Mystery of the Bestseller List


In my years in publishing, one of the most interesting aspects has been the evolution of bestseller lists. The primary source of confusion for authors and publishers of Christian books is that the most influential bestseller lists (New York Times, USA Today, Publishers Weekly) do not consider sales of books at Christian retailers in their calculations to any great extent. Hence, Christian books are handicapped from the beginning as they compete with the general market/non-Christian books on the various lists.

There is no comprehensive national bestseller list for Christian books.  There are lists that count sales mostly in general retail and those that count sales mostly in Christian stores, but there is no list that combines the sales in any meaningful way. Add to this the large number Christian books sold through ministries, specialty racks (Choice Books, etc.), book clubs and by authors themselves. None of those sales count for best-seller lists.

The music and movie industries have highly developed reporting processes for sales. Books do not. The only accurate reporting for all sales comes from publishers themselves, but with the potential for returns from various channels, that data is viewed in a long-term manner.

While there is some sampling of data from Christian channels in some of the most prominent lists, most of the sales are ignored.  Here are some basics about the various lists:

  • The New York Times (which is actually twenty different lists), USA Today and Publisher’s Weekly lists do not consider sales occurring in Christian-only channels to any great extent, which in most cases can reach 70% of the units sold of a title. Those sales included are only a sample.
  • The bestseller list from CBA  (the trade association for Christian retailers) is a good apples-to-apples monthly comparison within the stores who report to their proprietary CROSS:SCAN, but does not reflect anything outside of those stores.
  • The bestseller list from ECPA  (the trade association for Christian publishers) is also a good apples-to-apples comparison each month with data submitted to the PubTrack system from a variety of sources.  ECPA combines sales from Christian and some general channels through their multi-channel list each month, but is really only good for comparison as the data is a sample.
  • Bookscan data does not generate a bestseller list per se, but as a widely used data service, it pulls from a variety of sources, some Christian stores, but again, ignores the lion’s share of Christian channels.  It is a sample of sales.

So, the best book publishing can offer is a sample of sales. There is no great conspiracy on the part of the influential secular lists to exclude Christian books…they simply consider Christian stores as “specialty” retailers. The same would be true for books sold in card and gift stores.

A final point about bestseller lists. They all have editors. That means no list is a simple download of data without review. If a book sells a majority of copies through one store that reports to one of the lists, it will probably be excluded from consideration since the sales are not spread broadly and do not reflect a widespread trend.

In the future, when you look at a bestseller list containing Christian products, be aware that the data included is a sample and take it with a measure of salt.

Your turn:

Did this post cause you to rethink anything?

15 Responses to Mystery of the Bestseller List

  1. Debra L. Butterfield (@debbutterfield) September 24, 2013 at 4:52 am #

    This sounds almost as unreliable as Congress. What I’ve always wondered is just how many books does a title have to sell to be considered a best seller?

    • Cecelia Dowdy September 24, 2013 at 6:27 am #

      I have the same question as Debra. How many books does a title have to sell to be a best seller? I’m assuming it’s all relative – depending on the percentage of copies sold in comparison to the total sales that are being considered?

      It’d be interesting to see an inception-to-date list of all NY Times best sellers – then see the book which sold the fewest copies yet still made the list. I’d like to see the number of copies sold for that title.

      • Dan Balow September 24, 2013 at 7:49 am #

        Thats the million dollar question. To make the top 50 of either the CBA or ECPA lists, you might only need to sell 500 copies in a month in the stores who report…roughly averaging one per store.

        For the USA Today list, since it is a weekly list and includes everyone, you are probably looking at about 10,000 per WEEK in order to show up.

        New York Times has 20 weekly lists and so the numbers are lower in general, but still you would need to sell 3-5,000 per week to make it somewhere on one of the lists.

        Still, everything is relative…you can sell 15,000 copies in a week and be #1 on one of the New York Times list and then sell 18,000 the next week and be #7…just because 6 other books sold more than that.

    • Dan Balow September 24, 2013 at 7:58 am #

      It is not so much how many total a book sells in total, but how quickly it sells. There are titles that can sell 100,000 copies in their lifetime, but never be on a best-seller list because it sold consistently over a long period of time, but not a fast seller.

