How Much Do Bestseller Lists Help Sell Books?

How to sell more books is a question on the mind of every author and publisher. As a result, a lot of attention is paid to landing books on bestseller lists as a way to spark sales. But in today’s marketplace, do the lists carry as much weight as they used to? 

News in recent years about bestseller lists has ranged from gaming the New York Times bestseller list to the same venerable institution cutting ten categories from its listings and how Amazon ranks its bestsellers. It’s a lot for an author to monitor and digest. It’s also reasonable to question the value of bestseller lists and their role in book sales. At Smith Publicity, we’re also asked how much they help book marketing?

The Most Widely Read Best Seller Lists

The New York Times Bestseller List – The New York Times uses a mysterious combination of super-secret retail store reporting (which various entities will gladly help you to parse out for thousands of dollars) combined with some editorial oversight. It has been accused of snubbing politically-conservative titles

Publishers Weekly Bestseller ListPW relies solely on NPD BookScan’s point-of-sale data, which tracks 80%–85% of print sales in the country but doesn’t include data on ebook sales.

Wall Street Journal Bestseller List – This list also relies on Neilson BookScan data, but does include ebook sales.

Amazon Bestseller Lists – Amazon tracks ebook sales and print book sales in real-time, but is not transparent about how it reports sales to other outlets.

These are somewhat simplified explanations, but cover the breadth of how different major outlets compile their bestseller lists. With all of the disparities and a dozen or more high-profile bestseller lists out there, what does it mean to be a bestseller these days?

“Even when it comes to ‘national bestseller,’ it seems that we don’t have a consensus about the meaning of the term,” one agent told Publisher’s Weekly. “Not that long ago, it meant a lot if you said a book was a bestseller. Why? Because a select number of books earned that accolade, and we all understood and agreed what it meant.”

How Much Does Making a Best Seller List Help a Book?

There’s a general frustration that the meaning of the term “bestseller” has been diluted.

“I think it helps give a book credibility, and caché, to say it’s a bestseller,” said Smith Publicity Executive Director of Publicity Mike Onorato. “It can sway major media towards coverage. But, we don’t find it to be a huge factor in a book marketing campaign’s success.”

President Sandy Smith largely agrees. “A bestseller accolade can give an author a sense of accomplishment and encourages them to keep up the promotional activity. As for impacting a book publicity campaign’s success, if it is a well-known bestseller list, then we add this achievement to our pitches/press materials. We also encourage the author to add an achievement to their website, social media platforms, Amazon page, and book cover. Bestseller status can help separate a book from others, especially with fiction.”

They both agree that the lists mentioned above have the highest prestige. Smith adds, “I would love to see one list that includes both print and ebook sales from a physical chain and independent retail stores and online sales. Until then, the New York Times has the highest consumer-brand recognition, although there is criticism of how they compile data that may be too narrow. The Publishers Weekly list and data collection methodology are more transparent.”

A Publishers Weekly article also quoted local independent bookstore Main Point Books staff as saying, “the real sales boosters are good reviews; coverage in high-profile media such as NPR, 60 Minutes, and morning TV shows; and word-of-mouth.”

So what should authors focus on instead of bestseller lists, which they have little control over anyway?

“Reviews,” Onorato says. “Encourage reviews on places like Goodreads, NetGalley, Amazon, and B& We know that more reviews help a book get exposure and buzz; it behooves an author to have as many reviews of their book available as possible.”

Smith has more specific advice for fiction authors.

“For fiction, authors should try Goodreads giveaways, which offer visibility on this important discoverability platform. Winners are those who are active in the book’s genre and submit their titles to BookBub. It offers vetted ebooks at a discount to book lovers who are interested in the author’s genre. Both of these strategies help get a book in front of new, targeted readers and encourage both word-of-mouth recommendations and new book reviews. Also, keep in mind these are great for a series—offer the first book at a lower price/giveaway when launching the next book to hook readers.”