The New York Times bestseller list … doable or not?

by Peggy on May 30, 2017

Woman Reading the New York Times

Can You be a New York Times Bestselling Author?


 It’s not about how many books you sell—it’s about how quickly you sell them. —Peggy DeKay


It started out as the Bookman list in 1895. On April 9, 1942 it officially became the New York Times Review and was published as a Sunday supplement. By the 50s the Times list had garnered recognition and popularity as an important list for book professionals and industry publications like Publisher’s Weekly.

The list is based on weekly reports of sales figures from chain bookstores, wholesalers, and indie bookstores in the US. The books with the best chance of making the list are those that sell the most books in any given week.

It is not necessarily a measure of best sales over time, and sometimes not even a good measure of best sales for the week. Why? It is possible to manipulate the numbers by buying copies of your own book. Over the years, many of these “self-buyers” were rewarded with a spot on the list. To alleviate the problem of “bulk orders” and their corresponding inflation of the actual sales numbers, these orders may be “flagged” by the bookstore with a dagger. This hasn’t and doesn’t always work.

No one knows the exact process for “making the list.” Much like Amazon’s algorithm for ranking and marketing books, the New York Times list’s algorithm is a classified trade secret. As Book Review staff editor Gregory Cowles explained, “the method is a secret both to protect our product and to make sure people can’t try to rig the system.”

The lists are divided among fiction and non-fiction, print and e-book, paperback and hardcover; each list contains 15 to 20 titles. Over time, the list was segmented with the introduction of a children’s list, advice, and how-to. In 2007, the fiction list was split into “trade” and “mass-market.” In November 2010, The New York Times began tracking best-selling e-books.

Manipulating the List

While hitting the New York Times is still a feather in anyone’s literary cap, the list may not be a good indicator of long-term sales. Books on the list are books that sell at least 8,000 to 11,000 copies in one week. (No one knows the exact number and it can vary depending on the competition that week.) By contrast, you can hit the Wall Street Journal list by selling around 3,000 copies in one week. For many indie authors and traditional authors alike, this is a more realistic goal.

Over the years, there have been a few examples of authors and publishers manipulating the list. There are even marketing firms that specialize in “manipulating” the list by buying bulk copies and pre-selling books they represent. You can read about the experience of one business book author here:


  • Fast sales take precedence over long-term healthy sales
  • Wholesale numbers reported don’t reflect returns which can run as high as 40% in the industry
  • Specialty marketing firms can inflate sales numbers by purchasing thousands of copies
  • Sales numbers reported by some bookstores cannot be easily verified

In 1983, author William Peter Blatty sued The New York Times for $6 million. He claimed that his book, Legion (The Exorcist III movie was based on this book) was either intentionally left off the list or was missed due to negligence. He took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear it.

Bottom Line for Us Regular Authors

Hitting the New York Times Best Seller list is still a dream worth chasing. Every week honest hardworking and deserving authors do make the list, many of them “self-published” authors. In any worthwhile endeavor there will be scoffers and cheaters who want to “game the system.” But for most of us, the NYTBS list remains a far-off, but achievable dream. The great thing about making that list is that even if you never write another book you will be forever and always … a “New York Times best-selling author.”

The Best Way to Market Your Book to Hit the List:

  • Concentrate on pre-publication sales
  • Work with groups as well as individuals
  • Have a marketing plan in place
  • Hire a PR firm if necessary to handle the first 30 days
  • Target your social media work to focus on the week your book is released
  • Never forget that to make the New York Times Bestseller list, it’s not how many books you sell in a month or two or in six months … it’s about how many books you sell in a specific, targeted week!

If you would like to read further, here are some articles you might find interesting:

2013, Wall Street Journal, “The Mystery of the Book Sales Spike

2013, Forbes“Here’s How You Buy Your Way Onto The New York Times Bestsellers List.” In 2014, the Los Angeles Times, “Can bestseller lists be bought?”

I would love to hear your thoughts.


Peggy DeKay,  Speaker, Author, Book Coach

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