The Business Rusch: Dreams and Bestsellers

Business Rusch free nonfiction On Writing

Business Rusch logo webBecause of this blog, I see a lot of publishing contracts. People want advice on certain clauses. I tell folks that I can’t give legal advice because I’m not a lawyer, but I will look at the contract and tell them if they need to hire a lawyer to negotiate it. Most of the time (99.9% of the time), they need that lawyer, and I will help them find a lawyer if need be.

What do I get out of this? I get to see the changes in publishing contracts, what’s being offered to new (and experienced) writers, what scams are hitting, and what to watch out for. The writers get, I hope, a hand to hold while they hire someone to give them legal advice.

Every now and then, though, I regret my decision to say yes. Because I see some contracts are nasty, nasty motherfuckers, and the proper response to those contracts is “Are you kidding?”

Here’s the problem with hiring anyone to negotiate those nasty horrible contracts: a lawyer does what you tell him to do. If you tell him to negotiate a bad contract, he will do all he can to improve it. But some contracts can’t be improved. Some contracts must be abandoned with a firm “no.” (In case you were wondering, that’s the 1% who don’t need a lawyer.)

If you hire a lawyer to look at your contract, and ask the lawyer to explain the contract to you, then ask the lawyer for advice on whether or not you should sign it, the lawyer will do that. But if you hire the lawyer to negotiate, the lawyer will negotiate as best he can. He  might improve the contract, but in these cases, improvement moves you from the seventh circle of hell to the sixth circle of hell. And that’s all.

When faced with those contracts, I feel awful, because all I see is the massive catastrophe the poor naïve writer is heading toward two to five years down the road. The worst case scenario for these writers is success. They will make no money and their work (and sometimes their future work and/or name) will be owned, for all intents and purposes, by  the publishing company.

I hate it when that happens. When I see it happen—as I did twice this summer—I cringe. Because I know what just occurred. I’ve watched very smart writers get hooked in their dreams. These writers will agree to anything—and I mean anything—to be legitimized by traditional publishing. These writers have long dreamed of being published by a great house or a great imprint, working with a great editor, and then seeing the finished product in their favorite bookstore.

And to achieve that dream, they’ll throw their copyrights, their future, everything under the proverbial bus.

I have long realized anyone can get hooked by a dream. If you want something bad enough, someone else can (and will) take advantage of you while promising that dream. I watched an old friend incur nearly $100,000 in debt because some Hollywood jackass promised my friend a movie deal “real soon now.” Real Soon Now never happened, so my friend had to go back to a day job to pay off the debt.

I fell for the agent myth for a long, long time, giving 15% of my money to people who did little or nothing for it, “negotiating” deals I’d already set up or, in the case of one agent, consistently tanking those deals with the promise of newer better deals that never materialized.

I can be as dumb as the next person. Dumber, in fact. The price of my stupidity is a lot of hard-earned stories from the publishing wars. I blog about much of it. Don’t think I’m on some high and mighty judgmental pedestal here. This thing I’m sitting on? I built it with my own two hands, one bad decision at a time.

I’m better now. I hope.

But one thing I do with regularity is try to find the lingering deep-seated dreams and figure out how to deal with them.

That sounds weird, I know. Dreams fuel us. But the dreams are also where the myths come from, and the myths can destroy a career.

Especially when the dreams are decades-old, forged in an entirely different publishing era.

I’ve been trying to revise one of my dreams for a while now. And this July, it finally got through my head that the old dream came from a world that’s now gone. The dream still lingers—I don’t think I can ever weed it out entirely—but I am aware of its potential dangers, and I’m going to do my best not to get hooked in this one.

The dream? Have one of my original novels on The New York Times bestseller list. Not any other bestseller list. The Times.

I’ve had original novels on bestseller lists all over the world. I’m pleased by this, thrilled by it in fact. Because those books had readers who bought in large numbers, and anything that measures reader response means a lot to me.

In fact, I’ve hit the USA Today bestseller list with my original novels, and that means a great deal to me, because I know that the list is calculated based on actual book sales, and compares books to books—fiction to nonfiction. Last I checked—and I’ll be honest, I did not check before writing this blog today—the USA Today list doesn’t isolate by genre, doesn’t work from a formula, doesn’t segregate bookstores from Costco. Books are books are books.

I love that.

Still, though, for me and my dreams, the gold standard is The New  York Times. It’s the only list I saw when I was a kid, even though Publishers Weekly has a list that’s more than 100 years old. Even though other newspapers had lists.

I imprinted on the Times, and my dreams were formed then, back when I was very young.

I’d love to have New York Times bestseller under my name.

I could put New York Times bestseller beneath my name now, if I wanted to.  A number of the media-tie in novels I worked on made the list and/or the extended list, back when the extended only went to #15. My Star Wars novel just missed the extended, for example, but was in the top 20. That was in the mid-1990s. Today, the extended goes all the way to the top 25.

I choose not to use the Times appellation, though, because when I do, I want to have achieved it for my original work. Yeah, yeah, that’s me, and a lot of people will argue with me. Hell, sensible me would argue with dream-hooked me, if it would only work. Because I was on the list, and as some of my good friends would remind me, that was one reason to write media tie-in novels.

But never for me. I always wrote tie-ins for the love. I loved those universes and was honored to play in them. That I got paid to do so was just a bonus.

I am still operating out of that dream, and I am aware of it. The problem is that the dream I had no longer reflects reality.

