How Bestseller Lists Work…and Introducing the Amazon Monthly 100

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So you want a bestseller? If you’re going to compete against 200,000+ books per year in the US, you better understand how the lists work. (Photo: See-ming Lee)

This will be a short post, but it’s one I’ve wanted to write for a long time. Special thanks to my book agent, Steve Hanselman, for help.

Having had two bestsellers (and preparing to launch what I hope will be a third), I’m constantly asked about how bestseller lists work.  It can be a very complicated subject, but I’ll provide a summary of the major lists below, with the bonus of a brand-new list you’ve never seen: The Amazon Monthly 100.

The New York Times

At the top of the heap of all the lists, of course, are the publishing industry standards: The New York Times Bestseller lists. Yes, “lists.” There are a lot of NYT lists: in fact, now 20 weekly and 3 monthly lists. Check them out here. The 4-Hour Workweek is still appearing here at #10 this weekend, more than five years after publication! It’s been a wild ride.

The New York Times list is what they call a “survey,” based on a proprietary and closely-guarded list of accounts they poll weekly for sales. It’s tabulated Sunday to Sunday, which is why I prefer to launch on Tuesdays instead of Thursdays, two common options for publishers (nope, you can’t just launch at retail whenever you like)…

The Times uses a methodology for filtering these reported sales that excludes books which are reported too narrowly.  For example, if only a few accounts are reporting significant numbers, and most are not reporting any, they will automatically exclude this title.  Ditto if a lot of bulk sales (high-volume sales to one customer) are reported without the balance of a broad reporting profile. You may have noticed the “dagger” next to titles on their lists–that means bulk sales have been reported, but a lot of “normal” sales too, so the title makes it.  Often titles that do well across the board are not even tracked on the list. Note to authors: it is the publisher’s job to make sure NYT have a copy of the book and are tracking it.  Independent bookstores are known to be central to success on the Times’ lists, so if they turn their nose up at your book, you are toast, alas.

Nonfiction books that deal with advice, how-to, political and a host of other prescriptive and practical matters (including some religion) are treated by the Times separately from all other non-fiction. They are given the shortest of all the lists, the 10-slot weekly “Advice/How-To” list, sometimes referred to as the “Mt. Everest of lists.” To make matters more confusing, the Times refuses to track eBook sales for all this “lesser” non-fiction!  This all means that many worthy and popular titles fail to make the shorter Advice/How-to list and are then doubly damned by being ignored on the NYT eBook lists… even if they had enough sales to make both lists in the broader “Nonfiction” category. I’ve seen authors petition for reclassification precisely for this reason. It can make the difference between “New York Times bestseller” on the cover and resume, or not.

The Wall Street Journal and USA Today

All of these vagaries don’t apply to the other major lists, like the Wall Street Journal list, which is based strictly on Nielsen Bookscan reporting (estimated to be about 75-80% of the actual market on most general trade titles) and includes eBooks, without filtering out types of non-fiction. This is sometimes referred to as a “compiled” list.  Bookscan will remove books from its reporting that are selling in bulk in only a few outlets, so they keep the lists true in that way.  

Some say the truest of all the lists, which tracks all formats of a single title rolled up into one number that is then ranked against all other types of books (fiction, nonfiction, children’s), is the USA Today list. Unlike the Times, everything fights against everything else, like the old UFC with no weight classes. Like the Times, it’s a survey based on a list of polled outlets, but there is no attempt to separate or filter categories or types of books (e.g. advice/how-to).

Now, The Amazon Monthly 100

If you’ve ever wondered like me what a pure listing of all new hardcovers would look like, regardless of subject matter, the below list provided to me by Amazon — which I’ll call the “Amazon Monthly 100″ — is probably the closest you’ll ever get.  

I could see some variation of this list becoming the new standard in bestseller lists.

The normal Amazon top 100 is usually calculated on an hourly basis. The below list of the top 100 hardcovers was calculated over a MONTH (July). Making it a month is important, as this duration removes all one-week wonders and most pay-for-play (buying your own books to hit the list).

If you read through these top 100 for July, you’ll see many books that never made the other lists.  

Can you spot them? Would you like to see a list like this every month, or something like it? Let me know and I’ll try and deliver!








Posted on: August 17, 2012.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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94 comments on “How Bestseller Lists Work…and Introducing the Amazon Monthly 100

  1. Thanks for the info Tim! It will come in handy as my travel book gets published next February. This gave me a better understanding of how the lists work. Chris G gave me some good ideas on how to do a big pre-sale launch!

