Every author dreams of slapping “New York Times Best Seller” on their book jacket. For publishers, it means big exposure. For authors, it validates their popularity. For readers, it means that they’re in the know. But what is The New York Times Bestseller list? How does it work? How can something be an NYT Bestseller, but not necessarily a bestseller elsewhere?

The answers to those questions are more complicated than they seem and they involve secret formulas, unknown booksellers, a cottage industry dedicated to manipulating the system and a little bit of luck.

What does being a New York Times Bestseller even mean?. Image 1.

Matthew Schimkowitz




Where the data comes from

Appearing for the first time in October 1931, the list gave a humble rundown of the five top-selling fiction books and four non-fiction books in New York City. By 1942, the Times ranked sales in 22 of the country’s largest cities, gathering information from regional bookstores, department stores, and wholesalers. Exactly which retailers are not disclosed in order to prevent publishing companies from artificially inflating numbers. Additionally, a sale of more than one copy to a single buyer is counted as a single copy sold. By the 1950s, the list was on its way to being the marketing behemoth it is today, curating a list of the country’s most popular books.



The digital confusion

“Once you got online bookselling, anyone and everyone was selling a book,” Dr. Laura Miller, Professor of Sociology at Brandeis University and author of The Best-Seller List as Marketing Tool and Historical Fiction tells Hopes&Fears. Miller continues, “You can’t have millions of retail establishments giving data to the Times. That means they have to ask for a sample of the different kinds of places that are selling books." The rise of a more connected and trackable world might lead one to believe that it's easier to get a picture of book sales but Miller says that's not the case, “While the actual reporting of sales from those particular places might be more accurate than in the past, the ability to get an accurate sample is actually more difficult.” 

Today the Bestseller list has a whole slew of categories, including Print & E-Books, Hardcover, Paperback, Advice, Children’s, Graphic Books, and numerous monthly lists. While others look regionally or, in the case of Amazon, internally, the Times aims to get a sample of the whole country. Additionally, these categories have a limited number of slots. For instance, the fiction hardcover section is limited to 25 while the young adult section gets 15.

Publishers Weekly and New York Times have traditionally been the only ones to genuinely try to get a true national picture. If you look at Amazon, which is another best seller list that people will often use or refer to, that’s just Amazon sales and that’s going to be very different than if you were to compile the sales of remaining independent bookstores,” Miller says. Those independent bookstores make up less than 10% of sales, enough to change the statistics but not enough to necessarily alter the broad overview the Times list aims for.

What does being a New York Times Bestseller even mean?. Image 2.

The first New York Times bestseller

And Now Tomorrow by Rachel Field


While the list officially began in 1931, it only became a national survey on August 9, 1942. This list was compiled from "leading booksellers in 22 cities" and reportedly remains virtually the same aside from the addition of online sales in 2011.

Records before 1942 are hard to come by but on the day of the national survey launch, And Now Tomorrow by Rachel Field held the top spot. It also held the number 1 slot the prior week, when the list was still local. And Now Tomorrow was subsequently adapted into a film in 1944 and it remains in print.




The formula and the purpose

According to The New York Times, the list works as followed: “Rankings reflect sales reported by vendors offering a wide range of general interest titles. The sales venues for print books include independent book retailers; national, regional and local chains; online and multimedia entertainment retailers; supermarkets, university, gift and discount department stores; and newsstands. E-book rankings reflect sales from leading online vendors of e-books in a variety of popular e-reader formats.” Considering that Amazon makes up 65% of ebook sales, that figure is actually fairly easy to estimate. Much like Amazon or Google's search algorithms, the actual formula for the NYT Bestseller list is a closely guarded secret.

But the list does more than tell us who sold the most books: it elevates the material, offering benefits that industry lists, like Billboard or Publishers Weekly, do not. The Times provides book readers with a sense of what other book readers are reading.

Miller explains, “There’s a greater interest in lists of any kind and what that reflects is a way in which people are much more interested in what they’re so-called peers think. People assume that if everyone else is reading a book then it ought to be good.” This is where the Times list really gains its power as well as its usefulness for readers just looking for a quick fix. When you combine the limited number of categories and the limited number of slots per category with the prestige name of the "Grey Lady," you get a go-to listing that's only rivaled by Oprah's Book Club.

Gaming the system

Controversial Republican Senator Ted Cruz, recently found himself in a war of words with The New York Times when the venerable newspaper refused to place his new book, A Time For Truth, on the bestseller list. Officially, Cruz’s book sold more copies than all but two other titles on the list, however, the Times claimed that it had reason to believe the publisher was buying bulk copies back in order to get on the list. Cruz claimed a bias against conservative authors that the Times vociferously denied.

A week later the Cruz book did appear on the list and the Times official statement said, “This week’s bestseller list was arrived at using the same process as last week’s – and the week before that … That process involves a careful analysis of data, and is not influenced in any way by the content of a book, or by pressure from publishers or book sellers.” That turn of events accompanied, A Time for Truthfalling off of the Washington Post’s bestseller list.

The murky secrets behind the formula remain closely guarded.


What it means and how to get it

Making the list means everything to the marketing of a book and its author. It leads to bonuses, movie deals, speaking engagements, and sometimes controversy. 

According to Dr. Miller, “[The Times methodology] also allows for much more room for manipulation. An author will send out an email blast to everyone he or she knows that says, 'My book is being released on X-day. It is extremely important that you buy it, so that it will go way up in the rankings, so if you’re going to buy it at all do it on that particular date.’ And that skews the numbers temporarily.”

Publishers even, reportedly, buy their way onto the list through bulk purchases; sometimes through a third party. An author may actually write a successful book but never even touch the NYT's list because they don't have a powerful enough publisher to buy their way on or create a loud enough buzz. The hypothetical author may also just have a book on their hands that sells slowly but steadily. Or, this author might have just missed some other random checkbox from the magical formula that only a few know.

With so much at stake, authors continue their fight for inclusion on the list because it is the single best way for readers to hear about their book. Validation, money, and popularity are hard things to come by in the literary world, and to get them, you have to be #1.

The New York Times Bestsellers

at the time of this article's publication


 GREY, by E. L. James. A sequel told from Christian's point of view.

 THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, by Paula Hawkins. A psychological thriller set in the environs of London is full of complications and betrayals.

 NEMESIS, by Catherine Coulter. In Coulter’s 18th F.B.I. suspense thriller, the agents Lacey Sherlock and Dillon Savich must discover who is responsible for bombings in New York City.

 CODE OF CONDUCT, by Brad Thor. In Thor’s 15th thriller, the counterterrorism operative Scot Harvath undertakes a deadly assignment set in motion by a leaked video.

 EARTH BOUND, by Christine Feehan. A stranger becomes infatuated with Lexi after freeing her from a cult's clutches.

The New York Times


ADDITIONAL SOURCE: Book History, Volume 3