Back when I imprinted on the Times list, it had four components: hardcover fiction, hardcover non-fiction, paperback fiction, and paperback nonfiction. Right now, there are 12 lists for fiction, and 5 for nonfiction every week. Instead of 40 chances per week to hit the list proper (60 if you count the extended—and I’m not sure exactly when the Times started doing so), now you have 425 chances per week to hit the list in one way or another.

Back when traditional publishing was a monopoly, back when there were a large number of independent booksellers, back when there were a handful of chains and traditional publishers did not hate those chains, computing the list was pretty easy. The bookstores reported their sales and the Times used them to figure out the list.

In the 1990s, when I started paying attention to the way the list was compiled, the Times had a list of “accepted booksellers” so that it tweaked its list to reflect “accepted” tastes. The traditional publishers complained that a sale in the chains counted for less, and the Times responded by saying they used a “calculation” (which they still do), so that the lists don’t weigh big, hated firms where most readers buy too heavily. The Times list is an imprint of quality, after all, and when quality gets “compromised,” the Times monkeys with the list.

First the Times got rid of the influence of chains, by counting their sales as a percentage. Then the Times separated the mass market from the trade paperback list because “quality” fiction was published in trade paperback, while crap was published in mass market (along with the quality). Then, when Harry Potter dominated the list, the Times spun off a children’s list which I see now has devolved into four parts: picture books, Middle Grade, Young Adult, and series.

After much complaint, the Times developed an e-book list, but ignored indie published titles. When there was even more complaint, it added the indie published titles, but gave Amazon a percentage of sales rather than actual sales (even though it publishes the most e-books of any US venue).

In other words, the list is rigged. It has been rigged for decades, and it’ll stay rigged.

I know that, and I still want one of my original books on it.


Because here’s the thing that really got to me this July.

I’ve known for years now that a book can hit the list with only a few thousand copies sold, especially in hardcover. It all depends on the time of year that the book is published in (post-Christmas books need fewer sales to hit the list than books published in the September/October/November bestseller glut) and then there’s the matter of velocity.

The Times, like so many lists, cares more about how many books are sold per week, than how many books are sold per year. So if your book sells 52,000 copies in hardcover in 2013 at the pace of 1,000 copies per week, your book probably won’t hit a list. But if your hardcover novel sells 5,000 copies in July, the bulk of which are in the week of July 4th, and then sells another 5,000 copies during the rest of year, for a 10,000 copy total sale, your book could easily hit the Times list in that first week of July—provided, of course, that your book was sold by the “approved” bookstores, and not at a discount through Costco or Wal-Mart.

These little quirks continually get reinforced for me by various bestseller list articles, like this one in The Wall Street Journal from earlier this year about authors buying their way onto the list with some targeted strategies. This has happened for years. Back in the 1990s, the Times list of approved bookstores got out—somehow—and a number of writers targeted those stores with the help of fans, and got some books onto the lists that “shouldn’t have been” on the list. The Times quickly clamped down on its leak, and found a few other bookstores, and the crisis was averted.

Then there is the matter that I mentioned above, tailoring the list to reflect the prejudices of the list’s publisher. The Bookseller out of the UK has decided to run its own bestseller list, and is very clear about the criteria it will be using. You’ll note upon close reading that most of these criteria are designed to keep the indie published books off the list.

I’ve written about this sort of thing off and on for years, but it still doesn’t quite scrub that dream-hook for me.

Although I’m making progress, thanks to two things that happened in July.

The first was the Storybundle  that I participated in along with Kevin J. Anderson, Michael A. Stackpole, Frank Herbert’s estate, Mike Resnick, Gregory Benford, B.V. Larson, David Farland, and Lightspeed Magazine. We sold enough copies in the first week of July to hit the New York Times list, if the Times counted things like the Bundle.

Which it does not.

Our bundle sold a lot less than the Humble Bundle running concurrently with books by Peter S. Beagle, Cory Doctorow, Neil Gaiman, Lois McMaster Bujold, Robert Charles Wilson, and Cherie Priest.  (Both bundles had a time limit and are no longer available.) The Times has counted omnibus/anthology editions in the past, but wouldn’t count these bundles because they’re not sold through approved sites/sources.

These two bundles alone counted for tens of thousands of book sales in July—book sales that the venerable Times considers unimportant.

Okay, I get that. I’ve gotten that for years. I understand the Times’ snobbery and the impossibility of counting everything.

But here’s the thing that really dinged my Times dream. My contribution to the Storybundle was the first novel in my Retrieval Artist series, The Disappeared. Here’s some stats.

•Roc, the original publisher of The Disappeared, took the book out of print one year after the book’s initial publication, even though the book was the first in a series. Until 2012, it was impossible to get all of the books in the series at the same time.

The Disappeared made no lists in its first printing, and each time a new book in the series appeared, the previous book was not available, so the new book could not goose sales of the old book.

•When WMG started reissuing the Retrieval Artist novels, each novel goosed the sales of the others. Within its first year, The Disappeared sold about 10 percent of its original sales—without a paperback edition (at the time) and without any push.

•The Storybundle sold 25% of the book’s original sales in a month, and as I said, would have made the Times list.

•Many of those sales were not in the States.

•I am now watching a small group of sales work through the other books in the series. These sales are scattered over different formats—ebooks and paper books—as well as in different countries. There’s a lovely halo effect. (None of this counts audio sales. I’m not privy to those numbers at the moment [although I will be in a month or so], so I don’t know if they were goosed as well.)

But here’s the thing: none of these new sales would be counted as a unit by any list makers. The sales are spread over different platforms around the world. So even if sales from different ebook platforms were counted together, for example, they’d still be counted per country, with some sales in the  UK, some in Germany, some in Japan.

