Business Musings: Bestseller Lists and Other Dreams

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In March, Marie Force announced she would no longer chase the bestseller lists when she released her latest book title. She wrote a great, honest, and direct blog about her thinking, and I urge you to read it all.

In the blog, she describes a trajectory of obsession and disillusionment that is very familiar to me. I’ve gone through that range of emotions several times in my long writing career. Ironically, the change in my attitude toward the bestseller lists and the status they confer (or don’t) came when I was still a 100% traditionally published novelist. (I’m hybrid, traditional and indie, although I don’t publish my novels [in English, anyway] traditionally any more.)

Why is that ironic? Because by the time it became easier to chase a bestseller list, I was no longer interested. Yet the entire focus of the first wave of indie writers after the introduction of Kindle Direct Publishing was on the various bestseller lists, first on Amazon, and then the established ones, like The New York Times and USA Today.

There was a time when I’d write a blog about bestseller lists, and a small horde of writers from the Kindle Boards would run over to my blog and attack me. Most of those comments never came through because they were horribly disrespectful (calling me names, telling me how stupid I was, telling me how old and stupid I was, how set in my ways), but you can still see some of those comments if you go back to the Business Rusch posts from 2010-2012 or so.

Most of those writers have vanished, although a few remain. So does the attitude. Whenever I write a blog post that upsets a certain group of indie writers, they discuss the post on their blogs and cite whatever Amazon rankings they can find of my books at the moment. Often the books they find have low rankings, and they use that to say I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Okay. Fine. Whatever floats your boat. My business is based on a lot of product, published wide in a worldwide market, using print, audio, ebook, translations, and more. I don’t usually look at an individual book’s ranking in one format in one marketplace—and even though Amazon is the biggest marketplace at the moment, it’s certainly not the only one.

I write that with complete calmness, and a bit of a shrug, but believe me, that calmness and shrug came years after I got rid of my bestseller list obsession.

Let me give you my journey away from bestseller lists, in as much of a nutshell as I can manage.

I knew I wanted to be a fiction writer from as far back as I can remember. I wrote my first novel in grade school (and, sadly, illustrated it too). I didn’t know any professional fiction writers. I firmly believed in the myths, that it was impossible to make a living as a fiction writer—unless you hit a bestseller list, specifically The New York Times, which was the only one I saw in the books around my parents’ house.

So, I imprinted young: bestseller list = enough money to make a living = success.

And as I got older, I met a lot of writers. Some were journalists (making a living: check); some were poets (working as professors: check); some were fiction writers (making money…how?). It took me a long time to realize that you could make a good living without hitting a bestseller list. A lot of successful writers taught me that, sometimes directly and sometimes through example. To say I’m grateful is an understatement.

Before Roc Books bought my first novel, I had made friends with an outspoken book dealer. He was trying to qualify as a New York Times bookstore—the first I’d ever heard of such a thing. He ran an sf and fantasy store, and he was campaigning to be one of the stores that the Times spoke to on a weekly basis to compile the sales.

I have no memory of whether or not he succeeded. I don’t think he did. Over the years, I met many booksellers who were Times qualified. They were required to keep their status quiet, but some didn’t. And some told me years after they were no longer on the Times list.

I remember being shocked at what I learned: no one independently verified the bookseller’s numbers. No cash register receipts were submitted, no one checked shipping orders. The bookseller could have conflated his best friend’s book if he wanted to.

I don’t think any bookseller did that—at least not any I knew—but the temptation was there. And my outspoken friend was most worried about being told which books to include in his list, because he had heard the Times sometimes nudged a bookseller in a particular direction.

True? God knows. Maybe true in the late 1980s when these discussions took place. Maybe a beloved conspiracy theory among genre booksellers. I have no way to verify.

But that conversation with my bookseller friend was the first chink in the armor of my bestseller dreams. I really really wanted that bestseller. It was a goal post, and it was more than that. It was a way to prove that I was a successful writer.

Marie discusses this too:

Waiting for Love, book 8 in my Gansett Island Series, hit no. 6 on the New York Times’ ebook list in February 2013….not only was it thrilling to have an indie-published book in a series that no one wanted, except my readers of course, be the first to hit the New York Times list—and in the top 10, no less, it was also extremely vindicating. Like a big ole F you to everyone who’d ever rejected me—and there were a lot of rejections. TONS of them.