    Awesome shit as always.

    Like

    • Thanks for this post Tim-

      My first book is coming out in January so I was just starting to look into how bestseller lists work.

      Matt, Tim or whomever else might be able to answer these questions related to pre-sales:

      Do pre-orders count toward bestseller lists?

      If so, are they counted on the release date or the ship date?

      Thanks for your insight!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      Like

      • To answer my own question:

        Based on what I have seen in regard to pre-orders of my book on Amazon, I think that pre-orders are counted toward ranking and sales as they come through not on the day the book is actually shipped.

        Hope that helps some authors and if I’m wrong in my observation, feel free to correct me.

        To your brilliance!
        Elizabeth

        Like

  2. Very interesting info Tim. I’m looking in to publishing a book called the London Cyclist Handbook so I’m taking this advice on board and seeing how it translates to us over here in the UK. Personally, if I can top a list on Amazon I know this will provide a good selling point for it and I believe the key to that is building up an interested audience and ideally having their contact details so you can get hold of people on the day of launch.

    Like

  3. Awesome and insightful information, thank you for sharing..
    It is amazing how this information is calculated and positioned. After reading this I am going to pay closer attention to the USA Today list to see what treasures show up there. Please continue to share the monthly Amazon 100 list it was great to see what made their list!

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  4. Thanks for the excellent content Tim! I’m in the process of writing a few books; my take away from this post is to have a publisher & advisors around me who know what they’re doing! I’m a very independent person but I feel that to do this right it’s not just something you should ever take lightly (like anything of great importance in life), I definitely see a need for indepth strategy & planning!
    Really appreciate your insight Tim, it’s great to see that you not afraid to give away the hard facts to being successful! Cheers

    Like

    • Hi Luke,

      I’ve been hanging around this community for a few years now and every once in a while I’ll click someone’s name when it links to a website to see what they are “promoting”. Your video on your homepage is the closest I have seen in a long time to combining genuine authentic passion for your work wrapped in an elegant and professional package. If you bring the rest of your marketing up to that level then you could really go places. Keep up the fight and keep polishing your work. You’re getting close.

      Regards,
      Jason

      Like

      • Jason,

        Thanks for the great feedback! I really value your words of encouragement, I sometimes feel like in this industry there are so many people who lack real integrity, so to know that people see my passion in my message really means a lot because I live my message everyday! hat are you passionate about Jason And thanks again Tim for all your wisdom.

        Like

  5. Interesting list, a few things

    1) Being from Australia I don’t recognize a lot of books on that list, from a quick browse it looks like the hunger games trilogy is the most dominant on the list (i think that’s well deserved). Was surprised not to see 50 shades high up on the list (unless i missed it?), here in Australia we are a little behind but it has definitely crossed the adoption barrier with a bang, seems like every second girl is reading it/posting picture of the cover to facebook lol.

    2)This might be a bit unfeasible because of how fluid amazons pricing is but it would be interesting to see that list with books bought at a “sale” price removed.

    3) What i would really like to see is a 100 by 100 matrice with each book and percentage of people who also bought the other book. Ie if they bought the first hunger games novel what percentage bought fifty shades of grey etc.

    I know recommendations is a massive part of Amazons business model, if i was amazon i would be collecting this correlation data, and using it to recommend to big authors who to work with. Ie if I’ve bought the four hour body recommendations for paleo books along with links to collaborations/articles you have done with the author of the paleo book. Amazon could not only charge for access to these recommendations, but also boost profits by increased book sales.

    tldr: next time i would like a 100 by 100 matrice of correlations between buying one book and buying the other

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  6. A list of hardcover books means little to nothing for most of us. I can’t remember the last time I bought one and I buy/read more than 150 books/year. I think a comprehensive list of hardback + paperback + ebooks will be more useful and we’ll see all of these lists shift that direction in the future.

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  7. Thanks for the information on this Tim! I’m currently writing a short non-fiction book that I’ll be self-publishing on Amazon and was curious how various entities established thresholds as to what constitutes a bestseller.

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  8. Thanks for sharing this, Tim. As a writer/author, it’s imperative to know the business inside and out. Every thread gets added to the ball of string. Thanks again and keep up the great work!

    Like

  9. This monthly top 100 is a great idea. My only issue is with your picture caption, “So you want a bestseller? If you’re going to compete against 200,000 books… You better understand how lists work…”

    I could not disagree *more*. I’ve had four long-term bestsellers, including the two books that have stayed in the Amazon Top 100 for computers/Internet/tech longer than any other books… Over 2,000 days and counting. My first book sold over a million in print alone, at a retail price of over $40. I think about this *constantly*.

    You already know my feelings, Tim, about those who credit the success of your books to savvy marketing and promotion. This makes no sense whatsoever *if you are talking about sustainable success/sales* because there is only one robust, reproducible way to have a non-fiction bestseller in the how-to, advice, instruction, etc. cateogory: the book MUST do what readers/buyers are hoping for, and must do it significantly better than competitors in its category.

    As I said at my TOC keynote to publishers: “Tim Ferris has bestsellers because every single day, across the Internet and in live conversations, people are saying, “OMG I lost ten pounds. This actually works.”

    Creating a result for the reader is worth a million dollar marketing budget and the savviest list-management. You of course did *both*, but the magic lies not in you, or your marketing, but in the results your work produced for your readers. When I talk with our authors about creating bestsellers, we start by looking at the attributes of bestsellers including the book itself and its promotion. But the only reliable path to creating one is in realizing that the attributes of a bestseller DO NOT LIVE IN THE BOOK (or its marketing). The attributes of a bestseller live in the reader. They live in the result your book produced for that reader.

    And you, Tim, have crafted books that produced true, sustainable, and deeply-motivating results for more people than I can comprehend. I often feel that your success and skill at *promotion* has led many to cargo-cult your success, mistaking the surface mechanics of the promotion of your books for the heart and soul core of their success. And that heart and soul core has very little to do with promotion (at least by your publisher and even you) and nearly everything to do with the promotion of your books by reader’s whose lives were changed, profoundly.

    A reader/user whose life was impacted so positively by your books will not STFU. There’s the magic formula :)

    Like

    • Where does one find more Kathy? I like your thinking. We need more of you around these parts!

      I like to think of marketing as a catalyst to the reaction. Tim’s books created results that got people talking. His fantastic marketing increased the velocity at which those results were shared. *NOTHING* beats a quality product that is 10x better than the competition.

      Like

    • Kathy,

      Best comment I’ve ever read on a blog. Anywhere.

      “good job” comments like are annoying imo, but that was just too darn well articulated not to compliment.

      Like

    • Kathy!

      It’s so nice to see you here, and thank you for the VERY thoughtful comment. We still need to go riding on your horses!

      I agree with you 100%. The results to the reader are the bedrock that supports everything else. And you, as one of the best storytellers I’ve ever met, are as qualified as anyone to teach this. In fact, I quote you all the time! I paraphrase a portion of a workshop/keynote you gave ages ago (E-Tech?), where you asked:

      “In Amazon reviews, which would you rather have people talk about: you or your book?”

      The answer was, of course: “Neither. You want them to talk about THEMSELVES… the results they achieved, the before-and-after awesomeness in their lives.”

      It’s so, so true, and you see this in the 5-star reviews of long-term non-fiction bestsellers. That short keynote of yours has driven most of how I think about books, so thank *you* very much :)

      Also, you might smile to know that I bought Head First Design Patterns (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0596007124/ref=wms_ohs_product) a few weeks ago just to review how you teach complex material!

      Hope to see you again soon.

      All the best,

      Tim

      Like

      • Bonjour Monsieur Tim Ferriss,
        Tout d’abord, je ne parle pas anglais et seulement français.
        Je prends connaissance de votre livre “la semaine de 4 h”. j’ai noté que vous lisiez vous email le lundi, donc semble-t-il, aujourd’hui – pour autant votre email personnel reste introuvable, je choisi donc ce biais pour vous écrire.
        Vous proposez de prendre un mentor. Je vous choisi donc pour être mon mentor pour deux raisons : 1- vous êtes celui qui pourrez me faciliter la vie en gagnant plus et en ayant plus de temps pour moi et les miens 2- Parce que j’aime les défis pour moi et pour les autres. Je vous lance ce défi (et comme il n’y a pas de petit défi…).

        Ma proposition: nous vous recevrons pendant un mois à La Rochelle ; si vous ne connaissez pas le français, je vous apprendrais les bases quant à mon mari qui est Chef Cuisinier – Maitre Saucier et spécialiste des épices vous apprendra à réaliser des sauces atypiques et des plats de sa création qui vous ferons avoir une nouvelle corde à votre arc; en échange, vous m’accompagner afin qu’en 1 à 2 mois j’ai augmenté ma rentabilité financière à hauteur de 20000€/mois pour mon entreprise et de 5000€/ mois pour moi.

        Je reste à votre disposition par mail ou par téléphone que vous trouverez sur le site academieculinairehoteliere.com.

        Je vous souhaite une excellente journée et vous remercie par avance de votre réponse positive.

        Like

      • Hi Tim I am a 46 yr old dentist who has been in private single doctor practice for the past 15 yrs. I love what I do but I feel like I am hostage to my practice and can’t take time off to travel the world with my family. If I am not in the office working I won’t. Make any money. I can’t outsource or work remotely .do u recommend I sell my practice and find something else to as recommended in ur book or should I start another career and then sell the practice? Have u helped any one else in my situation in the past that was able to make it work ? I appreciate any feed back for info ur book got me really excited .m I don’t want to wt until I retire to enjoy life

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      • Oh my God. Sincere, sincere apologies. I read this post on my mobile earlier and misunderstood this comment. I thought you were responding to a junk comment that referred to you as Kathy. Yikes. Now that I realize from my desktop that there really is a Kathy, I am so sorry. My words must have seemed really rude. My apologies again to both Tim and Kathy.

        And by the way, for what it’s worth, I vote for posting a monthly list.

        Like

    • This is one of the greatest comments (on the surface, constructive criticism, but upon closer inspection just a wonderful compliment to Tim’s work) i’ve ever read.

      Like

  10. Really cool info. Thanks!

    Tim, have you ever thought about experimenting with selling richer content, such as an interactive video coaching class, as a way to deliver higher value to each customer with far less work?

    (like Eben and others)

    Like

    • Also, just a heads up, the video on your landing page didn’t buffer well when I visited. My connection generally does 300 KB/s, but was doing between 60 and 90 KB/s which caused the video to freeze about 2.5 seconds in resulting in a 15 second delay, eternity in internet time, before continuing. If you can’t upgrade your server then perhaps changing the flash element so that it displays video length with amount buffered would be helpful (think the red on grey on black at the bottom of youtube videos).

      Like

  11. Thanks, very insightful. I’d love to see a monthly list from Amazon, but maybe presented with a bit more information about each title like a short excerpt or maybe some kind of editor’s pick designation, etc.

    The current list is great as a sales data set but it’s time-prohibitive to treat is as a discovery tool for new finds without having a bit more at-a-glance info to help guide which ones I may want to look at in more detail.

    Thanks for post on a topic that’s been largely in the shadows.

    Daniel

    Like

  12. Wait, so is this whole “hardcovers are special” bullcrap the reason why the Hunger Games sequels & 4-Hour Body don’t have paperback editions after MANY years??

    Like

    • First off, please be civil. I never said “hardcovers are nice” and “bullcrap” won’t score you points in this neighborhood.

      I’ll cover the hardcover debate in another post. Suffice to say that I don’t think your book choices (especially for 400-600-page books) shouldn’t be dictated by a $3-4 price difference.

      Cheers,

      Tim

      Like

      • hi tim i just read your book. very useful info. the reason i am writing is bc i am 45 yr old dentist with my own practice for the past 15 years. i still love what i do but feel like my career wont allow me to do things that i want to do before retirement. i have to be present everyday for the practice to be successful. so alot of the ideas in the book i cant use. do u recommend i keep practicing and start using some of the ideas in the book on the side.or selling the practice and starting fresh doing something else? have u helped anyone else with a similar situation in the past that can mentor me. appreciate ur time and any feedback. thx

        Like

  13. Good work, Tim: the more people know about the ins and outs of how book lists work, the more effectively they’ll be able to share their content.

    Steve is my agent too, and I too have been lucky enough to have two NYT best-sellers on the “Advice/How-To” list, and am working on a third (June 2013). He is the best.

    Something that is worth mentioning for all the lists is that momentum counts. Your own ability to bundle the book with other goods, and create recurring waves of PR, some of which others (e.g., bloggers who are influential in the space) can do for you, is a key to assuring success. Or at least, giving it a hand.

    Something else worth mentioning: the staying power of 4 Hour Work Week is not just about the book.

    Everything else that you do that gives you national (or even excited local) notice, lifts that boat, and the boat of the 4 Hour Body.

    All boats rise with new PR, irrespective of whether it is about the book: a good example is your starter-pistol-in-checked-luggage reference from the NYTimes last month. Yowzer!

    Like