Bestseller Lists Can Lie (Or Alternatively Finding Your Happy Place While Perusing the Bestseller Lists)

I'm Robert Stanek and I founded Go Indie and Read Indies to help and support independent authors. Today, I want to break down a mistruth in this industry: the one that says bestseller lists show the actual bestsellers in the industry. The simple truth is that bestseller lists don't necessarily show the books that actually are bestselling in any category or any genre at any particular time. More accurately, bestseller lists are reflective of the bestselling books at any particular time in any particular category or genre.
Bestseller lists, like those in the New York Times, can lie. Every year books appear on the New York Times lists that have relatively few sales, especially when you get into the extended portions of particular lists. Every year books appear on the New York Times lists that have fewer sales relative to other titles in a particular genre that aren’t on the list. Every year books appear higher on the New York Times lists that actually have fewer sales than titles ranked lower on the list. And none of this is specific to the New York Times lists, rather this is specific to all lists of this nature.

Bestseller lists capture a portion of sales in particular markets and locations. Some bestseller lists incorporate numbers reported to them by publishers as well, which is sort of like inviting the fox into the hen house.

Publishers can become craftsman at working the bestseller lists to ensure important titles land on them. Ways some publishers do this: one-day laydowns, strict street dates and distribution focused on locations tracked by the lists. So if you’re Publisher XYZ and you have a book that you want on a particular New York Times list, you ensure the boxes of books arrive at specific stores on a specific date, can’t go on sale until a specific “street” date and you ensure those stores tracked by the list are your priority focus—you may even ship at different times to markets not tracked by the list to ensure buyers have to go to locations tracked by the list to make purchases.

Publishers organize marketing, drive pre-orders, give tracked stores incentives—whatever it takes—to ensure buyers go out and buy the book on a specific date or dates and especially at tracked stores—and those targeted sales at the right locations put the book on that important list. For some of the most important lists, depending on time of year and category, that tactic can be used to put a book on that all important list with only a few thousand actual sales in a particular week. For other lists, depending on the time of year and category, that tactic can be used to put a book on a list with less than several thousand actual sales in a particular week. Go into the extended lists and that tactic can be used to put a book on an extended list with even fewer sales. Yet when publishers proclaim a book a New York Times bestseller, they rarely state the list the book was on and I don't think I've ever seen one make the distinction between a primary list and an extended list.

Being on a bestseller list is, of course,  very cool for authors and publishers alike. I just would prefer specificity and you may as well. When possible and practical, a USA Today Bestseller should be listed as such and by category, as should a Publisher's Weekly or other print media bestseller. Likewise for online bestsellers, which should list the website and category. Preferably the category will be a top level or competitive second-level category, as this will have more relevance than lower level categories.

With my books, when possible and practical, I always try to state exactly where my book was a bestseller and in what category and in the relative position within a category. I believe that's the only honest approach. As examples:

'The Pieces of the Puzzle' was #1 Fiction for 4 weeks, Top 10 Mystery for 11 weeks and Top 20 Mystery for 16 weeks at Audible.com. 

'The Kingdoms and the Elves of the Reaches' was #1 in Fiction at Audible and soon #1 on the entire site and not long after one of the Top 100 grossing titles in Audible’s history.

When you are specific, whether on a media list or online list, you let readers determine relevance for themselves. As online categories at specific sites are straight forward and based on actual sales numbers, rather than being weighted or based in part on a publisher's reported numbers, I believe online lists when specified precisely can be more honest than media bestseller lists.

The New York Times in particular has many bestseller lists. These lists change over time and currently, at the time of this writing, are as follows:

Combined Print & E-book Fiction (Top 15, extended to Top 35)
Combined Print & E-book Nonfiction (Top 15, extended to Top 35)
Hardcover Fiction (Top 15, extended to Top 35)
Hardcover Nonfiction (Top 15, extended to Top 35)
Paperback Trade Fiction  (Top 20, extended to Top 35)
Paperback Mass-Market Fiction (Top 20, extended to Top 35)
Paperback Nonfiction (Top 20, extended to Top 35)
E-book Fiction  (Top 25, extended to Top 35)
E-book Nonfiction  (Top 25, extended to Top 35)
Hardcover Advice & Misc.  (Top 10, extended to Top 15)
Paperback Advice & Misc.  (Top 10, extended to Top 15)
Children’s Picture Books   (Top 10, extended to Top 25)
Children’s Middle Grade    (Top 10, extended to Top 15)
Young Adult    (Top 10, not-printed extended)
Children’s Series   (Top 10, not-printed extended)
Hardcover Graphic Books   (Top 10, not-printed extended)
Paperback Graphic Books   (Top 10, not-printed extended)
Manga  (Top 10, not-printed extended)
Combined Hardcover & Paperback Fiction (Top 35, not-printed extended)
Combined Hardcover & Paperback Nonfiction (Top 35, not-printed extended)

Each list has a primary and an extended portion. Some of these lists are harder to get on and more competitive than others. Generally, the number of titles on each list is reflective of how competitive the list is. Generally, unit sales, or the number of books sold, is what lists look at vs. the cost of a book and its total earnings. However, the lists depend on tracked store reporting, on publisher reporting and relative weighting. These things virtually guarantee certain types of books will never appear on certain media bestseller lists--at least until the rules are changed to be more reflective of the entire marketplace (and I won't hold my breath waiting for that to happen anytime soon).

