It is something of an understatement to say that Colleen Hoover dominated the 2022 overall bestsellers list. Hoover had the top three books of the year, and her novels sold 14.3 million print copies at outlets that report to NPD BookScan. Of the 25 books on the list, eight were Hoover titles, and two, It Ends with Us and Verity, sold more than two million copies each.
Last year was a very good year for adult fiction overall, as evidenced by the 8.5% annual sales increase posted by the category (see “The Winning Streak Ends,” p. 8) and by its prevalence at the top of the overall bestsellers list. Fifteen of the 25 top-selling books were adult fiction, and another five titles were either juvenile fiction or young adult fiction. The top-selling nonfiction book was James Clear’s Atomic Habits,at #6.
The only other author besides Hoover to place more than one title on the top 25 list was Emily Henry, who scored with Book Lovers and People We Meet on Vacation,at #21 and #25, respectively. The strong showing by Hoover also crowded out some perennial chart toppers, including James Patterson, whose Run, Rose, Run (written with Dolly Parton) was at #26 (with about 515,000 copies sold), and John Grisham, whose The Boys from Biloxi sold about 495,000 copies, landing it at #29 on the overall list.
The list clearly shows that readers were ready for some escapism in 2022, after nearly three years of pandemic concerns and an ever more divisive political environment. The bestselling title related to politics last year was Red Handed: How American Elites Get Rich by Helping China Win by Peter Schweizer, which sold about 245,000 copies. The top-performing book critical of former president Trump was Maggie Haberman’s Confidence Man, which sold about 127,000 copies; former vice president Mike Pence’s memoir sold approximately 112,000 copies.
NPD data is based on roughly 85 percent of trade print books sold in the United States through direct reporting from major retailers, including Amazon, so the overlap is almost inevitable. For PG, the overlap is an indicator of Amazon’s domination of the bookselling business.
In my Pocket Reader app, I stored a September article from BBC News as much for the article’s title as its content. That title? “When Is A Bestseller Not Necessarily A Bestseller?”
I think that’s been the burning question in publishing for the past ten years. Bestsellers haven’t entirely lost their meaning, but they’re not relevant the way that they were twenty years ago. Back in the day when traditional publishing controlled 99% of the books that we saw on shelves (before ebooks), a bestseller was the book that sold the best out of the myriad of bookstores.
Even then, those bestseller lists were rigged. I can’t tell you how many times I had colleagues who gamed The New York Times list (the easiest one to buy your way onto, if you had the list of “acceptable” bookstores). It was a relief to have USA Today base its list on actual reported sales across all stores, including the chains. Even those numbers were flawed, though, because they were self-reported by most of the publishers.
Data has never been traditional publishing’s strong suit.
Last week, I examined traditional publishing and the mess that it has become, a mess that has led at least one industry expert to conclude that the services traditional publishers provide are essentially meaningless.
The anecdotal evidence has existed for years. I know several Big Name romance writers who can no longer live off their royalties like they did twenty years ago. Fortunately, a lot of them were good at money management, so they have cash stashed away and their homes are paid for.
Last year, Kat Martin, at 20Booksto50K here in Las Vegas, stated,
I think [the backlist is] a real negative for traditional publishing. Once you sell them your book, they have your book and they own it for years. And they do pay you a nice fat fee up front, so it’s kind of a trade off, but it’s not a long-term, it’s not a retirement thing, because they’re making money off the backlist. You don’t. They give you a percentage, but…the big money, I think, for long term is probably in self-publishing.
. . . .
Because everyone comes to Vegas at one point or another, Dean and I had a lot of opportunities to talk with writer friends who are (or were) traditionally published bestsellers. Dean had lunch with a person whose work would be considered a major (mega) bestseller. That person expressed shock that the backlist, which once earned a tidy income, earned little more than a trickle now.
That person could no longer sell their books to the Big Five, despite the continuing good numbers on the backlist. The small publisher the person went with is going belly-up, and the author was looking at other ways to publish.
I can’t tell you how many conversations we have with writers in a similar position.
PG started TPV nearly twelve years ago to talk about the book business with an emphasis on self-publishing.
For those with long memories, PG blogged about the 2012 antitrust litigation brought by the US Justice Department and 33 state attorneys general against Apple, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin Books, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette Book Group, Inc., alleging that the defendants conspired to fix prices in the sale of e-books, primarily motivated by the challenge presented by Amazon’s price discounting of books to their traditional business model and agreement to keep ebook prices high to support their print book business and their close-to-exclusive access to prime shelf space in traditional bookstores.
Some of the major publishers caved and settled charges against them by paying large fines. Apple Penguin, and Macmillan didn’t settle and ended up losing at the trial level and in the US Circuit Court of Appeals. Apple tried to take its appeal the the US Supreme Court, but that court declined to accept the case, meaning that Apple, Penguin and Macmillan ended up losing and paying large fines to the US and the 33 states that joined in the antitrust suit.
In essence, Apple and Big Publishing tried to crush Amazon’s book business and, especially, its ebook business, an effort that flamed out in spectacular fashion. Amazon kept doing its thing and grew into one of the largest tech companies around, including selling more books than anyone else by a large margin.
Traditional publishers continued their long decline as self-publishing through Amazon kept growing. Unfortunately, Covid shutdowns finished off more than a few bookstores and nobody pays much attention to Barnes & Noble any more.
PG hasn’t seen anything about the physical bookstore business in the UK or Europe recently, but would be surprised if ebooks weren’t steadily increasing their market share in those places as well.
As for himself, PG reads about 98% of his book pages electronically. He has a hard time finishing the occasional physical book that comes into his hands because his Kindle allows him to read while his creaking spinal column is in a far more comfortable position.