Legitimacy. Vindication. Proof of success. The lists did that.

Because hitting a list was so important to me, I got really squirrelly about it. Some of my writer friends were doing tie-in novels to “acquire a new first name.” That name would be New York Times bestselling author…so ’n so.

My inner snob rose to the fore (and fortunately did not emerge from my mouth except to Dean), and vowed that if I ever had a tie-in NYT bestseller, I wouldn’t count it. My reasoning? Readers weren’t buying the book because my name was on it. They were buying the book because of the movie or the series. They probably hadn’t even noticed my name.

I lived up to that vow in the way I promoted my books. When my Star Wars book hit all of the bestseller lists in the United States, including the New York Times, I didn’t count it. I only counted the bestseller lists I had hit with my own work, which was (repeatedly) the USA Today list.

I was—and am—pretty proud of the USA Today listing, because the USA Today list was based on books shipped—an actual number, not some arcane list of bookstores, put together to promote an agenda.

Still, I wanted that Times listing. My inner child-writer wanted that notch on my belt, for my book.

Slowly, though, that dream felt tarnished. I started comparing the sales figures on the USA Today list with the Times bestsellers and realized that the books on the Times list sometimes didn’t even make the USA Today list until the week after they appeared on the Times list. Meaning the mention on the Times list boosted sales outside of the prescribed bookstores—y’know, like the rest of the world.

Then in the year 2000, the New York Times got really peeved at J.K. Rowling and the YA writers who “hogged” the adult hardcover list. The Times introduced a “children’s book list” for bestselling books, and made no bones about why they were doing so:

The New York Times Book Review will print a separate best-seller list for children’s books starting on July 23. The change is largely in response to the expected demand for the fourth in the Harry Potter series of children’s books, editors at the Book Review said…. With an enormous initial print run of 3.8 million in the United States alone, it is widely expected to reach the top of the list.

”The time has come when we need to clear some room” on the list, said Charles McGrath, the editor of the Book Review…

The phrase missing here is “for more worthy titles.” Adult titles, even though adults were reading Harry Potter.

I had never noticed the Times monkeying with the list before, not like this, and not so blatantly. I was offended, upset, and crushed—in my dreams.

I slowly weaned myself off that bestseller dream by doing what I always do when I’m trying to understand something. I looked at the numbers. And I didn’t like what I found.

This was when I really learned that the lists were based on velocity—how fast a book sold—not on actual total sales. This finally answered my questions about the way that genre writers could earn a hefty living while literary (and critical darlings) often had to teach. “Sales” were based on books shipped, not on books sold, which really came home to me from traveling.

I went through O’Hare around this point, saw a book by a writer I knew, and the book was on every bookstand, at every checkout place, even at the restaurants. The book was there on Thursday, as I flew out, and in seemingly the same numbers on Monday when I flew home. At the time, I thought that the books had been replenished.

Nope. They hadn’t sold.

But for that week, my friend was on the bestseller list. And he couldn’t sell another book after that, because his sell-through was so abysmal as to make him untouchable under that name.

In other words, he had hit the list because the preorders were high, but actual book buyers never picked up a copy. Those books were sent back full copy and remaindered by the following year. It was a disaster.

But he had his new first name, for what good it did him.

I wrote a blog in early 2012 about the way that bestseller lists worked, trying to explain to me and to those now-vanished Kindle Board folk why I didn’t chase bestseller list numbers.

As I reread that post, I see even more disillusionment as an undercurrent there. The numbers were down, the old ways were gone.

Marie Force’s post has a different slant. She talks about the effect chasing the list had on her and the way she managed her business:

EVERYTHING was timed toward making the lists—release days and release week contests and promotion and advertising. It became a mini form of MADNESS that overtook my life every time a new book was released, and then came the breathless wait on Wednesdays for the lists to be released to validate what I already knew based on the sales—my book was a bestseller.…

[An incident last summer] marked the start of what became a tidal wave of “What the hell am I doing?” thoughts that also centered around the readers who regularly ask why I and other authors don’t release books on Fridays or Saturdays when so many people are off work and able to curl up with a new book. They asked why my release week contests always ended at midnight on Saturdays. My answer to both questions was the same—everything is geared toward the bestseller lists. So here I was gaming a system that doesn’t really matter (in the grand scheme of things) at the expense of my customers—you know the lovely readers who actually BUY my books!

