We’ve all seen it across the top of a brand-new book in the library or bookstore: “New York Times Best Seller!” This phrase is your cue that everyone is reading it and you should be too. You don’t want to be the only person in your circle of friends and acquaintances that hasn’t read this book, do you?
Over the years, I’ve looked at the New York best sellers list many times, reading the brief descriptions of books. Very seldom did I actually find anything that sounded appealing to me. Maybe I’m just not a classy person. Maybe my taste in books is too eclectic. Or maybe the books on those lists don’t really show what people are mostly reading. Who decided which books make it onto the lists, and how many books do you have to sell to be considered a best-selling author?
The lists started back in 1931 in New York City. People needed something to focus on other than the Great Depression, and reading was a pleasant escape. The newspaper listed the five fiction and five non-fiction books that had sold the most copies that week. More cities were added, and by 1942 the list was nation-wide. How did they chose the books on the list? It was based on both sales records from a group of selected bookstores, and the decision of editors. On time went on, there were so many places to buy books – traditional walk-in bookstores, grocery-stores, super-stores like Walmart, and Amazon. Then e-books and audiobooks became available through i-Tunes, Amazon, and authors’ websites. Is the New York Times getting information from every place about how many copies of a particular book are sold? No.
In fact, with so many places to buy books, you would think that every book on the New York Times bestseller list must have sold at least a million books. Not so. How many books does an author actually have to sell to get on the list? It could be as little as 5,000 copies, according to author Tess Gerritsen.
Other ways of getting on the list include authors buying large numbers of their own book, or just having a friend at the newspaper, according to Tim Grahl.
In addition, if you happen to be a conservative, or hold an unpopular political point of view, you are unlikely to get onto the list, no matter how many of your books were sold.
You can look at the lists if you want, but just keep in mind that they are the recommendations of a very small group of people that are pushing the public toward certain books, and totally ignoring many books that are much better.