Whenever clients tell me they want to make a big bestseller list, like the Wall Street Journal hardcover nonfiction bestseller list, or the New York Times list, I worry about how to respond. I want to strategize and support authors in achieving their biggest and most audacious goals, and yet I’ve watched many many authors hustle hard and fall short.
Part of this is because of the nature of business book sales. Many of our authors who sell thousands of books in the pre-order phase are doing so with bulk orders from conferences and organizations. As a result, these books, which may technically meet the sales numbers to make the list, are ultimately excluded.
Industry insider and publisher at Bard Press, Todd Sattersten, shared his experience with this challenge in his post, Book Launches Are Messy. Though Todd has seen his authors’ books make the list, he has seen others sell the right number of copies but still falls short of the list.
As a book marketing strategist and publicist partnering with business book authors over the last decade (and as a traditionally published author myself), I am well aware of the near impossibility of making either of these lists without a large, established audience, a significant financial investment, and a carefully orchestrated campaign. I’m aware of companies that run campaigns for tens of thousands of dollars to help authors outsmart the algorithms, and I regularly talk with publishers about trends they’re seeing related to bestseller lists.
I’ve interviewed WSJ bestselling authors on my podcast (Laura Gassner Otting and Dorie Clark), and a few former clients have landed on big lists (Whitney Johnson and Marshall Goldsmith).
I also know a lot of authors who have hustled hard, lining up several thousand sales, and not made a big list.
Tim Grahl is among the truth-telling book marketers who has talked candidly about the lists, urging authors to ignore the lists, saying “The only answer to this debacle is to stop worrying about hitting the major bestseller lists.” See his 2013 article.
Earlier in my business journey, around 2013, The Wall Street Journal exposed the surge in authors (the article is gated) working to buy their way onto business bestseller lists in order to achieve credibility for their business offerings and expanded awareness of their work. While the organization named in the article is no longer operating these bestseller campaigns, other organizations now offer similar services, with fees out of reach of most authors I’ve known.
For the most part, I’ve made peace with advising authors to work to sell as many books as possible without hopes of landing a list. The hard work and hustle to get more books into the hands of readers through selling individual copies, selling bulk orders, or giving away books is likely to create results for the author beyond their expectations, even without the prestige of a list.
I have to admit: In recent years, especially seeing friends make the list, I’ve been lulled into the sense that with enough hustle, business book authors, even lesser-known ones, could make a big list. I imagine the benefit I might gain if I could tout our services as contributing to an author’s success in making a big list. I won’t lie, I’ve wanted the prestige of a client making the list, the bragging rights.
I’ve worked with several authors as they’ve put together bulk order campaigns, working with events and organizations to buy 50, 100, or more copies of their books at once. I’ve done this to help authors expand awareness of their work and ideas, increase overall sales, and with a hope that loading up enough sales might give them more visibility through a bestseller list — if not the WSJ, perhaps a lesser-known, niche list.
But, I’m frustrated that virtually no one talks openly and authentically about what it takes to make a list or the impact of bulk orders. I’ve done this work for nearly 11 years and the only thing I’m confident about is that the New York Times is a curated list and they will exclude books with a high percentage of bulk sales. Basically, bulk orders don’t count.
The impression I’ve gotten about the Wall Street Journal list is that it’s friendlier to bulk orders and that an author may be able to make the list with enough sales, even if the sales include bulk orders. I’ve also observed that some publishers work with bulk retailers to somehow work the system so that the bulk orders are counted toward the list.
I understand the rationale behind the seemingly fast-changing rules. When bulk orders count, it’s easier for authors to game the system, buying their own books to buy their way onto the list, which is why bulk orders don’t count toward most lists.
But, selling books, whether individual or bulk, requires a lot of hard work, and I dream of a world where this hard work is rewarded.
I’m ready for the industry to be disrupted so that real bulk sales to real organizations, made by authors who have significant value to offer to the world through their books and are willing to hustle, are rewarded by inclusion on real lists.
I’m frustrated that the only way to win is to spend money on companies that wrangle bulk sales behind the scenes to make them look like individual orders so the authors can make the list.
I’m frustrated that authors who make the list by hiring these companies don’t talk about it authentically.
Essentially, these bestselling authors become gatekeepers of secret knowledge that puts new and emerging authors and authors of limited resources or from marginalized communities at a disadvantage. Lacking full information, or working from misinformation, these industry outsiders begin to believe that hustling is enough.
I’m ready for the playing field to be leveled so that the difference between the authors who do make the list and those who don’t is more than the amount of money they’re willing to spend to get behind-the-scenes support.
I’m ready for some new lists that reward the hustle.
I am the founder/CEO of the Weaving Influence team, the author of Reach: Creating the Biggest Possible Audience for Your Message, Book, or Cause, and the host of the Book Marketing Action Podcast. I’m a wife and mom of three kids, and I enjoy running, reading, writing, coffee, and dark chocolate.
Amen! I’m right there with you, Becky.
I’ve come to look at the various best-seller lists with suspicion, and frankly, as just a single data point in the universe of judging a book’s value. Knowing the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that go on to game the system has certainly diminished my view of the value of the NYT or WSJ.
Is it prestigious to appear on the list? I certainly wouldn’t turn down the honor if my book was recognized, but I don’t lose any sleep over not being on the list. I’ve read plenty of books that have appeared on those lists and haven’t been impressed, and conversely, read plenty of books that will never sniff one of those lists and have been tremendously valuable.
Playing the comparison game or judging your value by what list you appear on, in life or as an author, is a losing proposition every time. We’re playing a different game. Let’s be content with doing good work and adding value to others.