How to Become a New York Times Bestseller: The Bestseller List Explained

Sarah Rexford
December 13, 2023 | 9 mins

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Many writers want to learn how to become a New York Times bestseller. And clearly, you feel the same, or you wouldn't be here! But what makes a book a New York Times bestseller? And is it even worth it to get on the list?

Being a bestselling author can mean future book contracts, speaking gigs, recognition for your work, a sizable passive income from your writing, and many more opportunities. But how many copies to be a bestseller? 100? 1000? What does making it on the bestseller list mean?


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To understand how to become a New York Times bestseller, it's first important to understand what the bestseller list is.

What is the New York Times bestseller list?

The New York Times Best Sellers

If you search the New York Times bestseller list, you will find “Authoritatively ranked lists of books sold in the United States, sorted by format and genre.”

There are multiple lists you can search, all separated into categories: Fiction, nonfiction, children’s, and monthly lists.

Under fiction: combined print and E-book, hardcover, and paperback trade.

Under nonfiction: combined print and E-book, hardcover, paperback, advice, how-to, and miscellaneous. 

Under monthly lists: audio fiction, audio nonfiction, business, graphic books and manga, mass market, middle-grade paperback, young adult paperback. 

These categories have specific stipulations, so naturally, people want to know how to become a New York Times bestseller. What does it take?

Does good writing mean you can land at the top? Can you buy your way onto the bestseller list? What if you have a large social media following and market well? What makes a book a New York Times bestseller, exactly?

Let's dive into the details of how to become a New York Times bestseller.


How to become a New York Times bestseller

To learn how to become a New York Times bestseller, you must understand that it's about copies sold. How many copies to be a bestseller? Generally, you must sell at least 5,000 books in one week. This is the minimum sales goal.

You may need to sell 10,000 copies in one week. Depending on the list, the different requirements can get tricky. 

If you want to learn how to become a New York Times bestseller, you must sell between 5,000 to 10,000 copies of your book in one week, but the sales cannot all come from one entity. 

What does that mean?

Your book sales must be distributed. For instance, if you have 10,000 followers on Twitter and every single follower buys a copy of your book, this does not count as diverse sales. All the sales came from one entity. So, now you're realizing that how many copies to be a bestseller may actually be MORE than 10,000.

Similarly, if you sell 5,000 copies through one marketplace, this doesn’t count either. Selling 7,000 copies through Target, for instance, does not count as diverse sales.

The number of your sales copies must be distributed over a range of entities. Diverse sales could consist of selling copies of your book through social media, your website, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, etc. 

That said, sales data is collected and sent in via all stores, big and small, from the last Sunday to Saturday period. This data is then taken and considered against the rules for how to become a New York Times bestseller.    

Rules for how to become a New York Times bestseller

While the general rules for how to become a New York Times bestseller are relatively simplistic, execution can be difficult. After all, that’s why landing on a bestseller list is considered such a feat. So what makes a book a New York Times bestseller?

The two overarching rules are:

  1. Books must be traditionally published 
  2. Minimum, distributed sales must be 5,000 

When you publish your book, how you go about publishing, what your marketing plan is, where you interview, if you do a book tour, and more, all factor into if you make the minimum sales goal.

Five thousand copies, minimum, must be sold in a one-week time frame, and sales must be diverse. 

What list you land on depends on the target audience of your book as well as your format.

This means if you published a hard-cover young adult book, you could not hit the monthly list even if you sold 10,000 copies within the one-week timeframe. If you published a paperback young adult book, and sold a minimum amount of copies with diverse distribution, then you could land on the monthly list.

Can self-published authors get on the New York Times bestseller list?

According to the Nonfiction Authors Association, “The long-standing challenge for self-published authors has been that the list is compiled based on brick-and-mortar bookstore sales, and most self-published authors aren’t featured in bookstores unless they are working with a distributor.”

The NY Times list is full of traditionally published books. However, if you self-publish a book and you make great sales, a traditional publisher may make you an offer. If you choose to re-publish traditionally, the relaunch of your book could take off just as your first launch did. This could be one avenue for how to become a New York Times bestseller.