Yeah. Exactly. And Marie came at it from a different place than I did initially.

In the days when I actively pursued the bestseller lists, I couldn’t control my sales or my print run or my advertising. I had given that over to my traditional publishers—because there was no other choice. The 2012 blog post I cite above was me slowly working out that traditional publishers weren’t the only way to bestseller lists, and that bestseller lists mattered less and less.

Marie had grown up in the same traditional system, but that system had rejected her books for reasons I simply cannot fathom. So she indie published them and had breathtaking success. The validation of the lists, especially early in this new world of publishing, helped her see what she was doing as legitimate.

You’d think that the huge number of books sold would have helped her see her work as legitimate, but it didn’t. Those of us raised in that old system had learned to devalue books sold. We never learned that those sales were to actual people, actual fans.

I remember arguing with a book editor of mine in the late 1990s that the tens of thousands of readers of my book series mattered, even if they didn’t all buy the book on the day of release. My editor told me that those sales were “worthless” unless the readers bought the books the week of release.

Breathtaking, but true within that system. Because the books would often disappear from the real world bookshelves by the time that some readers got around to looking for them.

That doesn’t happen any more. Now the virtual bookshelves allow books to be stocked forever, if the author wants it that way. And as a consequence, more people are buying books online than ever before.

And that’s another nail in the coffin of the New York Times booklist: they don’t get any numbers from Amazon—the largest retailer in the United States. The Times guesses, but doesn’t get raw data, because Amazon doesn’t give out raw data—to anyone.

(And given the way that traditional publishing reacts to real data, I don’t trust the Times guesses either. They’re the company paper in the company town.)

This year, the Times announced that it is messing with the lists again. This time, the Times is eliminating the mass market paperback list because traditional publishers want to discontinue that format. They’re eliminating the comic books side of the list because…hell, I have no clue why. I’m sure comics folks know.

And most importantly to this blog post, the Times is eliminating the ebook bestseller list. Why? Because they can’t control it. At all. And so a lot of romance writers (hi, Marie!) and bundles and non-“literary” suddenly became New York Times bestsellers and, like J.K. Rowling and the YA crowd seventeen years ago, stunk up the place.

The Romance Writers of America sent an open letter to the Times, and said it best, I think:

Romance authors, most of them women, have dominated the best-seller lists in mass market and e-books for years. To dismiss these authors and the millions of readers who buy their books is to ignore what “bestseller” truly means. Each year, consumers buy more than $1.3 billion worth of romance fiction. If the New York Times eliminates the mass market and e-book lists, they are proving that they are out of touch with what consumers actually buy. Further, the dismissal of two formats dominated by women can’t help but feel sexist.

Yep. Whenever children or women or actual books that sell (as opposed to “quality” books “designed” to sell) crash the list, the Times monkeys with the list.

Back in the day of the bookseller that I mentioned above, the Times monkeyed with the list by changing which booksellers it used for the list. It made sure that the list was heavily represented by small “quality” literary East Coast bookstores. (Another writer friend, obsessed with the Times list, got a copy of Times-approved bookstores long about 1994, and there were very few stores in the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest, the Deep South, and the Southwest on that list. Mostly, the list was East Coast and California booksellers—at least that week.)

It was a dream, though, to be on that list. A powerful one, for me, so powerful in fact that when Allyson Longueira of WMG Publishing discovered late last year that I had had a number of New York Times bestsellers, she got angry at me.

“Why haven’t we put that on your books?” she asked—okay, she demanded.

“Well,” I said, “because most of those books were tie-ins.”

Most?” she asked. (Okay, again. Demanded.) “Not all?

“No, but in those days, the list was only the top ten. I was in the top 15, which wasn’t even really called the extended.”

And you didn’t tell me?

“Why should I?” I asked.

“Because it counts.”

And then, Dean, imp that he can be at times, added that my tally of being on the Times list didn’t include all of the anthologies I was in that hit the list—things that indie authors count now, with their bundles and everything else.

