Six Pixels Of Separation Is A New York Times Bestseller

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If only that were true (but it sort of is)…

Seth Godin is very busy with his new publishing venture called, The Domino Project (in conjunction with Amazon). Yesterday, he published a Blog post titled, Strategy Memo: Rejecting The New York Times Bestseller List, in which he debunks the reality of hitting The New York Times all-important book list.

The positive:

"It’s not just an indicator (the proverbial canary, indicating what’s going on in the mine) but it’s also an amplifier, a spark that can lead to ever more sales, conversations and credibility. The list became truly important a few decades ago when the superstores started discounting bestsellers to near cost. That meant that if a book made the list it would certainly cost a lot less and be displayed far more prominently. Which of course kept it on the list for weeks or months. While this effect has faded, the prestige and attention that the list brings has only grown."

The negative:

"It turns out that where your book is sold makes a difference as well. The Times is notorious for counting sales at certain stores (usually independent booksellers) more than others, and until recently ignoring some stores altogether. Selling books at a conference? Well, if you get them straight from the publisher you can offer them at a lower price, serving your readers better. Of course, those sales won’t count for the list. Instead, contact a bookstore, route the sales through them (though they never touch the books) and you’ll get credit for the list. Want to sell a five pack of your books? You can’t easily do that if you care about the list, because the Times counts each pack as one book, not five. It goes on and on."

It has become a complex world.

You would think that a book sold is a book sold – regardless of it being an individual copy, a bulk buy, an electronic version or where it is purchased. You would be wrong. As an author, I can tell you that this is a constant source of frustration. The truth is that I am a New York Times‘ bestselling author, but I’ve never made the list. As just one example: One week a major US corporation chose my book to gift to a segment of their customers. This resulted in 20,000+ copies of my book being bought in just one week. That’s no small number, and coupled with the regular weekly sales it would have placed the book at the top of the non-fiction list – without question. But, as Seth pointed out, this type of bulk purchase wound up not being counted to the list. Incidents like that happened a couple of times during this past year. To prove my point, 800-CEO-Read handles the majority of the bulk sales for my business book and it ranked at #13 in their The Bestsellers of 2010. I’ve been told on countless occasions that my book routinely outsells other books that sit atop lists like the New York Times Bestsellers.

There is a reason for this.

The other side of the coin, is that there are people who are constantly trying to game the system. I’m sure lists like the New York Times have rules like this in place because authors have purchased a mass amount of their own books simply to make the list (whether those books ever wound up in the hands of a reader or in a landfill somewhere is not the point). A bestselling book enables you to charge more for whatever services you offer. To that point, there are a handful of book publishing industry businesspeople who still know how to maneuver the system, so that every book bought does count towards a bestseller list. They charge a flat fee for their formula as well as bonuses based on how many lists and how highly an author ranks on it.

So, what does matter? 

Seth says, "Readers have plenty of other lists (online and off) if we’re curious what’s popular. Smart people are realizing the list is easily gamed, and word of mouth ends up being more important anyway." As usual, he’s spot on. If you really want to know which business book is best, all you have to do is ask. You can do this in your own networks in places like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. You can even try posting a question like this in a newer platform like Quora. Beyond that, there are Blog postings and other spaces (even 800-CEO-Read) who focus on specific niches of books, and the content in those spaces are filled to the brim with great recommendations.

What’s your take on this? Do the lists still matter or is it more relevant to get a recommendation from someone you know and trust?


  1. Mixed feeling, Mitch. Of course, you and Seth are right. People “in the know” recognized the flawed and/or outdated methods employed by the New York Times. Of course, many of the general public think that a book on that cherished list is somehow better than books not on it., much the same way that a book from a premium publisher is better than that of an smaller, independent one.
    I’m with you on social search. Recommendations on blogs, social networks, and their ilk are probably better in the long run because they’re more authentic, although, if I’m honest with myself, I’d love to call myself ‘a New York Times best-selling author.’ I suppose that it couldn’t hurt my speaking rates!

  2. 30 years ago I worked in an independent bookstore and the NY Times Bestseller List was important for selling books, but gee, has that changed.
    I can’t imagine using it as a guide any linger. I read reviews by readers and professional reviewers and definitely go on recommendations from people I trust.
    The (hopefully) soon to be old system can RIP as far as I’m concerned.

