The Business Rusch: Bestseller Lists and Other Thoughts

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The Business Rusch: Bestseller Lists and Other Thoughts

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

On Tuesday, in my morning business reading, I came across a rather startling statistic: the claim that it only took 20,000 sales of paper books to hit the paper bestseller lists. I’m also assuming the statistic means paper; it might mean that it takes 20K to hit any bestseller list, which is still shockingly low, if you think about it.

Now, I have no way to verify this statistic. It comes from a deliberately anonymous source in the middle of a PandoDaily article on the future of publishing. However, reading the entire post makes me think that Anonymous here truly is in publishing and truly does know of what he/she speaks.

It also confirms a sense I’ve been having for a while, but have only a handful of statistics for.  My sense is this: because the book market has expanded so greatly, it takes fewer copies of one book to hit a bestseller list—any bestseller list.

Let’s talk mass market paperback first. When I sold my first novel into science fiction and fantasy, the novel shipped at 30,000 mass market copies—decent for a first novel in a genre that was considered the lowest of the low, but nowhere near what the bestsellers in the sf/f genre were selling. (Not the bestsellers period, but the names you’d recognize from the time—the folks at the top of the  sf/f list.)

I don’t know what their hardcover numbers were, but their mass market numbers (from now on, I’m going to call mass market by its industry acronym: mmpb) were anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 shipped. In sf/f, the lowest selling genre (at the time) besides Western.

When my first romance novel under the pen name Kristine Grayson came out in 2000, the publisher shipped 35,000 mmpb copies, which was a middling to low shipment of a romance novel at the time. Romance novels from standard midlisters—not the top of the line books—shipped at 50,000 or higher.

So when I saw mmpb books hitting the New York Times mass market list or the Publishers Weekly mass market list—and I knew for a fact those books have a print run of 20,000, I got nervous. I questioned my own knowledge of the books. I figured that particular book was a successful outlier and shrugged it off—until I saw Anonymous’s number.

Now let me say for the record that not all books that sell 20,000 copies will make a bestseller list, nor will all books that sell 50,000 copies.  It depends on the day and the time of year. It depends on the competition for that list. And it depends on who is reporting.

Hitting a bestseller list has more to do with velocity than it does total sales. Velocity is the number of books sold within a short period of time, which for paper books, is one week. (Amazon measures by the hour.) So if you sell 20,000 copies in one week and never sell another copy, you might make a bestseller list. But if you sell 20,000 copies slowly—1,000 copies every week for 20 weeks—you won’t make a list at all, even if the book continues to sell at that rate for the next twenty weeks. In other words, the second book will outsell the first by a factor of 2, but the first book’s author will be able to “bestseller” on the cover of her next book and you won’t.

Got that? Because it’s important to this discussion.

In about a month, Publishers Weekly will print its report of the bestselling titles of 2011, and it should include numbers. We’ll see how those numbers compare to, say, 2008 or some other year. Because I’m expecting the numbers in all formats except e-book to be down.

The numbers in mass market paperback will be dramatically down, because mmpb have lost most of their slots. (A slot is the place where a retailer put a book.) Borders is gone and Barnes & Noble has cut back shelf space. (I have no idea if the rush back into books at the end of the year has continued at B&N or abated.) The loss of independent bookstores is less important here because most indies didn’t carry a lot of mmpbs.

But Safeway, Albertsons, and other grocery stories did. As did WalMart, and other box retailers, truck stops, convenience stores, and airport bookstores. Most of those places have either cut back on mmpb dramatically or stopped carrying them altogether.

Some of this is price point. Traditional publishers realized a few years ago that mmpbs were becoming very costly. So publishers bumped up the price of a mmpb to nearly $10. With trade papers hovering around $15, it made more sense to publish more books in trade, which had a higher profit margin for the company. (Trade royalties are often lower, a remnant of the “odd” format thinking of the late 1990s. Plus many trades are sold non-returnable.)

With publishers moving a lot of the bestsellers to trade (when they normally would be mmpb), the retailers realized they needed trade shelves to accommodate the trade bestsellers. And book sales went down. Mass market readers want a cheap book, not a $15 book, so they either went to the library, or trolled the used bookstore for the same book. When retailers like Safeway looked at the book sections of the store, they saw a significant decline in overall revenue in the past few years. So the retailers did what any good retailer does—they reduced the size of the section commensurate with the interest in that section. No sense wasting space on something that doesn’t sell as well as it used to.

A book that would have shipped at 30,000 copies twelve years ago now ships for 5,000 copies today. Not because there’s less interest in that type of book, but because there are fewer places to buy the book. You can’t sell a book that isn’t on a rack, virtual or real. If the book isn’t on a real rack, then you miss the impulse buyers, the folks who stopped in for eggs and leave with a copy of the latest mmpb thriller by some writer they’ve never heard of, which they picked up because of its nifty cover.