Every month, Publishing Trends runs fiction international bestsellers lists from four territories–France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. This month, our four regular territories are joined by two more: Thailand and the United Arab Emirates. Those books that have been published in English are listed with their official English-language title. All others are translated as literally as possible from the original. Where applicable, the US publisher is listed after the local publisher, separated by a “/”. The lists are taken from major newspapers or national retailers, which are noted at the bottom of each list.
It’s a fundamental principle of quantum physics that an object can have no known properties until someone observes it. Most of us have been introduced to the concept through the parable of Schrödinger’s cat: you seal a cat and something poisonous in a box, where it exists in a dual-state, or non-state, of life and death until you pull the lid off and look at it. This isn’t a real experiment, since quantum phenomena occur only on the subatomic level.
But increasingly physicists are trying to impose the precepts of quantum mechanics, which is based in probabilities, upon the classical, measurable, firmly verifiable model of the universe. To do so consigns objectivity to the dustbin; reality itself becomes relative, since it requires a witness to bring it into being. Or, as Cormac McCarthy neatly phrases it in his novel “The Passenger,” “Nothing is anything unless there’s another thing.”
“The Passenger,” out this week, appears in tandem with “Stella Maris,” to be published in December. These novels, arriving 16 years after Mr. McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winner “The Road,” have been rumored for so long that their own reality began to seem suspect. But the remarkable quantity of scientific theory they incorporate explains the delay. Together the books tell the stories of brother and sister Bobby and Alicia Western. Their father was a physicist who helped develop nuclear weapons with the Manhattan Project. Bobby studied physics, too, but dropped out to kick around the world before becoming, as we find him in “The Passenger,” a salvage diver in New Orleans. Alicia is a schizophrenic mathematics savant tormented by her ability to follow numbers to places that bear no resemblance to accepted reality. The two books stand in dynamic if often perplexing relation, each informing and undermining its sibling work. Frequently they read less like novels than illustrations of a long-contemplated hypothesis—like elaborate thought experiments demonstrating the strangeness (to Mr. McCarthy, the nightmare) of a universe governed by quantum uncertainty.
“The Passenger,” by far the more novelistic of the pair, begins with a plane crash. With a barebones salvage crew, Bobby enters a private jet submerged in the waters off Pass Christian, Miss. Everyone inside is dead, but one passenger appears to be missing, along with the pilot’s flight bag and the plane’s black box. In the days that follow, Bobby is questioned and trailed around New Orleans by shadowy G-men. Soon they’ve put a lien on his bank account, impounded his car and revoked his passport, forcing Bobby to live as a fugitive. In time it becomes clear that the mystery of the sabotaged flight is a MacGuffin that Mr. McCarthy does not intend to elucidate; what endures instead is the atmosphere of paranoia, and Bobby’s attendant loneliness as he is comprehensively stripped of his identity.
. . . .
Novels of ideas are not what one would anticipate from the author of the famously gore-spattered western “Blood Meridian.” So it’s worth pointing out that “The Road,” from 2006, is not in fact Mr. McCarthy’s most recent published writing. That would be a pair of articles from 2017 in the science magazine Nautilus, theorizing about the origins of language but also meditating on the workings of the unconscious. Since the 1980s Mr. McCarthy, who is now 89, has been a member of the Santa Fe Institute, a theoretical-research center known for cultivating unorthodox ideas. Readers who want to get anywhere with these two novels need to understand that they are partly the product of the author’s countless bull sessions with Nobel Prize-winning physicists. Such “lunches,” Mr. McCarthy says in one article, could run to 10 hours.
Culture industries increasingly use our data to sell us their products. It’s time to use their data to study them. To that end, we created the Post45 Data Collective, an open access site that peer reviews and publishes literary and cultural data. This is a partnership between the Data Collective and Public Books, a series called Hacking the Culture Industries, brings you data-driven essays that change how we understand audiobooks, bestselling books, streaming music, video games, influential literary institutions such as the New York Times and the New Yorker, and more. Together, they show a new way of understanding how culture is made, and how we can make it better.
Laura McGrath and Dan Sinykin
In 1983, William Blatty—author of The Exorcist—sued the New York Times.1 His lawsuit alleged that the Times had incorrectly excluded his latest novel, Legion (a sequel to The Exorcist), from its bestseller list—the coveted ranking that purports to show the books that have sold the most copies that week in the United States. According to Blatty’s lawyers, Legion had sold enough copies to warrant a spot on the list, so its absence was due to negligence or fraud, for which Blatty was entitled to compensation. The Times countered with what might sound like a surprising admission: the bestseller list is not mathematically objective; it is editorial content, which is protected by the First Amendment. The court ruled in favor of the New York Times.
The Blatty case draws attention to a fundamental truth about bestseller lists, one that often gets forgotten amid the drama of their weekly publication: they are not a neutral window into what the public is really reading. Rather, they reflect editorial decisions about how and what to count. Changes on the list might reflect changes in counting procedure, rather than changes in the market. Despite their lack of neutrality—or, perhaps, because of it—these editorial and counting decisions can have a big effect on which books and authors get the honor of appearing on the list; in turn, they shape the public’s perception of what it is reading and what it should consider reading next.
In this piece, I want to explore one way such decisions have affected the Times list over its almost 90-year publication history: the separation of sales by book format (hardcover, paperback). In the 1950s and 1960s, the fact that the Times exclusively publicized hardcover sales meant that some of the most popular novelists of the time rarely appeared on the list, because they made most of their sales in paperback. Today, the Times publishes distinct lists for different formats, and the content of these lists often reflects status hierarchies associated with different genres and communities of readers.
It turns out, then, that “bestseller” is a more complicated category than you might at first think. Though its name seems to refer to something very straightforward, there are all sorts of weird historical factors and counting choices that affect whether a book might make the cut. Given the influence of the Times list, it’s worth examining the effects of the choices made when assembling it, and what they can tell us about the kinds of information about books we consider valuable.
