Among the comments I received for my last blogpost was this question from JMH (thanks for the great question!): “Iâ€™ve always been confused as to whether the numbers reflect books sold to the bookstores or sold from bookstores to customers. Every once in a while I see a comment that a book will come out as #8 on the list, and a single one hasnâ€™t yet been sold to a customer.”
The answer is: the lists reflect books sold to consumers, not merely ordered by bookstores.Â It’sÂ an old and stubbornly believed myth that the bestseller list isÂ really about how many copies are ordered byÂ stores.Â In truth, the list is all about the velocity of retail sales for that particular week.Â A store could orderÂ 100,000 copies but if not a single one sells to a customer, that book will not be on the list.Â And the publisher will be in big trouble.Â (Which happens more often than the industry likes to admit.)
That said, a large order will help boost sales.Â Remember my earlier post on the importance of the printrun?Â A big printrun, and a display with tall stacks of a particular title, means consumers are more likely toÂ see the book and pick it up.Â But they actually have to BUY the book for it to register on the bestseller lists.
Another myth that’s been floating around is that a book can hit the NYT list before it even goes on sale.Â Not true.Â The confusion, I think, is because of the timing of that list.Â Let’s say your book goes on sale on Day One.Â Sales are tallied up through Day Seven.Â The NYT gets back its reports from stores on Day Eight.Â On Day Ten, a Wednesday, the NYTÂ finalizes its list and faxes it out to the industry, publishers and agents alike, usually in the late afternoon.Â Everyone involvedÂ is notified and champagne corks pop.Â Even though everyone already knows the book will be a bestseller, the actual printed list doesn’t appear in the Sunday Book Review until DAY TWENTY ONE!Â That’s twenty one days after the book went on sale.
ThisÂ leads to the peculiar situation of the author knowing he’s going to be on the list a week and a half before the general public.Â If the book gets on the list after the first week on sale, you’ll sometimes seeÂ an ad thatÂ hails the title as anÂ “Instant NYT bestseller!” way before the actual bestseller list appears in print.Â As a result, it seems as if the author and publisher have “inside information” or the “fix was in” or “it must have been all those copies ordered.”Â
No, it really is book sales.Â True,Â not all sales (such as libraries and grocery stores) are counted.Â But it IS sales.Â To consumers.Â