Thursday, August 18, 2011

What bestseller list can you trust?

The calculation for the New York Times Bestseller list is a closely guarded secret. In the past it was based off of sales to retailers (not books bought in the stores) so it was possible to hit the list by an aggressive sales campaign to bookstores. This meant that some not-so-bestselling books hit the list because buy-in is not the same as sell-through and the huge returns were not accounted for after the fact.

Also in the past, the NYT indicated that they did not take into account online sales, though I suspect they do nowadays because online sales superstars are now hitting the list (even some self-published authors even though the list description clearly states that self-published works are excluded.

In October 2009, the NYT started using Nielson Bookscan data which takes into account "actual sales" as recorded by readers actually walking out the door with books in their hands - but the BookScan data misses a lot of sales and is terribly inaccurate.

I'm not a big fan of the NYT list - it seems pretty biased to the the "old model" where bookstores ruled the book buying world.

Amazon, on the other hand, is based on real live actual sales directly to consumers, so this is the list I spend a great deal of my time reviewing. And the great thing about Amazon's lists is not only do they track the top 100 in multiple categories, but they also have the Mover's and Shaker's list that shows whose sales have skyrocketed in a short burst.

I watch the Mover and Shaker list a lot. It alerts me to recent trends and promotional aspects - for instance the way I first noticed "The Big Deal" and "Sunshine Deals" wasn't from an email announcement or noticing the links on the pages...but because the Mover and Shaker list had some strange movement (a bunch of books going from 1,200 - 3,400 suddenly showing up at 200 - 300.

To bet on the Movers and Shaker List you have to be ranked 400 or less and your change in ranking from one day to the next has to be significant. Ridan authors have been on the Mover's and Shaker's lists a lot. People who have made the list include: Michael Sullivan, Nathan Lowell, Leslie Ann Moore, and now Joe Haldeman.

Joe's Forever War first hit the list on 8/12/2011. I don't have a list of all the times it was on as titles tend to bounce on and off the list but here are some snapshots I found:
  • 8/12/2011 - #9 moved from 529 to 377 (40% increase)
  • 8/13/2011 - #93 moved from 410 to 378 (8% increase)
  • 8/17/2011 - #37 moved from 404 to 318 (16% increase)
  • 8/18/2011 - #56 moved from 354 to 297 (19% increase)
There are a few milestones I look for with any title.

  • 1,000 - once you reach this you're doing well enough that the Amazon engine of recommendation and also bought are starting to pay some dividends.

  • 400 - eligible for Mover's and Shakers - usually once you hit this level it is easy to stay in the 200 - 500 ranking as you are getting more exposure through the Amazon engine

  • 100 - The big time, if you hit this list you are really doing something. Most indies and self-published authors only hit this with price breaks (most are $0.99). There have been a few $2.99 on the list but they are usually second books in a series. There has only been one author that I've seen that hit the list with $3.99 and that is J.R. Rain who did so with books #3 and #4 of a Vampire Series. I'm still waiting for a fiction $4.99 book to hit the list - there have been a few non-fiction one by John Locke the other by Seth Godin.
Sadly, no Ridan author has hit the top 100...yet. I few got very close:
  • Full Share by Nathan Lowell - 117
  • Soldier of the Legion by Marshall Thomas - 148
  • The Crown Conspiracy by Michael J. Sullivan - 102
As we price our books at $4.95 it's a bit harder for us to get onto the list - I'm sure if I dropped one of the popular books to $0.99 then it would get on the list but that would be trading income for a high ranking and I'm not willing to do that.

So, I'll continue to count on the Amazon lists for my "finger on the pulse" of the books that are selling well - they have the biggest share of the market and their data is based on actual sales and I like that rather than some obscure algorithm.

Here's to hoping all of you will one day find yourself on one of those lists.


Anne R. Allen said...

Great Post. Will RT! Thanks for the comments and messages. Will email soon.

CareyCorp said...

Great post. And you are so right about pricing and lists. I know many authors that have impressive sales and are making lists, but are earning very little money at $.99. I know other authors who are priced a little higher and are not making lists, but their sales income is higher. The authors who are really doing well, seem to use a tiered approach. They price between $2.99-$3.99 at launch and then reduce to $.99 when their next title comes out.

David Gaughran said...

Great post Robin.

I've never really trusted bestseller lists. The figures are usually cooked one way or another.

I have much more faith in Amazon's rankings. I would reserve some judgement on not knowing what feeds into the algorithm, but generally, I would consider it a much truer measure of a book's performance, at least in that sales channel.

The only lists I've made are a little more esoteric, although have bounced around the outside of the Top 1000 with "Let's Get Digital" on a few occasions now, which I'm pretty happy with given that it's non-fiction.

Fingers crossed for the next one!

David Gaughran said...

Oh, and the point on price is a good one. As Bob Mayer has pointed out, it only (!) takes him 126,000 sales to best John Locke's much touted 1 million sales in terms of income.

CC Carlquist said...

Great post! I always suspected that about the NYT Bestseller list. And also there being a stong and social link to NY publishing PR/marketing departments and cocktails after 5.

Rex Jameson said...

Great post, Robin! Though not in the top 100, Ridan's authors have been consistently in the top 1,000 and at your price point, that is very impressive!

Antalya City Blog said...
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Robert Bidinotto said...

I loved this post. Valuable information I haven't seen elsewhere -- especially about what happens on Amazon with promotion at various ranking levels.

After initial weeks of a quick, steady climb, my debut thriller has been bouncing between 1600 and 2300 or so for a couple of days, and has been moving up three Amazon subcategory Top 100 lists, too. Let's see just how far an aging indie with only one book, priced at $3.99, can go. So far, your tips have been invaluable.