This is a guest post by Tim Grahl, book marketing expert and founder of Out:think, where he helps authors connect with readers and sell more books. Tim is also the author of Your First 1000 Copies: The Step-by-Step Guide to Marketing Your Book.
By most standards, I’m still new to the publishing industry. It’s been just five years since I worked on my first book launch campaign, but since that time I’ve worked with over 100 authors in just about every marketing capacity you can imagine. I’ve played the role of publicist, community organizer, web developer, social media expert and on and on.
In various roles I’ve bumped into the New York Times and Wall Street Journal best seller lists many times. I’ve helped launch two #1 New York Times best sellers, several top five best sellers and, at one point last spring, had 5 clients with books on the NYT list at the same time. While I haven’t tracked the Wall Street Journal list as closely, I’ve had quite a few hit that list as well.
I also have my hands in a few launches right now – some finishing up and some just getting prepped for later this year – and more and more I’ve become incredulous at the complete disaster that is the major best seller lists.
As I’ve prepped to write this article, I’ve had trouble organizing all of my thoughts, data, stories and sources into one cohesive narrative, so instead I’ve decided to list point-by-point in no particular order, the things that I’ve either personally witnessed or directly experienced with one of my clients or colleagues in the publishing industry.
My goal is to shed some light on what really goes on with the two top best seller lists – Wall Street Journal and New York Times – and give some information for authors that are hoping to hit it one day.
1. Why does it matter? It’s true, the best seller lists are becoming obsolete. There are plenty of books that, despite never gracing the pages of the WSJ or NYT go on to sell lots of copies and have a great fan base.
However, being a New York Times or Wall Street Journal best seller can greatly enhance your career.
Since the publishing industry still shows great deference to the lists, it’ll significantly impact an advance on your next book contract.
If you’re a non-fiction author, particularly business books, it means more speaking gigs, higher consulting rates, etc.
It means more sales. If your book is a best seller, it all of a sudden gets more face time on book store shelves and other promotions. It’s a self-feeding system.
It means more appearances in the media. NYT best sellers get phone calls and emails from the media.
And let’s face it, it matters because it’s pretty damn cool to be a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best seller.
But the bottom line, especially if have anything to do with the traditional publishing industry:
WSJ/NYT best seller = more money for authors/publishers/agents.
2. What is a best selling book? If you ask a typical person this question who has not descended into the muck of the behind-the-scenes on the best seller lists, they’ll of course answer something like “It’s a book that has sold the best.” or “It’s a book that has sold the most copies.”
Here’s a brief intro to how it works. Further points will go deeper into some aspects of it.
Wall Street Journal Best Seller List
WSJ builds their list based on the sales figures from Nielson’s BookScan. In general, if you sell the most books in a category as reported by BookScan, you will hit #1 in that category in the Wall Street Journal best seller list.
Makes sense right?
Well, BookScan doesn’t track all purchases. It doesn’t include sales through some big box stores such as Wal-mart and Sams Club, which won’t affect most of us. However, it also doesn’t include sales from CreateSpace and other self-publishing platforms.
But, overall, it’s the most accurate and reports about 75–85% of book sales, depending on who you ask.
More on the WSJ later.
New York Times Best Seller List
A mystery wrapped in a riddle as the saying goes.
NYT keeps a tight lid on their process for selecting best sellers. They sample their own list of certain book sellers across the country, which is a tightly guarded secret, and then look at the data with their wise NYT brains and decide who they think should be on the list.
It’s said this is done to keep people from gaming the system, which is partially true. But it’s also done so that the New York Times can have a say on which books get the extra credibility of being a best seller.
I’m certainly not the only one that sees potential problems with this system.
Remember: NYT/WSJ list = more money.
So a small group of people look at highly selective data to decide who they deem important enough to be called a best seller.
At this point we’ve come a pretty far way from “the books that sell the most copies”.
We’ve now laid some ground work so I can share the really weird stuff.
3. Who does the NYT love? A friend of mine has access to the weekly Nielson BookScan numbers – that organization that tracks 75–85% of book sales. Last year he decided to go back and compare BookScan numbers to the NYT best seller list and see if he could find anything interesting.
