My Own Personal Grey

The Numbers Game


My friend Rob Thurman would really like to make it onto the New York Times Bestseller list for mass market fiction paperbacks–who wouldn’t?–and, if you’re in the US (alas, non-US sales aren’t counted), you can help her by buying her new book, Roadkill, between March 1 and March 6–that’s next week at a major chain or online through B&N or Amazon (I really recommend B&N–they often have a better discount than Amazon and they pass on more to authors.) If you do, Rob will give you a sneak peek at the next Cal & Niko book a whole year in advance. Which is pretty nifty, yes? All you have to do is take a digital photo or scan of your receipt showing the date of purchase anytime from March 1-March 6, email that to Rob, and she’ll hook you up.

But you can’t buy it early; it has to be next week.

Now let me tell you why….

See, the thing about the Bestseller lists (from any publication) is timing. “Bestseller” in general is a numbers game. There are a lot of ways to be labeled a “bestselling author”. The one most people assume is “New York Times Bestselling Author” and while it’s the most prestigious, it’s not the only game in town. You can also be on the USA Today list, Time Magazine list, or fall into a distributor’s or store list. You can, like me, have a total number of books sold in all your titles hit the right list and make you a “bestseller” even if no one book made the list. And it’s all a matter of when they were counted and by whom.

In Rob’s case, we’re talking the Holy Grail of US publishing: the New York Times list. If Rob is going to make “bestseller” status, she has to hit a big number of sales in a single week, for a single title–in this case, the new book, Roadkill–at high-profile stores. That means the chains, and a couple of important indies, like Uncle Hugo’s. This is how the NYT bestseller list works: They collect sales numbers by the week from particular stores, chains, and distributors. The biggest numbers for that particular week go on the list. That’s how it works for every author on the list. But, there’s a couple of other details to consider with all that:

It doesn’t matter how many books sell total, or how many sell the weeks before release–since you aren’t allowed to be a bestseller before your release date. The only thing that matters is how many sold in week One or Two of release (or if you suddenly get mentioned on Oprah) or however many weeks you can hold on to a top-20 position.

That word, “position,” is also important. The New York Times tracks the top 50 books in any category–that’s called “the extended list” and while it’s nice and makes your publisher happy when you’re in there, it won’t get you to the point of putting “NYT Bestseller” on your covers. For that, you have to be in the top 20, the “print list”: that’s the list that appears in the print edition of the NYT every week.

The same is true for USA Today and Time Magazine and every other regularly printed bestseller list. You have to do good numbers in a given week, and you have to land in the top 20.

There are a lot of other lists, such as the Ingrahm genre list and the Barnes & Noble store list, both of which look at numbers differently, collect data from only their own distribution, and may collect total numbers over longer periods of time (like a whole year), total sales of all titles by that author in a given period, as well as looking at individual weeks. My books have the legend” National Bestselling Author” on them because of total numbers over time on the right list (and I don’t really know whose or how it was calculated–that’s a Super Seekret Magic Formula known only to certain goblins at Gringotts.) But no one title of mine has ever made it onto any major publication’s list (though Wolfsbane and Mistletoe did make the extended NYT list).

So, if you want to help play the numbers game, buy in the first official week of release, from a major chain or major indie store. And if you don’t feel like playing, that’s fine too, but at least you’ll know what those various “bestseller” labels actually mean. It doesn’t always mean a book or author is any better than another, just luckier.