12/07/2012 03:38 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

Cracking the Bestseller Code

By Michael Drew and Bob Hughes

Amid the shakeups in publishing in general, what with the rise of the e-book, the shuttering of bookstores and a move away from paper, has been one around bestseller lists.

As any established or aspiring author knows, it's hard to get onto bestseller lists. And it's hard to crack the Bestseller Code. Each newspaper has its own way of compiling the lists, and its own idiosyncrasies. But for someone's authorial résumé, being a bestselling author can mean a higher profile, better business opportunities and, if another book is in the works, a higher advance and even better promotional punch for the next book.

The bestseller path gets harder as the publishing world grapples with what to do with the biggest competitor out there -- Amazon. You see, Amazon since has become a publisher. It allows for self-publishing, of course, and this is part of the industry shakeup as more people decide to do away with the headaches of finding an agent, submitting a manuscript and dealing with the bureaucracy inherent in a traditionally run publishing house.

But when Amazon signed Tim Ferriss, author of two bestsellers, The 4-Hour Workweek and The 4-Hour Body, he got a third, The 4-Hour Chef, despite the efforts of Barnes & Noble and perhaps some other brick-and-mortar stores to refuse to carry the book because it was published by the enemy.

The thing is, when retail stores do this as a way of getting back at Amazon for daring to become a publisher, it can be something like empty gesture, especially for an ambitious author with as large a platform as Tim Ferriss. It's like an alcoholic deciding to get back at people he thinks have offended him by drinking: he doesn't hurt anyone but himself. Barnes & Noble said no to The 4-Hour Chef because even though it might have made money on the sales, Amazon as the book's publisher would doubtless make more than a retailer.

But Ferriss found a way around this, as he wrote on his blog (linked above), with support from his online community and many independent booksellers. As Ferriss wrote, "Without B&N at the party, my team and I had to innovate and experiment to even scratch the lists. Unorthodox bookselling avenues were created (Panera, BitTorrent, etc.) and many new things were learned."

What Ferriss did is what many more authors are likely to do: see how they can promote themselves directly to readers and consumers, and to get those numbers reported to the compilers of bestseller lists.

The thing about bestseller lists is that they're a merit badge, no matter how one feels about the way individual lists are compiled. Even if you're selling well, and earning money, you want those sales to be known to the greater public: you want that recognition from a third party, one that still carries weight even as distribution systems and publication methods change.