If there are fewer books available, then it takes fewer copies to hit that magic velocity number which puts your book in the top ten or top fifteen sellers for the week. Books hit bestseller lists in comparison to other books published around the same time. So if mmpbs sell ¼ of what they sold ten years ago, then it will take ¼ of the copies than it took ten years ago to hit a bestseller list.

What does all this mean? Well, that’s the question, isn’t it. Bestseller lists have proliferated in the past two decades. When my first novel was published, there were four bestseller lists—hardcover fiction, hardcover nonfiction, paperback fiction and paperback nonfiction. Only a handful of places even published bestseller lists—The New York Times, of course, and Publisher’s Weekly (whose list, according to Michael Korda, is older than the Times’ list). The Wall Street Journal had a hardcover list, and USA Today’s list started around that point, combining every title into one—then considered a revolutionary concept, when really, it was an old-fashioned concept, the way things used to be.

Now, most (surviving) newspapers have bestseller lists. There are paid bestseller lists in chain bookstores. (I, as a publisher, can buy the number one slot for my favorite book for a certain amount of money. That puts my favorite book in the point-of-purchase part of the store; it’s advertising.) Amazon has bestseller lists galore, and so does B&N online.

A new list came into being a decade ago, courtesy of J.K. Rowling. The New York Times got irritated that the top slots on the hardcover, trade, and mass market bestseller lists were filled with that fantasy children’s junk, so they spun off the new “children’s” list, to take that nasty series out of their prestigious hardcover list to make room for “real” novels.

The Times tinkers all the time (pun intended) with the list. It added a trade bestseller list in 2007 to split trades out from other paperback books (those nasty mass market books that the Times didn’t want to review), and then the Times added an e-book bestseller list last year.

Amazon does the same thing. It delineates its list by genre, subgenre, and sub-subgenre. You can be an e-book bestseller for fiction or for romance fiction or for romance/contemporary fiction or for romance/contemporary/paranormal or for romance/contemporary/nosex/noswearwords/nokissing/catsanddogslivingtogether or whatever other combination the algorithm comes up with this week.

All of this makes for more and more bestselling book titles, and at the same time, it dilutes the value of having “bestseller” by your name. Not that the bestseller lists were ever a totally honest reflection of the state of sales within the book publishing world. The New York Times only uses “select” bookstores and keeps the names of those stores secret, with some “weighted” heavier than others, and they have done so from the beginning.

It was quite shocking, then, when USA Today started publishing their list based on raw sales data. When that happened, it became clear that the Times list didn’t reflect any sales reality.

But lists could always be goosed. Exorcist author William Peter Blatty sued the Times over inaccuracies in the list back in 1983. Authors tried to manipulate the list all the time by finding out what those Times stores were and buying 1,000 copies of their own books from each. Sometimes it actually worked.

Authors are doing the same thing now with the Kindle lists, trying to get their books up the list with a combination of free promotions and convincing their readers/fans to buy books at a certain time. For the sake of both Amazon’s list and the USA Today list, it’s better to have fans of a series preorder the next book so that the book ships on publication day, than it is to have them buy the book one week or five weeks after publication. The preorders goose the lists.

At a certain point, all of this list goosing and bestseller discussion becomes moot. It’s like grade inflation in school. If no one gets lower than a C, what’s an A worth? If everyone can be a bestseller, even if it’s just in one bookstore in the sub-sub-sub-subgenre list: romance/contemporary/nosex/noswearwords/nokissing/catsanddogslivingtogether, then what does the phrase “bestselling book” mean?

This is a question that Billboard is dealing with right now. For those of you who are musically challenged, the Billboard charts have been around since 1936. Back then, of course, there were fewer charts (country and my hit parade, I believe), and the charts were compiled by hand by member radio stations (who often got payola from record studios, and who would remove bestselling titles from their lists when the studios stopped paying). Anyway, the Billboard charts, like the bestseller list, only had a few subcategories way back when. I’m not even sure if the country charts differed from the pop charts back at the beginning.

Why am I telling you this? Remember that the music industry is ahead of the book industry on this change to digital. And the struggles the music industry has will come up in the struggles the print industry has.

So what’s happening with Billboard these days is this: Billboard is tweaking its list again because of—wait for it—free downloads and 99-cent album promotions. Billboard decided—as of last week—that any album sold for less than $3.49 does not count as an album sale. (The price point is not a random number; it’s about  half of a retail price of most albums.)

By that standard, Lady Gaga’s chart topper Born This Way did not sell 1.1 million copies after its release last June. It only sold 660,000 copies. That would have meant that she did not have a million-copy debut. It would have meant that no album had a million-copy debut in 2011.

This policy will only be in place in the first month of the album’s release. After that, the 99-cent sale will count.

What’s Billboard trying to do? Prevent a lower-priced (and, by implication, less worthy) album from goosing the list. In an editorial, Executive Editor Bill Werde, wrote “Billboard doesn’t want to control the marketplace. We just want to count it. But free or almost-free albums don’t represent a marketplace.”

(Note: I found this link in the LA Times. I was unable to find to find the original editorial on Billboard’s rather chaotic website without more digging than I was willing to do.)

He then adds that it’s probably “smart business” to get music to as many people as possible to “hook them on your songs,” which makes “the music a marketing tool. That’s fine, but let’s not call that an album sale.”

While Lady Gaga’s manager is angry about the shift, Jeremy DeVine of Temporary Residence Limited, a company that handles indie rock groups, said, “The sales are great for consumers and the artists, but from a chart perspective it treats a $10 album and a $1 album with equal legitimacy, which is dubious. You end up with albums by Animal Collective and Explosions in the Sky rubbing elbows with Katy Perry and Kanye West, if only for a couple of weeks before it swiftly slides off the charts. These kinds of quick sales paints unrealistic pictures of success for everyone involved.”

Or to put it Werde’s way, he has to make sure he’s “creating strong, credible charts.”

The Times has used similar arguments. When it decided to add the children’s list (just before the release of a Harry Potter book), Times editor Charles McGrath said, “We are also making room on the adult list for adult titles—not that what has replaced the Potter is exactly illustrious.”

What replaced the Potter title were romances by Danielle Steele and Catherine Coulter, which the Times clearly didn’t like either. Nor did the Times like it last year when it was forced to add Amanda Hocking’s indie-published titles to its new e-book bestseller list.

To the people who produce the lists, it’s all about the lists’s integrity. And I do understand that. Everyone who is managing a bestseller list right now—be it in publishing or the music industry or even in television—is about my age, fifty or so. We can all remember growing up with the book to read, the album at the top of the charts, the number one television show.  If you had the #1 television show, millions and millions of people watched. If you had the #1 album, you sold millions and millions of copies, not just 1.1 million or 660,000, depending on how you wanted to count it. If you had the #1 novel—well, first of all, it was hardcover, and secondly, it sold millions of copies too.  It was on every coffee table of every literate household in the nation, whether that household read the book or not.

We forty- and fifty-somethings remember when lists could have that kind of influence. We remember buying books because they were #1 on the Times, not because they were to our tastes.

The days of that kind of influence are gone.

Sure, some books will sell at astronomical numbers. This year, it’s George R.R. Martin (and personally, I love that, both as a fantasy fiction fan and someone who has known George for years). Last year, it was Stieg Larsson. Before that, it was J.K. Rowling, or maybe it was Dan Brown. I lose track.

But for the most part, the number of copies a bestselling title—and by that I mean a title that’s in the top ten of the Times list or the top 25 of the USA Today list—are way way down. You can see that reflected in the advances. Many, many bestsellers are being asked to take half or less when they sign a contract for a new book.

That’s what made me think Anonymous from PandoDaily is for real. In the middle of Anonymous’s anti-Amazon rant (which is what his (her?) post is really about) is this: “But in recent years, as book sales have declined, the advances for the biggest books have gone down proportionally, too. What used to be a $1 million book is now a $400,000 book. Publishers are thinking ‘OK, we’ll move less copies, but we’ll pay less for them so we’ll survive.’”

And that is how publishers are thinking. They’re running scared. Anonymous’s entire rant against Amazon is one big fearful shout into the darkness. Toward the end of his rant, he actually acknowledges something important. He writes that Amazon is trying to be “the only place where you buy books, but [also] the only place that publishes books too….Funny thing is that it’s actually better for authors.”

It’s actually better for authors to get rid of traditional publishing. He’s not alone in saying that.  A quite shocking article (to me) by Faber chief executive Stephen Page appeared in The Guardian last week.  (Read this essay. It’s a bit of sanity from traditional publishing, at a time when most traditional publishing execs aren’t sane.)

Page wrote, “In my view, while 2011 may have signaled the beginning of the end of the era of publishers-with-access-to-the-mass-market as the dominant model for book publishing, it did not signal an end to the opportunity presented by writing or publishing more generally.”

However, he says, in order to survive, traditional publishers have to start bringing value to the writer and to the consumer (the reader), rather than to “the book trade.”  And that’s at the heart of all this fear.

Traditional publishers and the auxiliary businesses that have formed around them, from agents to bestseller lists, have focused on the book trade—focused on selling to bookstores and to wholesalers. Now the consumer can go directly to the author if either wants and cut out “the book trade” altogether. (I can sell books off my blog, if I want to, bypassing everyone from a publisher to Amazon.)

This change is unbelievably huge, and it makes us all leery, especially those of us who’ve been around for a long time. We’re searching in the dark for a handhold because we’ve never ever looked at a world without “the book trade.” We don’t know how to proceed.

That’s what’s behind the bifurcation of the bestseller lists. The lists are there to give legitimacy to certain titles among “the book trade,” but it’s getting harder and harder to do that. Billboard is acknowledging that when it tries to distinguish between an album bought for ten dollars and an album bought for a dollar (which has to be marketing, ignoring all of us who would have bought the album for $10 and were happy to discover it was $9 cheaper than we expected).

Some old systems don’t really work any more. Is it legitimate to call someone who was #1 on Amazon’s Kindle Free list for one hour a bestseller? I don’t know. And I write that as someone who was in the top ten of the Kindle free list for days last October. I’ve also had books on the Times extended list in the 1990s—before anyone thought to count the five below the top ten as important. I’ve had bestsellers in paper all over the world, and here in the States. But I’ve never had a #1 New York Times, and of course, like any writer, I would love one.

But, with the very important exceptions of the writers who are on the Times top ten for weeks and weeks, the folks who slid onto the list and then off aren’t making as much money as they used to. If Anonymous is right (and I think he is based on those royalty statements I saw from other bestsellers), then 20,000 copies does a bestseller make (in the right week, with the right competition). That means that the author is making significantly less than he would have as a bestseller fifteen years ago.

Of course, he wouldn’t have been a bestseller fifteen years ago. Or would he? Would that same book have sold 80,000 mass market copies in the first week of release back then?

The book certainly had a greater chance of doing so. There were thousands if not hundreds of thousands more slots to stick those mass market books into back then.

And even if the book didn’t hit the lists at 80,000 sales, the author would have made a lot more money on that mass market than he’ll make today.

So, here’s the rub, the real question that I found myself asking this morning after I read Anonymous’s rant.

If a writer is going into traditional publishing to have a shot at the New York Times bestseller list, is that shot worth the loss of income? Is it worth the risk of going out of print (paper) in a year or so with no ability to get those rights back because of a perpetual ebook publication?

If the bestseller list means millions of copies and millions of dollars, then the risk might be worthwhile. But if books are getting on respected lists like the Times with only 20,000 copies sold, then that changes the equation, in my opinion.

Because that same writer could sell 20,000 ebooks 500 copies at a time over 3.3 years (40 months), and continue to earn without hitting a list at all. And make more money—70% of the cover price instead of 8% of cover for the mass market edition.

Is that 20K number unrealistic? No. Look at this screen capture that Joe Konrath posted on his blog. Ignore that 11,000 sales of one title that he managed in one month and look at the sales of the other titles. There are writers and titles selling much better than his on a monthly basis. These numbers aren’t because Konrath is “famous” (see his argument about this). These numbers came about because people found the books and are reading them. These numbers are because the books are available.

Some would argue that bestseller lists on Amazon and in other  places have advertising value, and I would agree with that. Readers do look at the lists when they’re not certain what to buy.

But again, is that minimal and momentary advertising value worth the longterm loss of income and the longterm loss of use of the copyright? I don’t think so. There are other ways to bring your book to the attention of readers. (See my piece on promotion for that.)

This tradeoff, this loss of revenue, in order to become a bestseller might be a purchase of something with historical value, not current value.

Most of us—beginning and established writers, traditional publishers, agents, booksellers—are working off old models, the models we grew up with, and we’re not questioning if those models still have value.

Once upon a time, you had to sell hundreds of thousands of copies to hit a bestseller list. Now you don’t. So, in my opinion, the bestseller list has less value than it had ten years ago.

We’re operating in an old paradigm.  And it makes me sad, honestly. Because old goals die hard. I’ll still be ecstatic if something of mine hits the Times list. I’m going to be thrilled if something of mine is #1 on the Kindle paid e-book list.

But I’m not going to trade long-term revenue to achieve those goals.  When a traditional publisher tells me, like one did today, that he can get me on a bestseller list and that’s one reason to sell a book to his company, I will agree with him. He might be right. But he might only be selling 20,000 copies of my book to get me on that list.

And that’s very different from the way it was when I came into the business.

We all have to remember that as we choose how to publish our books. What was important when we started might not be important now—no matter how much we want it to be.

Fifteen years ago, if you told me I would blog every week, I would have laughed at you. If you told me I would do so with a donate-button on my site, asking readers to finance the essay, I would have rolled my eyes. Things have changed dramatically. I’ve been doing this blog in one form or another for nearly three years now, and you readers have funded it. I said then, like I’m saying now, I’ll continue doing this as long as you continue to support it.

Thanks for the support, the discussion, the links, and the funding. I appreciate it.

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“The Business Rusch: Bestseller Lists and Other Thoughts” copyright 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.






45 thoughts on “The Business Rusch: Bestseller Lists and Other Thoughts

  1. I certainly like the idea of a slow but steady seller being a substantial earner over a period of years. It’s like the ads warning about the wasted water from slowly dripping faucets. Leave a bucket under there for a while and you’ll be surprised how much has accumulated.

    It’s raining nickels and dimes, and you can make a real living if you use a lot of buckets. A bunch of slow but steady sellers can compare nicely to a string of short-lived best sellers.

  2. “It was quite shocking, then, when USA Today started publishing their list based on raw sales data. When that happened, it became clear that the Times list didn’t reflect any sales reality.”

    But, Kris, hadn’t Jean Shepherd already demonstrated that in the early ’50s with his “I, Libertine” hoax?

    If you’re not familiar with it, there’s a good summary at or, if you have twenty minutes to kill, there’s a recording of Shepherd telling the story in hilarious detail himself (from an early ’60s appearance on the Long John Nebel show) available on YouTube, in two parts: and

    1. Oh, yeah, Michael, he did. But you have to remember that most folks in publishing are in their thirties, and weren’t even born when Shepherd did that. That’s another problem with this industry. It pays so poorly at the lower levels (in trad publishing companies) that institutional memory doesn’t exist. No one will say–um, sales forces should sell to accounts other than bookstores: we make more money that way–because no one can remember a time when they actually did that. [sigh]

  3. As always, I learn almost as much from the comments as the post itself. One thought I am wondering, outside of advertising value and the brownie points of having a book on the *bestseller’s* list, which some would say is very important, what is the value to the author of having a book listed on these lists? Is it really worth worrying about? Or is it ALL about the advertising?

    Or perhaps I already answered my own question? 😛

    Thanks for the post, and fellow commentors, thanks for your thoughts.

    1. Necia, the bestseller lists have always been about advertising, even 100 years ago, when they started. It’s yet another way to get the word out about a book. Plus it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy–kind of a sideways word of mouth. Wow, the reader thinks. Everyone is reading that book. I wonder what it is. And then they check it out. With the proliferation of the lists, there’s a much smaller halo effect and you have to ask the very question you’re asking–particularly if you’re going into traditional publishing or making other financial sacrifices just to hit a bestseller list, which was my point all along.

  4. I have been reluctant to say many of these same things out loud.

    My recently published, first book, hit the top 100 Kindle list for it’s genre in the first two days it was out and has hovered in and out of that list for the last three weeks. I thought it was a big deal until I looked at the actual sales numbers that got it into that spot. I won’t share the actual numbers, but I will say I was pretty shocked at just how very few sales it took to get to that list.

    I taught statistics for years in university and I tole my students over and over again, you have to really UNDERSTAND what the numbers mean. That is as true here as it was in the research setting.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Marie. But let me say–Congrats about the success of the new book. Not every new book published does that well. So kudos. Yes, the numbers are smaller than we expect, but it still means you’re doing well. (And remember that Amazon is just one market, so if your book is doing well there, chances are it’s doing well elsewhere.) Thanks too for your point on statistics. I think that’s the hardest thing for writers to grasp, that all the books on these lists are in comparison to other books in the store. So if only five people are buying this week and four of them buy the same book, it’s on the bestseller list. That’s true now and was true in 1990.

  5. Hmmm. I saw that Pandodaily post too. The numbers meant nothing to me, but the other comments did.

    1) Amazon could be even more dangerous to writers than the current publishers. Companies talk a lot about Capitalism. What they mean by Capitalism isn’t what you and I mean though. They mean a market where they don’t have to compete, but where the consumer is forced to deal with them. For an example see Microsoft, the convicted Monopolist.

    2) I think that the publishers are probably in worse shape financially than it appears from the outside. I read SEC filings for fun, and what I have read makes none of them look particularly stable, unlike Apple which is sitting on a huge war chest. Yes, these are big companies, but so was GM which entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection a few years ago, or Kodak, which was once an industry giant, and is now nearly dead in the water.

    3) Putting all of your eggs in one basket isn’t safe. Yes, Kindle Select looks and sounds cool, but what happens if Amazon goes poof? This is not a silly question. The company operates on wafer thin margins (link takes you to their most recent quarterly report to the SEC). They have a fair bit of cash on hand (2.8 Billion US Dollars). Problem is that when you consider their size, that wouldn’t last long if they had an emergency. I was dealing with General Motors when the Chapter 11 thing went down, and while it may have shocked the general population, everyone in the industry knew it was coming five years before it happened. What I’m trying to say it you need to keep your options open, Amazon may or may not survive, we don’t know.

    4) What Kris said above about selling off your website, it is actually really easy if you run the Word Press blog software. There are plugins available which allow you to sell downloads. Instead of selling a book through Amazon for $5.00 and having them keep whatever they want for taxes, etc. on top of the 30% (and for those who haven’t read the Amazon contract yet, yes, they can do this, even if you live outside of the United States), instead you can get the full $5.00! Why do you think that Baen books no longer sells ebooks through Amazon, but only on their site, for the low, low price of $6.00? Baen makes more money, the reader is happier, and Amazon can go fly a kite. I suspect that a lot of smaller publishers with strong operations (and Baen has a strong operation with a lot of fan loyalty) will cut Amazon out of the loop. Baen’s software looks custom (I used to be a programmer at one point in my long and checkered career) but it works well, I’ve bought ebooks from them.

    Thank you once again Kris. I know what you are saying about the good old days, I’m fifty-five.



    1. Wayne, thanks for the reminder that companies which look secure on the outside might not be on the inside. I’ve had those experiences as well, and it’s always shocking. You’re exactly right about the eggs in one basket thing. As a writer, I’ve always tried to avoid that. From making sure I had more than one publisher to making sure I worked in more than one genre. (I’ve seen genres die, from Westerns to Gothics to Horror [which is back now] and on and on). So as business people, we should always have an eye on our bottom line and realize that nothing is permanent in this world.

  6. Please do remember, everyone, that Amazon is but one market.

    Well, yes, in the same way that the U.S. is but one market, Windows is but one OS, and the iPad is just one tablet. Seling your product only in the U.S., writing software that only on Windows, or selling a tablet app only on the iPad isn’t always the best idea, but dismissing it out of hand can only be justified on an ideological basis. Authors really need to think clearly about the advantages and disadvantages of something like KDP Select. I suspect the real value is not so much in getting on the various Amazon best-seller lists but how it impacts the recommendation system. Just as restaurants have discovered that it is better to be located close to each other, authors will learn that in the Amazon system, the better the authors like you do, the better you will do.

  7. The problem is that the legacy publishers only had that one NYTBS metric to market a book with. And Readers only had that one metric to use: if they didn’t have reader reviews or friends to rely upon. What if there was another metric than “if everyone bought this book “NYTBS” then it must be ok so I’ll buy it even though I don’t know the author or the genre.” Amazon’s system allows a potential reader to look at the 5-star fans and the 1-star haters and balance both sides in their evaluation – completely ignoring the NYTBS gook.

  8. “Is it legitimate to call someone who was #1 on Amazon’s Kindle Free list for one hour a bestseller? I don’t know.”

    Well, since I hit the top 100 and got to #2 in a couple genre’s, I am going to say, “YES!”

    But I do not really know. 8,000 downloads in two days got me there. That was an amazing bump, but nowhere near the number I would have guessed as a requirement to climb that high. I think you are spot on in your analysis and that sales will generally be more “spread out” among more titles as we go into the future. That is bad news for the well known stars, but wonderful for the rest of us.

    We would have been totally shut out before this revolution. The stars, the big names, would have sold more of each title and made more money in times past. Still, I suspect the big stars will still do fine.

    This also seems logical as the conventional wisdom these days (if there is such a thing) is that the number of titles an author has out for sale has a large impact on their income. Having several books selling small quantities is a safer bet than having one title selling many.

    For most of us, this is a wonderful time.


    1. Thanks, Splitter. I think you’re right. This is a wonderful time. I think what’s happening in books now has already happened to television. When Hawaii Five-O premiered in 1968, it had a 30 share, which meant 30% of the audience that given night. Considering that 95% of the US population had televisions at the time, and there were only 3 channels, well…that’s a lot of people. (I couldn’t find exact numbers tonight; didn’t want to take the time.) Recently, the modern H50 reached an “all time high” of 19 million viewers, and I know that’s significantly lower than 30-share of all the possible viewers out there. Yet the modern H50 is a hit by all modern measures. (No one talks in “shares” any more because it’s too dismal to contemplate. There’s waaaaaay more than 57 channels, and there’s always something on.)

      Yet, everyone agrees: we’re in the new Golden Age of television now. Shows are better than ever, more entertaining than ever, and you can watch what you want when you want. I think books are going in the same direction, and it’s cool. But the #1 book will have a much lower number of readers than the #1 book from 1968, just because there were fewer choices then. Just like TV. (And music, etc) It’s really an embarrassment of riches for readers, and for writers, well, those of us who control our own rights will do very well, thank you. 🙂

  9. Funny thing is that it’s actually better for authors.

    Imagine that…something better for authors. 😉 Coming from someone who is probably in the industry (as you said, Kris), I find that an amazing statement.

    1. Yeah, me too, Nancy. It’s slowly becoming clear that traditional publishing is catching a clue–after the horses have left the barn, of course. (She writes, mixing metaphors.)

  10. Sorry to mention Amazon lists again, Kris, but I can confirm that borrows do reflect on the rankings. And it sure as heck increases novel visibility and discoverability. Lots of us are pleased.

    I think that your comment about what was once important may not always be applies to at least considering using a tool such as Select. We have to be open to using something that is counter-intuitive or not what we *thought* would work.

