by Lindsay Flanagan and Angela Eschler
with insights from best-selling author Heather B. Moore
The New York Times Bestseller List. The very name sends shivers down your writer’s spine. You envision your books will one day be emblazoned with the badge of honor that counts you as a New York Times Bestselling Author. You know it’s a pretty cool list, and you know you’d like to be on it. So how do you do that? Well, the process isn’t as black and white as you might think, but knowing more can help you make it.
What Is The NY Times Bestseller List?
The list is a compilation of data from super-secret sources. It is refreshed every week, from the previous week’s Sunday to Saturday. Therefore, is, in reality, a moving target. Obviously, the super-secret sources are companies who sell books—but only those stores who have a relationship with the New York Times. While Barnes & Noble is one of the stores that reports data of books sold, big-box retailers like Walmart do not (at the time of this article). Most online sellers do not report their sales, although Amazon does. It is also compiled from data that is gathered by BookScan, which provides sales data to bookstores throughout the United States. (Source)
Our lists represent sales from tens of thousands of brick-and-mortar stores of all sizes, as well as from a large number of online bookselling vendors, in order to best represent what is selling across the United States. – “Behind the New York Times Bestseller List“
There are several different categories, such as Fiction and Nonfiction—and those are broken down into specific versions: hardback, paperback, print & ebook combined. Those are then broken further into Trade and Mass Market. Other categories include Young Adult, Children’s Picture Books, and Children’s Middle Grade. There are even more categories than those listed here.
A big question that is asked in regard to the list is if self-published authors can make the list. The answer is YES! The Times does acknowledge that the list tends to skew toward books published by bigger houses, but because they receive data from so many sources, books that are from smaller presses and that are self-published have, and continue to, make the list.
But we know this all sounds a little complicated. But let’s not worry about that since your focus should be on the big picture—getting on it rather than fully understanding it.
How to Land Your Book on the List
So now you know what the list is, but how does your fabulous book get on it? Well, for one, you have to write break-out content (covered below), but first let’s get technical on what has to follow that feat (in case you’re already there!).
Unfortunately, there is no magic number that your book sales need to reach in order for it to land on the list (though sometimes around 15,000 sold will get you in the door, depending on the category you’re competing in). This is because the volume of sales differs each week, such as during Christmas, when sales are generally higher than the rest of the year. But because sales are high for the holidays season, a lot of authors try to release their book in November, which means your competition to land on the list will be higher. You’d want to research what books come out in which seasons (categories of books) and what big authors are coming out during certain weeks so you aren’t competing against that.
Luckily, we have some tips for increasing your sales during the publication week of your book. (These principles generally apply to any notable best-seller list you want to be on.)
- Time Your Publication Date. (Or try to convince your publisher to.) There is a delay on the list by about two weeks, meaning that if you do make the list, you won’t see it until two weeks after your book’s publication date. The list is refreshed every week, but the week your book launches is probably the best to shoot for to nab that elusive spot on the list, as it’s likely that is when your book sales will be the highest. If you time your publication date accordingly, it can work to your advantage.† Don’t launch your book the same week that, say, J.K. Rowling’s next book about Hogwarts will be published. (No, this isn’t news that she’s writing a new novel—but if it were to happen, do you really want to compete with that?)
- Encourage pre-orders. You can get on the list with your pre-order sale numbers—any preorders, even if they predate the week they’re counting for, if they haven’t shipped out of the book seller’s warehouse. If this sounds like a trick or a gimmick, well, that’s because it is. Publishers will use whatever methods they can to “pre-put” an author on the list. Oh, but keep in mind that if any of your books ship before the publication date, they are considered already sold and won’t be counted as part of that week’s tally. And you want to make sure that any pre-orders start on Tuesdays, because Monday’s downloads/purchases always pull at midnight, so anyone who purchases Sunday would not count on the Monday-Sunday list-pull time frame for the week. Also, note that you can’t pre-buy books from stores (ones that report their numbers to the list) where you’ll be doing book signings and say that you’ll be selling them on the day of the event, in order to make the numbers high that week. Sorry—authors have tried that, and they did make the list, but their books were later pulled from it.
- Maximize your publicity. Use book-promotion sites, ads on various platforms, and every possible avenue for exposure you can get. Drum up interest for weeks or even months before just to create buzz, but you want to capitalize on that buzz a lot on the weeks you attempt the list. You should have three-quarters of your sales in pre-orders. Encourage readers to buy your book the week of publication by hitting the publicity trail hard. Do book signings, make appearances, have television and radio ads and spots, and offer to speak at events. Additionally, do a social media blitz and get your name and your book all over the internet. (Expect to do this at a professional level—invest funds or serious learning/legwork time so the impact goes beyond your local contacts. See our promotion options for a good place to start.) When you schedule in-store book signings, make sure you do at least one from a store that the list pulls its numbers from.
