It’s an honor that many authors covet and it has the power to boost a writer’s name much higher in the public consciousness. Seeing it mentioned on a cover increases a book’s sales. And yet most people don’t really understand just how it works. I am of course talking about an appearance on a major book bestseller list.
The New York Times and USA Today are the 2 biggest, and while they come up with different results, they both work in largely the same way. According to the New York Times their weekly lists cover a typical calendar week of Sunday through Saturday and include sales data submitted to them from, “tens of thousands of brick-and-mortar stores of all sizes, as well as from a large number of online bookselling vendors.” Of course, they won’t divulge just who those stores are, to prevent authors or publishing companies from trying to game the rankings. There has been some recent controversy claiming that the paper uses editorial control to keep some books from appearing on the list despite having sold a large number of copies, with claims mostly coming from conservative writers. The paper claims that they do not engage in any such practice, even noting that over the last decade, the author who has spent the largest number of weeks on their hardcover nonfiction list is Bill O’Reilly with a total of 438. Beyond saying that and mentioning that being reviewed in the paper does not affect chart appearance they only note that, “A number of variables go into whether a book will rank on a given week.” They also point out that releasing your book on the same week that a lot of books from blockbuster authors also come out is likely to prevent you from getting a spot on the chart, as the minimum sales threshold is much higher than it would be on a slower week.
While the NYT publishes several different lists of around 15 books, USA Today only publishes 1, with 150 titles listed (only the top 50 are printed in the paper, the rest of the list is available online). This means that fiction, nonfiction, children’s and whatever else you can think of are all vying for spots against each other. They pull their sales data from a week running Monday through Sunday, which can already lead to a discrepancy between the 2 papers, and they tend to lean more heavily on national big-box stores like Target, Costco, and Books-A-Million for their information, which can also affect the list. That being said, while they don’t always agree on who gets the number 1 spot, they still largely contain the same titles. This means that neither is an exact science, but both can be considered a pretty reliable gauge of just what Americans are reading in a given week.