If you meet or exceed the minimum sales goal in a one-week period, and your book fits one of the categories, your originally self-published book can land you on the bestseller list.

Many successful authors started their career self-publishing. 

While it’s crucial to have a great marketing plan in place, a solid author brand, and the in-between steps mapped out so you can reach your goals, making a bestseller list does not have to start with your debut book.

You can successfully self-publish, meet your sales goals, garner the attention of agents and editors, and land a traditional publishing contract. Then you can work on how to become a New York Times bestseller.

Wherever you’re at in your publishing journey, focus on great writing and stellar marketing, and just see what happens. You never know when your self-published book may receive a traditional contract offer, or which week your traditionally published book will make the sales goals. 

Don't give up.

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Does becoming a New York Times bestseller mean you’re a good author?

The answer to this question depends on your definition of what a good author is. Is it great writing? Reaching the masses? Moving your readers emotionally? Influencing your target audience to change in some way? 

Regardless of your definition, mastering how to become a New York Times bestseller does not automatically mean you’re a good author. It does mean your book was likely well-received by the masses. And if influencing readers is a determining factor in your success as a writer, you’re well on your way. 

However, not making a bestseller list does not mean you aren’t a good author.

You could nearly reach your minimum sales goals every single week and not hit the list, while another author may hit their minimum sales goals one week and watch their sales tank every week after.

You could also reach a large audience and exceed your minimum sales goals but not have a diverse enough reach in where those sales come from. 

On the other hand, you could never meet your sales goals but influence a few readers in a monumental way. 

You could be a writer ahead of your time, so accomplished that the power of your writing won’t be recognized for years to come!

Not meeting a particular goal has nothing to do with your abilities or talent as a writer. The market is ever-changing and while the market does determine how to become a New York Times bestseller, it does not determine your worth as a writer.

Getting in the mindset of a bestseller

When setting out to write your book, do your best not to think about how to become a New York Times bestseller. This will put undue pressure on you and likely stifle your creativity. 

Instead, focus on creating the best work you possibly can. 

Don’t think about the many potential readers, the lists you hope to make, your sales, your marketing plan, what’s trending, or anything else that will pressure you to write a specific way. 

If you have a great idea and are passionate about taking it from idea to edited manuscript, focus on getting the words down. 

Yes, you should have a target reader in mind, but focus on just that one reader.

No one can fully write to the masses, because no one can fully please every single person within their target audience. 

There is a lot of pressure that comes with writing on a deadline, writing for a specific audience, marketing well, picking the correct date to release your book, making those initial sales, covering your advance costs, making royalties, promoting well, and all the other aspects that come with a book launch

Many bestselling writers didn’t know they were writing a bestseller until the data came in. They simply sat down, put in their word count every day, edited, and submitted their project. 

Readers connect with authentic writing.

Readers can tell if you’re trying to write about a trend because you want to try to hit a specific list. 

Readers can also tell if you poured your heart and soul into your work just so they could read it. 

Be that writer.

What are the right goals for your book?

There is nothing wrong with having writing goals to push you forward and keep you on the path to your dreams. 

Many writers hope to make a bestseller list with one of their books. As previously mentioned, great opportunities can come from a traditionally published, bestselling book. The key is to keep your dream in the appropriate proportion with your passion for writing. 

Dream of making that bestseller list. Work for it. Pour yourself into your writing. Have the right team to help you with your marketing. Promote, interview, tour. Do all the things! 

But if your goal is simply to learn how to become a New York Times bestseller, you’ll likely miss out on enjoying the journey. 

Writers hopefully write because they love the process. Milestones are something to celebrate, but if your only excitement comes from meeting goals and not from the work itself, you’ll likely burn out. 

Enjoy finding book ideas

Plotting your book.

Writing your first draft.

Editing.

Finding a publisher.

Your release day.

And as you wait for sales to come in and watch your numbers rise, enjoy this part of the process too. 

Just remember, your ability as a writer is not tied to learning how to become a New York Times bestseller.

You wrote and published a book.

That by itself is a tremendous accomplishment. 

So move forward. Do your research to make sure you’re hitting all the main factors you need to. Write your book. Make it the best you can be. 

Then let the market do the work for you and see what happens. 

You are a successful writer either way! 


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