[Updated June 20, 2016]
As a bestselling author, I’m often greeted initially with enthusiasm.
“Oh! You’re a bestselling author? How cool!” – Most strangers I meet.
Then they discover I’m an independent author who self-publishes, and their tone takes on a different characteristic. It’s what I like to call the “isn’t he cute” tone.
Oh. You’re talking about Amazon. I thought you meant a real bestseller list.
What the average person (i.e. a non industry insider) doesn’t understand is that the Amazon lists reflect pure sales numbers. You can buy the same book a dozen times, and it doesn’t matter. Amazon chalks it up as a single sale. In fact, Amazon’s algorithms are smart enough to recognize when a family member buys a copy of my book and excludes that purchase from the calculation. You’d need twelve separate, unrelated accounts to register twelve separate purchases. And twelve sales isn’t going to put a dent in your rank. If you want to get onto an Amazon list, you’re going to need more than twelve sales. In fact, you’re going to need sustained sales.
And if you think a free promo changes that equation, here are two reasons you’re wrong:
- Amazon separates free books and paid books onto two entirely separate lists.
- In terms of effect on rank, it takes 10 free downloads to have the impact of a single paid sale.
With the New York Times, however, it often takes little more than several subsidiary companies (or clients) making geographically diverse bulk purchases.
Did you read that? If I convinced a dozen people or companies to purchase my book in lots, I’d have a chance to make my way onto the New York Times Bestseller list. The smaller and more spread out the lots, the bigger my chance.
Don’t get me wrong. Books that end up on the New York Times list were sold, true enough. No denying that. But when the average person hears “twelve thousand books sold”, they think “twelve thousand individual readers.” Not “two dozen small companies purchased 500 copies each.”
I don’t want to hit this too hard. And I’m certainly not suggesting that the books we all know and love don’t deserve their place on the list. All I’m trying to do is point out that there’s a disconnect between what the general reading public thinks it takes to get listed on the New York Times and what it actually takes. Generating 1000 sales on Amazon is far closer to “one thousand individual readers” than that same number represents on the New York Times list.
This is old news, but I stumbled across an article today and thought I should share it. I suspect the general public would be shocked if they knew the truth behind the way in which many books end up on the New York Times Bestseller list.
There have always been ways to game the system, and you can bet large publishers know them (and employ them) all. All it takes is money and strategic, geographically diverse bulk purchases.
[Update] Tim Grahl, a book marketing consultant, recently appeared on the O’Reilly Factor to discuss this very issue. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNst2OX9X0E
Before moving on to the article I’m talking about, I want to leave you with this: Writers, be proud when your book lands on an Amazon Top-100 list. It earned its right to be there the old-fashioned way. Don’t let a common misconception of the public take away from your success. You may not be J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. But enough people are buying your books regularly for Amazon (the largest distributor of books IN THE WORLD) to place you on one of their bestseller lists.
The New York Times doesn’t sell books. They collect data.
Amazon sells books. A LOT of books. In fact, MOST of the books. So…you know…consider trusting them when they bestow the title. You earned it.[Link to original article and quote from that article follows this image of a metric shitload of cash.]
An endorsement from Oprah Winfrey. A film deal from Steven Spielberg. A debut at the top of The New York Times bestsellers list. These are the things every author craves most, and while the first two require the favor of a benevolent God, the third can be had by anyone with the ability to write a check — a pretty big one.
Source: Here’s How You Buy Your Way Onto The New York Times Bestsellers List
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About Nat Russo
Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.
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Very interesting! I think the common misconception of being an NYT vs. Amazon bestseller has a lot to do with the stigma (that’s thankfully going away) against indie publishing, where people assume that if you’re an indie writer, you must have less legitimacy than someone who went the traditional route. I had no idea how the NYT list was put together or that you could buy your way into it. I do know that as a reader, even before I started publishing on Amazon myself, opinions and ratings on Amazon were more important to me than something like an NYT bestseller list.
The irony in all of this is that the “traditional” route is anything but traditional. “Big Publishing” is a relative newcomer, historically speaking. Before the advent of corporate publishing, ALL writers were self-published. Publishing wasn’t really an “occupation” until the industrial revolution. Then big business discovered they could make a buck or two at it, and if they set themselves up as gatekeepers, everyone with a desire to get their words into wide distribution would have to go through them.
The advent of digital publishing is one of the greatest things to happen for readers and writers alike. Can you imagine some of the gems currently languishing on a slush pile somewhere right now?
I am so thankful that writers have the option to publish digitally instead of potentially having your hard work stuck in a slush pile. What inspired me to publish on Amazon where the great indie works I found while browsing through the Kindle store. I realized that I could either start taking steps to have my book available on my own terms, or I could go through the process of querying agents and publishing houses without any guarantee of my book actually making it to customers. Although I’m at the beginning of my writing career, I’m happy I went indie and I am so thrilled to see all of the awesome independently published works and writers out there.
Thank you for this article. My book has been in the top 100 on the historical mystery list since early April, and it was #1 for about two days last weekend. It’s currently #15 on that list. I’ve heard mixed opinions about whether I can claim the “bestselling author” title, and I lean towards not because I know how the narrow categories on Amazon make hitting #1 easier and has lessened the significance of the “bestselling” title. That said, there are almost 7,000 titles in the historical mystery category, so maybe the ranking is nothing to sneeze at. 😉
It’s definitely nothing to sneeze at, Allison! And considering your book is still on the list several months after publication is a testament to the quality of your work. It’s quality and word-of-mouth that sustain sales, not marketing.
Something interesting is happening with regard to the “bestseller” title and its significance. I believe what’s actually happening is for the first time in history we’re getting a true glimpse of what “bestseller” means. When the general reading public hears “bestseller”, they’re thinking in millions, not thousands. But the reality is that “thousands” *is* the average bestseller. Those who sell millions are the outliers, both in the traditional world and the indie world.
If you glance at the top 10 on the NY Times today, a very odd thing comes to light. Books #10, 11, and 12 are an example of how messed up the Times’ ranking system is, and I selected these at random (well…I selected them because I saw James Patterson’s name, if I’m being honest).
#10 (today) is “Truth or Die” by James Patterson. If you check its Amazon rank (the people who are *really* selling the books, statistically speaking), its overall rank in the store is #275 (#139 in its main category). 275 is nothing to sneeze at. But…even at #10 on the NY Times list, there are 274 books on Amazon that are selling FAR better.
#11 (today) is “Kiss Me” by Susan Mallory. Its Amazon rank, overall, is #2437, and its category rank is #1511. For perspective, When Necromancer Awakening reached #1 in its category, it was right around #900 overall, and it has never ranked as low as #1511 in its category like this NY Times bestseller does.
Now it gets interesting.
#12 (today) is “The Nightingale”, by Kristin Hannah. Its Amazon rank, overall, is #29. 29! That’s incredible! It’s #2 in its primary category!
In any logical sales model, this is completely out of wack. But therein lies the rub. There is nothing logical about the NY Times sales rank model. Its numbers are skewed in such a way that they no longer reflect true sales.
The reality in today’s publishing landscape is that the category bestseller lists on Amazon are far more representative of sales than the NY Times list.
So own that title! You deserve it! And based on today’s NY Times list, you probably deserve it more than at least one of those folks. 🙂
Wow! That #2437 beating #29 is crazy! Definitely shows something fishy is going on. Thanks for the encouragement. It’s been a fun ride.
btw – I really like the brighter look of your blog. Easier on the eyes. 🙂
Thanks, Allison! I had received a sufficient number of complaints to stop brushing it off as “those people be trippin!” 🙂
The game is rigged to people who don’t know how to play, like me. Can an inde author get on the NY Times list, or does it have to be TP (traditional publisher) or paperback sales or what, and what links should I be looking at for NY Times anyway?
Dan: Indie authors can and do hit the NY Times bestseller lists, but they use the same tricks traditionally published authors used. For example, since indie typically lack widespread *physical* distribution, they employ the other tactic common to traditionally published authors: package up “bundles” or anthologies at reduced prices. If they’re able to push more than 15k units in a single week, they’ll likely hit the list. But, their book has to be available through more than one distributor, so if you’re exclusive to Amazon, you won’t be hitting the NY Times list anytime soon.
To me, this highlights the problem even more. A book should find itself on a “bestseller” list because it was a “best seller”, not because authors or marketing folks gamed the system.
Great article Nat! Thanks for sharing. It is a shame that, what used to be a highly revered source of news, can be so skewed in their reporting.
It is. I recently learned (I believe through the Author Earnings Report released quarterly by Hugh Howey) that the NY Times doesn’t even take Amazon into account when calculating ranks!
The single largest distributor of books on the planet, and the NY Times doesn’t consider them when calculating bestseller status??? It boggles the mind. But it shows how myopic the traditional publishing world can be at times.
To be fair, I’d guess the NYT model is simply older than computers. It sounds like it dates back to times when centralized data wasn’t even a pipe dream, so it would have to track sales through some sample distributors rather than final reader purchases. (How thorough or unbiased its choice of samples is, I wouldn’t know.) And then it has simply stuck with that model rather than admit that Amazon’s data–and just its presence as the big store–have made a lot of things obsolete.
It seems like the NYT might be cracking down a little on this. It excluded Ted Cruz’s book because “In the case of this book, the overwhelming preponderance of evidence was that sales were limited to strategic bulk purchases.”
Yes, but not because of “strategic bulk purchases” in general. They excluded his book because the strategic bulk purchases exceeded their *permitted* threshold. The problem is in the existence of such a threshold to begin with, in my opinion.
How can you have “bulk sales” from one source for an e-book?
The bulk sales I’m referring to aren’t e-books. That’s the point. The NY Times doesn’t have the complete picture, so other than the #1 or #2 slot, it doesn’t always represent what readers are actually reading.
I recently came across a multi-author, anthology (20 authors) which was released digitally only and hit NYT Best-selling at #13. The strange thing is that same anthology DID NOT hit USA Today… How is that possible?
Crazy, isn’t it?
But that’s what I’m asking – how is it possible? The criteria for USAT is based exclusively on units sold. If this anthology hit NYT, which it did, it HAD to have hit USAT – which it did not…
The reality is that the organizations who produce these lists aren’t transparent in how the results are calculated. They’ll use ambiguous terms like “rank based on how well the book was selling during the previous week.”
What does that mean? Which retail outlets were polled? What type of sales are we talking here, retail or distributor? Do they filter bulk sales or count bulk sales? Do they count books that were sold and remaindered, or only those books that have a verifiable sales receipt?
The questions could go on and on, but I think you see the problem. The so-called bestseller lists actually have little to do with how a book is selling. You can give the #1-3 slots a pass. They’re probably on top and they probably have mass appeal. But how the others arrive on the list involves a black art, and the publishers aren’t sharing their spell book.
If you track “Author Earnings Report” (http://authorearnings.com/) you’ll see that e-book sales are outstripping paper sales by an astounding margin.
…but those e-book sales aren’t tracked the way paper sales are tracked, and so authors who sell FAR more e-books than physical copies essentially disappear into the mist.
Nowadays, the only bestseller lists that actually have much meaning (in terms of what readers are *actually* reading) are the Amazon bestseller lists. Amazon is the #1 seller of books on the planet.
When the paper oligarchy inevitably crumbles, the traditional bestseller lists will either disintegrate or change the way they calculate rankings.
To answer your question directly: It’s not possible. And that’s one of many signs of a much larger problem.