WHEN IS A BESTSELLER REALLY A BESTSELLER?
It’s no secret that the book industry has long been secretive about how bestsellers are actually chosen. If, like me, you wonder why, the answer is as simple as it is enigmatic: Because there is no universal system, company, or site that tracks all book sales.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
The New York Times receives its info from Nielsen BookScan, which collects book sales data from select bookstores. The NYT does not take actual sales into account, only how many books were shipped to those particular stores. (Top publishers know the bookstores they target and try to make sure a lot of samples go to those stores.)
Keep in mind that the NYT only tracks sales numbers weekly. And, it focuses largely on big-name bookstores rather than small indie stores. (No big secret: indies cannot carry every or even a majority of new book titles to determine sales.)
The NYT recently released an article dealing with frequently asked questions about their bestseller lists. However, we can safely assume there’s more to it, which is explored in the article below.
This article describes a study conducted by scientists at Northeastern University. It says that during certain months the book may have to sell X number of units to make the list, given outside circumstances. In December, for instance, when many buy books as gifts, a substantial amount of additional units would have to be sold to land on the bestseller list. Northeastern also developed a model that would predict sales over time based off the first couple weeks of sales.
It may come as a revelation to some that Amazon uses a different system: it tracks actual sales by the hour.
To find Amazon bestsellers, see the Amazon Sales page on the Author Central feature, which pulls from BookScan.
The NYT numbers are based on anticipated sales for the week, while Amazon’s numbers are based on actual sales, which are determined by the hour.
Amazon’s numbers are strictly based on which books have the highest sales. They have also introduced Amazon Charts, which ranks the top 20 most sold and most read books of the week (again, going by actual sales rather than anticipated).
BookTrackr tracks your book’s specific sales. On the BookTrackr FAQ page, note that sales are pulled by looking at places your book is sold. So if publishing on Amazon, it looks at those; if Barnes & Noble, it finds you on NOOK Press.
As the name might suggest, this site tracks eBook sales. They get their information from Amazon, though they are a separate entity from Amazon (although a participant of the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program). They provide a specific breakdown as only eBooks are tracked through the eBook Tracker site.
Rankforest lets you compare sales performance historically, view competing titles and rank in correlation, read reviews and blogs, and track charts from several online retailers.
Sales Rank Express
Sales Rank Express is an extremely fast short-term tool that offers minute-by-minute checking for Amazon sales.
Storybox features software compatible with Microsoft that gives an elaborate breakdown of sales from many outlets, making them available to export for your records.
Authorgraph allows readers to have their eBooks signed by authors while also allowing authors to get weekly emails about their books’ absolute Amazon ranking, not by category, which makes this site less in-depth on the breakdown. The signing feature is a unique way to connect with readers:
Of the above, BookScan seems to be the most reliable. However, sales fluctuate pretty quickly, which is why it doesn’t seem that it, or any other source, can ever be 100 percent accurate.
OTHER BESTSELLER LISTS
Barnes & Noble (BAN), Publishers Weekly (PBW), The Boston Globe (BOG), USA Today (USA), The Denver Post (DPO), The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), The Los Angeles Times (LAT), The Washington Post (WaPo), and The American Booksellers Association ABA IndieBound (ABA).
BUYING BESTSELLER STATUS
Sadly, buying your way to the top is another means of getting on the NYT bestseller list. (No small secret: this also means you need some pretty committed marketing.)
This is an option that many authors feel benefits them. This article by the BookLaunch.com founder was updated in 2017 with a letter from a literary agent. It explains the process of buying NYT success, the pros and cons, and provides an in-depth breakdown of how much goes into determining a bestseller.
So when is a bestseller really a bestseller? It depends on who you ask.