“But…but…but…” I sputtered. And then I stopped. Because the dream had reared its ugly head.

I wanted to be on the list to make millions and be super successful with one book. Like I had imagined as a teenager. Before I knew how the list worked. Before I understood velocity and books shipped versus books sold.

Before I understood what Marie Force said above: that the readers are the most important thing, not some ego-driven list that no one else cares about except me.

There are days when I wish that the lists did work the way I had imagined them working back in my youth. But none of them do, not even Amazon. Amazon only measures what’s selling on Amazon at the moment, and your climb up that list is about what else is selling at any given time.

Yep, I’ve hit #1 on more Amazon lists than I can count, including under pen names with free books (from my old traditional publishers) and lemme tell you, that’s a hollow victory.

Manipulating the lists makes me feel dirty, and I didn’t figure out why for years.

I finally had to assess why I feel that way.

I’m a reader first. I love what I love as a reader, and I don’t care what some list tells me. I’m a major fan of a lot of writers, not because they’re popular, but because their work speaks to me.

A few weeks ago, I told some writer friends that I’d rather have 1,000 true fans on my mailing list than 50,000 people who signed up because maybe they might get a free book from some contest.

I really value the fans, and the readers. They like my work, they support it. They keep me honest, and they think of things I never would have. They write email, and most importantly of all—

They give up their time and their hard-earned dollars to wander around in my imagination for a few hours.

What greater honor is that? I’m very grateful for each and every one of them. I know how precious reading time can be, and I’m so pleased that they choose to spend some of their time with my work.

I’m so pleased that Marie Force put her divorce from bestseller mania into words. I love how she respects the dreams of writers who haven’t yet achieved that goal, and yet still manages to talk about her situation. I love her last line—which I won’t spoil for you.

I love her perspective.

We have a new metric now on success. It should have been our old metric: the number of actual sales of our books to real readers. Not books shipped. Not some list that can be gamed. But the accumulation of readers who actually like and spend money on our work.

In the words of Marie Force:

I’m going to celebrate EVERY single sale, regardless of whether it contributes to elevating me onto a bestseller list, and that’s what I should’ve been doing all along.

We all should have been doing that all along. The entire publishing industry should have been doing it all along.

And now we can.

I have to relearn this lesson about readers over and over again. When I first started this blog, eight years ago this week, I worried for a moment that no one would read it. Then I decided that I’d simply put the information out there, and if people read it, fine. If not, fine. That weekly ticking clock would enable me to finish a book that I thought people might read.

After writing the first few posts, I packaged them up with a table of contents and a proposal for the book, and sent them to my then-agent. He was trying to figure out how to market something called The Freelancer’s Survival Guide, warning me that we’d make maybe $2500 as an advance.

By the time that warning had come in—mid-summer—I had already made more than that in donations and, more importantly, I had five times the readership on a weekly basis than he said we’d ever get in book sales.

I pulled the project, and I haven’t looked back.

Now The Freelancer’s Survival Guide has over a hundred thousand of readers (not counting you folks who listened to it in audio), and none of that has been through traditional publishing. Nor has the book had any major marketing push, ever. And all the while it has remained free on this website.

The new world of publishing indeed. I like this much better.

Thank you all for reading the blog every week. Thank you for supporting it. Thank you for sharing it.

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“Business Musings: Bestseller Lists And Other Dreams,” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2017 by Canstock Photo/ serrnovik. Image in the blog copyright © 2017 by Canstock Photo/ famveldman


25 thoughts on “Business Musings: Bestseller Lists and Other Dreams

  1. “I’m a reader first. I love what I love as a reader, and I don’t care what some list tells me. I’m a major fan of a lot of writers, not because they’re popular, but because their work speaks to me.

    A few weeks ago, I told some writer friends that I’d rather have 1,000 true fans on my mailing list than 50,000 people who signed up because maybe they might get a free book from some contest.

    I really value the fans, and the readers. They like my work, they support it. They keep me honest, and they think of things I never would have. They write email, and most importantly of all—

    They give up their time and their hard-earned dollars to wander around in my imagination for a few hours.”


    Great post but this part really spoke to me.