Ask a Gen Z woman what she’s read recently, and there’s a good chance two names will come up: Colleen Hoover and Emily Henry.
“Gen Z is my favorite of all generations for so many reasons, and their love for reading is just one of the many,” Hoover said. “I love that they are consuming books and sharing books and recommending books. They’re reading so much – not only my books, but books across genres.”
For months, Hoover and Henry have occupied multiple spots on the New York Times paperback trade fiction bestsellers list. The success of these contemporary romance writers has been driven in large part by Gen Z readers – and social media.
Hoover’s upcoming book, It Starts With Us – the highly anticipated sequel to It Ends With Us from 2016 – has more pre-orders than any novel in Simon & Schuster history – and there are still seven weeks to publication. Its pre-orders have surpassed Stephen King’s Dr. Sleep, which went on sale in 2013 – the publishing company’s previous leader.
What makes a romance novel a Gen Z hit
A decade ago, the main demographic for romance was women ages 35 to 54. But in the past several years, that has widened to include women 18 to 54, according to Colleen Hoover’s publicist Ariele Fredman.
“Gen Z is a huge audience for romance,” she said. “If you think about it, like millennials, their youth has been marked by global and social upset and unrest in many ways, so looking for a happy ever after or an emotional outlet in a book seems like a healthy way of coping.”
Kaileigh Klein, a 19-year-old college student in Ontario, Canada said she loves Hoover’s books for just this reason – for the big emotions she writes about.
“People [my age] gravitate towards her novels because they’re really emotional. I feel like even if you can’t express emotion in real life, reading it on paper, it’s really easy to connect to it and relate to it,” she said.
Sahar Kariem, a 22-year-old stylist from Maryland, said Emily Henry’s “balance of romance and life lessons,” as well as themes of coming of age, have cemented Henry as one of her favorite authors.
Meanwhile, marketing trends, like covering contemporary romance novel jackets with cartoon figures and bright colors, has also helped pull in a younger audience, according to Leah Koch, who co-owns The Ripped Bodice, a romance bookstore in Los Angeles.
“I don’t know that I’ll ever have a grasp on it, but I’d like to think they’re responding to the entertainment factor,” Hoover said. “The last few years have been wild in the best way, and I’m very grateful to readers who continue to share my books and the books of other authors on their social platforms.”
This has been the summer of Colleen Hoover, a recent viral TikTok announced, editing together clips of young women at the beach reading books by the Texas novelist. Furthermore, just a couple of months ago we had a Colleen Hoover spring and before that a Colleen Hoover winter and before that a Colleen Hoover fall. On any given week for more than a year now, the 42-year-old Hoover has had three to six books on Publishers Weekly’s top 10 bestseller list. Currently three of the top five titles on the New York Times’ combined print and e-book fiction list are Hoover’s. The most popular of these novels, It Ends With Us, isn’t even new. It was published six years ago. A forthcoming sequel to that novel (or possibly a prequel, it’s not yet clear), It Starts With Us, will be published in October, its perch at the summit of both lists guaranteed.
Observers typically attribute Hoover’s success to BookTok, the segment of TikTok dedicated to authors and readers. And Hoover—known as CoHo to her fans, who call themselves Cohorts—is indeed the queen of BookTok, an adept TikToker herself, as well as the subject of countless videos in which young women appear clutching huge stacks of candy-colored CoHo paperbacks and proceed to rank their favorites among her 24 titles. But while Hoover might just be the ideal author to preside over TikTok, the platform is only the latest online vehicle she had ridden to fame and fortune. She sometimes presents herself as surprised by her own virality, but Hoover has been a savvy self-promoter since 2012, when she distributed free copies of her first, self-published YA novel, Slammed, to influential book bloggers. She was big on BookTube (the YouTube book community) and big on “Bookstagram” well before TikTok came along. Furthermore, her story—social worker and mom transformed into blockbuster author via whatever new technology of the moment is ostensibly revolutionizing the book business (self-publishing, blogging, Instagram, TikTok)—is catnip to traditional news outlets.
But a new technology can’t make readers love a book. It can only persuade people to read it. What is it about Hoover’s work that makes it so popular, so infectiously recommendable? Her novels do seem particularly well-suited to the currently ascendant TikTok because the platform favors big, grabby displays of emotion, as opposed to the tasteful lifestyle curation of Instagram, formerly touted as the hot new way to sell books. CoHo fans on TikTok record themselves sobbing, screaming, gasping in astonishment, and pressing her books to their hearts in winsome displays of adoration. Often, actual words are superfluous to communicating the reader’s response—in fact, they may be more of a hindrance than a help. Above all, BookTok conveys that Hoover’s fiction delivers power jolts of unadulterated feels.
Hoover’s books are more varied than the work of many bestselling novelists. You pretty much know what you’re getting when you grab a James Patterson thriller before boarding a long flight. But Hoover has written YA, romantic comedies, a ghost story, a gothic suspense novel, problem novels exploring such difficult issues as domestic violence and child sexual abuse, and steamy romances like Ugly Love, a novel about an affair between a nurse and an airline pilot that I estimate to be about 70 percent sex scenes. Not all of the Cohorts adore all of her books, but they’ve shown themselves to be willing to follow her into relatively uncharted territory and to appreciate what they find there. (Note to anyone reading further: There will be spoilers.)
Romance of one kind or another plays a role in every Hoover novel, and to judge by her TikTok fans, they speak to an audience with a well-developed awareness of the romance genre’s established—not to say shopworn—tropes.
Currently three of the top five titles on the New York Times’ combined print and e-book fiction list are Hoover’s.
The United States’ market’s print book sales declined by 1.6 million units in July by comparison to the four weeks prior, according to data from the NPD Group’s NPD BookScan update from Kristen McLean.
