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  • Julianna Ma

Why Are There So Many New York Times Bestsellers?

By Julianna Ma
Posted on June 1, 2023
Cover Image Title: Bestsellers
Cover Image by: Julianna Ma
Classification: Digital Art
Specifications: 2160 x 1620 pixels
Year: 2023

What’s with all those New York Times bestsellers?

It hit me as I was organizing the small pile of books I have in my room. A good chunk--more-or-less half--of the books I owned had “New York Times Bestseller” stamped on some easy-to-read place on the front cover, sometimes taking precedence over the author’s own name. When a book was not a bestseller, it was instead written by a “New York Times Bestselling author.”

I thought to myself,

How does this all work? How can so many books and authors claim to be bestsellers?

After all, with so many bestsellers and bestselling authors running around, surely readers would be tired and desensitized to those titles by now, right? Just because a book sells well, it is not guaranteed to actually be something worth reading; there are surely a couple bad eggs among the New York Times rankings.

The reality is, like many things, it is complicated. Becoming a bestseller is usually a result of a book being good, not the cause. Combined with the fact that there are so many good reads on the market right now and bookstores may market bestselling books over more obscure titles, and you have a recipe for a frankly absurd amount of New York Times bestsellers. Yet, amazingly, that is nowhere near the full story of why so many books are bestsellers. It’s time to discuss the fascinating world of New York Times bestseller ranking lists.

First off: what does it even mean to be a “New York Times bestseller?” For that matter, what is a “New York Times bestselling author?”

To give a quick rundown of how the New York Times’ ranking system, there are 18--a whopping 18--categories in which a book could land. These range from non-fiction to fiction, and children’s books to books for adults. Most of these lists are updated weekly based on sales from select books stores across the US, with some updated monthly, such as audiobooks, manga, and business categories. Each list, when updated, contains 15-or-so titles, although this may vary from category to category.

The important thing is as follows: a lot of new books see the rankings every week. Of course, this is nothing but a drop in the ocean compared to the total number of books written worldwide, but this ties back into the point made earlier about bookstores marketing bestsellers over lesser-known books. Already by virtue of being a bestseller, more people will have bought a bestselling book, and when that book is advertised more often than other books, it will have an even further boost in sales. That means people are simply more likely to own a bestselling book, especially if they pick books based on the New York Times’ rankings.

Due to the boost in sales created by being a bestseller, bestselling authors are also incentivized to advertise their bestselling status to the death. Did you know that having one book placed in one category for one week is enough to make its author a New York Times bestselling author for all eternity? It’s crazy!

This all means that everyone wants a piece of the New York Times bestseller pie. People are even willing to cheat their way onto the rankings if it means a shot at stardom. Handbook for Mortals by Lani Sarem is a rather infamous example of this, which was taken down within less than a day because the author was suspected of buying mass amounts of her own book for it to appear popular. Even a former US president, Donald Trump, has been caught performing bulk sales of his own book for it to reach the #1 spot. If not directly taken down, the New York Times places a dagger symbol next to books suspected of faking.

Beneath the facade of a regular list of popular books, the New York Times rankings are chock-full of drama, intrigue, and fascinating facts. They tell the story of success and failure; of stardom and obscurity. However, perhaps we should ask ourselves: should such a list really dictate the careers of authors past, present, and future? For every book that becomes a bestseller, hundreds go unnoticed. How many books that could have become literary classics have slipped through the cracks?

[ * The End * ]

[Editor's Notes: I'm sure seeing the NY times bestseller stamp on the majority of books we pick up is a widespread experience among all readers --and non-readers-- but not many of us know why, how, or want to go down the rabbit hole, but this piece brings that information to us with ease and clarity. The causal tone throughout this piece provides the audience with a sense of just conversing with a friend and bringing up random facts rather than looking at a published formal article on the web. - Kimberly Nguyen]


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