  3. Online reviews and ratings have been teaching us and influencing us for years now. The days of published lists from the New York Times, however influential they may have been, base don their “presumed” credibility are quickly coming to an end.

  4. Hey Mitch,
    Over the last five years I’ve averaged reading about 40 books a year. Very very few of those books hit the NYT best seller list. I never consult the NYT for new reading material. Had I relied on that list, I would have missed the bulk of the great reading opportunities such as YOUR book.
    Sales of the book is important to the author, but not to me or my personal investment of money, time, and energy. I’m most interested in the material covered, how it’s presented and the useful life of that information. I always review the table of contents and index before I purchase a book. I’ll also check websites and blogs of the author and possibly a third party review or two. But never the NYT.
    Most of the recommendations I get come from scouring Amazon, Kobo, GoodReads, and Shelfari. I have also found really good stuff on the ChangeThis site by reviewing manifesto’s. This stuff is easy to find using keyword searches. I’ve also used bloggers recommended reading list such as your back to school list.
    I generally keep a prioritized list of about 150 books to read in an excel spread sheet that makes for easy sorting. Since I read a new book about every 8-10 days, I consult this file often. I generally try to read 4-5 of my top ten per month. Every week I’m re-prioritizing the list since I place book orders twice a month. Finally, I’m usually reading two books at the same time. Generally they are on the same or similar topics with different opinions and presentations of the information. This way I can quickly assimilate the information and figure out how I can put the information to productive use.
    Thanks again for another thought-provoking post and the opportunity to respond.

  5. Mitch,
    When talking books and book recommendations, you missed an important player in the social structure online: Goodreads. (
    I think the list market is fragmenting and thus people are paying less attention to the NY Times list and instead focusing on (and/or giving more weight when determining decision influence to) the Oprah Book Club list, the Goodreads list, the Mitch Joel Pixelated book list, the “my bookworm friend’s list”, and similar lists.

  6. That’s very interesting, kind of sad, but not all that surprising. I never have really researched what makes a book a “New York Times Best Seller,” but it seems like every single person on a television show has one. I’ve also noticed that a lot of books that seem like tripe to me end up staying on the list for like, 16 years. Makes one scratch one’s head.
    Interestingly, this same sort of process can be overlaid on the world of Social Media. Lists work like the New York Times Best Seller list. If you get on a list, people say, “Ooh, you were on that list.” Your name spreads and most probably you’ll end up on more lists. But there are ways (certainly) to game that system as well.
    Thanks for the information about the publishing world. Good to know!

  7. I have to echo that, when I’m looking for new reading material, I have NEVER gone and looked up what’s on the NYTimes Bestseller list. More often, it’s an organic thing, where I stumble across a review on a blog I read, or I see a Tweet, or a friend tells me “you have to read this…”. Before social media, I was more likely to go to my local bookstore and peruse the “new books” shelf. Perhaps someone should compile a “Social Bestseller” list, pulling together books with the most mentions on social sites…

  8. Congrats on selling 20,000 books at once! Quite the accomplishment (to say nothing about the $$ generated). It seems to me that NYT and other lists as well as ‘old world’ book reviewers have decreasing influence. As one of your commenters said, reviews from someone you trust are much more important.
    Seems to me that freelance reviewers, reader reviews and community reviews will be the way of the future. In this way, readers have many more sources to consult beyond the newspapers or the rumoured-to-be-flawed prize winner lists while writers can actively seek out and engage with new review channels. Another aspect of marketing in an interactive world.

  9. The vast majority of the New York Times Bestsellers that I’ve seen have made me question the publishing industry – but my faith is always restored by a recommendation from a friend or social media contact.

  10. Word of mouth has always been my way of deciding on a new book purchase. Recommendations through friends or social media help direct me on movies as well. I love when the underdogs like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” become big hits through word of mouth!

  11. Word of mouth is the best form of advertising.
    Most books that I’ve read this days are recommendations form my cousins. And that also goes for movies and music.

  12. Top shelf – airport bookshop in NZ. Your book popped up in my path when there was a gap about business strategy and a few hours to kill at the VIP lounge. A case of right place, right time rather than a recommendation or best seller list.
    Will let you know how it filled the gap when I’m finished. Fascinated by giving away IP for nothing and where is the line drawn? Guess Rupert Murdoch is challenging that concept.

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