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New York Times bestseller list

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New York Times bestseller list

The New York Times Best Seller list is widely considered the preeminent list of best-selling books in the United States.[1][2] It is published weekly in The New York Times Book Review.[1] The best-seller list has been ongoing since October 12, 1931.[1]


Although the first best seller list in America was published in 1895, in The Bookman, a best seller list was not published in the New York Times until 36 years later with little fanfare on October 12, 1931.[3][4] It consisted of five fiction and four non-fiction books for New York City.[4] The following month the list was expanded to eight cities, with a separate list published for each city.[4] By the early 1940s, fourteen cities were included. A national list was created on April 9, 1942 in The New York Times Book Review (Sundays) as a supplement to the regular city lists (Monday edition).[4] The national list was ranked according to how many times the book appeared in the city lists.[4] A few years later, the city lists were eliminated entirely leaving only the national ranking list, it was compiled according to "reports from leading booksellers in 22 cities".[4] This methodology of ranking by bookseller sales figures remains to this day although the exact data compilation process is a trade secret and has evolved over time.[5]

By the 1950s, the Times list had become the leading best seller list for book professionals to monitor, along with Publishers Weekly.[4] In the 1960s and 70s, mall-based chain bookstores Waldenbooks, B. Dalton, and Crown Books came to the forefront with a business model of selling newly published (frontline) titles, in particular mass-market appeal best-sellers, thus placing increased emphasis on the New York Times list for book readers and book sellers.[4]


The list is composed by the editors of the "News Surveys" department, not by The New York Times Book Review department, where it's published.[6] It is based on weekly sales reports obtained from selected samples of independent and chain bookstores and wholesalers throughout the United States.[6] The sales figures are widely believed to represent books that have actually been sold at retail, rather than wholesale,[7] as the Times surveys booksellers in an attempt to better reflect what is purchased by individual buyers. Some books are flagged with a dagger indicating that a significant number of bulk orders had been received by retail bookstores.[8] The Times reported in 2013 that "we [generally do not] track the sales of classic literature," and thus for example new translations of Dante's Inferno would not be found on the best seller list.[9]

The exact method for compiling the data obtained from the booksellers is classified as a trade secret.[5] Book Review staff editor Gregory Cowles explained the method "is a secret both to protect our product and to make sure people can't try to rig the system. Even in the Book Review itself, we don't know (the news surveys department's) precise methods."[6] In 1992, the survey encompassed over 3,000 bookstores as well as "representative wholesalers with more than 28,000 other retail outlets, including variety stores and supermarkets."[5] By 2004, the number was 4,000 bookstores as well as an unstated number of wholesalers.[4] Data is adjusted to give more weight to independent book stores which are underrepresented in the sample.[4]

The lists are divided among fiction and non-fiction, print and e-book, paperback and hardcover; each list contains fifteen to twenty titles. Expanded lists that show additional titles are available online through the Book Review website. The lists have been subdivided several times. "Advice, How-To, and Miscellaneous" debuted as a list of five on January 1, 1984. It was created because advice best-sellers were sometimes crowding the general non-fiction list.[10] Its inaugural number one bestseller, The Body Principal by Victoria Principal, had been number ten and number twelve on the non-fiction lists for the two preceding weeks.[11] In July 2000, the "Children's Best Sellers" was created after the Harry Potter series had stayed in the top spots on the fiction list for an extended period of time.[12] The children's list was printed monthly until Feb. 13th 2011 when it was changed to once an issue (weekly). In September 2007, the paperback fiction list was divided into "trade" and "mass-market" sections, in order to give more visibility to the trade paperbacks that were more often reviewed by the newspaper itself.[13] In November 2010, The New York Times announced it would be tracking e-book best-seller lists in fiction and nonfiction starting in early 2011.[14] "RoyaltyShare, a San Diego-based company that tracks data and aggregates sales information for publishers, will … provide [e-book] data".[14] The two new e-book lists were first published with the February 13, 2011 issue, the first tracks combined print and e-book sales, the second tracks e-book sales only (both lists are further sub-divided into Fiction and Non-fiction). In addition a third new list was published on the web only which tracks combined print sales (hardcover and paperback) in fiction and nonfiction. In December 16, 2012, the children's chapter books list was divided into two new lists: middle-grade (ages 8-12) and young adult (age 12-18), both which include sales across all platforms (hard, paper and e-book).