In other words, the Times wouldn’t count those sales because they’re not US sales.

Yet the sales were in English and actually have velocity.

Those few facts combined with one other thing, which I’ll mention below, finally got it through my thick skull that measurements like the New York Times list are meaningless in 2013. My dream dates from the 1970s. It was a very, very, very different world then.

What matters now is readership, and that’s become harder and harder to measure, except with something that an author can now keep to herself, just like Amazon does: I can see actual sales and count those sales without going through some publisher’s weird-ass algorithm every six months. I don’t have to worry about incorrect reporting or reserves against returns.

I’m seeing real sales in real time.

This evening, as I wrote this blog, my latest novel Snipers hit #88 on the Amazon Kindle time travel bestseller list. I thank all of the readers who’ve bought the book quickly. (Thank you!!!) But I’m not putting that ranking in my marketing, nor am I putting it in my bibliography or mentioning it anywhere but here.

Because I honestly don’t know what it means. Yeah, the book is in the top 100 time travel books being sold on Amazon in the United States this last day of July, 2013 at a particularly late hour in the evening. But you readers might check the listing at 3 a.m. or look at it at 6 p.m. on August first and see something else entirely.

I’m on a bestseller list, kinda sorta, but I have no idea if that’ll last or if it matters to readers.

I know that if a reader scrolls through the time travel list in search of a time travel book in the next hour, and somehow manages to make it all the way through 100 titles, they might see and buy mine.

And that’s all I know.

It’s a good reminder that bestseller lists are just another way to inform readers that books exist.

But…and here’s the thing for me, as a reader and a consumer: Back in the same time period when I imprinted on the Times bestseller list, I listened to the Billboard top 100 every weekend. Back then, rock songs mixed with country and occasionally some American popular song (like Sinatra). I heard a variety of music, and thought the list informative.

Somewhere in the 1990s, the Billboard list had bifurcated so many times that I felt confused when I heard some DJ play from the “adult contemporary” list. I had no idea what that even was. I still don’t, really. And now there are as many music “bestseller” lists as there are book lists. I rarely pay attention any more.

It’s like award season in Hollywood. I can’t keep track of Golden Globes and Director’s Guild and Screen Actor’s Guild and Emmy’s and Oscars, and—oh, who the hell cares?

Now, as a consumer, I have to find other measures of “quality” and/or popularity. I haven’t found them yet, but I’m searching.

Just like you probably are.

And I’m also creating my own lists, thanks to algorithms on various websites from Amazon to Kobo to Goodreads. I find what interests me at the expense of the gatekeepers and tastemakers. I’m reading more, and I’m reading more eclectic things.

Just like I’m watching more eclectic things. When I run out of TV programs to stream, I ask like-minded folks on Facebook what they’re watching. I get great recommendations that way.

I’m not alone in finding TV through social media. I know that folks are finding books that way too. Because smart writers now find ways to put their backlist into print and to keep their frontlist in print, word of mouth has become a potent force again.

More potent than a rigged bestseller list.

Now, if I could only convince my subconscious of that, I loosen the hold of those ancient, no-longer-applicable dreams.

It’s hard though. I know it, and I know some of you have experienced it as well. It’s strange to be in this new world with new rules. And every now and then, the new rules bump up against the way things were once upon a time. And that’s just plain confusing.

For writers—and their long-held dreams.

One dream I never had was that I would write a weekly blog on publishing. Probably because no one had heard of blogging when I was a kid and no one published anything weekly outside of big national journals like Publishers Weekly, which I didn’t read way back when.

So I am constantly astonished by the visitors, reactions, comments, and arguments started by this blog. I’m also startled at how quickly a week can pass. Every now and then, the deadline sneaks up on me, like it did this week, as I’m trying to finish a novella.

Unlike the novella, this blog must fund itself every week. I haven’t mentioned the donate button in the last few weeks, although several of you found it. But when I do mention it, even more of you find it.

So please, if you learned something or you’re a weekly visitor who finds this appointment-blogging, encourage me to continue by leaving a tip on the way out.

Thanks so much!

Click Here to Go To PayPal.

“The Business Rusch: “Dreams and Bestsellers” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.


51 thoughts on “The Business Rusch: Dreams and Bestsellers

  1. Thanks for the great post, Kris. On target, as always. Because I got into writing late, after a career in business, I didn’t have a lot of young naive writer dreams. I knew how most businesses worked and studied publishing for their eccentricities. Imagine my surprise when I discovered a collection of my non-fiction essays made “a list” (#20 of the “most popular, best selling books on ancient history” sold at the Apple iBook store). I wasn’t surprised by making the list, I was surprised by how I felt about it. “Wow! I made the list! Ain’t that great!” I went off to check Amazon’s lists and confirm my fame. Then it hit me. I knew exactly how many books I sold…and it wasn’t a lot…to make this list. May face turned bright red with embarrassment, I disconnected from the internet and started writing something new. I didn’t even have “the list” dream, but a little taste of it was enough to send me panting after more. {sigh} You’re absolutely right. Dreams are hard to give up.

  2. I didn’t read this entire column, but I did read the part about the lists being rigged. Maybe they are. Who really knows? I also read the part about 5,000 sales getting you on the NYT. I wish. If that was the case, I would’ve been on it many more times than the four times I’ve hit this year with four separate books, three of them indie published. All four times, the sales for the week I hit were in the 25,000-30,000 range. The days of 5,000 sales in a week getting you on the NYT are long over. And if it’s rigged, color me crazy because I have no “in” there nor would I want one. I thought it was particularly interesting that twice now I’ve hit the combined print-e-book list at no. 11 and no. 12 with books that were released only in digital format.