    1. Please do remember, everyone, that Amazon is but one market. Select closes you out of all other markets, so you are reducing your “discoverability” (Jeez, I’m already hating that term–is it from the Kindle Boards?) in all other markets and possibly pissing off readers who own devices other than Kindle. So Select is a double-edged sword. Like all weapons, it should be used by someone who understands it, and realizes not only what they’re gaining, but what they are giving up.

  11. David — If you check your fine print on the Kindle Select program, you’ll see that loans do indeed count for ranking purposes as equivalent to a sale. So lots of authors who are trying out KS are raving about it — because they’re getting discoverability advertising they never had before.

    Kris — you need to work on your search engine skills, girl! The billboard quote you were looking for? I searched for “Billboard” and “don’t represent a marketplace” in google, and link was about third or fourth one down. NEVER use a site with a bad search engine, let google crawl through the bad design for you 🙂 Here’s the link:

    Poly the Gadfly

    1. Oh, Poly, d’oh! (forehead slap) Of course. But I’m glad you agree that Billboard‘s site is a mess. In my research that night, others complained about how they couldn’t find the historical lists. I didn’t even try. 🙂 And thanks for the clarification on Kindle Select. That explains why so many authors are pleased.

  12. Kris, you’re right – this is big news. I mean, in 2009 SL Viehl did a post ( about how crazy it was that her book with a ship of 65k copies hit the NYT list, since common wisdom held that it had to be 100-150k.

    NOW it only takes a 20k ship (with good velocity) – that’s eyeblinking. That’s the sign of a print-book industry in hugely rapid decline. No wonder advances are falling.

    How long (if ever) until one of the huge names jumps to self-pubbing — or, more likely, an Amazon imprint?

    Thanks for, once again, shining a bright light on the decline and myths of trad publishing. Even though it makes me a little sad…

    1. It makes me a lotta sad, Anthea. But I got some books today from some of my fav writers and I looked at the promo on the cover. I thought one was a #1 Times writer; she’s not. She’s “just” a New York Times bestselling writer. Same with another writer whom I would have told you was #1. And another writer, whom I thought was a bestseller, apparently just hit the USA Today list with her most recent book. So I had a lot of misperceptions. I wasn’t paying attention. Which makes me wonder how long it’s been since I paid attention to “bestselling writer” as a reader. I buy and read a mountain of books and I generally don’t care if they’re indie published, first timers, long time writers or bestsellers. I want a good story. And I don’t see bestselling as a line into good storytelling anymore (if I ever did). Didn’t realize it until today, however.

      And yeah, I thought about linking to SL Viehl’s post, and decided that it was too old (!) for this piece. Isn’t that scary? 🙂 It was the beginning of the downward trend in numbers, because sales slots were disappearing.

  13. Very thought provoking post, Kris. One question — do you know how preorders factor into the amazon bestseller lists? I used to think that they count when they release, but books available for preorder have sales rankings, and sometimes even hit betseller lists before they release (Go the F** to sleep, for example)

    1. The sales count as sales that week in the traditional lists (the Time, etc). Because you can preorder a book and not pay for it, and cancel the order at any time. Even Amazon doesn’t charge you for the book until the book ships. So the sale doesn’t count until the book actually gets paid for and ships. As for Amazon rankings, who the hell knows? No one has yet figured out that algorithm precisely. We’re all guessing.

  14. As far as the value of Amazon lists — there’s certainly benefit in hitting the genre and subgenre lists there. I think the “I’ll have what she’s having” effect keeps the sales moving, as well as the increased visibility. One of my short stories has spent 2 months now on the Amazon Top 100 Regency Romance list. That’s worth something, I think, and I’ve started to add that to the title’s description as a way to tell readers that the story has gained some – hm, not legitimacy, but at least some kind of credibility. For some readers, that will carry weight. Others could probably care less. 🙂

    1. Folks, I get it. Let me say again, the Amazon lists have advertising value. Okay? Let’s stop this part of the thread, and look at my previous comments on this.

  15. Kris, thanks for deconstructing the numbers. I have a question, I think it ties in with what you’re talking about but as with a lot of this information maybe more white noise.

    But–didn’t it seem like a disproportinate number of those titles were (possibly) horror or horror leaning? I can only go by the titles which isn’t scientific (though 2 of them come right out and say “a psycho-thriller) but it sure seems probable.

    Trad pubs don’t really sell horror anymore to any great degree (I’m sure there are exceptions I’m not seeing) so those books would never have made a bestseller list at all other than an e-list.

    Prehaps Amazon’s list reflect populous taste many, many times more correctly than that of traditional publishing and so is another “element” of the list discussion?

    1. No, Nathan. I wasn’t thinking of horror at all. And horror is on the rise, including in film. (Not unexpected, as the Goosebumps generation grew up.) Most of the books I know of are nonfic, mystery, and other genre books. And the 20K, remember, is for print lists.

      Love your suggestion that the Amazon lists reflect popular tastes. That could very well be. Certainly subgenres that NY says don’t sell are selling well in indie e-book, from Western to Romantic Suspense. Worth thinking about.