  2. Totally love your words, Kris! Thank you for pointing out something so many authors miss. Maybe some day I’ll write a “tell all” on what I experienced in “Indie Land!”

  3. Once I went to college, I remember looking at the NYT best seller list and realizing that it had very little to do with what my friends and I were reading. We were all on the intellectual side. But most of the literary stuff wasn’t what we were looking for outside of class. This was in the early eighties, but I still haven’t lost my skepticism about the best seller lists. I looked up how they were compiled and they seemed to be open to manipulation.

  4. I can’t believe the pettiness of those who go to look at a few of your books’ rankings – I can’t afford adrenaline, but I would like to show them, once and for all, what you REALLY make from the long-tail model with all the tie-ins and pen names you have used so well for so many years. (Also, none of their business.) And THEN push their faces down in the mud.

    You may have thick skin, but to see you attacked drives me nuts. I read every business post you write, knowing I’m receiving gold bullion, even if I can’t use every bit – yet.

    I will never be able to be the KIND of writer you are, but I will respect your creativity and business savvy forever.

    PLEASE don’t stop writing because of the trolls. Us smart indies out here appreciate your wisdom. Maybe even some of the traddies do.

    1. Thanks, Alicia. I appreciate the really kind words.

      Don’t worry. I won’t stop writing because of the trolls. I hesitate to say this, because it might inspire some to up their game, but compared to the stuff that I got in person in the 1990s from so-called professionals in the field, these folks are amateurs. My skin is very thick now. I’d rather be doing what I love and what I do. Those folks have issues of their own, which leads them to attack others or call into question what they read because they can’t handle the information being given out. So, keep that in mind, and don’t let your blood pressure rise.

      Again, thanks.

    2. I agree, Alicia. 🙂
      I suggest not responding to their comments. Only click bait comments to get others reading their blogs. And you can’t argue with a fool, so don’t bother trying. Waste of your own time. 🙂
      Best to read all Kris’ advice, and slowly put in place, ignoring negative comments.

  5. Kris,
    Thanks for the mention of my blog. I appreciate the kind thoughts and the support of my desire to take a step back from the madness. One thing I’d like to add, though, is that it wasn’t really about validation with the bestseller lists so much as getting caught up in the routine of gaming them. I get plenty of validation from my readers, my sales, the endless demand for MORE of my series, etc. The lists were never about true validation to me, but I certainly did get sucked up in the notion that once you are there, it becomes a race to STAY there. That’s the attitude I’ve had enough of. I’m a bestselling author. For the rest of my life, I will be a bestselling author. I don’t need to see my name on the lists to know that. And it’s such a relief to step out of that rat race. Thanks for all you do for authors!

  6. Ugh, “Velocity.” The vast majority of pre-order announcements I get seem like wasted sales opportunities. All I get is a cover, book description, and no way to view a sample. If they look interesting, I want to read a sample before I make a decision to buy. And then I want the book, today. But with no book anytime soon, or even a sample to judge it by, it goes on the wishlist (maybe), where I’ll get back to it later (maybe.) It’s probably the instant gratification of ebooks, but showing me something I can’t have or even properly evaluate just annoys me.

    There are probably only 3-4 series I’m reading now, where I’ll buy the next book sight unseen. The rest would have had much better click-through if the book had been available when I got the announcement.

  7. Having recently read one of those silly ‘look at HER rankings’ comment threads, the ijits were more than thoroughly trounced by the ‘did you actually read what she wrote’ and ‘check your facts’ brigade. 😀

    1. I was there for one of those “look at her rankings” discussions. I”m more interested when writers say they are making a living, paying the bills. Whatever the rankings, if they’re doing that, they DID IT. Writing full time, paying bills, living life their way. I know writers who quit day jobs and work their writing, love their fans, and live on writing income. They’re not JK or Stephen K or NOra R rich, but they do what they want for a living. Success, imo.

      Plus the indie community should know better: it’s the aggregation of all streams of income, not ONE book or the rankings of books. It’s the INCOME of everything out there. Although, sure, who wouldn’t want to be top 100 on Amazon, cause, lots of sales and lots of moolah. But it’s the long game, not the hot week, that makes a writer’s life a writer’s life.

      I think the only time I don’t mind someone bringing out the rankings is when someone publishes a “Foolproof Way to be a BEstselling Amazon Author” type book, and their rank is 1 or 3 million. Yeah, well, that deserves a shout-out.

  8. Kris,

    Thanks as always for sharing your thoughts.

    I agree fully that making a living because of connecting with readers should be the focus. That said, one thing struck me as off:

    Mailing lists. The 1,000 true fans vs 50,000 people who may have come in via contests.
    All the contests are is a way to boost discoverability. I haven’t tried contests yet. Don’t know if/when I will. But I am planning to run ads giving away a free book to get more names –and hopefully readers– to my mailing list (which is currently at 1000). It’s a way to say “Hey there! Like books? You may like mine. First one’s free.”

    In my mind, even running contests is about getting readers. It’s not about numbers on a mailing list. I’ve read several case studies by authors who run contests and end up selling a lot of books –to readers– which proves that a goodly number of folks who came on board because of a contest end up connecting to their books.

    Is it gaming a system to boost discoverability in these ways? And if more people are reading an author’s books because of it, does it matter?

    One reason I’m back to writing fiction after many years away –and being a trad pubbed nonfiction author– is that we now have so many tools at our disposal to connect with readers directly. It makes all the difference.

    – Thorn

    1. Thorn, I’ve been thinking about this for a few days, since this post went live on Patreon. I’m going to do a longer post on this, but here’s the thing: A lot of people are using newsletters for marketing to new readers, while I think of newsletters as something for fans and readers who like my work. Using the newsletter the other way is making it an advertising flyer. There’s a lot of good in doing advertisers, but you have to be careful how you do it.

      I’d rather have my newsletter go to people who already know and like my work. The newsletter grows slowly and organically. I’ve done some of those “get lots of newsletter signup” promotions, and while they grew the list, I wasn’t happy even though my list grew. It took this comment and others to make me realize why. More on this soon.

      Thanks for making the point.

      1. I don’t see why I wouldn’t want to reach out to new readers via a newsletter, especially as writers are having success building readership with this. It seems like –from what folks are saying– that they are able to build relationships with new readers via the newsletter. As we know, social media is catch-as-catch-can for building relationships.

        So…I’m still not sure why I wouldn’t want to reach out to new readers via a newsletter. It doesn’t have to turn into a numbers game. I think any system can get unbalanced, and as long as the writers are focused on connecting to readers, that seems good to me.

        I’ll be interested in your further thoughts.

        1. Yes, that’s right.You can reach new readers with a newsletter. And that’ll work if done properly. But most writers aren’t doing it properly. As with all advertising, you need to know what your goal is. If it is to acquire new readers, then gear your newsletter to new readers. If it’s to reward and interact with long-time readers or fans, then gear your newsletter that way. As I said, this needs to be a longer piece, not just one sentence. And your query got me thinking about it. All approaches are valid, but they’re different, and in all my reading on this kind of marketing, no one has acknowledged that.

          Thanks for the blog idea, Thorn. 🙂

  9. Thanks for another insightful post. This perspective is what helps writers write the books that readers want to read. The journey of a writer is an adventure in itself, and it can easily morph into a nightmare if the goals are like that of winning the lottery, always straining to be in that top slot.

  10. Another fine article (or rather two, with Marie Force’s). These are hardly the first I’ve seen on demystifying the Lists, but they’re some of the best.

    What most fascinates me is that you show how the lists’ “velocity not volume” model made real sales sense for you once, that making an instant impact to get books on the shelves was the best way to keep them from being flushed out next week. And that’s one more thing that’s obsoleted by online stores and ebooks that don’t need shelves. (That and, I’m sure the “NYT bookstore” system used to be a necessary sampling method to get scattered data to represent the country– not that we trust how they pick their samples.)

  11. I, too, grew up in the “your are nothing if you don’t hit the NYT list” world. It’s a sham, as you said. My readers call the shots. If I’m writing to the level I need to be and writing the stories I need to be, the readers tell me by buying them and writing to me about them. That’s all that matters. While also a labor of love, writing is a business–a fabulous business, endlessly fascinating, but ultimately a writer must feed her family:) So, my focus is on the readers. As always, thank you for your wonderful, right-on perspective.

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