Smith Myth: 3 Myths About Bestseller Lists

By Janet Shapiro and Sarah Westergren

In the publishing world, what author doesn’t dream of achieving some form of bestseller status? While some books may hit the bestseller list organically, there are approaches that can “up your odds.” For example, a well-prepared book launch strategy can lead to a more effective outcome for you and your book.

Let’s take a moment to explore three myths about well-known bestseller lists to better understand what contributes to a book’s success—and prepare for a more intentional outcome.

The New York Times Bestseller List:

There is some uncertainty around the New York Times Bestseller List. No one outside a handful of individuals knows the precise calculation method—its algorithm a closely guarded trade secret.

Myth #1: Though the exact sales data is unknown, you must sell at least 5,000-10,000 books prior to your book’s launch across a diverse set of retailers and locations to become a bestseller around your publication date. In particular situations, bulk sales might contribute towards bestseller status, while at other times, may be overlooked depending on the location and platform purchased. Therefore, you may sell more books than required and remain off the list if purchases are not spread across online retailers and independent bookstores. Furthermore, there is a tight NYT book committee and even with numbers and appropriate analytics, it is still in the hands and minds of this group.

USA Today/Wall Street Journal Best-Selling Booklist:

While WSJ will no longer publish its weekly book bestsellers list, USA Today’s bestseller list returned in June 2023 after a brief hiatus. Drawing from a comprehensive sales database, USA Today totals purchases made from the previous Monday through Sunday to derive bestselling titles. As such, authors must promote their book in the week leading up to the list’s release.

Myth #2: Like the New York Times list, a book must sell at least 5,000 to 6,000 copies in one week to make the bottom half of the list. Considering that, authors can expect to invest a substantial amount of money in marketing and other tactics to achieve bestseller status. Although a book may sell often, it will only hit the list if it sells thousands of copies in one week or over the final few months build-up ahead of launch. Alternatively, a book that takes off slowly and sells many copies later may eventually make the list. Contrary to popular belief, it’s never too late to promote your book—even after the initial week of its launch.

Also you can pay to play, with specific services guaranteeing bestseller status by dividing bulk sales into individual-looking purchases. With that in mind, it’s essential to manage expectations and recognize that the bestseller list is not always a reflection of literary excellence.

Amazon Bestsellers:

Securing bestseller status on Amazon depends on several factors, including categories and keywords. Amazon’s best sellers rank (BSR) is displayed under a book’s product page, showing how it’s selling compared to books within the same category. Since BSR scores are updated hourly, tracking your book’s movement is crucial as rankings fluctuate.

Myth #3: Considering that Amazon BSR scores vary relative to other books within a given category, carefully selecting categories and subcategories is paramount. For example, your book may rank #56 at a top-level or broad classification, such as Mystery & Detective, while ranking #1 within a more niche sub-category, such as Women Sleuths. Regardless of the category or sub-category, you earn the title of a bestseller—highlighting the importance of selecting categories and keywords that are specific and representative of your content.

Becoming a bestseller is no easy feat. But, with the right expectations and strategy, you can generate more visibility, book sales, and media attention. Arguably more thrilling, you open the door to the prestigious—and permanent—title of “Bestselling Author.”