A copy of the New York Times newspaper sits open and horizontal on a white table with a cup of black coffee next to it.

Cracking the Code of the NYT Best-Seller List

What is the secret combination to unlock a spot on the coveted New York Times best-seller list?
Believe it or not, there is a certain formula to finding your book amidst some of the nation’s best-selling authors, and it’s not just huge sales numbers. While success is not guaranteed, a behind-the-scenes look demystifies the ever-enigmatic selection process of the New York Times (NYT) best-seller staff.
Every Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Eastern time, the New York Times best-seller list is published online. It’s then published in print eleven days later. While sales numbers are a factor in making the list, according to the best-seller staff at the New York Times, they also employ investigative journalism and other subjective measures to dole out the highly selective spots on the list.
Here are the basic facts of the list straight from the Times:

1. Each week, several thousand vendors confidentiality report sales data in myriad genres and interests in the United States. Large press, small press, and self-published titles are eligible for the list.

2. Data on millions of titles is reported from bookstores (including independent), online retailers, and specialty stores.

3. Print and/or ebook titles can be included; both formats are allowed. Audiobooks are included, based on the combination of both physical and digital copies.

4. Sales are defined as completed purchases by the buyer.

5. Books such as perennial sellers, class books and textbooks, journals, crosswords, ebooks available exclusively from a single vendor, etc., are not included in the list.

6. There are eleven weekly lists and seven monthly lists.

7. A book can be featured on the best-seller list and not in the Book Review, and vice versa.

8. Books published during a busy publication week face harder competition than books published during down times.

9. The best-seller staff is responsible for employing investigative journalism in order to detect manipulation or fraud. Parties frequently buy bulk orders of books in order to skew sales data. This practice is not illegal, but the NYT actively investigates circumstances to more accurately reflect the sales data.

10. The best-seller staff does not read every book they choose to reflect and rank on the charts; according to the NYT, sales data is the only factor.

However, in a lawsuit, the New York Times was sued for neglecting to reflect certain books on the charts. Their response is a direct hit at the claims of objectivity: “The list did not purport to be an objective compilation of information but instead was an editorial product.” Therefore, it must be noted that even after the vetting and research, the New York Times best-seller list is ultimately an editorial—subjective—list, rather than an all-encompassing objective reflection of current book consumers. The confidential reporting aids in reducing pressure on booksellers, but it still shades the number of actual reports the Times receives.
While not reported by the Times themselves, here are a few other “tricks” to get on the list as reported by Entrepreneur:

a. Preorder campaigns are extremely valuable. In order to reach the list, it is generally understood that a book needs over ten thousand preorders for consideration.

b. While five thousand copies purchased after publication could mean a spot on the list, most times five thousand does not apply for new and/or unknown authors. Further, those numbers over a week of sales mean more than the gross total of sales in a year.

c. The more mainstream press coverage a book receives, the more likely it is to be featured.

d. Legitimate bulk sales of books may flag the title as fraudulent during the NYT investigative process.

e. It is also reported that more reported sales selected by the Times come from independent bookstores rather than storefronts or online retailers. This can skew the readership, since books purchased at an indie bookstore could differ from what the masses are purchasing elsewhere at different prices.

Some best-seller lists include the Wall Street Journal and the USA Today best-seller lists. The former requires around three to five thousand copies, makes it easier for nontraditional published works to get featured, and is purely based on sales. The latter is more similar to the New York Times list in that it is curated to an extent, but it can include books excluded on the NYT list like cookbooks and game books.
Overall, award list notoriety can be dazzling, but it can also be a disappointment if that is the only baseline for success. For indie books, it is often better to focus on smaller literary awards, local awards, or other local press. The New York Times best-seller list is a good baseline for seeing what is selling from week to week, but it is not the end-all-be-all of the current publishing landscape. There are several thousand books that will never make the list, but will still win awards, win hearts, or just win support from your closest friends and family.

Paper or Plastic

Books – so innocuous and lovely, such a comforting heft in your hands as you turn the pages. They are not SUVs. Who would suspect them of contributing to the poisoning of our environment? A nifty gadget like a kindle may seem more suspect. But there are a wealth of factors to tease apart.

