I feel this way every summer, when my new books come out in the U.S. The BODY DOUBLE paperback goes on sale July 26th and VANISH goes on sale in hardcover on August 23rd. You may think that an author who’s appeared on the NY Times bestseller lists is beyond feeling anxious about her book sales, but that’s certainly not true for me! Maybe it’s because I came up through publishing the hard way, starting off as a paperback novelist. It wasn’t until my tenth book, HARVEST, that I made the list. I’ve never forgotten what a hard climb that was; nor do I ever stop feeling that success is fleeting, that my bestsellerdom is just a lucky fluke, and that my career is any day going to vanish in a puff of dust.
So it always surprises me when I hear myself referred to as that “big-name” author. Because even now, as I write my 19th book, insecurity is still my constant companion.
Now it’s almost August, and in a few weeks I’ll have something else to obsess over: Will my new book be a “bestseller”?
Just what the heck does “bestseller” mean?
It’s worth it here to stop and define that word, as it’s thrown around so much that it’s lost its significance. The loosest defnition of “bestseller” is a book that has made it onto SOMEONE’S list. But the lists that we in publishing really care about are the national lists, and there are several that we monitor closely: PUBLISHERS WEEKLY (top 15), USA TODAY (top 50, all genres, paperback and hardcover), WALL STREET JOURNAL (top 15), and of course, the real biggie, the one that really matters when it comes to prestige — the NEW YORK TIMES (top 15).
*******quick break for a question****** Q: How do you make it onto these lists? A: You sell a hell of a lot of books. ****************************************
Well, that’s the short answer. And like most short answers, it’s not the whole story, because these lists are compiled in different ways. My understanding is that USA TODAY, PW, and WSJ all use reported sales data from various outlets, including retail stores, bookstore chains such as Borders and Barnes & Noble, wholesale clubs such as Costco and Sam’s Club, and online stores such as Amazon.com. But the data is incomplete, and may not take into account sales outlets such as grocery stores.
In contrast, the NY TIMES list is compiled in its own unique way. For decades, the TIMES has used a network of “reporting stores” to tell them what’s selling. They compile data from bookstore chains and wholesale clubs as well, but they also have a network of “independent reporting stores”, and this explains why their list is sometimes quite different from the other lists. If you’re an independent bookseller who volunteers to be a reporting store, then once a week, you’ll have to fill out a form detailing which books are selling well in your store. (The NYT also provides these stores with a helpful list of particular titles that they think are potential bestsellers. If your novel is not on that “potentials” list, you’re already at a disadvantage, because it means the bookseller has to take the time to specifically write in your title in order to report its sales.)
For an author with a new book on sale, nail-biting time reaches a peak on Wednesday afternoon. That’s when publishers receive word from the NY TIMES which books will appear on the published list in the Sunday TIMES ten days later. The news usually comes by phone call around five or six p.m., from your agent or editor. A call that can either be a happy “Guess what, you’re number five!” Or a glum “We just don’t know what happened…”
And following that call, it’s time for either celebratory champagne or a stiff shot of Scotch for the author.
The other lists become available soon afterwards. USA TODAY is published on Thursday morning, and the WSJ and PW lists appear on Friday.
The very first time I made it on “The List”, I was not expecting it at all. I was in Cincinnati on book tour for HARVEST, which was in its third week of sale. Just that morning, I had visited an airport bookstore and found no copies of my book anywhere. When I asked the clerk, he shrugged and said, “Oh, we used to have some copies, but I guess they didn’t sell so we sent them back.”
Completely demoralized, I dragged myself to my bookstore signing that evening. While in the ladies’ restroom, just before the event, I heard the clerk announce over the PA system: “Come and meet New York Times bestselling author Tess Gerritsen!” Feeling like a fraud, I went out and told the clerk, “That’s not true, you know. I’m not a NY Times bestselling author.” She gave me a confused look and said, “But we got a call a half hour ago from New York. Some lady said you were on a list of some kind.”
I grabbed her phone and called my publisher. Oops — it was seven o’clock NY time. No one was in the building.
I called my agent. She wasn’t home.
I called my own house. My husband answered and said, “You know, Josh (our then-11-year-old son) said something about a lady calling from New York about a list, but I didn’t know what he was talking about.”
It was the longest signing of my life. Three people showed up. Two of them bought books.
Two hours later, I got to my hotel room, and found the telephone message light blinking crazily. There were messages, all right — from my agent, my publisher, and my editor, all congratulating me on having hit #13 on the Times list. There I was, all by myself in Cincinnati. What did I do to celebrate? I went downstairs to the hotel bar and told the nice lady bartender. She presented me with a small bottle of champagne on the house, which I drank alone in my room while reading the latest issue of the NATIONAL ENQUIRER.
Just as you’ll always remember your first time having sex, you’ll always remember your first time hitting the list.
I’ve now had six titles on the Times list. It’s still a thrill every time. And it’s still a nail-biter every time. I take nothing for granted. Really, I’m just glad to be getting paid for something I love doing.
On August 3rd, I’ll get the news about whether the BODY DOUBLE paperback made it on the first week. And on August 31st, I’ll hear whether VANISH is on.
So if you see me drinking Scotch on a Wednesday evening, you’ll know why.