  16. Kris, I recently read an article from a thriller author who had gotten 100,000 sales at Amazon, but found that his book kept inexplicably dropping off the bestseller list. It was obvious that he was goosing the charts, as you say, and that someone at Amazon decided repeatedly to sabotage his efforts. So we’re already seeing some backlash here.

  17. Great article, Kris.

    I find that you want to be on the ‘bestseller’ lists at Amazon for discoverability, not because it means anything in terms of sales. Amazon is fabulous because it has all those lists and that gives readers the opportunity to move beyond the top 20 in ‘fantasy’ to all those sub-categories that really interest them. One of the most exciting things (for me as a reader, as well as a writer) about indie publishing is that there’s so much more variety out there. Even if variety existed before ebooks, the books were impossible to find. The playing field is a lot more level.

    1. I agree about “discoverability,” Sarah, as I said to David below. I mentioned the advertising value in the piece. But mostly, I’m talking to traditional folks here. If they think that being on a list is worth the loss of all those rights and less money, then I’m trying to get them to evaluate that notion.

  18. Fascinating post, Kris…it hadn’t even occurred to me to view the bestseller lists in this light, in terms of a “value-added” that traditional publishers can no longer provide (at least not with the same meaning and financial reward). Thanks so much for these posts…I learn so much from them, every time.

  19. I suspect that 20,000 figure is correct for two reasons:

    * I have seen websites of companies that promise to get your book on the bestseller list, on one condition: that you bearing the cost of 20,000 books at retail price. Presumably they send their cadre of blush-haired ladies out to buy your book at the right bookstores. Yes, it goes on.

    * My wife recently sold a narrative nonfiction title to a Big 6 company for a decent six-figure advance. She went to lunch with her editor and casually told her how one of the titles she and I wrote together has sold 50K copies or so. This is not reflected on any list because they’re sold primarily in museum gift shops. The editor was stunned by the figure, and said they would be ecstatic if the book they were publishing for her broke 20,000.

    Wife and I were astonished at the low expectations. Why would they pay so much for a book and set such a low goal? was our thought. A year later, we get it.

    – Joe

    1. Thanks for yet another data point, Joe D. I should really do a long piece about selling to the book trade. For years, I have tried and my friends have tried to get projects into NYC that sell other places–casinos (which carry books, believe it or not), concert venues, museums, etc–and traditional publishing has always turned those projects down. That’s because they go outside the traditional distribution paths and no one knows how to market the books that way–which blows my mind. I too am astonished by such low expectations, and am wondering how the usual overhead can be sustained on 20K copies. Worth investigating (she mutters to herself).

  20. The great advantage to getting on Amazon’s lists is discoverability.

    Today I saw sales of my novel Devil’s Lair jump when its book cover was prominently featured on Amazon’s page for “popular” fantasy. My book was (and currently still is) the #1 most popular epic fantasy in the US Kindle store, above even GRRM’s Game of Thrones.

    The curious thing is that GRRM dominates the Kindle bestseller list for epic fantasy (I’m now #17 on that list).

    What Amazon seems to have done (and this is only a guess) is to combine books that are bought plus books that are borrowed to come up with a score for popularity. And there’s a separate list for that.

    Since my book is in KDP Select, and getting lots of borrows in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (in addition to strong sales), it topped Game of Thrones for popularity and earned a featured spot on the fantasy page.

    My hourly sales have doubled since Amazon featured my cover. Getting better placement on the Amazon lists can have a very powerful effect on earnings. 🙂


    1. David W., I mentioned the advertising effect. I’m glad you’re seeing increased sales. However, talk to me in six months about your sales. If they’re significantly better than they were before–a factor of 10 or 100–then you’re still doing great. If they’re not, it was a short-term halo effect. Short term halo effects have some benefit, like an increase in income that you mentioned, but the key to writing isn’t this week or this month. It’s the long-term. How does it impact next year? And that’s what this column is about. Remember that. I’m always discussing the career. And the career is about the long-term.

  21. Kris, you’ve reminded me of that scene in the movie, MR. BASEBALL, where Tom Selleck argues why he shouldn’t be traded by touting his stats:

    “Last Season I led this team in ninth-inning doubles in the month of August!”

    Quoting another baseball movie, MONEYBALL:

    “People who run ball clubs, they think in terms of buying players. Your goal shouldn’t be to buy players, your goal should be to buy wins. And in order to buy wins, you need to buy runs.”

    The traditional publishers, by playing up to “the book trade,” are exactly like that roomfull of scouts buying players instead of buying wins.

    Manipulating bestseller lists so they exclude writers that get runs like Rowling or Hocking so you can please “the book trade” with the trade-pleasing players they like gets you to the point where your lists become no more useful than player’s stats of who hit the most ninth-inning doubles in the month of August.

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