In her discussion, McLean writes, “Losses in July are historically normal and were a little shallower this year, resulting in 1-point year-to-date gain. July ended 6 percent lower for the year to date on a total print volume of 414 million units, which is 26 million units under 2021 but 51 million units over 2019.”
The upshot, then, is a steady field, “pretty consistent trends across the first seven months of the year,” McLean says. “I don’t expect any major change of course before Labor Day; it seems increasingly likely that we’ll see incremental market movements heading into Q4, and at the moment the larger economic volatility isn’t hitting too hard.”
. . . .
As far as bestseller charts, July’s bestsellers in the States were all fiction, McLean points out, and nine of the Top 10 were adult fiction.
Four of the Top 10 were frontlist titles—again, a point being carefully watched in the American market. The four frontlisted titles have their titles in blue below. Only one of those bestsellers is in hardcover.
PG notes that nine out of the Top Ten were trade paperbacks which typically have lower royalty rates than hardcovers and ebooks (and earn less for the publisher on a per-unit basis).
Amazon’s top sellers are hard to match with a monthly trade publishing top ten list because, to the best of PG’s knowledge, Zon updates its charts in close to real time. If Amazon posts a monthly top-ten list, PG doesn’t know about it.
However, here is Amazon’s list of the Top Ten Best-Selling Paper Books for the week ending July 24:
In 2017, by age 24, Rachel Richards had already worked as a financial advisor and then as a financial analyst at a manufacturing firm. After picking up her license, she began working as a Realtor. No matter what kind of work she was doing, one thing remained constant: People in her life were constantly looking to her for help with their finances.
“I began to wonder, ‘Why aren’t they learning on their own? Why aren’t they reading books, or listening to podcasts or looking on websites?’” says Richards, now 30.
Then it dawned on her: Most of the financial books she’d come across were boring and esoteric, bordering on intimidating. And few were targeted toward young women. “So I thought to myself, ‘How can I make this topic sassy and fun and simple?’”
Richards began writing her first book, “Money Honey” in January 2017 and self-published on Amazon that September. By just about any measure, it was a massive success. In its first month, the book brought in $600. The next month it brought in $1,000. “After that, it was pulling in $1,500 a month pretty consistently,” she says.
. . . .
The robust income she earned from publishing didn’t hurt. All told, through the end of July 2022, Richards has sold about 25,000 copies each of “Money Honey” and her second self-published book, “Passive Income, Aggressive Retirement,” a 2019 release which details her strategies for early retirement.
In 2021, royalties from the two titles netted Richards more than $97,000 in profit. Here’s how she did it.
She self-published online
Richards, like many aspiring authors, dreamed of seeing her name in print through the window of her local bookstore. She also hoped that with a traditional book deal, the publisher would handle the labor-intensive task of promoting the book. That turned out not to be the case.
“The more I asked authors about their experience, the more I learned that publishers expect you to do 99% of the marketing and promotion,” Richards says. “If you’re an author with no platform, they’re not going to send you out on a national book tour.”
Once she learned she’d have to flog the book herself no matter what, Richards was far less inclined to give a publisher a big chunk of her royalties. “When you get a book deal, you earn a 10% to 15% royalty. When you publish on Amazon, you earn a 35% to 70% royalty.” (Royalty structures vary between different formats, such as e-books and paperbacks, and factor in costs such as shipping and tax.)
She also says that self-publishing guarantees creative control, even if it comes at a cost. Thinking her book wouldn’t sell and hoping to limit her losses, Richards spent just $561 to hire an editor and a cover designer for “Money Honey.” She says a more “realistic” minimum budget is at least $2,000 and ideally would include an interior formatter as well. She spent $3,500 putting together her second book.
1) Charles Dickens : The grandfather of British fiction Dickens has some of the most memorable titles to his name. ‘Great Expectations’, ‘Bleak House’, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, ‘A Christmas Carol’ to name a few.
2) Roald Dahl: Famous for his amazing and imaginative books for kids, many of which are also adult-friendly, such as ‘Matilda’, ‘The BFG’, ‘James and the Giant Peach’ and, of course ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’.
3) J.R.R. Tolkien: Tolkien is the incredible author that brought us ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings trilogy’. These books redefined the fantasy fiction genre and are still held in high esteem today.
4) J. K. Rowling: An author which everyone’s heard of these days, and if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading the gripping ‘Harry Potter’ books you’re definitely missing out. A modern giant.
5) C.S. Lewis: Author of the amazing ‘Chronicles of Narnia’, Lewis’ other titles include ‘The Space Trilogy’, ‘The Great Divorce’, ‘The Problem of Pain’ and ‘The Four Loves’.
6) Sir Terry Pratchett: Famous for the ‘Discworld’ series, which are written in a parody-style of many of the fantasy genre’s great authors, such as J. R. R. Tolkien and H. P. Lovecraft.
7) Philip Pullman: Most famous for the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, Pullman also has other works under his belt, such as the ‘Sally Lockhart’ books and his stand alone novels ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’ and ‘I Was a Rat! or The Scarlet Slippers’
8 ) Ian McEwan: One of Britain’s best-loved authors with titles such as ‘The Child in Time’, ‘Enduring Love’ and ‘Atonement’ to his name.
9) John Le Carré: Famed for his espionage novels with real-world experience of working in MI5 and MI6, adding to his air of mystery. Some of his most popular novels include ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’, ‘The Constant Gardener’ and ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’.
10) George Orwell: The acclaimed author of some of Britain’s best known works, including ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, as well as ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ and ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, both of which are based on Orwell’s own life.
I am always interested in why young people become writers, and from talking with many I have concluded that most do not want to be writers working eight and ten hours a day and accomplishing little; they want to have been writers, garnering the rewards of having completed a best-seller. They aspire to the rewards of writing but not to the travail.