    Michael, thanks for mentioning my survey. I tend to agree with you and the survey results that most readers who are not plugged into the business don’t give a fig about bestseller lists nor do they view them looking for new authors to read. That said, I’m still really happy to have hit all the majors this year. I thought once in a lifetime on the NYT would be awesome. Four times in five months is priceless.

    1. If all you read were excerpts on Passive Guy, Marie, then you missed the point of the essay. You might want to read the whole thing because often PG skews my points toward his point of view. This one isn’t about the list. It’s about dreams.

      And at different times of the year, different sales figures get you on the list. In the slow periods, in paper it can be as little as 5,000 or 2,000. The e-book lists are even more skewed because the Times doesn’t want to count Amazon if at all possible. The fact that you made the list with combined ebook & print sales with the bulk being e-book sales means you’re selling well enough to overcome their bias. That’s fantastic.

      And I’ll take 4 times on the list in one year with my own work. Heck, I’ll take once on the list with my original books. So…that’s a long way of saying Congrats!

      1. I actually read it here, not on Passive Guy, but I didn’t have time to read the entire post (still don’t). Sorry.

        I can’t imagine any scenario in fiction anymore where it’s possible to make the NYT with fewer than 15,000 sales in a week. Maybe you can on the other NYT lists, but not in fiction. My four hits occurred in four separate months spanning three different seasons and all were in excess of 20,000 sales in the given week. One of them (In June) was 30,000 sales, which got me to no. 20 on the ebook list. And the vast majority of my ebook sales (80 percent or better) occur on Amazon. BN and Apple are a distant second/third. I don’t mind sharing that for the most recent hit (this week), I had more than 18,000 sales on Amazon, 4,000 on Apple (which to my knowledge doesn’t report to the lists) and 3,500 on BN. Those numbers got me to no. 7 on the ebook list and no. 12 on the combined print-e-book list. So clearly Amazon’s sales are counting heavily in the equation.

        Thanks for the congrats. It’s been a great year!

        1. I meant that to say fiction E-BOOK sales in relation to the 15,000 or better number. Sorry!

          And you mentioned the “bulk” of my sales being e-book. I want to clarify that they were ALL e-book as the book in question wasn’t released in MMPB. My placement on the combined print-e-book list was with a book that was ONLY available in e-book format. Thanks for the opportunity to clarify.

          1. No problem, Marie. I didn’t deal with e-book lists in this piece as a whole because as of right now, I’ve seen no real release of numbers. So all I have is anecdotal. On the print lists, I have all kinds of references, from anecdotal, to PW’s numbers, to Bookscan numbers. So the trade paper NYT list, the mmpb NYT list, and the hardcover NYT list are all (relatively) confirmable by outside sources; the ebook lists are strictly anecdotal at the moment–like you revealing your numbers here. (Thanks for that!)

        2. Again, Marie, if you read what I wrote, it’s about the number of paper copies to hit the print list, not the e-book list. E-book numbers are all over the map, from what I’ve had reported to me from other writers, but never below 20K. However, to hit the hardcover list, you can hit with as few as 2,500 copies in one week.

          1. Sorry to miss the point and to not have the time to read the full post. 🙂 Curious though, would you be disappointed to hit the ebook list or the combined print/ebook list? Would that work for your dream? Just wondering. For me, I’d much rather hit the ebook list than the print list BECAUSE the number of required sales is so much higher. If that makes sense!

            1. I think I’d be happy to hit the list no matter what, Marie. The e-book list would be great! But the lists have changed. In 1996, I missed the top 15 hardcover with my Star Wars book–and we sold 60,000 copies in two weeks. And I’ve made the mmpb list with 100,000+ mass markets on STar Trek books, but never the top of the lists. If you look at the paper numbers now, very few books are hitting that amount at all, and if they are, they’re in the top 5–paper. Just paper.

              Part of my point in this is that so many books–particularly ebooks, but also paper (think Harlequin categories)–aren’t counted at all by the official groups. At our writer lunch yesterday, we counted 15,000 ebook sales in July just from the people at the table that weren’t counted by any official venue–not Amazon, not B&N, not anyone. And that doesn’t count the Humblebundle I mentioned in my piece or things sold off websites or, or, or… There’s a lot of books being sold out there and not being counted by anyone official. (I personally think that’s cool.)

  3. When I worked at the Washington Post Book World, occasionally I’d be asked to assemble the bestseller list. It consisted of a few phone calls to local bookstores — nothing national — and assembling a small list of fiction and nonfiction titles (ten each) based on those stores’ reports. We never verified; the owner of these particular stores (Politics and Prose was one, but I’ve forgotten the others) could have easily tilted the rankings on a whim.

    The list was never taken very seriously. Looking at the NY Times, by comparison, it was real minor-league stuff. But rewarding.

    1. That’s how many papers used to do it, Jason. Local/Regional list, independent bookstores only. I don’t know if that’s still how they’re doing it, but it sure used to be a nice snapshot of what was going on in a region. (Back when there were regional distributors to respond to it…and we all walked up hill both ways in the snow to get to the bookstore.) 🙂 Thanks for that.

      1. I noticed recently that Netflix also does regional rankings. Even more targeted, actually: It recommends movies that are most popular in your zip code.