- Cross-promote and band together. Find out which authors in your genre are releasing books at the same time and use that as an opportunity to help each other out. Fiction authors sometimes band together and use all of their platforms and combined resources to get a book on the list—say an anthology/box set they were all in—and that can work. Nonfictions authors might not be able to do a box set deal, but they could try teaming up with other nonfiction authors to do some kind of everybody-gets-a-chapter type book to make the list and NYT status that you can then tout on all your individual books.
Priority #1: You Need to Write a Bestseller!
Even if you do all of these things, of course there is no guaranteed way to make the list. But if you want readers to buzz about your book, make sure that it’s worthy of the bestseller badge:
1. Learn what attracts readers in your chosen genre. Check out the Writing Excuses podcast’s Season 11 (Elemental Genres) to get you started on mind-hacking your readers.
2. Know how to expand your readership even beyond your genre by employing the three secret ingredients. What are they? In a recent poll of acquisitions editors and best-selling authors, we asked what top three elements made for a best-seller. The answers were unanimous: high-concept material, compelling characterization, and smart structure—all in the service of a clear story (as opposed to a book in which a bunch of stuff happens to the characters). This is what we call writing craft, folks.
How do you weave those ingredients into a stand-out story?
Come on over for a plot consultation and find out.
1. Know your audience. You need to solve the right problems for the right people with the right approach. You are not writing to everyone, but to a single individual who has a unique set of problems at a unique place in his/her journey (and, counter intuitively, that type of specificity will make your content interesting to a wide variety of readers).
2. Understand the nonfiction market as well as key nonfiction dos and don’ts. (You can find several articles to get a jump on this in our blog archives; see the “Nonfiction How-to” category).
3. Understand how to build attention for your voice before your book is done (nonfiction success is often based on an ongoing dialogue with readers before your book release—in other words, you need a platform these days, and that applies to agents and editors, who want to see that and a proposal before the book is done); to get a handle on that process, see our article on tips for stand-out nonfiction.
4. Lastly, for narrative nonfiction (memoir and biography) the three secret ingredients noted above in “fiction” still apply.
Is your book ready for readers?
Contact us today for a free strategy session and find out.
Do This Now
Familiarize yourself with the authors who are making the NYT list (or the other best-seller lists you’re interested in, including Amazon’s). Do some research—although you hope your publisher has too—and see when the optimal publication date will be for your book. If a popular author announces a new book on a set date, push yours back or move it forward. Any author whose books are already bestsellers will create huge competition for yours, so do your best to avoid the same publication week.†
- If you already have a publication date, start your social media campaign now. Get the word out that your book is available for pre-order. There really isn’t much you can do if a warehouse ships the books before the publication date, but the more books that are pre-ordered and aren’t shipped, the bigger your sales numbers will be for the publication week.
- Increase your writing knowledge and perfect your craft! You can’t be a bestselling author unless you write a book that will attract readers.
- If you’re a self-published author, you don’t have to wait for the NYT to come around to get best-seller status. A smart, well-planned and professional promotion campaign can boost your career in many ways. For example, you could think outside the box like USA Today bestselling author Heather Moore: she and several other authors leveraged their individual platforms by bundling their self-published romance novels into one box set, selling it for a low price on a critical date. Moore shares the details of how they accomplished this on her blog and has a book dedicated to the topic.
- While getting ranked on a bestseller list is a fantastic goal, it’s not everything, and not making a list doesn’t mean your book isn’t worthy to be read or that it’s unpopular. Keep in mind that no one really knows what goes into the formula that puts books on the NYT list.
†To try to avoid sharing your publication date with big-name authors, you can visit Publisher’s Weekly’s “On Sale Calendar,” which lists what books will be on sale and when. Publisher’s Marketplace has a “Buzz Books” page (that features excerpts from soon-to-be-published works that are “buzz-worthy” and are likely to show up on bestseller lists and win awards). Additionally, if you are a member of Publisher’s Weekly, you will have access to a feature called “Deals,” which will show you reports of new book deals made every day.
Do you have any tips from the trenches regarding landing on a bestseller list? Or questions? Share them with us in the comments below!
Lindsay Flanagan is a freelance editor, writer, and photographer. She earned her Master of Arts in English and Creative Writing and spent over a decade working in higher education before becoming a full-time editor. When she’s not editing manuscripts, she’s writing fantasy novels and poetry, chasing after her favorite bands, riding motorcycles, or photographing Utah’s majestic landscapes.
Angela Eschler, founder of the award-winning Eschler Editing, has nearly twenty years of experience in the publishing industry, including a near decade working in-house at traditional publishers. She now works as a freelance editor and industry coach for authors, editors, publishers, and other organizations and has edited nearly a thousand manuscripts from diverse genres. A published author herself (inspirational works for women), Angela’s work has been featured on television, radio, and in documentary film. As a certified word nerd, she loves connecting with writers and readers of all sorts.
Heather B. Moore is a four-time USA Today bestseller and award-winning author of more than eighty publications in diverse genres. She is the owner of Precision Editing Group and the publisher of the popular Timeless Romance Anthology series. Her websites are hbmoore.com and precisione