The bestseller list is a surprisingly complicated creature. A good and thorough explanation is here, but basically, to get on any official list of bestsellers, you have to sell at least 5,000 books in a single week—which seems straightforward, except that it’s really hard to count books sold week-to-week, even harder to count books sold by non-traditional outlets, and also not everyone is looking at all the same numbers. Publisher’s Weekly uses BookScan, but BookScan doesn’t track everything. Other bestseller lists rely on reported data from bookstores (online and off), or a combination. The New York Times list is the most prestigious, of course, because it’s the New York Times, but also, at least in part, because it’s the most opaque. “The Times’s best-seller lists are based on a detailed analysis of book sales from a wide range of retailers who provide us with specific and confidential context of their sales each week,” a New York Times spokesperson told Vox. “These standards are applied consistently, across the board in order to provide Times readers our best assessment of what books are the most broadly popular at that time.” Which doesn’t tell us much, and the Times is notoriously hush-hush about which stores they track and how they interpret and arrange their data.
Despite all the confusion, it’s not super hard to buy 5,000 books in a single week—if you already have the money—which could send your book to the top of the charts, depending on the week in question. This isn’t illegal, but it is gaming the system, or even cheating, if you will, and the New York Times list will sometimes include a dagger next to books they suspect might owe their placement to “strategic bulk purchases.” Worse than that demure little dagger is the fact that you’ll likely be found out and raked over the coals, especially if you’re already a public figure. On the other hand, years after people have forgotten that you scammed your way onto the bestseller list, you’ll still be putting “bestselling author” in front of your name.
Not everyone will forget, though. Considering the recent spate of bestseller-list drama, here are eight notable instances of list-hacking in its various forms, from the very cynical to the very silly.
. . . .
In August, a book very few people had ever heard of shot to the top of the Young Adult Hardcover section of the New York Times bestseller list. The book, Handbook for Mortals, was published by GeekNation, a website launched in 2012, and if that sounds odd, it’s because Sarem’s book (and attendant movie franchise deal) was the geek culture site’s first foray into publishing. It all smells a little pre-packaged, honestly, and the fact that Sarem is JC Chasez’s cousin does not make it smell any fresher.
YA author Phil Stamper brought the oddity to the book world’s attention, tweeting, “I find it . . . strange that a mediocre website can decide it wants to be a publisher, and one month later hit #1 on the NYT Bestsellers list” and “A book that’s out of stock on Amazon and is not currently in any physical B&N in the tri-state area . . . A book that no one has heard of except for the two niche blogs that covered the [GeekNation] press release. Sells ~5,000 in the first week? Ok.” Soon, booksellers began writing to Stamper, reporting that they had been getting mysterious bulk orders of Handbook for Mortals—but only after the caller made sure that their sales were reported to the Times bestseller list. More evidence quickly began to stack up, and by the end of the day, the Times had changed the list. “After investigating the inconsistencies in the most recent reporting cycle, we decided that the sales for Handbook for Mortals did not meet our criteria for inclusion,” a Times spokesperson told NPR in a statement.
In an interview with HuffPost, Sarem said, “OK, I get it. I didn’t play by the normal YA rules. I didn’t […] send out galleys two years in advance, and I didn’t go talk to the people that thought I should come talk to them. I did it a different way. Do you only get to be successful in the YA world if you only do it the way that they think it’s supposed to be done?” Later, she complained, “People keep saying that they’re tired of hearing the same story over and over again. Well, start supporting new stories. Start supporting new artists.”
A couple of weeks later, she wrote an op-ed, also at HuffPost, in which she admitted to buying her own book in bulk to sell it at Comic Con events, but said this was “well within the rules” of the bestseller list. This isn’t really borne out by the evidence, though, which shows many orders and no stock to fill them with—that is, nonexistent books purchased by people who didn’t care if they ever received them.
Fun fact: Blues Traveler, whom Sarem used to manage, tweeted that they “fired her for these kinds of stunts. Her sense of denial is staggering.”
Donald Trump loves to brag about how he’s a great businessman, and how he’s a great bestselling writer, and how he’s a great bestselling writer of a great book about being a great businessman.The Art of the Dealis second only to the Bible, right? But recently in the New Republic, Alex Shephard reported that when it comes to the popularity of The Art of the Deal, Donald Trump may not be as great as all that. Shocker! Shephard reports that ex-Trump executive Jack O’Donnell’s 1991 tell-all Trumped! explains exactly how The Art of the Deal became such a big bestseller: the Trump organization bought “tens of thousands of copies on its own.” Shephard reports:
In his book, O’Donnell recounts buying 1,000 copies of The Art of the Deal to sell in the Plaza’s gift shop—only to be told by fellow executive Steve Hyde that it wasn’t nearly enough. “You’ve got to increase your order,” Hyde told him. “Donald will go nuts if you don’t order more books.” How many more? Four thousand copies, O’Donnell was told.
And it wasn’t just the Plaza Hotel that was buying the book in bulk. According to O’Donnell, Trump executives were instructed to buy thousands of copies for their properties. In typical Trump fashion, the boss pitted his top executives against each other: When Trump’s then-wife, Ivana, ordered 4,000 books for the Trump Castle Casino in Atlantic City, O’Donnell was warned that he needed to match her. “Hey, Jack,” a fellow executive cautioned him, “you better buy as many books as Ivana, or Donald will use it against you.”
To be fair, Shephard says, The Art of the Deal would have wound up a bestseller anyway. But only last year, Trump pulled the same thing with his book Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again (which I have never heard of), buying $55,055 worth of copies at Barnes & Noble. Again, not illegal—unless he gets any royalties from the purchases. “It’s fine for a candidate’s book to be purchased by his committee, but it’s impermissible to receive royalties from the publisher,” a representative of nonpartisan nonprofit Campaign Legal Center told The Daily Beast. “That amounts to an illegal conversion of campaign funds to personal use. There’s a well established precedent from the FEC that funds from the campaign account can’t end up in your own pocket.” Of course, that probably didn’t stop him. It’s Donald Trump, after all.