  4. Thank you for a great post as always. I think like most authors here, I’d always dreamed of being on a “reputable” bestseller list when I started writing in 2006 and self-publishing in 2012. What I’ve learned about the industry in the last year, from great and generous people like you, Dean, and Joe Konrath who have shared their long and varied experiences, as well as the dozens of other great self-publishing blogs out there, has changed the naive attitudes and opinions I had.

    One of the most shocking eye-openers was the way bestseller lists were made and manipulated. When I first read about it, my jaw dropped! It’s tainted my view of the word bestseller forever and I no longer have the same respect for it as I used to.

    In the last 6 months, I’ve seen the words “bestselling author” used a lot in bios on Twitter. A lot of these are writers have made the Top #100 of the Free Kindle store during a KDP promo, most often in specific subgenres. Is it great to have made that list? Yes, it’s a fantastic achievement and kudos for having done it. Does it justify putting that description in your bio? That I have an issue with. Because I feel it’s a con. The average reader who might be influenced by the words “bestselling author” won’t have a clue about the difference between the Free Kindle store top #100 or the Paid Kindle store top #100. They will just think “Yeh, it’s a bestselling author”. Some would undoubtedly say “Hey, that’s how marketing works. You don’t sell the entire truth when you’re marketing.”

    *sighs* Maybe I’m too rigid in my morals, too much of a goody two-shoes, a marketing moron some might say. I want to be honest with the people who have invested in my work. I want to be able to say “I’m a bestselling author because I HAVE sold the most copies in this genre, in this time period, in this country.”

    As I write this, 18 hours into my 48 hour-KDP free days promo, I’m in the top 100 free kindle store for Action and Adventure, and Urban Fantasy in the US and the UK. This was also the case in my first KDP free days promo in July. I’m not intending to put “bestselling author” in my bio. Because, in my eyes, I’m not there yet.

    And the question remains, if I do genuinely get there one day (genuine meaning a truly honest way), will anyone else believe I got there because of my own hard sweat and tears, or because I bought, cheated, or lied my way into it?

    Time will tell 🙂

    PS: I cannot recall a single instance in the last 15 years where I bought a book just because the author was on a world renown bestseller list. I have often picked up a new author, enjoyed their work, THEN realised they were on a bestseller list. It made me think I had good taste 😉

    1. Thank you for leading me to this blog! A lot of people have asked me what I’m up to now I’ve set up my business and launched my blog and I always throw in that I’m planning to be a bestselling author to boot! But I’d not really thought about what those words mean – I too have seen a lot of claimants to being a bestseller since joining Twitter, and, as an avid bookaholic, I’ve thought, ‘But… I’ve never heard of you!’ Now I’m a fan of Kindle and discovering Indie authors, I’m realising there’s a whole other world out there, beyond the traditional lists and gracing new lists. The lists have never guided my reading habits so much as personal recommendations. It’s fascinating to discover those stories formerly unfindable. And, in these evolving times, it’s also valuable to understand the stories behind those lists by which many measure success. I really applaud your approach for putting integrity before marketing. One person’s ‘marketing method’ is another person’s hard-won treasure – it’s good to be challenged to question which is which.

  5. Ah dreams. They are simultaneously the motivator for me to write and the bane of my existence. I still want to be a bestseller. I’m not wedded to the NYT list because I rarely find a book I like there–though I did consistently read them in the early stages of my career to see WHY. However the USA Today List is still my standard. I’d also love to be in the Amazon top 10 simply because I know the money would be amazing. 🙂

    I also want a movie deal where the movie actually gets made and distributed in theaters.

    Most days of writing I still 100% believe these dreams will come true. But at least two or three times a month, I go into the you-are-completely-dilusional mindset. Those are actually good days in the end, because it reinforces I’m going to write anyway–even if those dreams don’t come true in my lifetime.

  6. Kris, here’s some stats to read to your subconscious about how meaningless the bestseller lists are. Most of the readers surveyed identify as romance readers but I don’t think they’re so unique that this doesn’t have significance across the board.

    Also, I’m a lawyer and I’ve worked with contracts for years. Any lawyer hired to negotiate a contract who just negotiates without first making sure the client understands what the deal involves, and who doesn’t advise the client to walk away from that deal if they can’t live with it is a poor lawyer. If a lawyer doesn’t know enough about publishing and copyright to advise you about the nature of the deal itself, you need a different lawyer. But if I tell the client they’re sticking their head in a bear trap and they still want to do it, then I will do what I can to spin crap into slightly less stinky crap. But I can only protect clients from bad decisions to the extent they will let me. Which is why authors need to learn about the business side of publishing and not just rely on agents, lawyers, publishers, etc. Your bullshit detector works best when you know what it’s measuring.

    1. Thanks, Laura. Exactly. I’ve seen some lawyers/agents (they’re hybrids) who never explain, just negotiate. It can cause some serious problems. Yes, poor lawyer, but still practicing–and getting clients.

      Most lawyers I know are exactly as you describe. They warn the client away, but if the client insists, the lawyer does the job. And probably regrets every moment of it. 🙁

      Thanks for the confirmation!

      (Oh, and I discussed the romance thing below. Thanks for the link.)

  7. I’ve long suspected/known the bestseller lists are rigged, and so are the books cherry-picked by the specific paper–let’s say, ahem,The New York Times–for review. They always RAVE about the same authors and, not coincidentally, in some genres–take thrillers–the ravest of the raves are reserved for a few certain, very specific, New York-centric authors. This isn’t sour grapes; it’s not even my genre, so I’ve nothing personally invested. It’s just something I’ve noticed.

    But, yeah, I really, really wanted/dreamt of my books hitting certain lists or being raved about by certain reviewers–even though I understand, intellectually anyway, that reviews are nothing more than private taste made public. In that, I don’t think I’m different from anyone else when it comes to that specific dream–which, in the end, probably means very little, as you point out.

    I am just as leery of various Amazon lists. It probably means virtually nothing to be a certain high number in a highly selective list because all you’re looking at in a very small wedge of a very big pie. Case in point: I had a book hit the top ten–for about two days, in the middle of a sale. Which means nothing.

    Still, would I be upset to be a NYT’s bestseller? Uh, no. It’s what Mike Z. said above. All that helps generate velocity and gets you into venues–like airports (I mean it)–where your work will be seen. At least, that’s what I’m after. No one will pick up my book if they don’t know it’s there, and lists help.

    Actually, for me and in my genre, it means more to be nominated for awards and year’s bests and teen faves and such through various state library associations. That means, every library in that system and/or state will stock your book; they buzz about it at library conferences; they print out the lists and do book-talks for kids and teachers. Those lists, I really care about.

    But if the Times ever sees fit . . . I’m not saying no.

  8. I’m not a bestseller list junkie but a Year’s Best and anthology junkie. Fortunately I don’t think I’ll get screwed over while chasing that dream…most of the time. I’m still being careful with contracts, though. Ironically it seems like the smaller the publisher, the worse the contract: no, I don’t need to give you movie rights, my friend, no matter how ambitious you are…

    Here are some recent dreams that I’ve let go of (at least for now):

    *SFWA membership.
    *NY book deals.
    *Instant fame and fortune as a writer.
    *Having someone else do ALL THE PUBLICITY AND MARKETING!!!
    *And more things that I don’t care to talk about.

    It feels good, actually, like the transition from high school to college. When I got to college, suddenly the people around me weren’t talking about what movie star they’re going to marry and what car they’re going to drive, and being smart was an asset instead of a liability.

    When I had cute little baby writer dreams of having an agent (that one let go a while ago) or a NY publishing house and a Career As A Big Name Writer, then success as a writer seemed comfortably distant. I didn’t have to deal with the mess of readers actually reading my stuff. And then I started publishing myself, which seemed like a research project, not a viable path: every setback “proved” that it wasn’t going to work out, because my successes in indie land didn’t look like cute little writer dream successes. What kind of Porsche would I drive, when I was a real writer? Would I finally get to kiss Bruce Willis at a booksigning?!?

    Now the cute little baby writer dreams are broken, and they’re off my shoulders. I feel taller. I get to value myself as a bootstrapper and a learner and an independent person, not as a cartoonish Big Name Writer who does nothing but write and drink and get screwed by their accountants.

    Sure, I’d still like people to recognize my name (at least enough to go, “Oh, yeah! One of *her* new books is out, cool!” but it’ll come on my ornery bootstrapper terms, not on cute little baby writer terms. I’m outta high school now, baby.

    1. Maybe Bruce Willis has a Kindle and might read one of your stories. So perhaps you don’t have to give up that dream just yet. And you can always drink. 🙂

  9. This comes at a really good time for me, too…and great post, as always. It amazes me that people like you are affected by this stuff, but it’s good for me to see, and a good reminder that all of us (or a lot of us?) have these lingering “things” that imprinted on us when we started out, or really, even before that.

    For me, I’ve struggled with this in terms of even just having had “professional sales.” I’m really happy with indie publishing, and truthfully, right now anyway, I can’t imagine any reason to go traditional. For one thing, I would only consider it if they came to me (which they haven’t). For another, if they DID come to me, I can’t imagine that I would need them for anything that would be worth the crap I would have to go through (and the loss in profits in acquiring their “help”). So yeah, I’m kind of “over” that dream, in terms of the practical sense…what I can’t seem to shake is the lingering inferiority complex around it, even though I’m reasonably sure I could get one of those crappy contracts of my very own, at this point in my writing and career.

    Sigh. So what to do with that? My rational mind totally wants nothing to do with that and feels a great deal of anger and compassion when writers get suckered into these deals, but on a deeper level, I really get it, even though I’m not willing to lower myself just for that validation…I guess because, at base, I’m a pretty practical person, even though I’ve got a lot of squishy writerly feelings, too.

    I’d like to ask if this stuff goes away at some point, but I’m guessing I already know the answer. 🙂 At any rate, there is a part of me that is still holding out that there will be a day that I can at least say “no” to these people, lol. Or is that petty?

    Thanks for another awesome post, Kris.

  10. The NYT bestseller list means one thing to me: that I can’t reserve the book at the library. That’s it.

    I only buy indie for Kindle. I find writers I like mostly on Twitter. Then I read everything they’ve written.

    My childhood dream was to be on the Johnny Carson Show. As what, I have no idea. But there it is. Letterman and Leno don’t do it for me.

    So, keep writing kids, ’cause I’m still reading.

  11. I’m still hoping for that Oscar. Or even an Emmy. (See, I’ve gotten more practical!)

    Word of mouth and blogs is where I get my book recommendations nowadays. Either my friends (online or meatspace) say they have read an awesome book, or I see something interesting on Kowal’s “My Favorite Bit” or Scalzi’s “The Big Idea” and snatch it up, even if it’s not a genre I’d normally think of reading.

    The Arthurian Legends set in the projects and drug gangs of Indianapolis? Never would have considered it, but I read the author talking about it on MRK’s page, bought it, and loved it (The Knights of Breton Court by Maurice Broaddus. Buy it, y’all).