The list has been criticized by authors, publishers, book industry executives, and others for not providing an accurate accounting of true best-seller status.[4] These criticisms have been ongoing ever since the list originated.[4] A book industry report in the 1940s found that best-seller lists were a poor indicator of sales, since they were based on misleading data and were only measuring fast sales (see 'fast sale' criticism below).[4] A 2004 report quoted a senior book marketing executive who said the rankings were "smoke and mirrors"; while a report in Book History found that many professionals in the book industry "scoffed at the notion that the lists are accurate".[4]

Specific criticisms include:

  • Fast sales.[15][4] A book that never makes the list can actually outsell books on the best-seller list. This is because the best-seller list reflects sales in a given week, not total sales. Thus, one book may sell heavily in a given week, making the list, while another may sell at a slower pace, never making the list, but selling more copies over time.
  • Double counting. By including wholesalers in the polls along with retail bookstores, books may be double-counted.[4] Wholesalers report how much they sell to retailers, and retailers report how much they sell to customers, thus there can be overlap with the same book being reported sold twice within a given time frame. In addition, retailers may return books to wholesalers months later if they never sell, thus creating a "sale" reported that never was. For example mass-market paperbacks can see as high as 40% return rates from the retailer back to the wholesaler.[4]
  • Manipulation by authors and publishers.[4] Author Jacqueline Susann (Valley of the Dolls) attempted to "butter-up" Times-reporting booksellers, and personally bought large quantities of her own book.[4] Author Wayne Dyer (Your Erroneous Zones) purchased thousands of copies of his own book.[4] Al Neuharth, former head of Gannett Company, had his Gannett Foundation buy two-thousand copies of his own autobiography Confessions of an S. O. B.[4] In 1995, authors Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema spent $200,000 to buy ten thousand copies of The Discipline of Market Leaders from dozens of bookstores.[4] Although they denied any wrong doing, the book spent 15 weeks on the list. As a result of this scandal the Times began placing a dagger symbol next to any title for which bookstores reported bulk orders.[4]
  • Manipulation by retailers and wholesalers.[4] It happens with regularity that wholesalers and retailers deliberately or inadvertently manipulate the sales data they report to the Times.[4] Since being on the Times best-seller list increases the sales of a book, bookstores and wholesalers may report a book is a best-seller before it actually is one, in order that it might later become a "legitimate" best-seller through increased sales due to being on the best-seller list.[4] The best-seller list becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for the booksellers.
  • Leading data collection. The Times provides booksellers with a form containing a list of books it believes might be bestsellers, to check off, with an alternative "Other" column to fill in manually.[4] It's been criticized as a leading technique to create a best-seller list based on books the Times thinks might be included.[4] One bookseller compared it to a voting card in which two options for President are provided: "Bill Clinton and Other".[4]
  • Self-fulfilling. Once a book makes it onto the list it is heavily marketed as a "best-seller", purchased by readers who seek out best-sellers, given preferential treatment by retailers, online and offline, who create special best-seller categories including special in-store placement and price discounts, is carried by retailers that generally don't carry other books (eg. supermarkets).[4] Thus the list can become self-fulfilling in determining which books have high sales and remain on the list.[4]
  • Conflicts of interest. Due to high financial impact of making the list, since the 1970s publishers have created escalator clauses for major authors stipulating that if a book makes the list the author will receive extra money, based on where it ranks and for how long.[4] Authors may also be able to charge higher speaking fees for the status of being a best-seller.[4] As Book History said, "With so much at stake then, it is no wonder that enormous marketing effort goes into getting a book access to this major marketing tool."[4]


In 1983, author William Peter Blatty sued the New York Times for 6 million dollars claiming that his latest book, Legion (filmed as The Exorcist III), had not been included in the list due to either negligence or intentional falsehood, saying it should have been included due to high sales.[4] The Times countered that the list was not mathematically objective rather editorial content and thus protected under the Constitution as free speech. Blatty appealed it to the Supreme Court which declined to hear the case, thus the lower court ruling stood that the list is editorial content, not objective factual content - the Times had the right to exclude books from the list.[4]

In 1995, the authors of a book called The Discipline of Market Leaders colluded to manipulate their book onto the best seller charts. The authors allegedly purchased over 10,000 copies of their own book in small and strategically placed orders at bookstores whose sales are reported to Bookscan. Because of the benefits of making The New York Times Best Seller list (speaking engagements, more book deals, and consulting) the authors felt that buying their own work was an investment that would pay for itself. The book climbed to No. 4 on the list where it sat for 15 weeks, also peaking at No. 1 on the BusinessWeek best seller list. Since such lists hold the power of cumulative advantage, chart success often begets more chart success. Although such efforts are not illegal, they are considered unethical by publishers.[16]

In 1999, announced a 50 percent decrease in price for books on the Best Seller List to beat its competition, Barnes and Noble.[17] After a legal dispute between Amazon and The New York Times, Amazon was permitted to keep using the list on condition that it displayed it in alphabetical rather than numerical order.[18] Since 2010 (or earlier), this is no longer the case. Amazon now displays the best-seller list in order of best selling titles first.[19]


A Stanford Business School analysis[20] found that the majority of book buyers use the Times' list for buying ideas. The study concluded that lesser-known writers get the biggest benefit from being on the list, while perennial best-selling authors such as Danielle Steel or John Grisham see no benefit of additional sales.

See also


External links

  • The New York Times Best Seller List (current)
  • The New York Times Best Seller List (historical)
  • Previous Fiction #1 Best Sellers
  • Previous Non-Fiction #1 Best Sellers
  • Controversy Regarding New Children's List
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