Over the past few weeks, scandal has rocked the august institution of the New York Times best-seller list. And it’s happened not just once but twice.
On August 24, an unknown book by an unknown author from an unknown publisher rocketed its way to first place on the Times’s young adult hardcover best-seller list. But as a scrappy band of investigators who congregated in the YA Twitter community discovered, it wasn’t because a lot of people were reading the book. Handbook for Mortals by Lani Sarem bought its way onto the list, they concluded, with the publisher and author strategically ordering large numbers of the book from stores that report their sales to the New York Times. Shortly thereafter, the Times removed the book from its rankings.
And on September 4, Regnery Books — the conservative publishing imprint that publishes Ann Coulter and Dinesh D’Souza, among others — denounced the New York Times best-seller list as biased against conservatives. Why, it demanded, was D’Souza’s new book The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left ranked as seventh on the Times’s hardcover nonfiction list when Nielsen BookScan’s data, per Regnery’s interpretation, suggested it should be first? Regnery concluded that the New York Times was actively conspiring against conservative titles, and announced that it would sever all ties with the Times.
To understand how any of this could happen — how different lists can contain different titles, in a different order, how an unknown book could buy its way onto a best-seller list, how a best-seller list could have a political bias — and why any of these things matter, you need to understand how the different best-seller lists work, what makes the New York Times’s best-seller list unique, and the purpose best-seller lists serve within the world of book publishing.
Why is it such a big deal for a book to be named a best-seller?
There are multiple best-seller lists out there, and getting named to any of them is welcome for most authors, but the New York Times best-seller list is widely considered to be the most prestigious, and it’s certainly the most well-known.
Becoming a New York Times best-seller has a measurable effect on a book’s sales, especially for books by debut authors. According to a 2004 study by economics professor Alan Sorensen, appearing on the New York Times’s best-seller list increased debut authors’ sales by 57 percent. On average, it increased sales by 13 or 14 percent.
Besides the list’s effect on sales, it offers prestige. If your book appears on the New York Times list — even just for a week in the last slot of the Advice, How-To & Miscellaneous category — you get to call yourself a New York Times best-seller for the rest of your life. You can put that honor on the cover of all of your other books. If anyone ever insults you, you can say, “Well, have you written a New York Times best-seller?” (Strategy not recommended if the person who insulted you was Danielle Steel.)
And for the rare book that manages to establish enough of a presence on various best-seller lists, a self-sustaining momentum develops. Not everyone who bought a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey expected to like what they read, but Fifty Shades became such a ubiquitous cultural force that lots of people wanted to have an opinion on it anyway. That inspired them to buy it, and that meant the book stayed on the list.
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At the end of the day, best-seller lists work as shorthand for readers: “Lots of other people liked these books,” they say, “so odds are good that you will too!”
What does it take to be named a best-seller?
The general consensus is that if you want to make your way onto a best-seller list, any best-seller list, you have to sell at least 5,000 books in a week, or maybe 10,000. Beyond that, things get complicated depending on which list you’re looking to end up on.
That’s because the different lists don’t all use the same data. No one has access to all of the sales made by every single book published in the US in a given week. It takes months for publishers to assemble that data; it’s impossible to get it all in time to publish a weekly best-seller list. “At the end of the day, the publishers will have a hundred percent understanding of what was sold,” says Jim Milliot of Publishers Weekly, “but they won’t have it by the end of the week.”
So all of the different best-seller lists have established their own methodologies to gather sales data — and once they’ve got it, they break it down differently. They put the break between one week and another in different spots (ending on Sunday versus Saturday, for example); they use different categories to sort the lists; they weigh digital and print titles differently. Here’s a breakdown of how the five major lists — Publishers Weekly, USA Today, Indiebound, Amazon, and the New York Times — work.
Publishers Weekly, which Regnery has cited as the “benchmark” it will be following henceforward, pulls its data from the Nielsen service BookScan. BookScan is also the service that most publishers use to track their competitors’ sales, so it’s more or less the industry standard.
BookScan reports that it tracks 80 to 85 percent of the sales of printed books in the US, and although that claim has been contested, it certainly gets data from major sellers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, and Walmart, as well as a number of independent bookstores. (BookScan estimates that it collects data from approximately 16,000 outlets every week.)
As she looked at her book’s product page on Amazon, a new traditionally published author asked me what the Amazon Best Sellers Rank means. Did it tell her anything about how many sales were being made? Why are sales rankings always changing?
When it says “only 2 books left,” what does that mean? Though this author was traditionally published, many self-published authors struggle with figuring out what it all means, too.
So let me explain what all these confusing numbers and terms mean for authors.
Whether you’re traditionally or self-published, you can claim your author profile on Amazon through Author Central. After your identity and claim to book titles are verified, you’ll be able to do the following:
Establish an author profile page on Amazon where you can post your bio, videos, and links to your blog or podcast RSS feed.
Access reports for Amazon Best Sellers Rank and NPD Bookscan rankings.
See the most recent customer reviews for your book without having to constantly visit your book product pages on Amazon.
Amazon Best Sellers Rank
The author who contacted me said she was checking “the numbers,” which I presumed was Amazon Best Sellers Rank, “a million times a day.” Dear authors, please don’t do this! Let me explain why.
For the Amazon Best Sellers Rank, sometimes referred to as “BSR,” the lower the BSR number, the higher you rank. Note that for your Kindle editions, your BSR shown on Author Central is for “Paid” books, meaning it doesn’t include Free Kindle Book Promotions. Also, note that this number tells you nothing about the number of books sold.