    I don’t like zombie stories, but a mutual friend of mine and Seanan’s said “Me neither, but hers is good!” And lo, they are all over the Hugo ballot, and I in turn blogged and even my mundane friends bought them on my say-so.

    I have a subscription to Entertainment Weekly (electronic, but if you get dead-tree, they give you electronic free as well — smart!) and look at their best-seller lists in passing. My usual thought is, “Good LORD, the American people have lousy taste, particularly in non-fiction.” I don’t know how it’s compiled — they print the list from Nielsen Bookscan. I suspect it’s less goosed (or at least differently goosed) than the NYT lists. They only list fiction and non-fiction hardcovers, the top 10, retail.

  12. Nice post, Kris. I’m so glad I’m not the only one who (reluctantly) gets that the NY Times list isn’t the gold standard it appears to be. From working on the publishing side, you learn a few things:

    –A given list is assembled at least two weeks before it’s published in the Times. I just saw the list for the week of 8/11. So the sales are not tracked in real time.

    –The secret sauce formula they use to track sales hurts books that sell more copies according to Bookscan. A fitness/health book I coauthored last year sold enough books in its second week out to hit the How-To/Misc list at roughly #8. I compared books on the published list to their sales on Bookscan and our book outsold most of the books on the lower half of the list. But Bookscan doesn’t count to the Times.

    –The List still means something to consumers. If a book hits #1 on the list, any reprints or later editions will have that #1 NY Times Bestseller line on there right-quick.

    And I agree, Kris, it would have been sweet to be able to call myself a NY Times bestselling author. But like you, I have to keep telling myself that it ain’t what it used to be. But to people who don’t work in the industry, it still means something.


    Mike Z.

  13. I wrote an article 20+ years ago for NINK about how the bestseller lists are calcuated. The NYT was incredibly rude; refused to answer any questions and hung up on me twice. Fortunately, PW and USA Today were much more professional and much less paranoid, so I got good information from them about their lists.

    So, for learning how the NYT list was calculated, I had to rely on other sources than they NYT. Fortunately, I found several good articles about it, including a long, detailed one with a lot of facts and figures, by an investigative reporter for the Observer. One of the most obvious revelations about the NYT list back then was that a LOT of bestselling books were NOT getting on it, simply because their prime sales venues were not polled by the NYT. Its list was specifically a reflection of the bestsellers in indy bookstores and in bookstores it considered worthy of its notice.

    So a number of writers who were substantially outselling NYT bestsellers were NOT making the NYT list because they were moving big numbers of, say, a paperback romance title, via book/retail outlets that the NYT ignored completely (ex. grocery stores, for example, which was where a lot of busy women got their weekly reading, while doing their other weekly shopping).

    I read in the 2000s that the NYT was becoming more balanced about how it calculated the list, and I haven’t tried to study its method for 20 years, so things may be quite different now. I still perceive the enviable sheen, the cultural implication, on the phrase “NYT bestseller,” but my early study of how the NYT calculated its list eliminated a lot of its credibility for me.

    1. “I read in the 2000s that the NYT was becoming more balanced about how it calculated the list”

      LOL. “More balanced” or only less unbalanced? IMHO, the cultural arrogance of The Grey Lady is unmatched, especially when it comes to literature and Big Pub. And, like Big Pub, it’s becoming more and more irrelevant to the great masses of hoi polloi readers.

  14. I suppose I’m lucky, but when I was a kid, I always read the NYT book review, but I never had any interest whatsoever in the best seller list — because none of the books on the list ever held any interest for me.

    It wasn’t the lack of genre, but rather the descriptions of the books themselves. (I really never had any interest in ‘glitz’ – which is what the best sellers all were when I was young. And I’m not particularly thrilled with what the thriller category has become, once it became top dog.)

    On the other hand, I did always want to win an Academy Award….

    1. Ah, Camille, a woman after my own dreams! 🙂 The few times I decided to read something literary, I’d go to the list and pick something – and be completely disappointed in the read. ::shrug::

      But an Academy Award? Yes! Where do I sign up, lol!

  15. Great post as always, thanks.

    In the beginning of it, you shortly touched something that I’ve been wondering about for the 2-3 years I’ve been reading your blog. Maybe you could write something about it on another day.

    Namely, using lawyers. Everyone, even you, recommends using one. But what if your lawyer sucks? What’s the use then? Couldn’t you get into even deeper trouble and waste money?

    Or, as you wrote, with one you can maybe get from the seventh circle of hell to the sixth circle of hell. 🙂

    Now, I’m a Finn and I know the US system is waaay more complicated, but aren’t lawyers one of the middlemen that cause real friction/waste money for an author? Shouldn’t it be possible by now to create a basic boilerplate/model publishing contract for everyone as a “guideline”, based on experienced authors views, with special caution notes and dealbreakers?

    Maybe I just don’t get the complexity of the US legal system, though. In Finland we only have 5 million people, and the book business is therefore so much smaller, that one would easily lose your professional reputation for ever if you suckered someone.

    I’m not asking for a detailed response–or any response at all, because you have your writing to do–but maybe you could touch upon this on a later blog.



    1. Jussi, great questions. Here’s the difference between a lawyer and an agent. You’re stuck with the agent for the life of the project (these days). You can fire a lawyer and hire another. And if lawyer one does a bad job for you, you can fire him mid-job and hire another. If you take bad advice from a lawyer, you can probably extricate yourself from that deal/advice with the help of another lawyer. And so on. Also, you pay a set amount–either hourly or flat fee–for the job that the lawyer does. So once he does the job, you don’t have to pay him any more or talk to him again.

