The New York Times Bestseller list. The crown jewel for every author. Even more important than Oprah’s Book Club, which is an author’s dream in its own right. (Well, unless you’re Jonathan Franzen and don’t want to damage your place in the ”the high-art literary tradition.” Only the greatest authors can be so obtuse about their written works, right Jean-Paul Sartre?)
NYT Bestsellers see a huge uptick in sales, both in the immediate and for the foreseeable future. Being able to slap that label of “New York Times Bestselling Author of…” is the gift that keeps on giving.
So how in the world do you get on that list? It’s just the books that have sold the most copies, right? Wrong.
The NYT editors handpick the books that make the list. The number of copies sold is considered as a factor, but is not the final driving force. The New York Times editors are. Here’s how they describe their methodology:
Rankings reflect unit sales reported on a confidential basis by vendors offering a wide range of general interest titles. Every week, thousands of diverse selling locations report their actual sales on hundreds of thousands of individual titles. The panel of reporting retailers is comprehensive and reflects sales in stores of all sizes and demographics across the United States. The sales venues for print books include many hundreds of independent book retailers; national, regional and local chains; scores of online and multimedia entertainment retailers; supermarkets, university, gift and big-box department stores; and newsstands. E-book rankings reflect sales from leading online vendors of e-books in a variety of popular e-reader formats.
It sounds an awful lot like they’re purely looking at sales, right? But in their 10-paragraph methodology description they’ve hidden phrases like “sales are statistically weighted” and “at the discretion of The New York Times Best-Seller List desk editors” and my personal favorite “proprietary vetting and audit protocols.” This, my friends, is what we in the intellectual property business call a trade secret. The Times tracks sales on a national basis, but in essence curates that list according to (if you’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt) proprietary standards and protocols. (If you’re cynical and don’t want to give them the benefit of the doubt, you would probably say they curate the list to fit the whims and fancies of the editors.)
This is how the Times runs into situations where hugely popular self-published author Autumn Kalquist believes they curated her book Fractured Era right off the list. According to Kalquist, “The New York Times ‘curates’ their list, and had snubbed self-published authors in the past. I was told it was possible they’d ‘curate’ me off the list no matter how much I’d sold.”
Kalquist goes on to explain that her book sold 20,000 copies and reached #16 on USA Today’s Bestseller List, but she didn’t find herself on the NYT Bestseller List. This confused and infuriated her, so she did some research of her own. She found that her book had outsold over 50% of the ebooks on the list and nearly 50% of the print books as well. Kalquist said her attempts to get an explanation by the Times were met with vague responses of the proprietary nature of how they go about making their selections.
The veracity of her statements aside, and I have no reason to question her statements and there’s anecdotal evidence from other authors that would support the notion that the NYT does do this to some titles, it’s hard enough for independent authors and small publishing houses to gain traction with readers. While we have help and hire consultants, we ultimately are the writer, editor, designer, publisher, distributor, and marketer. It’s a slog to say the least. We don’t need additional roadblocks put in the way.
Yes there are thousands, even millions, of self-published titles that are poorly written and edited giving a bad name to the entire genre. I understand that. This is the reason most book critics won’t review self-published titles and most literary awards rarely consider independent books. But it’s hard enough to find an audience as a self-published author. We don’t need Amazon offering preferred terms to certain traditionally published authors and the NYT Bestseller List skewing their proprietary “algorithm” against independent titles.
Times have changed NYT. It’s time to recognize your preference for the Big 5 Pulishers is outdated.
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We’re in this for the long haul, my friends.
A little bit of good news. (And I’m probably speaking out of turn here. Whoops.) I’m working with a few independent authors worldwide in an effort to support indie and self-published authors. Details forthcoming. Stay tuned.
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