The New York Times publishes perhaps the most popular bestsellers list of all time, but it is uncommon for readers to question how exactly the books on the list gained that popularity. The New York Times Best-sellers List Staff wrote an article exposing the elusive tactics behind these reports, which includes exhaustively thorough amounts of “data science” (Best-seller Lists Staff). Other sources note that the New York Times Best-sellers List Staff may consider sales from indie bookstores more heavily than a sale from a chain (Grady). After this, the NYT staff writes summaries for each book and posts them to the website. Each bestsellers list compiles similar data, sometimes specialized depending on the author (for example, Indie Bestsellers Lists are compiled by the American Booksellers Association). To become a bestseller, it generally seems that between 5,000 and 10,000 books must be sold within one week (Grady). However, books on bestsellers lists are predictable based on predetermined factors before the book sells, and the authors who gain these accolades have gone through extensive processes to receive them.
Determining a book’s success before it is sold involves precise analytical study and attention to detail. These details include “writing styles, critics [sic], book reviews, awards, advertisements, social network and word of mouth effect, etc.” (Wang et al.). Publishers typically rely on trends in the book industry to determine a book’s success: therefore, a “best-seller” can sometimes be predicted by the publisher before it is released (Wang et al.). According to a study conducted in 2019, though, bookselling predictions are quantifiable enough to make an equation based on certain factors: “author,” “book,” and “publisher” (Wang et al.). “Author” pertains to the visibility of the author or the recognition of their name by the public (Wang et al.). An author who has sold a bestseller before will likely have a following of readers who know their name and critics who are willing to read their work. The category of “book” includes the work’s subject matter, which determines who it appeals to (Wang et al.). Finally, “publisher” “captures prominence of the book’s publisher, potentially capturing its marketing and distribution power” (Wang et al.). Broadly speaking, the developed equation determined that the “publisher quality and experience” are crucial to a book’s success, as the publisher has the most access to advertising resources (Wang et al.).
Becoming a bestseller, then, is more complicated than writing a good book. Publishers and authors must decide which bookstores to sell their books to, how to market them properly (which has become more complicated with the rise of BookTok), and much of that depends on genre (Wang et al.). As well as this, a researcher from a study conducted in 2018 remarks that specifically the New York Times Best-sellers list adheres to a distinct momentum and that “virtually all Times bestsellers are built up from week one” (Nicodemo). While the Times does have a reputation for reporting the most popular books at the time, many of these are written by white men (Nicodemo). This is not the fault of the New York Times, but rather, the industry. However, it does show that race and gender are factors that can determine the success or failure of a book to become a bestseller.
Becoming a bestselling author is a difficult feat for authors without followings and big publishers behind them, but it is not impossible. All it takes is understanding some formulas and the industry itself: then, anyone can land on a bestselling list - even if it is not the New York Times.
Best-seller Lists Staff. “A Lot of Data and a Little Singing: How the Times's Best-Seller List Comes Together.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 Sept. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/09/23/insider/best-seller-list-process.html.
Grady, Constance. “The Convoluted World of Best-Seller Lists, Explained.” Vox, Vox, 13 Sept. 2017, www.vox.com/culture/2017/9/13/16257084/bestseller-lists-explained.
Nicodemo, Allie. “Scientists Decode What Makes a New York Times Bestseller.” News Northeastern Scientists Decode What Makes a New York Times Bestseller Comments, 6 Apr. 2018, news.northeastern.edu/2018/04/06/the-science-of-a-new-york-times-bestseller/.
Wang, Xindi, et al. “Success in Books: Predicting Book Sales before Publication.” EPJ Data Science, Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 17 Oct. 2019, epjdatascience.springeropen.com/articles/10.1140/epjds/s13688-019-0208-6.