It’s Just Business

May 27, 2008 | Karin's Blog | 21 comments

So Edie posed a question yesterday, wondering what it took to get a book on the best seller list. Talk about a loaded question! I’ll take a stab at it, and my stab is an overall take, sans the many nuances that can and do have an effect on sales.

Okay, so let’s begin with the good book is a foregone conclusion part. Does it have to be a stellar, out of this world book? Not for a vet with a solid readership it doesn’t, but for a newbie? It’s a damn good idea, although that said, I have seen a few debut authors hit lists with a mediocre book. But for a good book, here’s how hitting a list happens:

First and foremost the one ingredient you must have to hit a list no matter what, is your publisher’s backing. There is a lot that goes into this. It begins with buzz in house, then the sales team taking that buzz outside and selling the hell out of your book. Your orders go up and voila you have a major print run (and for the record you do not need a 150K plus print run to hit a major list. It can be done with half that, but it’s unusual, however not impossible). Distribution is also key. The book must be out there for the reader to buy. Not just brick and motor books stores. It needs to be everywhere books are sold! Viral marketing, on line promoting, blogs, mailing masses of bookmarks and trinkets is but a tiny ripple in the buzz pond. It’s distribution and that lovely word co op. What is co op you ask? Co op is that front table at Border’s and Barns and Noble. It’s the # 7 spot on the Bestseller list at the grocery store. It’s having your book face out on that rack in the drug store. It’s real estate, baby, purchased to showcase your book. Book dumps and end caps go a long way.

When you’re standing in line at the grocery store and you look down and there’s a book dump with a hot new historical, what do you do? You pick it up. It’s called impulse buying, and since we ladies like books, we touch it, pick it up, turn it over and then we are hooked. Do you think you’d have purchased this new-to-you author if the book was shoved in the corner in the back of the romance section at your neighborhood Barnes and Noble? Hell no, but if it was on the new release fiction table in the front to of the store the book has a much better chance. Wal-Mart? Target? Kmart? They sell the hell out of books. Not everyone gets picked up there, but if you’re an established fave or your publisher’s lead title for that month your chances are hugely increased.
The old adage out of sight out of mine applies perfectly. If the book is not in view and no one knows to ask for it, you will never hit a list.

Now, assuming all of the above criteria is met, the next step to hitting a list is velocity of sales. How does one get this? Buy having their publisher strictly enforcing the lay down date. Most don’t, some are Nazi about it. What this means is, Master of Surrender is scheduled to release Tuesday June 24th. Since the books will already be in the book stores before then, if they put the books out before the release date, which is the lay down date, then sales trickle in. So when the actual lay down day comes the book loses velocity of sales, and since velocity is crucial, a book that sells incredibly well may very well not hit a list because sales leaked out the week before. Very conceivably, if a book with less actual sales is held to the lay down date and gets those sales for that week it can hit a list ahead of the book that sold more but had leak out sales. Happens all of the time. So, here’s the thing, lists are great! But at the end of the day it’s always all about the sales. Always.

Now there is the list and then there is the extended list. You can call yourself a New York Times Bestselling author if your book hits at the # 15 spot or lower. # 16 -50 (I think it’s 50 could be 35 or it might be 100) is considered the extended list. NY Times bases their ranking by preorders and how they think based on those orders the book will sell. USA Today is based on actual sales. Not all booksellers report to the lists. Case in point Wal-Mart doesn’t, and hasn’t since earlier this year which sucks for authors whose books fly off the shelves at Wal-Mart but not say Borders. Which stores do report? There is a combination of indies and chain stores who report. It’s a hugely guarded secret.

Now that I have depressed you all, just remember, lists are great! They stroke the ego, they look good in sig lines, and well, it means something, but what really matters at the end of the day is solid sales with no returns!

Feel free to chime in, especially if you can add to this information (I think I’ll hunt down my friend Allison Brennan, and ask her to chime in, she’s a whiz when it comes to hitting a list) or ask a question if you have one.
Tomorrow, I’ll tackle Holly’s question. She wants to know how you know if you’re wasting your time writing (as in how do you know you suck or have the talent to go all the way).



  1. Allison Brennan

    Karin got it pretty much right, but I’ll add a few things:

    1) Print run used to matter a lot more than it does now. In mass market, it used to be 150K for extended NYT and 200K+ for print list; that has completely changed since Walmart stopped reporting. You don’t need to be in Walmart in any great numbers (or at all) and you can still hit the NYT print list. You can have a 100K print run and hit higher than someone who has a 400K print run. It all depends on velocity (how fast your book sells within XX period of time) and distribution.

    2) The NYT list changed last year. Slots 1-20 are the print list; 21-35 is “also selling’ which is available online, but not in print (and therefore not reprinted in a gazillion papers across the country.)

    3) NYT polls stores. Some stores are weighted more heavily than others. No one seems to know who and what or why. Most (not all) groceries and drug stores do NOT report because they don’t have POS information on a daily or weekly basis; some accounts I don’t hear about for MONTHS after the book goes on sale (usually when mass returns come in, 6-9 months after the on sale date.) My best guess is that independents are weighted more heavily than other stores; brick and mortar stores are weighted more heavily than mass merchandisers. I don’t know this FOR SURE, but it’s a gut feeling when I look at the list and know where the books have the best positioning.