Your book’s BSR is a constantly moving target. The Amazon Customer Service documentation as of this post date had this to say about Best Sellers Rank:
The Amazon Best Sellers calculation is based on Amazon sales, and is updated hourly to reflect recent and historical sales of every item sold on Amazon. [Emphasis added for hourly.]
With hourly updates, your BSR could vary widely and wildly within the span of just one day. So unless you have the iron emotional stamina of a stock market day trader, basing the evaluation of your book’s success on Amazon’s BSR doesn’t help your physical and mental health.
Here’s something that freaks out authors. Your BSR can improve, sometimes dramatically, without you selling even one book. Or it can decline dramatically, even if you make sales, because there may be a flood of sales for other competing titles. This is because BSR is a calculation based on both recent and historical sales in comparison to other books, though KDP Support documentation says that recent activity is weighted more heavily.
I could not confirm on Amazon documentation if Kindle Unlimited KENP page reads impact BSR. What’s confusing is that KDP says sales ranking is based on “activity.” So are Kindle Unlimited reads considered “activity?” Logically, it seems like it might. But only Amazon knows.
In case you’re wondering, no, we don’t know the exact formula Amazon uses to calculate BSR. Like Google, they are not going to share that to prevent gaming of the system. Since BSR is a metric over which you have zero control, you should have zero worries over it.
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Different Format, Different Sales Rank
Something to also note is that your book title will have a separate BSR for Books, Kindle Store, and Audible, depending on which formats you’re offering. On the “Formats and editions” dropdown box next to your title on Author Central, you can choose which format’s BSR you’d like to view.
Sales rank can vary dramatically from edition to edition. Looking at mine for one particular day, I had a rank in the high 600K range for Kindle, 2.5 million for the paperback print edition, and in the 300K range for the audiobook.
Again, this tells you nothing valuable.
Historical Sales Rank
You can also click the “View historical Sales Rank” link for each of your titles on Author Central to see changes in your BSR over time for that title and each format. Let’s take a look at my first book, which I first published in 2011, then moved to KDP in 2014.
Looking at the graph of the BSR of the Kindle edition of my book, SWAG, for the period of 2014 to 2022, my highest BSR was in 2017 at 2,844. That’s pretty high! And that was three years after I published it on KDP. But it swings wildly from that high point, plummeting to rankings down in the millions.
On your books’ listings on Author Central, you’ll see a link that says “See category rankings on Amazon.” This will send you to your book’s product page on Amazon. You’ll need to scroll down to Product Details to see your book’s ranking in topic categories and subcategories for each format.
This is where you’ll see how your book ranks in comparison to other books in your genre or topic. This is a more valuable ranking report than the placement in the overall BSR. Amazon shows where your book ranks highly within a few of the most popular categories.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein remains an undisputed classic. It’s required reading in classrooms across the world, while artists, writers and filmmakers constantly reinterpret its man-makes-monster premise. The longer you look, in fact, the more extraordinary its success becomes.
First published in 1818, Frankenstein was released in a modest edition of just 500 copies. Some 200 years later, in 2021, a first edition sold at auction for $1.2 million, setting a new record for a book by a female author. Thomas Edison, Mel Brooks and Tim Burton all adapted Frankenstein for the screen, with the total number of film adaptations now well into triple digits. Fresh off the success of Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo Del Toro began pre-production on his own adaptation in the 2010s—his dream project, he said—only to have it killed by the studio. A huge Frankenstein mask still hangs in the entrance to his L.A. home.
There are Frankenstein-inspired dolls for sale at Build-a-Bear. Frankenstein Legos. There’s even a breakfast cereal you can buy seasonally at Target—General Mills’ Frankenberry. Any 19th century novel inspiring this many interpretations is a wonder. But maybe most enviable are the book’s “backlist” sales. As the Guardian reports, Frankenstein still moves an eye-watering 40,000 copies a year, which means it outsells 99% of all “frontlist” (or newly released) titles.
Authors dream of such long-term success. But how to pull it off? Is Frankenstein a freak, or can it show us how to make art that lasts?
“Write a classic” isn’t a strategy, obviously. It’s a goal, plus a highly contingent outcome. No one could recreate the conditions that gave life to Frankenstein—its famous origin story is itself a series of unlikely contingencies. In 1815, Indonesia’s Mount Tambor volcano exploded in the largest, most powerful eruption ever recorded. With so much ash still in the atmosphere, the summer nights of 1816 were gloomier than anyone could remember. It became known as the “year without a summer.”
Mary Shelley, then 18 years old, happened to be staying in a Swiss villa with her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley, next door to the poet Lord Byron and other literary friends. To entertain themselves in the evenings, they told ghost stories, and in the grand tradition of writers everywhere, tried to outdo each other. Later, Mary Shelley would claim a certain monstrous face and form came to her in a waking dream. Two years and three drafts later, Frankenstein was published, though Shelley, fearing scandal, didn’t put her name on it. Instead, the book was published anonymously, which meant that—notwithstanding differences in copyright law then and now—its premise could essentially be pirated in stage plays and elsewhere without attribution.
The novel caught on quickly in part for such perverse reasons. To explain its staying power, however, we have to look further, seeing how Shelley’s novel demonstrates timeless truths about “perennial sellers,” to use Ryan Holiday’s phrase. As he argues in Perennial Seller, “the more important and perennial a problem” that a book concerns, the better the chances it will survive the test of time.
Frankenstein practically bum-rushes the criteria. Its characters’ problems are timeless. Victor Frankenstein, a starry-eyed scientist, is blinded by ambition, leading him to an act of creation he comes to bitterly regret. Meanwhile the monster, like all of us, finds himself here, alive and breathing, without ever having been consulted. Stranded and alone, he craves love. Denied it, he plots revenge. Shelley’s shifting POV, which veers from creator to so-called monster, poses daunting questions: Don’t we all deserve love? If bad treatment creates bad actors, what is our moral responsibility to every person and creature around us?
