Bestseller Lists: The Numbers Game

I remember when I got my new first name—March 1994.  I had just attended a convention in Las Vegas, and when I headed home through McCarran Airport I stopped at one of the bookstands. There, I saw my just-released paperback of Jedi Search, prominently displayed right there in the #7 slot on their bestseller rack.

That’s when I changed from being mere “Kevin J. Anderson” to “New York Times Bestselling Author Kevin J. Anderson.”  For me, that’s happened 51 times now, appearing on various national or international bestseller lists (19 times on the NYT Bestseller List).

These days, there are so many different and diverse bestseller lists that you can make one without even knowing it.  “Wow, I’m #2 on amazon’s Steampunk Gay Vampires in Space (hardcover) fiction list!”

The major and influential bestseller lists are USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Publishers Weekly, and the New York Times.  There are also important regional lists (such as the LA Times), genre lists (Romantic Times, Locus), and specific bookstore lists (such as B&N).

When our novel Hellhole came out in 2011—the first book in an original science fiction series—Brian Herbert and I were pleased to hit the LA Times list and several regional and genre lists.  It was hoped-for, but not a slam-dunk.

Now that Hellhole Awakening is due to hit stores in about two weeks, obviously it’s time for us to start thinking about it again . . . but not to get our hopes up.  Since it’s the second book in a trilogy (without a movie, TV show, or “brand” connection), the odds of making the bestseller list are stacked against us.  (See my blog, “The Series Death Spiral.”) But even though Hellhole Awakening might not hit the major bestseller lists, it still gives me a chance to do a little analysis.

A bestseller list (perhaps too-appropriately abbreviated as “BS list”) isn’t necessarily a fair or accurate measure of the number of books sold.  Some lists are anecdotal (which titles did the booksellers or list-compilers “feel” sold better than others), some use hard data. Some lists put books into odd, gerrymandered categories.  For instance, when the Harry Potter novels sold so furiously well, the New York Times decided to create a new Young Adult bestseller list, so all of J.K. Rowling’s sales wouldn’t sully the adult fiction list.  Many lists lump all trade paperbacks together, fiction and non-fiction, so that my Dan Shamble, Zombie PI humorous mysteries are competing against some new fad diet book.  Talk about comparing apples to chainsaws!  Perhaps the most democratic list of all, USA Today, uses actual data of all book sales, regardless of genre, age group, or format—I remember the surprise and consternation in the early days of the USA Today list, when R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps” books were shown to outsell every other title in the bookstore by a substantial margin. No one had bothered to compare them before.

Bear in mind that bestseller lists are a relative sales ranking.  Actual sales numbers vary wildly for any particular slot, depending on how busy the book trade is that week.  A book that hits #12 on the bestseller list in a hot month like November might actually sell more copies than the #1 bestselling title in a slower month, such as February.

Next thing to remember: A bestseller list ranking indicates the sales velocity—not the total number of books sold, but the total number of books sold in a period of time (a week or a month).

In the most recent issue, Publishers Weekly reported that if your hardcover novel sold 2374 copies in a week it would make the list; a paperback needed to sell 5241 copies.  (You needed to sell only 856 copies in a month to make the PW Audiobook Bestseller list.)

So, using those numbers, if 2500 copies of Hellhole Awakening sell in the first week, Brian and I should make some bestseller lists.  On the other hand, if 4500 copies sell over the course of two weeks (2250 each week), then the book won’t make the list, even though more total copies went out the door.  If we sell 30,000 copies but spread out over the course of a year, we’ll have a lot of books out there, but not enough of a sales spike to appear on any lists.  (As a side note, that’s why preorders are important: No matter when you preorder a book, the sale counts on the first day of release, as if all those people flocked into the bookstore on Day 1.).

Any such system can be manipulated, and somebody’s going to do it.  Sarah Palin’s book America by Heart skyrocketed to #2 on the New York Times bestseller list…and then it was famously, and embarrassingly, revealed that Palin’s own political action committee SarahPAC had purchased $64,000 worth of the books themselves.  Misleading perhaps, but if you have the money and want to get onto a bestseller list, you can always buy out the print run.  The Wall Street Journal just did an interesting article about manipulating bestseller lists. (Thanks, Kristine Kathryn Rusch for pointing out that link.)

Why is it so important to make the list, other than ego boo?  No question, it certainly feels good to see your book on the rack.  And there are promotional benefits to acquiring a new first name as “bestselling author.”  As the Wall Street Journal article explains, the public speaker who got himself onto the list for one week used the credential of “bestselling author” to secure more speaking gigs and to increase his perceived value as an expert in his field.

But being a “bestseller” is much more than that. If your book hits a bestseller list, it suddenly goes on a different, faster conveyor belt.  It will be distributed to many, many more outlets that carry only a limited number of titles, usually bestsellers. You’ve seen them in airports, grocery racks, WalMart.  By virtue of being carried in countless other markets beyond regular bookstores, a “bestseller” consequently sells a lot more copies—it becomes a self-perpetuating prophecy.

In an ironic twist, one of my novels became a “runaway bestseller”—Dune: House Atreides with Brian Herbert—and that was not necessarily a good thing.  The book sold so much faster than the publisher anticipated, they were taken unawares.  House Atreides debuted on the New York Times bestseller list, and the first printing promptly sold out…so that by the next week when we should have appeared in the #12 bestseller slot in all those airport and grocery store bookstands with all that additional exposure, the warehouses were empty and there were no books to put into those slots.  Consequently, no one could buy the book the following week, so sales dipped (duh!), and by the time the rush reprinting was finished and books were again available, we had fallen off the bestseller list.  (The publisher was much better prepared when the second book came out!)

So, that’s today’s glimpse into the sausage-making process of bestseller lists.  The most important take-away is, well, ahem, um, if you’re going to buy Hellhole Awakening anyway, and you can manage to do it in the first week…