    4) USAT is POS and they claim they use bookscan. Bookscan claims they track 70-75% of book sales in the country. Bookscan is @20-25% of my sales. Bookscan does not include Walmart and some other IDs. If there is no POS ability, then they are not tracked in bookscan. Because mass market is more widely available in Walmart and non-traditional outlets (groceries, drug stores, gas stations) bookscan is worse at tracking them than, say, hardcovers which are sold in greater numbers online and through more traditional outlets. I have a feeling, based on watching the USAT list the last few months, that they have recently changed the way they report. Fewer mass markets than ever before are on their top 150 list. Again, it’s my guess, not my knowledge.

    5) Most publishing houses will only put New York Times Bestselling Author if you hit the print list. Some will put it if you hit the extended list.

    Hope that helps!

  2. Karin

    Told, ya she’d add a thing or five!

    Thanks, A. My eyes still cross at all of this.

  3. Edie

    This is great! Thanks, Karin and Allison. Karin, my eyes are crossed too. You’d think with everything on computers, collecting numbers would be easy. I guess not.

  4. Kay Lockner

    Terrific blog, Karin! And cheers to Allison for sharing her thoughts too. The whole tracking and ranking process is so confusing. Thanks to you both for shedding light on some of the key pieces to the puzzle.

  5. Karin

    Thanks, Kay and so glad you stopped by. 🙂

  6. Karin

    LD, we’ve had the talk. You know what you need to do. 🙂

  7. Allison Brennan

    Kathy, Book Sense bestseller lists are based on what is selling in Book Sense stores (which I believe is a coalition of independent book sellers, but I may be wrong.)


  8. Karin

    BookSense is scanned sales in independent book stores. Some people say the indies give the best snap shop of what’s selling. I’m not sure I agree especially when it comes to my genre romance.

    As to your last question, sadly, the small presses, among other things, do not have the distribution to position a book to hit. Even if the book creates a buzz and sales pick up chances are the time for velocity will have passed.

  9. Holly D

    Thanks Karin & Allison for helpful information.

  10. Karin

    a reminder to all, email questions to and note i will keep all names private. i didn’t this time coz edie and holly asked in public, not that you can’t ask in public, you can, but, well, you know what i mean.
    and kathy back at you, the criss-cross of paths is the way to enlightenment. I love blogs!

  11. MonicaMcCarty

    Great topic, Karin, trying to figure out the lists will drive you crazy. A little more on Walmart and the USA Today…as Allison said they seemed to have changed things around last December and for a while it looked like Walmart had stopped reporting to the USA Today (there were far fewer books and the books that did make it on pretty much lined up with the top Bookscan books). But in the last month or so that has changed and I think Walmart might be reporting again. Just my suspicion based on the fact that way more MMs were on a few weeks ago–including some that weren’t in the top numbers on bookscan. It’s all so secretive though, who knows. 🙂

  12. Cynthia Eden

    Karin, this was a fabulous post! Such great information.

  13. LaDonna

    Wow, Karin, my head is full! 🙂 A little confusing, but verra interesting. Thanks for giving me a view. I’d like a slot on that ‘er List someday too!

  14. Ames

    Also…I THINK the publishers have to pay for strict laydown dates. Some will, some won’t. And if I missed that part, forgive me for repeating!

  15. Nancy Haddock

    Karin, marvelous post! And thanks, Allison, for adding to the discussion. I have a much clearer idea of how making these lists work.

    My debut spent 3 weeks in the top 20 in its category (romance trade) on the BGI, B&N and Bookscan lists, and has now been on the B&N list for 7 weeks. Not the NYT or USA Today, but I was stoked about the lists it did make. Do these lists work in a similar way to NYT and USAT?

    La Vida Vampire

  16. Kathy Calarco

    Karin, there is nothing depressing about what you shared. If anything, I’m more stoked! I never knew how the NYT came up with their list. I just assumed it had to do with whatever the publishers reported. Obviously NOT!

    And WOW about WalMart. How uncooperative of them. I’ve never bought books there (pretty much I stick with Borders and B&N).

    Tell me this – I always pick my reads from the Book Sense best sellers list. Do you know if that operates the same way as NYT?

    Also, can I assume that authors published through the smaller presses most likely won’t see the light of NYT Best Sellers List?

    Thanks again for this blog. Also, thanks to Allison for chiming in.

  17. Kathy Calarco

    Thanks, K & A. I don’t mean to gush, but I am so thrilled to have crossed both your paths. You girlz are the BOMB! Can’t wait until next weeks edition!

  18. Elisabeth Naughton

    Wow. My head is spinning. I have so much to learn in the next few months.

    Thanks, Karin and Allison, for the crash course on lists.

  19. Karin

    Nancy congrats on those lists! It is a definite indicator your book is selling. I’ll take one of those lists any day!

    Muwahahahahahaaaaaa, Eli, such fresh meat you are…

  20. Karin

    Monica, thanks for chiming in. I really hope Wal-Mart is reporting again, their numbers will give a truer picture of a book’s sales.

    Ames, I don’t know if the publishers pay, but I know they fine the bookstores for early lay down. I have a source I’m going to ask right now, and I’ll get back to you on this.

    Cynthia, I aim to enlighten. 🙂

  21. Elisabeth Naughton

    Great, Karin. 😉 I’ll be the one in SF with deer-in-the-headlight eyes.


  1. Magical Musings » Blog Archive » Thursday’s Links - [...] Karin Tabke has started a Tuesday blog on the business of publishing. This Tuesday’s question was about what it…

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