and sends that list to the bookstores. The bookstores then rank the books and are provided space to indicate which books not on the list are big movers.   Perennial sellers are excluded such as Harry Potter books and Stephenie Meyer books.   (In 2000, NYTimes created a new list of Children’s books because publishers complained that the HP books were taking up too many slots on the list – 3 at the time).   This is great little article about how the list has expanded over the years.

There was once several thousand bookstores that reported back to the Times.   "The names of booksellers used for our lists are kept as secret as the keys to the crown jewels," said William Adler in a 1991 interview with the International Herald Tribune.   The Colgate Bookstore in Hamilton NY, Joseph Beth Bookstores, Powells are some major independents who provide data as well as the chain booksellers like Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books a Million and wholesalers.

Given that independent bookstores like Joseph Beth have suffered closures in the recent years and the fact that independents represent less than 10% of overall sales, reliance on independent bookstores can give a disproportionate weight to certain types of books.

The data is reported for a selling week that starts Sunday AM and ends with the close of business Saturday night. Monday and Tuesdays are spent obtaining the data from the reporting sources and tabulating the data (based on statistical weights to represent a national average of sales) and preparing it for publication. On Wednesday, the NYTimes Book Review makes its final rankings available to publishers and others for a fee.   One used to be able to obtain the list for $30 per month by subscribing to the TimesDigest but such a service was discontinued.

Because the list takes time to compile and the list is printed on Sunday after the data is compiled, Stanford professor and researcher, Alan Sorenson, notes that the list really reflects data from three weeks prior.   Alan Sorenson, “Bestseller Lists and Product Variety,” Journal of Industrial Economics, v. 55 n. 4 (PDF link).

Wal-mart sales are not included and it is unknown whether Amazon sales are or not.   Jackson Pearce, in this video, explains that on the Wednesday before the list is published, publishers must send two copies of each book they believe should be included on the list to the Times office.

According to Steve Wasserman, a former Book Review editor at the Los Angeles Times, the LA Times list was not scientific "one is almost tempted to call it [a] whimsical -’ compilation." I think “compilation of titles that sell well” is a good description for the NYTimes list.

The bestseller lists actually identify only the velocity of the sale of the book rather than cumulative overall sales. This is why lay down dates are so important to authors. If the authors can capture most of their sales in one week instead of two, the book has a better chance of achieving bestselling status even if another author outsells them overtime.

Almost every book experiences rapid deceleration in sales after its release (this may change with digital books as some authors report to me to be selling their backlist titles at a brisk pace), according to Dr. Sorenson, bestseller appearance slows the deceleration rate of book sales. Books sell well soon after their release and then the sales taper off. For a bestseller, the sales taper off at a slower rate than a book not on the bestseller list.   However, bestseller list appearance means less for regular visitors such as Nora Roberts or John Grisham whereas, first time appearing authors might see an overall increase of sales by 57%.

Further degrading the reality of the NYTimes list is that for big authors, authors that appear on the list, almost half of book sales are digital these days according to the information coming from Digital Book World this past week. The Times is supposed to be planning an ebook list although it is unknown from what data it will cull and whether it will be mixed with the existing print book sales.

Digital sales are more transparent with real time bestseller lists provided by Amazon (purportedly comprising 60-70% of the digital market) and thus, over time, one would think the Times list would have to be more consistently based on sales rather than aspirational hopes of publishers and booksellers.

What about other lists?

USAToday list is one list that does include digital books.   According to the USA Today site, the newspaper collects sales data from bookstore chains, indies, mass merchandisers and online retailers (including Amazon) to arrive at a list of 150 bestselling titles.   Only the top 50 are published in the print version of the USA Today on Thursdays.   The internet list of 150 titles are available on Wednesday evenings.   The sales of all formats of one book are combined and the list notes which format sold the most.   For example, Karen Marie Moning’s Shadowfever was number 2 on the list, but the digital version sold more copies than the print version. It is said that USA Today list does not include Wal-mart sales.

But even the USA Today list is flawed.   Prior to 2010, none of the category books by Harlequin were counted for on the list.   Due to a change, either from USA Today’s end or from Harlequin’s end or both, the sales data for the Harlequin categories are now being counted and you see a number of Harlequin category books on the list every week.

Bookscan's list is a true point of sale measurement meaning that the actual sale of each book is tracked via ISBN from the reporting stores. Nielson claims to have captured 70% of the bookselling market as even warehousers such as Costco and Target report sales. Missing is the big one, Wal-Mart. My understanding is that Wal-mart sales cannot be tracked because Wal-mart doesn't scan individual UPCs of book (which has the ISBN) but it's own upc code marking the item as "book" or "Silhouette". Unless Wal-mart can be convinced to change its scanning system, point of sale measurements including one of the largest retailers of romance books is elusive. (I’d love to hear from someone else on whether Wal-mart sales are included in any bestseller list).

What do the designations mean?

Each publisher house has its own standard for when the moniker “Bestseller” can be imprinted on the front of a cover.   For some houses, the standard is to say “NYT Bestselling author of Book A”.   Some houses won’t allow authors to put the label on the book unless they make the print list of the Times or USA Today.   For example, there is an “extended” NYTimes list and if you make it on there more than once, a publisher might allow the author to put “NYTimes Bestselling Author” on the cover.In other words, at some houses, Snooki wouldn’t get to call herself a NYTimes Bestselling Author.

USA Today Bestseller is usually reserved for those authors whose books list in the top 50.

If an author is in an anthology that hits the NYT list because of a big time headliner, all the authors of the anthology get to put “NYTimes Bestselling Author” on their covers.

Again, it varies from publishing house to publishing house.

National Bestselling means that the book listed on either Borders, Barnes and Noble, or possible Books a Millions’ internal bestseller list.

Some authors are placing their own designations like “International Bestselling Author.” I asked one author what that stood for and she explained that at one time, she appeared on the Open eBook Forum (now IDPF) weekly list that was based on sales/borrows from eReader.com, Fictionwise, eBooks.com and Overdrive.

What other authors may be using as the metric for their “bestselling” status is unknown.

What is clear, though, bestseller lists mean something to readers and to authors. To authors, it’s a prestige thing and a sales thing.   Once an author makes it on the list, it’s hard to bump that author off in each successive publication.   Readers use the list to filter their purchases.   Why not go with what others have deemed worth purchasing rather than one of the riskier selections throughout the store? Further, those bestsellers are often cheaper, discounted by retailers at a higher rate than other fiction titles.

All bestseller lists do is capture, imperfectly, what books are high in the national reading consciousness.   The next time you see “bestseller” next to an author’s name, you might want to consider how flawed that status is and take a chance on a lesser known author. Who knows what gem you might find?

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She 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

36 Comments

  1. Samantha Sotto
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 04:23:52

    Great post, Jane. “The List” has always seemed as mythical and mysterious as a unicorn to me. ;-) Thanks for sharing this. Knowing what to expect helps manage the anxiety of sending my debut novel (Before Ever After, August – Crown/Random House) into the wild.

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  3. K. Z. Snow
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 08:57:17

    Thanks for highlighting this issue, Jane. It’s been a pet peeve of mine for years — ever since I started seeing the bestselling author designation crop up all over the world of publishing and, often, in reference to some pretty obscure names and/or truly crappy books.

    In the world of e-pubs and small presses, especially, “bestselling” can mean anything from a title being in the top ten of a single company’s booklist for a brief while (no matter how small the company is), to a title getting a star for sales at ARe or spending a few weeks on the front page of Fictionwise. I immediately look askance at writers who promote themselves as bestselling authors without explaining the context of the claim.

    The same holds true for “award-winning.” It seems every other book-related blog and chat loop is giving out awards these days, and the sheer number of them combined with their nomination and judging/voting criteria make their results less than impressive.

    I guess I’ve come to the conclusion that writers who tout their bestseller or award-winning status are trying just a leetle too hard to let the label rather than the product attest to excellence.

  4. Chicklet
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 09:30:42

    In the late 1990s, I worked for an independent bookstore that reported sales figures to the NY Times, but once the publishers started offering bigger discounts to Amazon and Barnes & Noble than they did to independent stores, the owner stopped working with the Times. Once I knew how imprecise the list was, I stopped paying attention to whether a book was a “bestseller” or not; I just went by reviews and excerpts. That practice has served me well ever since.

  5. jennifer armintrout
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 10:11:04

    My first book was a USA Today bestseller, and I’ve made no other lists for the rest of my career. I cling to that “USA Today Bestselling Author of” title, let me tell you.

  6. Courtney Milan
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 10:31:38

    Unless Wal-mart can be convinced to change its scanning system, point of sale measurements including one of the largest retailers of romance books is elusive.

    I’m not sure this is true–a friend of mine got reports of sales of her book at Walmart from her publisher that clearly were end-user sales, one week after publication. I don’t get such reports, but I’m sure other authors have–anyone want to speak up?

    I heard that Walmart simply doesn’t share their data because they consider it a competitive advantage.

  7. jayhjay
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 11:01:20

    Can you explain some of these designations? What is paperback trade fiction? Or mass market? Does one of them mean the serials (Harlequin type stuff)? This always confuses me.

