The New York Times Best Seller list is widely considered the preeminent list of best-selling books in the United States. Published weekly in The New York Times Book Review, the best-seller list has been published in the Times since October 12, 1931. In recent years it has evolved into multiple lists in different categories, broken down by fiction and non-fiction, hardcover, paperback, and electronic, and different genres.
Although the first best seller list in America was published in 1895, in The Bookman, a best seller list was not published in The New York Times until 36 years later with little fanfare on October 12, 1931. It consisted of five fiction and four non-fiction books for New York City only. The following month the list was expanded to eight cities, with a separate list published for each city. By the early 1940s, fourteen city-lists were included. A national list was created on April 9, 1942, in The New York Times Book Review (Sundays) as a supplement to the regular city lists (Monday edition). The national list was ranked according to how many times the book appeared in the city lists. A few years later, the city lists were eliminated entirely leaving only the national ranking list, which was compiled according to "reports from leading booksellers in 22 cities". This methodology of ranking by bookseller sales figures remains to this day although the exact data compilation process is a trade secret and has evolved over time.
By the 1950s, The Times's list had become the leading best seller list for book professionals to monitor, along with Publishers Weekly. In the 1960s and 70s, mall-based chain bookstores B. Dalton, Crown Books, and Waldenbooks came to the forefront with a business model of selling newly published best-sellers with mass-market appeal. They used the best-selling status of titles to market the books and not just as a measure of sales; thus placing increased emphasis on the New York Times list for book readers and book sellers.
The list is compiled by the editors of the "News Surveys" department, not by The New York Times Book Review department, where it is published. It is based on weekly sales reports obtained from selected samples of independent and chain bookstores and wholesalers throughout the United States. The sales figures are widely believed to represent books that have actually been sold at retail, rather than wholesale, as the Times surveys booksellers in an attempt to better reflect what is purchased by individual buyers. Some books are flagged with a dagger indicating that a significant number of bulk orders had been received by retail bookstores.
The New York Times reported in 2013 that "we [generally do not] track the sales of classic literature," and thus, for example, new translations of Dante's Inferno would not be found on the bestseller list.
The exact method for compiling the data obtained from the booksellers is classified as a trade secret. Book Review staff editor Gregory Cowles explained the method "is a secret both to protect our product and to make sure people can't try to rig the system. Even in the Book Review itself, we don't know (the news surveys department's) precise methods." In 1992, the survey encompassed over 3,000 bookstores as well as "representative wholesalers with more than 28,000 other retail outlets, including variety stores and supermarkets." By 2004, the number was 4,000 bookstores as well as an unstated number of wholesalers. Data is adjusted to give more weight to independent book stores, which are underrepresented in the sample.
The lists are divided among fiction and non-fiction, print and e-book, paperback and hardcover; each list contains 15 to 20 titles. Expanded lists that show additional titles are available online through the Book Review website. The lists have been subdivided several times. "Advice, How-To, and Miscellaneous" debuted as a list of five on January 1, 1984. It was created because advice best-sellers were sometimes crowding the general non-fiction list. Its inaugural number one bestseller, The Body Principal by Victoria Principal, had been number 10 and number 12 on the non-fiction lists for the two preceding weeks. In July 2000, the "Children's Best Sellers" was created after the Harry Potter series had stayed in the top spots on the fiction list for an extended period of time. The children's list was printed monthly until Feb. 13, 2011, when it was changed to once an issue (weekly). In September 2007, the paperback fiction list was divided into "trade" and "mass-market" sections, in order to give more visibility to the trade paperbacks that were more often reviewed by the newspaper itself. In November 2010, The New York Times announced it would be tracking e-book best-seller lists in fiction and nonfiction starting in early 2011. "RoyaltyShare, a San Diego-based company that tracks data and aggregates sales information for publishers, will ... provide [e-book] data". The two new e-book lists were first published with the February 13, 2011, issue, the first tracks combined print and e-book sales, the second tracks e-book sales only (both lists are further sub-divided into Fiction and Non-fiction). In addition a third new list was published on the web only, which tracks combined print sales (hardcover and paperback) in fiction and nonfiction. In December 16, 2012, the children's chapter books list was divided into two new lists: middle-grade (ages 8–12) and young adult (age 12–18), both which include sales across all platforms (hard, paper and e-book).