The impact of the book industry is not small. A study by the Green Press Initiative and Book Industry Study Group found that in 2006, the US book industry consumed 30 million trees, and had a carbon footprint equivalent to 12.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide (8.85 pounds per book sold). On the other hand, one e-reader requires the extraction of 33 pounds of minerals, while a book made with recycled paper consumes less than a pound of minerals. The negative health impacts of making an e-reader is approximately 70 times greater than that of making a single book. Calculations are hampered by lack of transparency from e-reader manufacturers, and all of these approximations depend on a dense net of variables: is the book used, will it be lended, will it be recycled, do you read at night while using electricity?; how long will you keep your iPad, will you share your electronic books, will they truly take the place of paper books, will you recycle your device – and, if so, what does that mean? Recycling these devices is a tricky business, and many of them are sent to China, for example, and dismantled by children in dangerous working conditions.

Depending on whether energy use, global warming, or human health is measured, an e-reader “breaks even” with respect to the environmental costs of paper books at 40-100 books read on the device.

I feel that buyers of both books and e-readers alike are not motivated in their purchases by a concern for the environment. People who love books may be excited or even swayed by knowing a book is sustainably published, but their choices are likely more heavily weighted by other factors (I think about trash and recycling more or less constantly, but the first time I thought of these matters was while researching this blog). Folks who buy e-readers don’t want to lug books around, and they love new technology. It is up to publishers and device manufacturers to care about the environmental impact of the products they make. That said, the fact that the Green Press Initiative and publishers like Ooligan are opening a dialogue will change the way people perceive the paper in their books; articles in the New York Times such as “How Green Is My iPad?” will spread knowledge and concern about the many toxic dangers in the lifecycle of an e-reader. And on a hopeful note, the book industry has dramatically increased its use of recycled paper, from 5% in 2006 to 24% in 2010. The electronics industry is attempting to decrease its use of toxins and to improve working conditions throughout its chain of production.

But are we comparing apples to oranges? In ten years, everyone will have an e-reader; books will certainly not disappear, but the environmental impact of their production will likely be small. Perhaps rather than asking, Paper or plastic?, we should ask, How will we address the wastefulness of our society all across the board?

What time is it? It’s NaNoWriMo Time!

Every fall, I contemplate whether or not I should attempt NaNoWriMo. Writing 50,000 words in 30 days is a manageable challenge, though not an easy one.

For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Every November, hundreds of thousands of people around the world attempt to write a novel—by NaNoWriMo’s definition, 50,000 words—within that 30-day timespan. That’s 1,667 words a day. Over the course of the month, participants are encouraged to track their progress on NaNoWriMo’s website, make friends at regional “write-ins,” and consume unhealthy amounts of caffeine. Published authors such as James Patterson, Malinda Lo, and Bella Andre often give pep talks to participants on the NaNoWriMo forums. In fact, more than 250 novels that began as NaNoWriMo projects have been traditionally published, such as Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants and Marissa Meyer’s Cinder.

Although many companies offer incentives like product discounts or free ebooks to people who complete the challenge, there is no traditional prize to be won. NaNoWriMo is an exercise in creativity, self- discipline, and silencing one’s inner editor; the only true prize is self-satisfaction.

This year, there are several NaNoWriMo kickoff parties for Portland-area participants, and I attended one at the Central Library downtown. More than 60 people were present, introducing themselves and describing the plots of their novels in great detail. Last year, I had my novel thoroughly plotted out and completed the challenge with 10 days to spare. This year, I have yet to decide what my story will be, but thankfully I wasn’t the only one without an idea. Many attendees declared they will write by the seat of their pants this year, and these “pantsers” will learn the story of their hearts once November is upon them.

As a newly minted publishing student, NaNoWriMo invites a change in perspective I hadn’t expected. I recognize the value of self-publishing for authors whose stories don’t fit neatly into a market, but now that I work for Ooligan, I’m more curious as to why people forgo the traditional route, which a lot of NaNo-ers intend to do. A seasoned NaNoWriMo participant I spoke to believes traditional publishing requires time he simply does not have, that it “seems like an awful lot of networking and a lot of stuff that I really don’t want to get into.” A winner of ten NaNoWriMos (that’s approximately 500,000 words in 10 years), he will look into self-publishing this year, but ultimately he writes for the love of writing. “It’s okay to write and not publish,” he says, “. . .because I’m a writer, and that’s my creative outlet.”

I’m more curious still about participants who don’t wish to publish their stories at all. One high school student said she doesn’t plan to publish her story because she “will be the only one who understands it, and that’s okay.” As someone who’s dabbled in grandiose fantasies about landing on The New York Times Best Sellers list since high school, hers is a maturity and confidence I wish I’d possessed at that age.

As the kickoff party dispersed, I spoke with another participant who works for an online publishing company and runs an editing service for self publishers. She admits that publishing is very trend focused, and self-publishing allows writers to not “feel so bound by the market the way publishers do.” However, she advises Nano-ers seeking to publish their novels to edit their work first: “When books go through traditional publishing houses, even small ones, they get at least two, sometimes many more rounds of editing, and if you want to self-publish, and if you want to stand next to the books coming out of the houses, you need to be able to do the same thing, and you can’t do it yourself.”

NaNoWriMo begins at 12 a.m. on Nov. 1. I don’t know if I will want to publish whatever I write, nor do I know if I will even complete the challenge. It’s quite possible I may not get past 1,000 words. But I appreciate that such challenges exist. More than anything, NaNoWriMo motivates people to tell the stories burning inside them. Though not everyone will get published, anyone can be a writer.

Author Interview: Simone Elkeles

Simone Elkeles, a self-proclaimed “housewife from Chicago,” recently hit the New York Times Best Seller List with the final installment of her teen romance trilogy Perfect Chemistry. She is also well known for her two other series Leaving Paradise and How to Ruin; her most recent work, Wild Cards, was released on October 1. This Monday Elkeles spoke at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing, her last stop before she takes a break from her book tour to spend time with her family. She was gracious enough to grant me an interview despite battling the aftereffects of laryngitis brought on by an abundance of 7 a.m. flights.

Simone and Tiffany

Simone and Tiffany after the reading.

Tiffany Shelton: On your website it says you fell in love with reading as an adult. Why did you decide to write Young Adult fiction instead of Adult Romance fiction?

Simone Elkeles: I started writing adult. I wrote a Native American Historical Romance. They say everyone has a voice and it comes out in your writing. And my voice comes out very young, so when I tried to write this adult novel, my characters seemed to feel young and I had a hard time selling them. Then when I started writing Young Adult it flowed and I said, “Wow, I think my voice fits in this genre.” I feel like my voice is YA and I don’t think I could write an adult novel. I would love to try but my voice is very young.

TS: Now I’m going to ask you about the process of actually publishing your book. How involved are you with the editors and designers?
SE: For my first books I didn’t have a say. They were what they were. I would say I don’t like them and they would say too bad. But the more famous and successful you get, you can say I hate that. And sometimes they’ll try to convince you. But every time they change it, it costs them more money and you don’t want to do that so you sometimes settle because you don’t want to cost money to the publisher. Editorially, I’ll write the book the way I want it. Then my editor will come in and say she doesn’t like this, she loves this, change this. I fight for things sometimes. I fought for something in Wild Cards and I really fought hard. Then I said, “Well, whatever, fine.” But then I went back and said no, this scene needs to be the way I wrote it because it makes it more emotional and breaks your heart.
TS: How often do you go on Social Media and interact with your fans?
SE: Tons of times; too many times that it interferes with my writing.
TS: You said that you do almost all of your own publicity and marketing on top of interacting with your fans. And only about 10 percent of your time is dedicated to writing. Is it difficult to do all of that on your own while trying still trying to remain relevant in the publishing industry?
SE: Yes. And then there’s self-publishing which even major writers are doing now. It’s scary to me because I haven’t done it, but it has been suggested to me because I could make more money, etc… For now I’m making enough. I don’t want to inundate the market; I want it to be a good book. And I think with editing (the editorial department) it gets so much better. It’s scary because when things go on Amazon I don’t know if people can tell if it’s from a traditional publisher or if it was self-published. So how does an author know their book is getting out there without a publisher? They won’t know who the publisher is if it’s self-published.
I’m really concerned about the future of publishing and where it’s going. It bothered me to hear bookstores closing like hearing some Barnes & Noble’s are closing and Borders closed. What’s the future of publishing? It’s really scary.
TS: Yeah, a lot of things are going online and to e-books. And a lot of people aren’t going to the stores now.
SE: I prefer to hold a book. I definitely concerned about the future, I just don’t know where it’s going. Hopefully there will always be print books. There will probably be ten Young Adult, ten Adult, ten cookbooks—like a select few that will actually be printed. I love this job and I love this profession but I’m worried. I maybe behind the times since I haven’t self-published, but I love working with a publisher. I love seeing my books in the bookstores, on the shelves, and getting it professionally edited.
Simone Elkeles’s next novel with be the sequel to Wild Cards, set to be released in 2014. And for those who are fans of the Fuentes brothers from the Perfect Chemistry series, we may not have seen the last of them—Elkeles says she would like to write a “where are they now?” novel to give her fans one last look at their stories. To find more about the author, her books, and to find future tour events visit Elkeles’ website at http://simoneelkeles.com/.

Summer Reading List Part 2: Books You’ve Probably Heard Of!

By Rebekah Hunt
In my last blog, I recommended a bunch of books for your summer reading list that will keep your brain in tip-top shape while you enjoy the warm weather and work on your tan, or whatever normal people do (I happen to guard my pallor like a Victorian lady and have fainting spells whenever the temperature gets above 65 degrees Fahrenheit, but that is neither here nor there). It has come to my attention that to regular, nice, well-adjusted, sun-loving humans, the books I recommended may be a tad inaccessible and even, though I cannot comprehend the thought, boring. So, though I stand by my previous recommendations wholeheartedly, I have created an addendum to my recommended summer reading list, most of which you have probably heard of, and all of which were written (gasp!) in the 20th century.
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
Reza Aslan (Random House July 16, 2013)
On July 24th of this year, Reza Aslan’s controversial book Zealot already sat comfortably at number three on the New York Times bestseller list. That day, however, he did an interview with Fox News about the book, which went viral and immediately pushed the book to number one. The interview, which most sources are calling “the most embarrassing interview Fox has ever done,” begins with the Fox News interviewer introducing Aslan as a Muslim, not as a historian and scholar, a fact which he is forced to remind her of many times. She then ignores his impressive credentials and the content of the book and reads him quotes from people criticizing it, then continues to attack his “right” to write a book about Jesus of Nazareth when he’s a Muslim. She even goes so far as to accuse him of hiding the fact that he’s Muslim, though he discusses his Muslim background on the first page of the book. As Aslan tries and tries to get her to understand, this book is not an attack on Christianity, but a hugely well-researched historical study of Jesus the actual man whose life and death changed the entire world. I’ve read the book since, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is engaging, dramatic, beautiful, horrifying, intelligent, vivid, funny, tragic, and one of the best books I have read in years. Read this book!
The Demon Under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor’s Heroic Search for the World’s First Miracle Drug
Thomas Hager (Broadway Books August 28, 2007)
The Demon Under the Microscope, to put it simply, is the story of how we stopped dying from simple infections. The book is an absolutely fascinating and revealing account of how simple infections killed with absolute impunity, from soldiers who suffered seemingly minor wounds, only to die in pain weeks later, to mothers who had normal pregnancies and then succumbed to torturous death by child-bed fever after giving birth in hospitals, to men who died of massive septic infection after a routine shaving cut. It follows the (often dramatic) stories of the people involved in the discovery, manufacture, and eventual widespread use of antibiotic  “miracle” drugs; which have saved millions and millions of lives, transforming simple infection from a death sentence to the easily treatable nonissue that is today. Read this book immediately (just don’t read it while you’re having lunch).
The Selfish Gene
Richard Dawkins (Oxford University Press, USA; 30th Anniversary edition May 25, 2006)
In brilliant, lucid, entertaining language, Richard Dawkins explains why we (humans) are the way we are. Less polemic than The God Delusion, and scientifically deeper than The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins’ (now 30-year-old) book is an accessible but extremely informative history of the driving force behind all living creatures: the genes. If you get the audio version (available at audible.com), Dawkins reads the book himself, accompanied by his wife (actress, author, and former Dr. Who companion) Lalla Ward, whose posh, British voice makes the book worth a listen all by itself. If you want to add an extra layer of summer fun to your reading, listen with a friend and a bottle of tequila, and take a drink every time Dawkins quotes himself. You’ll be facedown on the floor by chapter two. Whether you have a background in evolutionary biology, or you have never heard the word “Darwin,” you’ll get something useful and enlightening from this book. It should be required reading for every educated person on earth.

The Battle for a Digital Pricing Model that Works Part 2: The Fall of the Old Republic

By Rebekah Hunt
The Economist reported, in August of 2006, that print journalism has been in decline since 1990. Jobs in the industry fell by 18% between 1990 and 2004, Knight-Ridder sold off its newspapers, and New York Times share prices had been cut in half within four years.The obvious explanation, and the one most often given for these trends, is the mercurial rise in internet use over the past decade.
It is most likely true that the free availability of information on the internet has seriously impacted the public’s interest in reading a physical newspaper, adding up to large losses in the newspaper sector. But what about book publishers who, as the Times reports, aren’t faring much better than the papers? Has the rise in worldwide availability of digital media contributed to book industry losses as well? In the same way that Apple killed the arena-rock star, has the internet killed the print media star?
The short answer is yes, but it’s not as simple as that, so don’t go into mourning for the paper trade just yet. According to the Times, a steep decline in paperback book sales began in the 1980s, before the widespread adoption of the internet as a primary media source, “when retail chains that edged out independent bookstores successfully introduced discounts on hardcover versions of the same books.” This accomplished two things: it crippled the already wobbly publishing industry, and it changed consumer expectations of what a book should cost. I am going to repeat that, since it is essentially the crux of the entire issue: changed consumer expectations.
Reread that, breathe it in, take it to heart, because consumer expectations are the soul of the market. However much we may love our books, the print media are not the beleaguered Rebel Alliance, and the internet and Apple are not the evil Galactic Empire. It’s not a David and Goliath struggle here. Just like Sony, Geffen, and BMG, publishing houses are massive corporations with bottom lines and products to sell. The real Rebel Alliance is made up of consumers, bloggers, independent authors, self-publishers, and content creators of all types. Basically, people who write stuff and people who want to read stuff. To follow the analogy even further along this line, the internet is the Force, in that it “surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together” (in the immortal words of Obi-Wan Kenobi).
The most important effect the internet has had on the publishing industry is that it has changed consumer expectations of what media should cost, how easy it should be to access, the scope and variety of options that should be offered, and the level of control the consumer should have over purchasing options. The immediate availability of every type of media online, the relative difficulty of the acquisition and consumption of printed media, as compared to things like songs or television shows, and the initial resistance of publishers and authors to offer their books digitally created an uncertain place for book publishers in the market. This point was proved when book giant Borders filed for bankruptcy and shut down its stores.
Since newspapers and book publishers deal not only in information, but also in a physical product, they are experiencing some difficulties producing and selling their products in tandem with their digital content. If their digital content is offered for free, it cannot replace the revenue from sales of the physical product. By the same reasoning, the physical product cannot fund the free digital content if it is already losing money. Since publishing companies have been forced to cut budgets everywhere they can, downsize staff and reduce page counts, it seems impossible for them to retain the readership they so desperately need. The mainstay of the newspaper industry is in advertising dollars, but the book industry only sells content. So, how will the book industry harness the power of the Force and make money in the new digital universe?
Again, the music industry is a good place to look. According to a recent article on electronicbook-readers.com, the Napster/iTunes effect on the music industry is a leading indicator of what is possible for the future of book publishing. “CD sales have declined thirty percent in the last five years and digital downloads have not completely made up that gap created by the technology.” They say; however, “…different means of consumer consumption and distribution are responsible for the economic decline of the music industry.” They explain that it is the choice that consumers now have of listening to music before they purchase it, along with a sharp decrease in consumer perception of the value of digital content that are responsible for the decline in sales.
There are multiple giants for publishing houses, magazines, and other print media to slay if they don’t want to follow Borders into the tar pits of history. The largest of these, as with the music industry, are the challenges posed by digital distribution. The music industry has undergone massive change in response to the consumer-driven popularity of digital download sites. While this change was painful at first, most of those resisting it were at the top of the industry food chain making millions of dollars on overpriced, overexposed, overprocessed, records anyway, and the market has enthusiastically ignored their plight. As a result, the industry has been forced to evolve. With the rise of iTunes and pay-as-you-listen consumer sites like Pandora, the music industry is alive and well, and poised to take on any challenges the new market presents. But how will the publishing industry fare?
Stay tuned for next week’s blog, the Dark Side of the Force (digital piracy)/A New Hope (the publishing market evolves); and the week after that for the Return of the Jedi (an ebook pricing strategy that works).
Image by Declan Fleming. Used with permission under Creative Commons License: Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic.