In the past 15 months, we've had 10 books on the bestseller list. When I say "bestseller" I mean major lists: New York Times, Wall Street Journal, et al. Still, even after numerous books and a variety of lists, the "list" itself still confounded me, so I decided to do a little research to find out what it really takes to hit a list.
First off, the term "hit a list" can mean hitting a bestseller list at any point of entry. This can even be the bottom 100. Many books that hit a list are never viewed by consumers, they land there, stay for a week, maybe longer or shorter, and then vanish. The numbers and metric for this can be tricky and in fact, not entirely accurate. If you've ever tried to hit a list and found yourself disgusted with the odds, I hope this article sheds some light on the ins and outs of how the process works. I do recommend, though, that you do some research on your own; there are some excellent blog posts out there that look at the finite pieces of these lists and how they are constructed.
First off, let's look at the facts. Bestseller lists vary by season, market, and genre. First, let's look at seasons.
Surprisingly enough, how many copies you need to sell of your book will often depend on when you release it. Pre-Christmas releases, for example, require bigger number than a release that happens in May. Why is this? Well, the holiday should speak for itself, and the same is true for key fall months like September. The hotter the month (not in temperature but in publishing releases), the harder it is to get onto a list.
The next piece of this is reporting. Another piece that might surprise you is that not all reporting is accurate. Never mind the fact that reporting can be slow; you could hit 20,000 sales of your book in October but not see this reporting until November for example, but they can also be inaccurate, and there's a whole market share that's never reported on. Technical, scholarly, law-related books can make up over two-thirds of the book market and are never reported on. Christian titles work the same way. You might say, "Well, what about The Shack?" This Christian title hit a list because it was sold en masse in retail outlets and not sequestered to Christian retailers that don't get the benefit of reporting to the lists.
Finally, let's look at list structure. Each list pulls book data differently, meaning that the New York Times does not pull trade book data, whereas the USA Today list does. USA Today also pulls these titles onto a single list, whereas the New York Times divides these lists up by genre.
A friend of mine who spent years in publishing once told me that publishing is all about perception, and this is very true. What she meant by this is that print runs (publishers refer to these as "advance print runs") as well as any and all advance buzz a book is getting will also help it land on a list. Generally a book that is just "born" into the publishing world with no buzz, advanced reviews, etc. won't capture the attention of a big list. The author might hit it well locally, but generally not nationally unless (like in the case of The Shack) there is some online viral buzz that builds. There is also the consideration of sales surge. This surge often happens during a very short period of time and doesn't always have to equate to huge numbers, it's the velocity of the push that matters. An associate of mine in publishing once told me that a book she was working with only sold 4,000 copies before it landed on a major list. The smallness of the number is staggering when you think about it. Keep in mind that this book hit a list during a slow period, too, so that also worked in its favor.
Also, lists aren't always based on sales. The New York Times, for example, is known for a non-sale list, meaning that they circulate to 37 reporting (book) stores to find out whether a book is doing well. If it's being talked about by the stores, it will often make the list.
When you do the research, you realize that there is no way anyone can "rig" a list and promise you bestseller status. Well, there is one way: by buying up a lot of copies of a book within a short period of time. There have been companies promising bestseller status that do this, but once their warehouses are uncovered the companies often fold. Also, these books at some point will flood the system yet again, usually as used copies on Amazon, which will compete for sales attention with their newly printed counterparts. Any way you slice it, buying up your own books with the hope of getting on a list should be the last thing on your marketing agenda.
Marketing your book with an eye on the bestseller list is great, but much like waiting for Oprah to call, it's not a preferred way to gain or keep your marketing stride. Instead, focus on things you can actually control that will benefit you. Like, let's say regional promotion or an aggressive Internet campaign. Or how about reading groups both online and off? Slanting your campaign to hit a list isn't a great idea, in fact, it's often the worst thing you can do. Yes, there are books that publishers know will hit a list right out of the gate. These titles are generally celeb or news driven, but for the most part, 99.9% of all bestseller status is unpredictable. Gather your marketing chips and put them on a bet that is more likely to pay off. I know authors we've worked with who get the word from their publisher that their book just hit a list, and they'll often call me elated and excited. Now that's a wonderful surprise.