During my panel session at Thrillerfest, someone in the audience asked the question: “How many copies do you have to sell in a week for a book to hit the New York Times bestseller list?”Â AfterÂ my fellow panelists tried to explain thatÂ a hard and fast number wasn’t easy to come by, that there were many factors that go into the list, etc., etc., I could see the questioner was frustrated by the lack of a number.Â So I threw out a number that seemed about right to me:Â 10,000 hardcover copies.Â And by that I meant total sales, not just sales reported by Bookscan, which only captures part of the market.Â (I’d heard elsewhere that during a slow month like January, 7,000 copies might be the minimum.)Â
Well, it seems I was wrong.Â Â As inÂ wrong by a factor of two.
Since that panel, Joe Finder and I have been exchanging emails about the topic.Â Joe thought that the number was closer to around 4,000 copies sold in a week.Â I thought it couldn’t be that low.Â But then Joe asked an editor he trusts, and that editor came back with some pretty convincing data that Joe is absolutely right — that you can, in fact, make it onto the Times top-15 list by selling only 5,000 hardcover copies in a single week.
The reason I had trouble believing it is that I don’t trust Bookscan numbers, which is what everyone seems to go by these days as a source of hard numbers.Â First, not every sale shows up in Bookscan.Â Library sales, for instance, are invisible to them.Â And if you’re a perennial bestselling author, then your books are probably sold in many nontraditional outlets that won’t show up in Bookscan, such as in supermarkets.Â Â Common wisdom says Bookscan captures around 65% of actual hardcover booksales, but for popular authors, I think it’s a much lower percentage.Â So when a book shows up on the Times list, and Bookscan says they sold 5,000 copies, what does that REALLY mean?Â How many sales are we not seeing there?Â
Another complication is the Times list itself.Â TheyÂ give extra weight toÂ independent stores, so if your literary masterpiece sells like gangbusters in all the independent reporting stores, but you sell only a few in Costco, you could still theoretically get onto the list.Â Even though Popular Thriller Author, who didn’t get onto the list,Â may actually have sold twice as many total copies asÂ theÂ first authorÂ did that same week.
My reaction to this number is sheer amazement that in a country this size,Â one can be a top-15 bestselling author by selling only 5,000 copies.Â My gosh, are we such disinterested readers?Â Is anyone in America reading books these days?Â When a mere 5,000Â book buyersÂ determine the TOP SELLERS in a country of 300 million people, the industry is in trouble.Â Hell, America is in trouble.
My other reaction is this: wow, January really is a slow month for booksales.Â Because I don’t think 5,000 copies sold will get you anywhere near the top-15 in the month of September.Â Even 10,000 copies sold in September may not be enough.
So I’m enormously happy that my publisher decided to move THE BONE GARDEN to September instead of its previously scheduled release of March.Â Maybe I won’t get as high on the list — but it certainly seems as ifÂ I’ll likely sell a lot more books.Â Maybe even twice as many.Â
Â ADDENDUM: Just out of curiosity, I checked the sales figures for a singleÂ bestselling car model, the Toyota Camry.Â In 2004, 430,000 new Camrys sold.Â That works out to around 8200 cars sold per week.Â Â
Um,Â America?Â Â At $26.00 a book is a pretty good deal.Â And a lot cheaper than a car.
And… the link of the day.Â Drop in and visit my email buddy, author Sheila Quigley and say hi!Â She’s another writer who knows the ups and downs of the writing life.
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