Wright Words: The New York Times Best Seller List debunked

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 19 2011 5:30 a.m. MST

Every author I know remembers where they were the first time they learned they’d "hit the list." It is the gold standard of best seller rankings: The New York Times.

Obviously there are other lists and each is important: USA Today, Wall Street Journal and Publishers Weekly to name a few. Each is a useful barometer of whether a book is being embraced across a broad audience. But with all due respect to the others, The New York Times' remains the list authors at all levels covet and pine over. That much we know.

What we don’t know is exactly how it's compiled. The process is a closely guarded secret, ranking somewhere on the scale between the nuke codes in the president’s "football" and the formula for Coke. Editors from the paper rarely speak about their process for calculating and ranking books. Some independent stores report their sales; some don’t. Some mega chains such as Barnes & Noble report, but others, like Wal-Mart, do not.

Judging from comments I hear on the road, even many casual readers and writers seem to know the importance of "hitting the list." Did you know there are actually 11 published lists in The New York Times? Neither did I, but obviously more lists mean more opportunity for authors and publishers.

Unlike USA Today, which groups all books into one behemoth list of 150 titles, The New York Times list has evolved into a series of well-defined categories. You can "hit the list" in any of these sections: Hardcover Fiction; Hardcover and Paperback Non-Fiction; Trade Paperback Fiction; Mass-Market Fiction; Hardcover and Paperback Advice; How-To and Miscellaneous; Children’s Picture Books; Children’s Chapter Books; Children’s Paperback; and Children’s Series.

When a book goes to reprint, when a paperback is issued, or when an author publishes their next title, you can bet "New York Times Best Seller" will appear on the cover, regardless of the specific list on which they appeared.

The various lists, published in the Sunday edition of The New York Times, are pre-released on Wednesdays to subscribing publishers, agents and industry insiders. It arrives by e-mail typically between 4:30-6:30 p.m. EST. If you're hoping to be on it, seeing it pop into your inbox is like plunging your hand in the Captain Crunch and finding a toy so big you need both hands to lift it.

The first time I "hit the list" was the week when "The Wednesday Letters" came out in hardcover in September of 2007. I hadn't made the list yet with "Christmas Jars," so we didn't expect this book to make it either. Still, there were reasons for slivers of hope. I'd appeared on Glenn Beck’s radio and television shows the day the book launched and had given out my cell phone number asking readers to call and share stories of their favorite handwritten letters. I received so many calls my cell phone had smoke and sparks coming from it by midnight on the first day. As the calls came in and the interview went viral, sales rankings rose.

When the following Wednesday arrived, I was with my wife and four children running errands in nearby Harrisonburg, Va. We hadn’t talked about it much, and the publisher had successfully lowered my expectations. Still, as the afternoon wore on, it began to feel like butterflies were building a water park in my belly.

A call from my editor came on my cell phone shortly after 5 p.m. as we sat in the KFC drive-thru. I answered the phone about the same time the squawk box garbled back our order, and I remember wondering if they’d hired an actual chicken to work the window. With the kids barking from a long day in the car and the drive-thru speaker bawk bawk bawking, I had no choice but to abandon the driver’s seat and scamper to the far corner of the parking lot.

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