  8. Allison brennan
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 11:19:41

    The NYT list does include Walmart; the USAT list does not. Bookscan, whose data is used to make up the USAT list, claims 60-70% of the print book market. However, for many mass market original authors (most romances and sub genres are MMO’s) bookscan is far less than 60% because walmart is a huge part of our market. In addition, bookscan does not include the majority of grocery and drug stores, which sell mostly paperbacks. So for hardcover authors, the bookscan numbers are indeed more reflective of their sales than paperback authors.

    My publisher didn’t put NYT bestselling author on my books until I hit the print list (at the time, the top 15, now it’s the top 20). They put nationally bestselling author on my earlier books because my first book hit two lists (NYT extended and USAT top 50.) some publishers will put NYT if you hit the extended list, but Random House will not.

  9. Allison Brennan
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 11:37:12

    @courtney yes, publishers usually get weekly reports from Walmart (and they can get daily if they want) and can give the information to authors if they choose. And you’re right, the reason why Walmart doesn’t share the information is because of competitive advantage, but they do give intel to the NYT. I have a feeling it’s weighted differently than (for example) the indies.

    @jayhjay Formats: hardcover (hard bound book); trade paperback (larger paper-cover book, a lot of literary fiction, what they call “upmarket”, chick-lit, re-issues–I’ve seen a lot of Nora Roberts reissues in trade, usually two for one, erotic romance, YA, and many others are often issued in trade (which has been growing exponentially over the last few years.) Book club type books. They’re generally a higher quality than mass market (nicer look and feel of the paper, cover, etc). mass market–what most of us think as paperbacks. They’re sold everywhere, and are seen in grocery stores, drug stores, walmart, etc. Harlequin serials are just a bit smaller than a standard mass market, shorter books that are released monthly and then pulled (like magazines) when the next month’s books come out. They tend to be uniform in size (pages) because the covers are pre-cut for all books in the line and thus the number of pages needs to be consistent. (Though if a Harlequin author has more intel that would be great!)

    The NYT split the paperback list into trade/mass market in 2007 (I think) because they felt that “good” or critically acclaimed trade books (literary, etc) were losing rankings because of commercial mass market fiction (which generally sell in higher numbers than trade.)

  10. jayhjay
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 11:42:59

    @Allison Brennan: Thanks Allison. I have always found this confusing, but I can picture the different in trade paperback now that you describe it. JJ

  11. Jane
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 12:47:39

    @jayhjay Here’s an article on the Times on the difference between Mass Market and Trade as well. One thing I’ve noticed, now that the Harlequin series books are showing up on the USA Today list is that if Times counted the series/category books as mass markets, my guess is that the list would be dominated by Harlequin Presents books.

  12. Jane
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 12:48:46

    @Allison Brennan Thanks for the clarification. Jackson Pearce’s video indicated that Wal-mart wasn’t included and that was consistent with what I was told. Perhaps this is a recent change? I know that pubs can get “flash” data reports. Is that the same as the daily reports to which you refer?

  13. SonomaLass
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 13:02:39

    Just a comment on the idea that authors “tout” their (dubious) bestseller status. Much of the time this, like other issues regarding covers, (blurbs, images, etc.), is considered a marketing decision. It varies from publisher to publisher and from author to author how much say an author has in this sort of thing.

  14. Jane
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 13:04:25

    @SonomaLass Some authors are just putting it on their website. It’s not appearing on the covers of their books. (Bestsellers of Dubious Origin).

  15. Jane
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 13:27:53

    So update on the Wal-mart thing. According to sales dept of one major publisher, Walmart is currently NOT reporting to NYT, and neither is Sam's Club.

  16. Jane
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 13:50:26

    And my final update is a response from NYT in which they said they don’t disclose their sources.

  17. Ann T
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 14:48:53

    As a reader, the fact an author is a bestseller means absolutely nothing to me. For me, it’s the story and I don’t care if others think it’s a bestseller under the obviously flawed system. Bestselling, no matter what list will no make me want to read a book or author if the story is about love triangles, has characters with weird names like Rhage or is soul mate/destiny-mated story. I have, lately, found the reliance on a bestselling designation to be a bit overdone. I think it once seemed to matter – I think I once remember it being a big deal but not any more. Now, it’s like, ho hum, another “bestselling” author.

  18. Pearl
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 15:36:10

    Blurbs/Quotes, Bestseller mentions, or other endorsements on the cover are by no way or form deciding in me wanting to buy an author’s book. I’d even go as far as saying that flashing those things on book covers may even deter me from buying the book. To me what’s important is the back cover synopsis, exerpts and whether or not I’ve enjoyed the author’s work before.

    Still thank you Jane for the clarification of this mystifying subject. Though sales to us international readers don’t really contribute to authors’ list appearances…

  19. KB/KT Grant
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 15:39:22

    Why doesn’t NY Times disclose their sources? Why the big secret? They make it seem as if their list is the end all and be all, when it really isn’t especially if a NY Times best selling author is not even selling 5k books a week.

    I wonder how many Shadowfever copies KMM sold last week to get her to the #1 spot this week at the NY Times?

  20. MichelleKCanada
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 15:51:54

    I am a reader not an author. I’ll be honest and say that I pay no attention what so ever whether a book is a NYT or USA bestseller at all. Most of books I read (hundreds) are usually recommendations or the cover got me interested in picking up the book.

    I also just figured that the bestseller lists are political and I wasnt really all that sure what they based that on. I found your article really interesting since I did wonder. Of course I never really wondered enough to look into it either LOL.

  21. Lynn Raye Harris
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 16:49:34

    @Jane: Oh if only the NYT would count category books! Of course I have a personal stake in that idea, but not holding my breath. ;)

    OTOH, Harlequin *is* putting the USAT bestselling author designation on all future category books by those of us who have hit the USAT, whether print or extended. Of course that makes me happy. I will cling to my USAT status forever and ever, because other parts of this business can suck the life and joy away if you let them.

    I’m not naive enough to think that hitting the USAT had anything to do with me. It’s Harlequin Presents. It’s the best selling line for a reason. Readers love the stories, regardless of the titles or any of the other things I often see people mention as flaws of the line.

    But maybe the bestseller status (not only mine, but the line in general) will entice new readers to give the books a try. Some won’t like them, but others will.

    Thanks for explaining the different statuses, Jane. I have wondered what went into making them. I know how I got mine, but that’s only one list. :)

  22. Gwen Hayes
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 17:26:18

    @Jane: I am totally going to put this on my website:
    Gwen Haye…Bestseller of Dubious Origin

  23. Gwen Hayes
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 17:28:16

    @Gwen Hayes: Except maybe I will spell my name right.

  24. Luce
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 19:24:39

    A listing in the NYT or has a “from the bestselling author of XYZ” on a cover does exactly zip for me when it comes to buying a book.

    I’d go as far as saying that, other than the HP books, only something like 30% of my books are considered “bestsellers.”

  25. Luce
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 19:27:51

    And I pressed the “submit comment” button a little to fast. I meant to say that only 30% of the books I purchase/borrow from the library are considered “bestsellers.”

    Also: Part of the reason why I’m rather apathetic towards the NYT lists is that it often contains the same old writers (at least in the fiction lists.)

  26. Jeff Salter
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 19:34:33

    Thanks for a terrific article explaining a complex and inexact process.
    I spent nearly 30 years in librarianship and I was always troubled by ‘HOW’ titles and authors made that list. But finding a book which was ON that list … was a big plus for library users.
    People are more predisposed to ‘like’ or enjoy something if they already know many others do also.
    That said, I was briefly a ‘bestseller’ too … but it has to be qualified.
    My brother and I co-authored a book in 1988 which was published by Libraries Unlimited, at that time one of the top three publishers of books for librarians. That book sold out the first and second printing and was in the third printing before it was ‘remaindered.’ In the L.U. catalog for the next two years (’89 & ’90) our book was listed as a “bestseller”. And it was … for that company.
    However, it was the good reviews which sold all those copies … not the designation in the L.U. catalog.

  27. Angela
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 19:56:26

    @Gwen Hayes: You totally just made me laugh out loud! And I went to your website, and was reminded I wanted to check out your book – thank you for that, I’ve added it to my pre-order ;)

  28. Gwen Hayes
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 20:13:56

    @Angela: Thanks! I have changed my Twitter profile to reflect my new title. Jane, you didn’t trademark it, did you?

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  32. Ingrid Smith
    Jun 19, 2013 @ 16:16:01

    I am appalled at the writing and lack of editing in this article! It is replete with grammar and punctuation errors. I had our homeschooling children look it over, and they got a kick out of the fact that their knowledge of grammar seems to eclipse that of an actual writer. Jane, for starters, please learn how properly to conjugate the verb “to be”. (Notice there how I didn’t split the infinitive, which you do once in your article.) You managed to conjugate the verb “to be” incorrectly a stunning three times in the article: (“There was once several thousand bookstores…”, “The internet list of 150 titles are available….”, “point of sale measurements…..is elusive”. Also, understand that when using “either/or”, only two choices should be given, not three or more. You spelled “Walmart” incorrectly throughout the article, and even then, not consistently! An author doesn’t sell 4,000 copies of a book “on” the week, but rather “during” the week. I think you also need a refresher on comma placement; a comma is required before words like “and”, “but”, “yet”, and “since” if there is a simple sentence ( a sentence containing a subject and a verb) following this linking word. I could go on to list more errors, (note the comma there) but I’m busy teaching our children so they may grow up to write and speak properly.

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