by Lindsay Flanagan
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, and 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)
There are several different categories, such as Fiction and Nonfiction—and those are broken down as Paperback & E-Book and Hardcover, and 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.
However, self-published books are not counted on the list yet, but you can get on other big-name best-seller lists (more on that at the end of Do This Now section below); and e-book sales are not included in some of the categories. About a year ago, the list’s rules changed for Young Adult and Middle Grade. Those lists have been separated into three sections—Hardcover, Paperback, and E-Book.
Sounds a little complicated? Sure is. 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 10,000 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. 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.
- Maximize your publicity. 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.)
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:
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 story check 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.
†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 holds a master of arts in English and creative writing and has been with Eschler Editing since December 2014. She writes YA fantasy novels and poetry, and she blogs about books, rock concerts, and the ups and downs of being a mommy on her blog, The Calligrapher’s Ink.