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Getting on the Bestseller Lists

Many publishers wonder how a book gains bestseller status. A bestseller book is not like having a popular hit in the music industry; there is no set number that must be sold. And a bestseller book list is not another service to the industry run by Bowker. National bestseller lists (there are several and they do not often agree) are assembled from certain bookstore and other sales reports.

The purpose of bestseller lists is to make money. This publicity sells newspapers or magazines and advertising space in those periodicals.

Bestseller lists are usually generated in four book categories: Hardcover-Fiction, Hardcover-Nonfiction, Trade Paperback (softcover)-Fiction and Trade Paperback-Nonfiction. Some lists have categories for Mass-Market Paperback-Fiction and Mass-Market Paperback-Nonfiction.

Bestseller lists are compiled by several periodicals, and they use different methods. In addition, there are national, regional and specialty lists. National lists. The New York Times editors select 36 titles they feel might be best-selling titles for the week and poll some 3,000 bookstores across the U.S. The stores are asked to fill in the number of books sold next to each title and to write in fast-moving books not on the list. Of course, if a book is not on the list, it is not likely to make the top ten that week. But it may be added to the list by the editors the following week.

The Wall Street Journal lists the top 15 best-selling books in Hardcover-Fiction and Hardcover-Nonfiction/General. The paper polls 2,500 chain bookstores nationwide. The figures reflect books actually sold as they are gathered automatically by the bar-code scanners in the stores.

USA Today polls 3,000 book-selling outlets: large independent stores, Ingram and chain stores. Stores log on via computer and provide sales figures for each title. This paper ranks the 50 top-selling books in all categories, formats and genres. They do not distinguish between book formats. Book editors from the Life and Special Projects department of the paper get advanced notice of the book rankings which they use to generate stories about the movers and shakers on the list. The USA Today list probably gets more notice from the general public (those outside the book trade) than other lists.

To make the USA Today lists, you will have to promote to Books & Co. in Dayton, Hungry Mind in St. Paul, Kroch's & Brentano's in Chicago, Oxford in Atlanta, Tattered Cover in Denver, Ingram in Nashville and the chains B. Dalton, Barnes & Noble, Waldenbooks, Crown, Bookland, Books-A-Million, Bookstop/Bookstar, Borders, Brentano's, Doubleday Book Shops, Lauriat's, Royal Discount Book Stores, and Scribners Bookstores. Other national lists appear in the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.

Regional lists appear in the Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, Detroit Free Press, Houston Post, San Francisco Chronicle and the Washington Post. Some books show up on regional lists before making a national list.

We hear stories of authors who send their friends and relatives out to bookstores to buy up all their books. This sudden sales activity trips the computer and gains bookstore attention. Suddenly the book makes a bestseller list and more people take notice. Booksellers push the (hot) book while buyers notice and buy it. Then we have a self-fulfilling prophecy. The notoriety sells more books-often propelling it higher on the list.

Specialty lists are published by certain industries and groups. For example, the Christian Booksellers Association and Spring Arbor Distributors publish a monthly list of the best-selling religious books. Locus magazine polls 25 science-fiction bookstores to compile a list of best-selling science-fiction books. The Chronicle of Higher Education polls 150 college bookstores to compile a bestseller list for trade books sold through college stores.

Whether you sell out to a publisher or publish yourself, the author must do the promotion.

It is said that the editors of these periodicals are persuaded to add a book to the questionnaire by publisher's hype when a new book is released. This is one reason why the large publishers inflate their print-run numbers and promotional budget figures. They are trying to impress the media.

It does not take a tremendous amount of book sales to make a bestseller list. Depending upon the competition and category, sales of 50,000 books through bookstores over a period of weeks could do it. Some books have made #10 with sales of just 3,000 in one week. Most print runs are just 5,000 books, so 3,000 is a lot of books. On the other hand, with 119,000 titles being published each year, there is some competition for attention. In 1995, there were 93 hardcover fiction titles that sold more than 100,000 copies and 101 hardcover nonfiction title over that number. Softcover books did even better. Most first printings are 5,000 copies, and any book selling 5,000 copies a year is considered successful.

Behind each bestseller is a savvy author.

But most books are not sold through bookstores. Even if you move a million books via mail-order distribution, you won't make a bestseller list. On the other hand, you may calculate that your book is the best-selling book in its field and there is no reason you can't mention this in your advertising. For example, Parachuting Manual with Log is the best-selling skydiving book of all time with over 500,000 sold.

Dan Poynter's book on hang gliding went through the press ten times in ten years (it was revised with each printing) for 130,000 in print. That comes out to 13,000 copies sold each year-not enough to make a bestseller list. But that book allowed Dan to move back to California and buy a home in Santa Barbara.

A properly promoted book can be used to achieve celebrity status. Since the book is the cornerstone upon which you will build, it must look like a book; it must be in hardcover.

It surely does not hurt to make one or more of the national bestseller lists. In fact, making a list can put your company on the book publishing map. Once that happens, booksellers and librarians pay more attention to the rest of your list.

Dan Poynter
Para Publishing

Editor's Note: This was excerpted with permission from one of Dan Poynter's Instant Reports, "612-Bestsellers: What They Are and How to Make Them" (copyright 2000).

James A. Cox
Midwest Book Review
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Oregon, WI 53575-1129
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