      Then there are titles that sell 20,000 in a four month period and is on all the BSL’s.

  2. Diana Harkness September 24, 2013 at 6:16 am #

    I stopped shopping at Christian bookstores years ago because the one store in the area that was truly a “book” store closed. The other stores did not carry in stock books I wanted to read but filled their shelves with items having little or no lasting value. I purchase most of my books from Amazon and have since their inception because the Christian stores did not have what I wanted. I don’t know if Amazon is among the best seller reporters, but they should be. I don’t blame any of the lists for not considering Christina book stores since I also would consider their sales out of the mainstream.

    • Dan Balow September 24, 2013 at 8:47 am #

      Amazon reports to both the New York Times and USA Today lists…a significant and growing influence on both lists…especially with ebooks.

  3. Thomas Allbaugh September 24, 2013 at 7:26 am #

    This is very interesting. I wonder why more isn’t done to try and track the sales of CBA titles.

    • Dan Balow September 24, 2013 at 7:51 am #

      There is a movement to do just that…

  4. Rick Barry September 24, 2013 at 10:06 am #

    Dan, your topic reminds me of the experience of one author friend. When he saw his novel listed on the publisher’s website among their “Top Sellers,” he rejoiced and assumed all was well. He proceeded to work on his next novel. When he submitted the second one to the same publisher, it received a lukewarm reception. Why? Because, he was told, his first one experienced soft sales. Evidently someone had tried to boost sales by hyping the product, thus deceiving the author, who would have helped push it harder had he realized the truth.

    • Cecelia Dowdy September 24, 2013 at 11:26 am #

      Hmm. Outside of the author or publisher using somewhat dishonest means for hyping book sales, I’m unclear about what motive a third party would have by doing this? I’m not implying that this is not true, I’m sure it is, but, I just find it puzzling. I wonder if it was a good friend or relative of the author who did it, trying to “help out a friend.”

      • Rick Barry September 24, 2013 at 11:39 am #

        Cecilia, this wasn’t the work of a third party. Evidently someone inside the publishing house (which I won’t name, of course) tried to push sales of some titles by implying they were selling better than they really were. Whether that was the decision of someone in marketing or some other department, I can only speculate. I don’t mention the incident to gripe, but simply to add another facet to the topic of best sellers.

  5. Jeanne Takenaka September 24, 2013 at 12:16 pm #

    This is an interesting post, Dan. I hadn’t considered how books got onto best seller lists, and all the elements that factor into a book “making it” onto one of the lists.

    It got me thinking, for those of us who write “Christian fiction,” it sounds like it is wise to go with a publisher who will sell our books in “regular” bookstores as well as “Christian bookstores.”

    It also made me wonder how important it is to publishers to have books that make the BSL’s. Is this something they push for with certain books? With all the books published, I find it hard to believe they would have the resources to market their books so they all land on a BSL.

    You got me thinking today. Thank you for that. :)

    • Dan Balow September 24, 2013 at 1:23 pm #

      Every Christian publisher has a good relationship with Christian stores and also general market retail. Maybe real small publishers would have a difficult time with Amazon or B&N, but not many.

      Years ago it was possible to manipulate the best-seller lists (I won’t go into how it was done), but now, sales data is more transparent and so I honestly feel like the lists are a lot cleaner now than ever before.

  6. Heather Day Gilbert September 24, 2013 at 4:18 pm #

    Dan, every time I read one of your posts I learn something new. So glad for your industry insights…I’ve wondered how skewed that NYT bestseller list is, but then I do see some CBA books making the cut, like Julie Cantrell’s INTO THE FREE (which definitely deserves it!). Thanks for this interesting info–you mention how years ago the lists could be manipulated–I remember reading that if you could buy (or have someone buy) a certain number of your books, you could have a good shot at it. Maybe that no longer applies? NOT that I would ever be able to do that, anyway! Ha.

  7. Jackie Layton September 24, 2013 at 5:42 pm #

    Very interesting. It’s not as simple as selling the most books makes your story a “best seller.”

    Thanks for sharing.

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