      Contracts differ by company, by where you are in the company, by the amount the company is paying you, etc. There is no boilerplate that is good for every writer. Sadly. I wish there were.


  16. Does it really matter to be a “best-selling” author? With so many lists out there, the phrase has no meaning unless it’s really, really specific. “#1 New York Times best-selling author” might still have some chachet. Same with USAToday.

    Anything else? Not so much.

    But your column did inspire an idea. You register at a website and give them a list of your favorite books, the ones you read over and over again.

    Every month, you receive an email listing the books coming out that month that a) are by an author on your list, or b) is similar to one of those books (as in Amazon’s “people who liked this book also liked that book” thing).

    I’d sign up for a service like that.

    1. I think there are services like that. (Other than Amazon, which spams you with if you bought this then you’d like that. Sadly, they’re often right.) Let’s ask the group mind. Anyone know of these services? Can you recommend them?

      1. will analyze your twitter feed (and supposedly facebook soon) and collect the books “talked about” by the people you’re following. Kind of an interesting angle in theory, but I wonder if and how they filter all the people tweeting “buy my book!”

  17. Oh, gosh. Me having sold a book this week and working on getting rights back to another, feeling good.

    I stood there saying to myself, I only have two goals left in life, and one was hitting the NYT list. That’s it. End of story.

    As a writer friend says all the time of people choosing crap publishers and crap contracts, ‘The Dream is a Mighty Thing.’

  18. The first part of this post came at a good time. There are a couple of people (one in particular) in the comments section of Konrath’s blog who stubbornly is clinging to all the trad publishing myths out there – and he’s stated that he’s looked at Dean’s blog. HAH! It’s obvious he hasn’t. If that comments section is still going (it was last night, up to 120-some comments), I’m going to point them to this post.

    I did leave a reply for one of them that if they insisted on going the trad route, to at least get an IP lawyer for any contracts.

    I’m reading more, and I’m reading more eclectic things.

    This is me as well. I just bought 3 ebooks yesterday, 2 mysteries and a history of the fifties (a thick print book that was on sale for $1.99 – couldn’t pass it up :-)). Anyway, I’ve bought so many mysteries and things outside of my usual reads that I’m amazed at how much I like them. It’s a great time to be a reader too. 🙂

  19. Personally, I’ve never had any illusions or aspirations when it comes to bestseller-dom. Very few of my favorite books have ever said “New York Times Bestseller” on the cover, probably because most of them are sci-fi / fantasy. Until I got my kindle, I used to get most of my books from the library or the used bookstore.

    Also, my dreams are mostly small at this point (which is a different kind of problem, as you point out in the Freelancer’s Guide). My biggest dream for the last five years has been to make a living telling stories that I love–and with indie publishing, I can do that while getting no more than double- or triple-digit sales for any given title in a month. I don’t have to be #1, which is good because I would hate that. Just give me a little niche in the literary world, one that I can own for myself and fix it up however I want, and so long as I have just a handful of devoted fans I’ll be happy.

    It seems to me that these lists are goosed so much that they’re driving themselves into irrelevance.

    1. I think you’re right, Joe. And I always looked at bestselling books–always. It was a way to keep up with what the culture was doing, and to test my taste. I’d read most everything on the list, but I didn’t necessarily buy that person’s next book. It was more…educational for me. I do it less now. 🙁 But I’m still learning. 🙂

      1. Here’s an interesting point about the bestseller lists from an informal, voluntary survey of 3,000 readers (mostly romance readers):

        We asked if seeing the words “New York Times Bestselling Author” on the cover of a book is more likely to spur a reader to try a new author. Seventy-two percent said no, and 28 percent said yes. In addition, 60 percent of those surveyed “never” peruse the New York Times bestseller list looking for new authors. Four percent of those surveyed review the list every week in search of new authors.

        Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed never review the USA Today bestseller list to find new authors and 2 percent do so weekly.

        Seventy-five percent of those surveyed never review the Publishers Weekly bestseller list to find new authors and 2 percent do so weekly.

        Here’s the source.

        1. Romance readers are a particularly biased audience here, Joe, since for many years, the bookstores that were considered for the Times list wouldn’t carry romance books. Romance readers were trained not to look at lists. So while I don’t dispute the accuracy of this data, I do think that it would be different with readers of mystery fiction, for example.

          1. Do you really think so?

            I may be way out in the woods here, but I like to think I’m a regular guy who likes to read books. And I gotta tell you, before I started this writing gig a few years ago, I knew the NYT and other list existed but I never, ever, ever, EVER looked at them. Only way I knew a book was a bestseller is because I heard someone else tell me. It made me think the book had to be good, but I never once went to the list of my own free will.

            I really think once you get beyond the lifelines of professional publishing and official “fandom”, all these lists, and awards for that matter, are fairly transparent to the average Joe or Jane.

            1. Here’s the thing, Michael: Most books on the Times list are in most bookstores, grocery stores, Wal-Marts, and chains, where other books without that “stamp of approval” aren’t in those places. So the average Joe or Jane, most of whom buy their books outside the standard places, always bought bestsellers. Now, with Amazon and other online sales, that’s changing, but before, those were the only books available in most non-bookstore places. Since I grew up in small towns, and my family lived in small towns, most of what I read were bestsellers. Simple as that. (And sad too.)

          2. It just seems odd to me that while stores like Walmart and Costco don’t count for bestseller status, that’s all they stock.

            I sort of understand it, but it’s just a tad ironic, isn’t it?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *