I've heard a lot of new authors recently compare themselves with bestselling authors, expecting to see their first books skyrocket to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
It might come as a surprise to some but reaching the top of the bestseller lists doesn't mean your book is the greatest one published that week or that millions of people are buying it.
Book lists, like the Oscars, are often the result of networking, politicking, and a whole lot of money.
Recently a blogger posted an expose of how an author reached the New York Times bestseller list. It involved hiring a publicity firm at a cost close to a quarter of a million dollars. The strategy included mailing copies of books to book stores throughout the country who report their sales figures on a weekly basis to the New York Times.
Now before you rush out and start stuffing envelopes with your books, consider that the list of stores is a closely guarded secret. Some of them are in areas with populations of 5,000. Two book sales of one title in one week constitutes a bestseller in their market. It isn't all about selling millions of books, contrary to what the typical reader believes. It's about understanding the system and manipulating it.
A look at the national bestseller lists will show imprints from the largest New York publishers - because they are typically the only ones who will be able to spend so much money on making a book a bestseller. They determine which books will reach that list before the book is even produced. Their decision typically revolves around those who already have a massive platform - politicians, celebrities, and authors who have previously made the list. They allocate a huge budget to that book, often to the detriment of other books by other authors who are just as good or better than the ones selected.
They push that book to the wholesalers and the book stores, stacking the scales in their favor. Money, advertising, review copies, and more money is needed, along with a dedicated set of staffers whose jobs are to ensure that book makes all the lists.
If you're a new author and you believe with your first book's release, you're going to skyrocket to the top of the lists, I hope you have one of the New York Big Five pushing you. If you don't, your success may be in other ways: mid-list authors often make great incomes; or success can be found in other ways such as self-satisfaction, giving something you believe is valuable to the world, connecting with fans and readers, and simply fulfilling your dream.
Will this change in the future? Undoubtedly. With eBooks selling more briskly every year, it levels the playing field. Anyone can publish these days; even self-published authors can earn good and steady incomes. But by and large, the system of reporting brisk sellers will have to change for anyone other than authors with the largest publishers to expect to reach the top of the charts.