A Guide to Book Bestseller Lists

Book Browsing

In the publishing industry, and among the reading public, bestseller lists are the movie equivalent of box office receipts. One major difference, other than the type of media, is that with box office receipts, anyone can pretty much see the numbers, but with bestseller lists, the actual numbers of books sold (and revenues earned) is kept secret. One book at the top of, say, the New York Times bestseller list, may sell a lot more books or earn a lot more or less than some other book at the top of the list for some other week.

Book Browsing

How does a book get on a bestseller list? Slate has an article from 1998 that explains it:

What is a best-seller list? It is a ranking of the relative sales of particular kinds of books at certain groups of stores within a one-week period. Best-seller lists tell us not which books sell the most, in absolute terms, but which fiction, nonfiction, or advice books sell the fastest at the bookstores list makers think deserve attention. A how-to book that sells 20,000 copies in one week will shoot to the top of the best-seller lists, whether or not those are the only copies it ever sells. A novel that sells 200 copies a week for 10 years will never appear on the lists, because each week it will be beaten by faster-selling books.

Slate, “The Book Industry’s Best-Seller Lists
A better name for a bestseller would be fastseller. The Sacramento Bee reports

List-makers wield great power, certainly, but there are forces that can push a title toward the lists early in the game. Enthusiastic reviews are part of that, or a magical combination of buzz and timing (think “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson), or the attention of Hollywood, as in the cases of “Dragon Tattoo” and “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett.

Sacramento Bee, “Best-Seller Lists, How They Work and Who They (Mostly) Work For”

List of Lists: Best Selling Books Lists

  • The New York Times. The grandfather of them all, and the most prestigious among both readers and writers. Every writer wants to be on this list.
  • Publisher’s Weekly. In the publishing industry, this list is as important as the New York Times list because booksellers look to it in ordering books for retail sale. Its lists are well categorized for that reason, too.
  • Nielsen. Neilsen is not a widely known list, but along with the NYT and Publisher’s Weekly, book business insiders, especially publishers, look to their accurate detailing of sales figures in making manuscript purchasing decisions. They do at least give their top ten.
  • Wall Street Journal. With data from 2500 chain bookstores, Amazon, Barnes & Nobles, and Nielsen scans.
  • USA Today. This list is second to the New York Times list among readers, mainly because of its wide national reach and inclusiveness. USA Today’s list mixes fiction, nonfiction, hardcover, trade, and mass market paperbacks on one list and includes 50 books in its print list and 150 books in its online list.
  • IndieBound Independent Bookstore Bestsellers. Indie Bestsellers collect their data from the nation’s independent bookstores.
  • Barnes & Noble’s. This brick and mortar chain also sells eBooks on their Nook tablet, and mantains a list of their own bestselling titles.
  • Amazon.com. Amazon.com, that bozilla of online book ordering,  maintains a list of its top bestsellers.

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