Becoming a New York Times Best Seller

The Murky Path To Becoming a New York Times Best Seller

By Sophie Vershbow

No one outside The New York Times knows exactly how its best sellers are calculated—and the list of theories is longer than the actual list of best sellers. In The New York Times’ own words, “The weekly book lists are determined by sales numbers.” It adds that this data „reflects the previous week’s Sunday-to-Saturday sales period“ and takes into account „numbers on millions of titles each week from tens of thousands of storefronts and online retailers as well as specialty and independent bookstores.“ The paper keeps its sources confidential, it argues, „to circumvent potential pressure on the booksellers and prevent people from trying to game their way onto the lists.“ Its expressed goal is for “the lists to reflect what individual consumers are buying across the country instead of what is being bought in bulk by individuals or associated groups.” But beyond these disclosures, the Times is not exactly forthcoming about how the sausage gets made.

Laura B. McGrath, an assistant professor of English at Temple University who teaches a course on the history of the best seller, compares The New York Times’ list to the original recipe for Coca-Cola: “We have a pretty good idea of what goes into it, but not the exact amount of each ingredient.”

Outside the walls of The New York Times, making a book into a best seller can become quite a convoluted endeavor. And despite The New York Times’ claim that the paper doesn’t make its data sources public “to circumvent potential pressure on the booksellers and prevent people from trying to game their way onto the lists,” everyone I spoke to argued that attempts to game the list are as frequent in book publishing as new Danielle Steel novels.

Many of these tactics involve generating sales at reporting retailers before or right at the time of publication, thus making sure that those sales count toward the list. Any book purchased prior to its on-sale date is entered into the system on publication day and counted toward the week-one sales total, which means that racking up preorders is one of the best ways to ensure that a book debuts on the best sellers list. As soon as the retailer product pages go live (approximately six to eight months in advance of publication), the race is on to generate as many book sales as possible before the week-one window closes. This is one reason why so many books fall off the list after only one week—because there’s no ongoing sales momentum once all the preorders are placed. Torres confirmed as much, telling Esquire, „This is why books frequently stay on our lists for only a week or two and drop off, instead of climbing up and walking down the lists more gradually as they did decades ago.“

More on Esquire