The Non-science Behind The New York Times Best Sellers List

By: Carrie Whitney, Ph.D.  | 
Dragons Love Tacos
The delightful children's book, Dragons Love Tacos, has been on The New York Times Best Sellers list for more than 400 weeks, or more than seven years. Penguin Random House

Have you read "Dragons Love Tacos"? If you haven't, where have you been? This delightful children's book has been on The New York Times Best Sellers list for more than seven years. Granted, it's in the Children's Picture Books category, but as of July 2, 2023, "Dragons Love Tacos" has spent more than 400 weeks on the list (or more than seven years); that's more time than almost any adult book except "The Road Less Traveled" and "The Glass Castle."

Plus, just a couple decades ago, children and adult books were on the same list, until a teenage wizard necessitated the separation.


Whether the material is written for the young, old or anyone with an imagination, getting a book on any of The New York Times' Best Sellers lists is a boon for authors and publishers alike. It increases sales and prestige, and could make a film deal more of a possibility, Constance Grady wrote for Vox. Book covers, online listings and author websites make the most of being included, so what does it take to get there? It's complicated.

What Is The New York Times Best Sellers List?

The New York Times Best Sellers list is a series of weekly and monthly lists that do just what they sound like — recognize current top sellers. They are "compiled and archived by The Best Seller Lists Desk of The New York Times News Department, and are separate from the Editorial, Culture, Advertising and Business sides of The New York Times Company," according to the About the Best Sellers page of the Times' website. That means they are distinct from the Book Review or lists of recommendations like Best Books.

"The New York Times Best Seller lists consist of multiple categories, each measuring different sale types," a spokesperson for The New York Times said in an email interview.


Currently there are 11 weekly lists and seven monthly lists. New lists go live online Wednesdays at 7 p.m. EST. A portion of those lists appears in print 11 days later, due to the newspaper's printing schedule.

The weekly lists separate books into three categories: fiction, nonfiction and children's books. Fiction and nonfiction are further broken down into subcategories for hardcover, paperback, and combined print and digital sales. Nonfiction has an additional subcategory for how-to books. Children's books are divided into middle grade hardcover, picture books, series and young adult hardcover.

The monthly lists have more specialized categories like audio books, graphic books and manga, and mass market.


How Do Books Land on the NYT Best Sellers Lists?

Books are included on the list when they are best sellers; sounds simple, right?

"The lists are based on a detailed analysis of book sales from a wide range of retailers who provide us with specific and confidential context of their sales each week," according to the New York Times spokesperson. "These standards are applied consistently to provide Times readers our best assessment of what books are the most broadly popular in that time frame. Our methodology is published with the lists online and our goal is that the lists reflect authentic best sellers."


The gist of the methodology is that rankings reflect weekly sales reports from vendors or booksellers. For print books, that means chains, independent bookstores, online retailers, supermarkets, other types of bookstores and newsstands.

Digital sales come from online vendors of e-books for various e-reader formats. Most importantly, the sales data is reported to The Times by the vendors, and sales are defined as completed transactions by vendors and individual end-users.

Despite this explanation, some members of the publishing industry have raised questions about the methodology. "No one outside The New York Times knows exactly how its best sellers are calculated — and the list of theories is longer than the actual list of best sellers," Sophie Vershbow wrote in Esquire.


What Books Make the List?

Best selling books
Both Prince Harry's memoir "Spare" and Michelle Obama's book "The Light We Carry" shot to No. 1 on nonfiction list. NurPhoto via Getty Images

As books are judged by the sales, not their literary value or other criteria, being on a NYT Best Sellers list is not an indication of a future Pulitzer Prize or another prestigious book award like the Booker Prize or the National Book Award. The Best Seller List is simply a numbers game that can give recognized authors and celebrities a leg up.

In the nonfiction category, some books are bound for the list, like "Spare" by Prince Harry or Michelle Obama's "The Light We Carry."


But debut novels from noncelebrity authors have a tougher time landing on the list. In 2021, for example, only five of the 15 debut novels on the hardcover fiction list were written by noncelebrity authors. And none of those five were endorsed by other celebrities or their book clubs, like Oprah's Book Club or the Good Morning America Book Club.

Likewise, well-known commercial fiction authors regularly appear on the list, so on any given week, you might notice the latest work by Nora Roberts, James Patterson or David Baldacci.

But there is plenty of room for others as books move in, out, up and down the lists. Even first-time authors show up with some regularity. Debuts by Jenny Jackson, Nita Prose, Sarah Penner, Chloe Gong and Robert Jones Jr. appeared in recent years.


The Longest-running Books on the Lists

Harry Potter and Diary of a Wimpy Kid books
J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and Jeff Kinney's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid Hard Luck" have had two of the longest runs on The New York Times Best Sellers lists than any other books. Scholastic; Abrams

You might think J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," the first book in the series, would be the longest-running best seller, and that would be a good guess; it has clocked in at 743 weeks as of the lists dated July 2, 2023. But it is a close second to Jeff Kinney's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," which has spent the most time on any New York Times Best-Seller list, appearing 744 times on the children's series list as of the same week.

As indicated by the wild success of "Harry Potter" and "Diary," the highest sales figures appear where kids' books are concerned. Consider the 401-week run of R. J. Palacio's "Wonder" on the middle grade list alongside "Dragons Love Tacos," 403 weeks on the picture book list.


Plenty of books rank as soon as they are published — the instant best sellers. Other books might take longer.

The fourth book in the Bridgerton romance novel series, "Romancing Mister Bridgerton," which was first published in 2002, had a strong showing on the best-seller lists after the popular series on Netflix was released in 2020.

The late Toni Morrison's searing debut novel, "The Bluest Eye," about a poor Black family in post-Depression 1940s Ohio, made the list when it was originally published in 1970. Though it resurfaced on the Paperback Trade Fiction list in 2020 and again in 2021.


How Some Authors Have Gamed the List

Jacqueline Susann
Author Jacqueline Susann sold more than 30 million copies of her book "Valley of the Dolls," though some of those sales were via her husband Irving Mansfield. Mirrorpix via Getty Images

If the list is based solely on sales, can't publishers, authors and others (with the funds) simply buy up lots of their own books to get on the list and launch their works and maybe their careers?

The short answer is yes. It has happened numerous times, despite the ethical issues doing so raises. Vanity Fair reported in 2013 that Jacqueline Susann's "Valley of the Dolls"— which has sold more than 30 million copies since it was published in 1966 — got a major boost when Susann's husband Irving Mansfield got his hands on the names of 125 bookstores that The New York Times polled when compiling its best-seller list. He then spearheaded a book-buying campaign at those stores and sales skyrocketed.


Author Wayne Dyer bought 4,500 copies of his book "Your Erroneous Zones," "virtually the entire first printing," according to The Washington Post. In fact, there are agencies whose sole job is getting clients on the list.

The New York Times does not take such manipulations lightly. In a 2018 series, the Best Sellers List staff wrote a piece explaining its journalistic practices.

"We feel strongly that the best-seller lists should reflect the sale of books to individual end users. In other words, they should be sales to actual readers."

Since 1995, when a book with evident bulk purchases is included on a best sellers list, it appears with a dagger (†) to denote the skewed numbers.