Since NYT does their own secret reporting and choosing, he wanted to see if he could find any sign of bias.
Here’s two conclusions he came to from his own personal search comparing real BookScan sales figures to the books deemed by NYT staff to be best sellers:
- 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.
- 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.
4. Why the separate lists for digital and print? From an author’s standpoint, this is maddening. I’ve been involved with book launches that have sold more than enough copies to hit the best seller lists, but because the numbers were split between digital and print, they didn’t make it.
In what world does it make sense that as a reader, it matters whether I buy the book in paper or digital? I still bought the book. I still thought it was worth the money. But for some reason, the NYT and WSJ lists think paper counts as a sale more than digital.
Arcane is the only nice word that can be used.
Readers aren’t concerned about modality, why are the best seller lists?
5. How to launder your book purchases. Let me change gears here and give at least one reason established lists have to make so many weird rules.
The best seller lists are forced to jump through a lot of hoops because people are constantly trying to game the system.
If I’m a rich person and publish a book, what’s to stop me from just buying 20,000 copies of my own book and putting myself on the list? I think we can all agree, while we want the best seller lists to reflect the best selling books, we don’t want people to be able to buy their way onto the lists either, right? So the best seller lists try to put some checks and balances in place to make sure people can’t do this.
So what happens? Book launderers start popping up. How does book laundering work? Let me explain:
Step 1. Find a book laundering firm. There’s a handful of them out there, ResultSource is the most well known.
Step 2. Write them a check for their fee. They don’t work for free afterall.
Step 3. Write them another check – for your books. This check is to buy copies of your book. It depends on the campaign, but it’ll number in the thousands. We’re trying to hit the best seller lists afterall.
Step 4. The firm launders the sales. It hires people all over the country to buy books through various retailers one-at-a-time with different credit cards, shipping addresses and billing addresses. This allows the sales to go through and show up as individual sales instead of bulk purchases which then get reported to Nielson BookScan.
Step 5. Pop the champagne. You’re now a best seller.
If you think I’m making this stuff up, I have two sources:
- The Wall Street Journal itself.
- I’m friends with someone who used to work for one of these firms and headed up the book laundering side of the business. The person quit when they were sick of the ethical and moral issues with the entire operation. This person explained the whole system to me.
6. What about bulk purchases? Now we’re getting into a truely gray areas.
Up to this point, I think we can all agree on two things:
- Individual sales should count. If I walk into a book store or logon to Amazon.com and purchase a copy of Dust, that should count to the best seller lists.
- Huge bulk purchases from the author shouldn’t count. If Hugh decides to order 10,000 copies of Dust, that shouldn’t automatically put him on the best seller list.
But what about in between?
What if an online book club wants to purchase 50 copies of your book for everyone in their group? Should those count as 50 individual copies or one bulk purchase?
What if one of your clients is bringing you in to speak to their entire department of 108 people and wants to buy a copy for everyone in attendance? Should that count as 108 individual copies or one bulk purchase?
What if an association wants to buy a copy of your book for each one of their chapters that are in a couple hundred cities across the United States? Should those count as a couple hundred individual sales or one bulk purchase?
What if someone wants to buy 10 copies of your book to give away as Christmas presents? Should that count as 10 individual copies or one bulk purchase?
What if a company wants to buy 1000 copies of your book to giveaway to all their new clients over the next two years? Should that count as 1000 individual copies or one bulk purchase?
Here’s where it really starts to get fuzzy. In each of these cases individual people are getting a copy of the book. Sure, they may not read it, but how may books line your book shelves that you’ve never gotten around to reading?
Different people will have different opinions on each of these scenarios.
If I’ve worked hard to build a fan base or client base that will purchase multiple copies of my book, shouldn’t I get credit for those?
But if I, as an author, go around and buy copies of my book in multiples of 50 and 100 and then put them in my garage, those probably shouldn’t count.
This is where the best seller lists run into trouble. It’s extremely hard to police this sort of thing. What would you do?
