What does it take to reach the best-sellers list? Like many writers, I’ve asked this question (and been asked in turn), and heard all kinds of theories, often presented as hard facts. The answer is (as it so often is), it depends. So here are some approaches to the bestsellers that may be of use.
- There are a number of lists, and they are compiled in different ways. The New York Times list is still the gold-standard, and is broken out by fiction and non-fiction, and sometimes available in other categories. It is a measurement of sales at about 3000 stores, now augmented for e-books with electronic sales as well. But Amazon has their own lists, which can be shaved down into hundreds of narrow categories, meaning lots more bestsellers. The USA Today list includes fiction and non-fiction together.
- The NYT list for fiction has about 780 slots per year. Of those, only about 100 are up for grabs–the rest are pretty much locked up by the big names, and publishers will try to avoid launching certain kinds of books into the shadow of a big author’s release month. Trad authors generally release a book a year, and the book will come out in the same month every year (the first Tuesday of the month). This makes your odds of hitting the NYT list about 2 in 10,000–but that’s still better than your chance of being struck by lightning!
- All of the best-seller lists are a measure of sales velocity: how many books sell in a short period of time. So many books on the list are actually being out-sold (albeit very slowly) by other titles which are bought in smaller quantity, but on a more regular basis. As an author doing self-promotion, you want to drive the most sales during the first week the book is out in order to achieve strong sales velocity. (this is also what encourages Amazon to promote your book more to readers because it’s a primary metric they track)
- For the Publishers’ Weekly list, about 8 to 14% of the slots in any given year are debut authors. Most authors in fact don’t hit the list with their first novel, but with a later one, generally in the same series or genre. Once one of the books in a series hits the list, it often brings the other ones along for the ride.
- According to the Stanford Business Institute, the first time an author hits the NYT list, their sales improve by 57%.
There have been some great works that analyze what makes the list and why. The recent book, The Bestseller Code, discusses a computer algorithm that analyzed thousands of books, some from the list and some not and came up with some very interesting results about what the bestsellers have in common, and what sets them apart from the non-bestsellers. Hit Lit takes a more longitudinal approach, developing a list of themes and ideas that appear in the bestselling novel of each decade for about the last one hundred years.
Aiming for the list? Good luck–and hopefully I’ll join you up there!