The Ins and Outs of Hitting Book Bestseller Lists!

Sell a lot of books in a single week. That’s the very short answer to the question, “how do you hit the USA Today bestseller list?”, but it’s a bit more complicated than that, and sometimes people who have sold a lot of books don’t see the title on the USA Today or New York Times list the following week and wonder, hey, what’s up?

So here are five fast facts about these two bestseller lists.

  1. They don’t have the same reporting week. USA Today collects bookseller data from Monday to Sunday, and New York Times collects it Sunday to Saturday.
  2. Most pre-orders for a new release drop at midnight(ish) on a retailer’s system, and for reasons that are not entirely clear, they’re reported as sales for the previous day. (This is probably not true for pre-orders that take some time to be fulfilled, like if there’s a credit card delay. In my anecdotal experience, Apple pre-orders tend to be reported in two batches, most attributed to the day before release, but some being counted in release day’s sales.) This means that if you release on a Monday, pre-orders are reported as Sunday sales, thus counting in the previous week’s reporting period for USA Today. This aligns well with publishing’s traditional Tuesday release schedule, but means that any other release day can split “release week” sales across two reporting periods.
  3. The data is reported and tabulated manually, and human error can mean books get left off the list. Neither newspaper will acknowledge this, but they do correct other manual errors in compiling the list (such as author name or book title error).
  4. The lists are announced each Wednesday, for the previous week. USA Today updates in the late afternoon on their public facing website. New York Times distributes a .pdf list to publishing insiders. Only parts of each list are included in print editions of the papers.
  5. The number of books it takes varies week to week and cannot be precisely planned for, but for most genre fiction authors, plan on 7000 units between Monday and Sunday to hit the bottom of the USA Today list, and 25000 units between Sunday and Saturday to hit the combined ebook and paperback New York Times list. (The New York Times bestseller list is actually a number of lists, but most genre fiction authors can only hit that single combined list. Other lists include children’s fiction, non-fiction, hardcover, etc.)