7. How to buy your way onto the best seller list. We’ve already talked about the book laundering scheme, but here’s another way to pull off the best seller list with brute, monetary force.
I was brought in to play a small role on a book launch a few years ago. Leading up to the launch date, I was on a few conference calls that were outlining strategy for hitting the NYT and WSJ best seller lists for a book.
Here’s a few things the author did to make it happen:
- Hired two high-end book publicists to get him booked on as many television interviews as possible.
- Purchased full page ads in national and local papers across the country.
- Ran advertising in Times Square in New York City.
- Paid the fee for the book’s publisher to have the book placed on the front tables at Barnes & Noble.
- This is my favorite. He hired people all over the country to go into their local Barnes & Noble and purchase every copy of the book one-at-a-time with cash.
Did it work? Yes. The book debuted on the NYT and WSJ best seller lists.
Of course the following week the book dropped off the list and was never seen again. 95% of sales happened the first week. But the author, for all time, can be referred to as a “New York Times best selling author”.
WSJ/NYT best seller = more money.
8. It’s the good, hard working authors that get screwed. As I type this, there’s a whole shift happening inside the best seller lists. I’ve been on calls with people at two major publishers and they can’t seem to give me a straight answer on how books are being reported and what is making the lists.
They can’t tell me, because they don’t know.
They don’t know, because the lists keep changing the rules without telling anyone.
Apparantly the WSJ list has tightened it’s rules on bulk purchases. A recent book supposedly sold enough indiviudal copies to make the list, but then was thrown out because they also had a lot of bulk copies. This, of course, makes no sense but, as an author, you’re at their mercy.
One of my clients has worked really hard to establish great relationships with their clients who are now interested in buying the author’s new book in bulk. But with the new rules, we’re not sure what to do. Go ahead and let them order and potentially get the book blacklisted? This author has done the work ahead of time to make the book successful with the goal of hitting one of the major lists and now it could very well be for naught.
When the rules are fuzzy, hidden and constantly changing, what can you possibly do?
9. Unkept promises. Awhile ago a colleague of mine wanted to run a campaign to his platform for his new book. He checked with his publisher to see if they could take the orders through his site, so he could give special bonuses to early purchasers and still get them counted through one of the major book chains.
The publisher checked on it and said they could. He asked if they were sure. They said yes.
The author ran his campaign, sold thousands of books and then turned in all the names and orders to his publisher. They sent the list to the retailer. The retailer decided they didn’t want to do it. Since the publishers have made the retailers their customers instead of the readers, they didn’t want to push to hard so they caved and told the author “sorry” but there was nothing they could do.
Huge investment of time, money and effort to become a NYT and WSJ best selling author. Time, money and effort that had paid off in enough sales, got thrown out and never saw the light of day.
10. Your book isn’t quite good enough. Hugh’s Dust sold over 50,000 copies in it’s first week and only debuted at #7 even though it far, far outsold books that were higher on the list.
Fantastic question. Apparantly the people making the decisions about which books are selling the best (notice the contradiction there?) didn’t think Dust was quite good enough.
This is the problem having a hidden group of people be highly selective with their data. Real numbers don’t matter anymore.
11. Your book wasn’t purchased at the cool book stores. Here’s another WSJ article for you to take a look at. It’s short but to the point.
The New York Times samples different stores across the country and weights the books based on where they are purchased.
What does this mean?
A hardcover of your book purchased on Amazon.com is counted differently than the same hardcover book purchased at indie bookstore X.
At this point do I really have to comment on how ridiculous this is and how it punishes authors and readers alike?
12. What can be done now? As authors, what can be done with this?
WSJ/NYT list = more money.
It’s hard to ignore that, but we must. The only answer to this debacle is to stop worrying about the major best seller lists.
At this point, the results are so far outside of an author’s direct control, that it doesn’t make sense to make them a goal anymore.
Instead, focus on the reader. Make your book available at the stores your readers buy books in the formats they buy them. Make it easy to buy and easy to read.
Don’t make the lists your customer. Keep the reader your customer.