The list has been criticized by authors, publishers, book industry executives, and others for not providing an accurate accounting of true best-seller status. These criticisms have been ongoing ever since the list originated. A book industry report in the 1940s found that best-seller lists were a poor indicator of sales, since they were based on misleading data and were only measuring fast sales (see "fast sale" criticism below). A 2004 report quoted a senior book marketing executive who said the rankings were "smoke and mirrors"; while a report in Book History found that many professionals in the book industry "scoffed at the notion that the lists are accurate".
Specific criticisms include:
In 1983, author William Peter Blatty sued The New York Times for $6 million, claiming that his latest book, Legion (filmed as The Exorcist III), had not been included in the list due to either negligence or intentional falsehood, saying it should have been included due to high sales. The Times countered that the list was not mathematically objective but rather was editorial content and thus protected under the Constitution as free speech. Blatty appealed it to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. Thus, the lower court ruling stood that the list is editorial content, not objective factual content, so the Times had the right to exclude books from the list.
In 1995, Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema, the authors of a book called The Discipline of Market Leaders, colluded to manipulate their book onto the best seller charts. The authors allegedly purchased over 10,000 copies of their own book in small and strategically placed orders at bookstores whose sales are reported to Bookscan. Because of the benefits of making The New York Times Best Seller list (speaking engagements, more book deals, and consulting) the authors felt that buying their own work was an investment that would pay for itself. The book climbed to No. 4 on the list where it sat for 15 weeks; it also peaked at No. 1 on the BusinessWeek best seller list. Since such lists hold the power of cumulative advantage, chart success often begets more chart success. Although such efforts are not illegal, publishers consider them unethical.
In 1999, Amazon.com announced a 50 percent decrease in price for books on the Best Seller List to beat its competition, Barnes & Noble. After a legal dispute between Amazon and The New York Times, Amazon was permitted to keep using the list on condition that it displayed it in alphabetical rather than numerical order. By 2010, this was no longer the case; Amazon now displays the best-seller list in order of best selling titles first.
In 2013, Forbes published a story titled "Here's How You Buy Your Way Onto The New York Times Bestsellers List." The article discusses how ResultSource, a San Diego-based marketing consultancy, specializes in ensuring books make a bestseller list, even guaranteeing a No. 1 spot for those willing to pay enough. The New York Times was informed of this practice and responded: “The New York Times comprehensively tracks and tabulates the weekly unit sales of all titles reported by book retailers as their general interest bestsellers. We will not comment beyond our methodology on the other questions." The New York Times did not alert its readers to this, unlike The Wall Street Journal, which admitted that books had landed on its bestseller list due to ResultSource's campaign. Soren Kaplan, the source who admitted he had paid ResultSource to land his book, Leapfrogging, on The Wall Street Journal's bestseller list, revealed the methodology on his blog; he posted: "If I could obtain bulk orders before Leapfrogging was released, ResultSource would purchase the books on my behalf using their tried-and-true formula. Three thousand books sold would get me on The Wall Street Journal bestseller list. Eleven thousand would secure a spot on the biggest prize of them all, The New York Times list."
In 2014, the Los Angeles Times published a story titled "Can bestseller lists be bought?" It describes how author and pastor Mark Driscoll contracted the company ResultSource to place his book Real Marriage (2012) on The New York Times Best Seller list for a $200,000 fee. The contract was for ResultSource "to conduct a bestseller campaign for your book, 'Real Marriage' on the week of January 2, 2012. The bestseller campaign is intended to place 'Real Marriage' on the New York Times bestseller list for the Advice How-to list." To achieve this, the contract stated that "RSI will be purchasing at least 11,000 total orders in one week." This took place, and the book successfully reached No.1 on the hardcover advice bestseller list on January 22, 2014.
In July 2015, Ted Cruz's book A Time For Truth was excluded from the list because the "overwhelming preponderance of evidence was that sales [of Cruz's book] were limited to strategic bulk purchases" to artificially increase sales and entry onto the list. In response, Cruz called the Times "a liar" and demanded an apology. The Times said it stood by its statement and evidence of manipulation.
A Stanford Business School analysis suggests that the "majority of book buyers seem to use the Times' list as a signal of what's worth reading". The study concluded that lesser-known writers get the biggest benefit from being on the list, while perennial best-selling authors, such as John Grisham or Danielle Steel, see no benefit of additional sales.