In a comment on one of my blogposts, Struggler wondered how many copies would I have to sell to be happy?Â (The truth: NEVER will I sell enough to be happy!)Â But that leads to another, more concrete question: “How many copies do you need to sell to get on the NYT bestseller list?”
It’s a hard question, because the answer is: it depends.Â It depends on which time of year you come out, and who the competition is.Â If you’re released in October, for instance, you’re up against the really big releases, and you have to sell a lot more to be able to place on the list.Â If you’re released in January, it will take far fewer copies to be a NYT bestseller.Â My only experience is in the months of August and September, so that’s all I can really talk about.Â And even then, I’m not completely sure about the real numbers, because I only get reports on a small segment of the market — mainly, the big chains and some of the wholesale clubs.Â Of course, you can also go by Bookscan numbers, but I don’t always have access to those.Â It depends on whether someone’s generous enough to slip those numbers to me.
Â But here’s what I know.
When the hardcover of BODY DOUBLE came out, it was released the week of 8/17/04.Â It debuted the first week on the NYT list at #12.Â It debuted on the Wall Street Journal List at #11 with a salesÂ index of 14.Â It had the great fortune of getting one row on the B&N stepladder display (along with three other titles) during the very first week, which meant it had a really good first week in B&N, which skews the numbers somewhat.Â Bookscan reported aboutÂ 14,000 copies sold that first week.Â This includes the major chain bookstores, the wholesale clubs, and Target.Â It does NOT include Walmart or many distributors or salesÂ to the library market (which can add another 10,000 copies.)Â Bookscan is said to report about 65% of the hardcover market.Â If we accept the 65% number, then the real sales would be around 21,000.Â So that’s what it took to get to #12 on the NYT list, the week of 8/17/04.Â It says nothing about any other week.Â It’s just good forÂ that week, in 2004.
Ironically, I sold about the same number of copies of THE SINNER during its first weekÂ in hardcover the year before, yet that title debuted at #4 on the NYT list.Â Which is a good illustration of how selling Â the same number of copies can land you at wildly different places on the list.
So there’s no definite number of sales that will guarantee a slot on the list.Â In October, you may need to sell 25,000 copies to get on the list.Â In January, maybe only 10,000 copies in a weekÂ will do it.Â What you really want to see is growth — a steady increase in sales from title to title.Â But so many things can interfere with that, from world events to a bad cover to a blockbuster title coming out atÂ the same time.
This is the part that most frustrates me — and fascinates me.Â I love to mull over the numbers.Â But I also fret and stew when the numbers don’t grow the way I want them to.Â I wish we writers could just write the books and not worry about how they’re selling.Â We didn’t get into this to be business people.Â For the most part, we’re NOT good business people.Â We just want to tell stories.Â Yet the market forces us to pay attention to these things, and that skews the whole creative process.Â Instead of writingÂ with an artist’s sensibility, we have to write with sales andÂ marketing in mind.Â Publishers aren’t patrons of the arts; they’re business people, which forces us to be business people.
And that just gets in the way of the storytelling.