Helping to make these questions extra sticky is how readers of all ages may identify with an abandoned, rejected child. Impressions from our early childhood stay with us, consciously or unconsciously. Since our parents’ love is key to our survival, all of us know what it is to need it—and far too many know what it means to get something rather less than what they’d hoped. When stories touch us on such universal fears and on longings so fundamental they virtually define our species, then they can survive beyond their own epoch, fascinating no less than an Edison or del Toro.
Acquaintances of Agatha Christie could be forgiven for hesitating when she offered them a cup of tea. Christie was notoriously good at dreaming up undetectable poisons, and prolific with their use—at least in fiction. Out of her 66 murder mysteries, poison was the cause of death for more than 30 characters.
Her familiarity with lethal substances was rooted in real-life experience. Christie, born in the seaside town of Torquay, England, on this day, Sept. 15, 125 years ago, volunteered as a nurse during World War I and was stationed in a hospital dispensary after passing an exam to qualify as an apothecary’s assistant. Prescriptions were prepared by hand in those days, so Christie became intimately familiar with the dosages of a variety of drugs — and their toxic effects, according to Kathryn Harkup, [who wrote] A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie.
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Christie had the literary luck of studying under a pharmacist who seemed to be plucked from the pages of a mystery novel himself. In her autobiography, she writes that he once showed her a lump of a plant extract called curare, which he kept in his pocket, and which killed by inducing paralysis and asphyxiation. He explained that he carried it because “it makes me feel powerful,” per Christie.
The pharmacist later appeared, in thinly fictionalized form, as a character in her 1961 novel The Pale Horse, per Harkup. In real life, however, Christie may have used her knowledge of toxic substances to prevent him from killing people, albeit inadvertently. Harkup relates that the pharmacist once unwittingly prepared a batch of suppositories with ten times more medication than they were meant to contain. Christie wasn’t in a position to correct his mistake; instead “she pretended to trip and sent the suppositories crashing to the floor, where she trod on them firmly. After she had apologised profusely and cleared up the mess, a fresh batch was made, but this time at the correct dilution,” Harkup writes.
Suppositories, of course, would have been an awkward choice for a murder weapon; Christie’s plots relied more heavily on substances that could be slipped into something a British murder victim might eat or drink. The author and pharmacology professor Michael Gerald catalogues Christie’s favorite poisons, and their most effective deployments, in his 1993 book The Poisonous Pen of Agatha Christie. For example, arsenic trioxide is a good fit for teatime, since even 20 times the lethal dose can’t be tasted in a cup of tea. Taxine, on the other hand, is too bitter to go undetected in tea, but mixes well with marmalade.
Christie was, however, understandably aghast when a real-world killer made use of one of her fictional concoctions. In the early 1970s, a British factory worker named Graham Frederick Young killed two of his coworkers by dosing their coffee and tea with thallium, “a tasteless, soluble and highly toxic substance that had never before been used on humans as a poison in Britain,” according to TIME. It had, however, been the murder weapon in The Pale Horse.
Unlike Christie’s fictional villains, Young was easy enough to incriminate without the super-sleuthing skills of Poirot and Marple. When police searched his house, they found “enough thallium to keep a pharmacy in business for an entire month,”
JR Ellis’Murder at St Anne’s (Thomas & Mercer) has clocked in as the Bookstat e-book number one for the week ending 11th December, marking the author’s first number one in the chart.
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The e-book and print charts tend to divert more than ever at this time of year, with the print market so laser-focused on Christmas gifts and e-books still firmly in the self-gifting arena. The Bookstat chart saw a flurry of new entries, with Nicolas Sparks’ The Wish (Sphere), Robert Bryndza’s Darkness Falls (Sphere) and Emma Haughton’s The Dark (Hodder & Stoughton) debuting in the top five.
Retired LAPD detective Harry Bosch, the hero of many a Michael Connelly procedural, shares billing on the dust jacket with Renée Ballard, a younger active-duty officer whose passion for justice matches his, but this is Ballard’s book, with Bosch giving moral and physical support. The novel’s title refers not only to the late-evening shift Renée works but also to the malaise fallen over L.A. in the wake of protests over police abuse, in the thick of the Covid pandemic. Ballard carries on regardless, pursuing a “tag team” of serial rapists even as she hustles to make the case against the New Year’s Eve killer of a Hollywood auto-repair shop owner. Sharp observations of characters, from victims to perpetrators, make this entry a standout.
Forty-two-year-old self-made multimillionaire Miles Cookson is enjoying life to the fullest until he learns it will end sooner than expected, due to a debilitating inherited disease. Officially childless, he nonetheless feels the prick of conscience: during his scuffling days, he donated sperm to a fertility clinic. Shouldn’t he contact any kids he may have sired, to warn them of their possible genetic ill fortune and provide for their medical care? Others in Cookson’s family and business are alarmed at how this may diminish their own eventual inheritances. Soon shady agents are shadowing Cookson and those offspring he locates; and Miles’s newfound children begin to vanish as if they’d never existed. Linwood Barclay can plot like Dickens and thrill like Hitchcock.
Megan Abbott’s first-rate thrillers take place in sealed-off environments, where characters’ passions and resentments simmer in dangerous ways. “The Turnout” is set in a young people’s dance school run by two orphaned sisters, Dara and Marie, and Dara’s husband, Charlie. The school’s course of study is focused on its annual production of “The Nutcracker,” with students (pushed forward by ambitious parents) competing all season for the prominent roles. Into this hothouse of jealousy slithers Derek, a manipulative contractor who talks the school’s owners into an expensive makeover that strains frayed nerves to the breaking point. Family secrets are revealed, malicious pranks draw blood, and terror erupts in a manner worthy of Patricia Highsmith or Shirley Jackson.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal, including links to the original reviews. (PG apologizes if you hit a paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)