If you're an indie author, while you likely won't get on such a list with printed books, you may get on such a list with ebooks. Inclusion of ebooks is something that's happened only in the last few years. Ebooks were included when the list creators started realizing that many e-only books had unit sales above those of what they were calling bestsellers at a particular time. For the authors whose books peaked before such reporting, they simply missed the opportunity to have those books appear on the media lists--and there were many authors who lost such opportunities. 

View any of these lists online and you’ll be able to read a full explanation of their methodology for creating each list. When you read the fine print, you find that the lists are weighted like I've mentioned: “The universe of print book dealers is well established, and sales of print titles are statistically weighted to represent all outlets nationwide.” 

In other words, the lists for printed books are representative of sales at tracked stores and then multiplied by and/or padded with a modifier value to represent sales across the US. (And there's other fine print as well, such as with regard to publisher reported numbers, etc, etc.)

Reading this you may wonder if a list like this is sort of like Nielsen ratings for books. With Nielsen ratings, the television viewing habits of a relatively small cross-section of households are statistically extrapolated to be representative of millions of viewers across the US. Nielsen ratings are carefully controlled. The bestseller lists are not. With the bestseller lists, publishers know what stores and markets are tracked and what stores and markets aren’t tracked. Using statistical weighting, a few thousand sales at tracked stores can be interpreted as many, many thousands of sales across the US.

It's important to point out that if a list includes publisher reported numbers, as many lists did and some continue to do, the honor system was/is relied upon. The publisher reported numbers were/are simply relied upon as fact--something that some publishers took advantage of by shipping out huge numbers of books at steep discounts and than calling the books "sold."

As with print books, ebook-related lists are representative of the industry while not necessarily all inclusive.  At the time of this writing, the New York Times states they don't weight ebook sales yet--but may in the future--while also stating they track only certain ebook markets. It could be list creators simply want to find ways of being relevant when everyone else is looking to the primary online marketplaces themselves to determine what book is a bestseller at any given time. It's also important to point out that e-audio isn't included in such numbers, nor are ebook sales from websites not considered primary markets.

Finally, keep in mind, it’s not just traditional publishers who work bestseller lists. Over the past year or so, I’ve seen indies working online lists and I don’t like the trend.

Additionally, as cool as it can be for an author to see their free giveaway soar up the Amazon free list and maybe get to #1 Free in a category or even #1 Free on the entire site, a book given away isn't a bestseller. During my giveaways at Amazon every one of the books I had in KDP Select landed at #1 in a top-level category at some point in time. I gave away over 250,000 books and I don't count any of it as anything. Why? I gave the books away for free. Readers weren't purchasing them. Reaching #1 Free multiple times was fun but ultimately meaningless (and I do of course, as always, reserve the right to change my opinion about this).

If you're an author and you disagree with my thoughts on free, and that's your choice to do so, I hope you'll always qualify in any reference that your book was being given away at the time. You can use the same qualifiers I discussed earlier with regard to website, category and position within category. For example:

A #1 Free Mystery at Amazon

Further, true bestsellers stay on print bestseller lists not for a single week but for multiple weeks. True bestsellers stay on online bestseller lists not for a few hours on a particular day or for a particular day but for many days. Here's an example:

'The Kingdoms and the Elves of the Reaches was #1 on Audible for FOURTEEN consecutive weeks and then a Kids & YA Top 10 bestseller for the next THREE YEARS.

Now that's bestselling power and it was reflected in the massive sales and millions in retail earnings for my books at Audible.

Thanks for reading,

Robert Stanek


  1. Very informative, thanks for posting.

  2. Very informative; thanks for posting.

    1. You're welcome, Mary Ann. Glad you found the post informative.

  3. Thanks for the information, Robert. I found it interesting!

    1. You're welcome, DeEtte. Glad you found the post interesting!

  4. Thanks for writing this up. I had no idea about how the 'best seller' lists worked.

  5. Good stuff, Robert. Thanks for the info. I learned something new today.

  6. Excellent post. I agree the free bestseller lists are meaningless. However, it was great fun to see my book reach #1 free Sea Adventure, right next to The Old Man and the Sea (paid), if only for a day. Authorial eye candy.

  7. Robert,

    MOST impressive!

    Thanks for doing both the research and the thorough analysis!