How the New York Times Best-Seller Lists Come Together

How the New York Times Best-Seller Lists Come Together


Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.

Come holiday or hurricane, one thing you can count on is that The New York Times’s best-seller lists will be published online every Wednesday at 7 p.m. Eastern. And those lists will be dated for the print Book Review, where they will appear 11 days later. This is just one of the many quirks of the work we — the three-member BSL team, as we call ourselves — do, combining data science, investigative reporting and our own special blend of foxhole humor.

As much as we wish some myths were true, such as that the lists are determined by an automated data spigot with a secret algorithm or our executive editor’s throwing darts at the wall, the work of putting together the lists requires the full-time efforts of the three of us and the support of an information technology team.

The sales data that drives what books make the lists, and where they land within them, is sent by stores giant, tiny and in-between all across the country. It reflects the previous week’s Sunday-to-Saturday sales period, which stores begin to report to us over the weekend. We receive numbers on millions of titles each week from tens of thousands of storefronts and online retailers as well as specialty and independent bookstores.

So there’s a lot of data in need of herding. This is complicated by the fact that a single title in one binding, such as hardcover, can have a dozen or more International Standard Book Numbers or ISBNs, which are like Social Security numbers for books, depending on the different kinds of stores where it is sold. We must tie them together in our system and track all of them appropriately. Since our work must be kept under wraps until we publish, we use an assortment of code names for books, authors and stores.

By noon on Mondays, we have received roughly 75 percent of the data and have some idea of what the best bets are going to be for new titles. But, as in sports, it’s not over until the final buzzer, which will come the following afternoon. Monday afternoons fly by because we continue to gather reports, help stores with technical issues and begin the stressful task of writing things we know will eventually be read by a lot of famous authors.

We write descriptions for the new titles based on the blurbs on the books’ jackets or publishers’ websites. Most weeks, we have a dozen or so new titles across our 11 weekly lists. On busy weeks when we also close our seven monthly lists, we can have over 40 new titles. We have to make sure we have the correct title, author(s), publisher’s imprint and pertinent facts about the book before squeezing everything into a limited space on a tight deadline.

Yes, this means we are ranking the books and writing their descriptions without having read the works. You might ask how we can choose which books are good if we aren’t first reading all of them. We don’t. Unlike the staff members of the Book Review, from whom we work independently, we aren’t making value judgments. We go off the sales data.

The window for reporting each week closes at noon on Tuesdays. For the next few hours, we determine the final rankings, based on the sales data and details provided by stores. We want the lists to reflect what individual consumers are buying across the country instead of what is being bought in bulk by individuals or associated groups.

During the finalization stage, the three of us gather in a room (or, these days, we get on the phone), and one editor reads each list from top to bottom as the other two double-check information. To stay alert and aware, some book titles are sung to the tune of familiar songs. Recent chart toppers include: Tara Westover’s “Educated,” crooned to the rhythm of Peaches & Herb’s “Reunited”; Ijeoma Oluo’s “So You Want to Talk About Race,” delivered in the style of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex”; and Sean Hannity’s “Live Free or Die,” belted like Axl Rose wailing “Live and Let Die.”

Once we complete the descriptions for the new titles, we send them to get copy-edited before they get published in our subscriber newsletter, online and in the print Book Review. On Wednesday evenings, people are either popping Champagne corks or calling for our heads. Whatever the reaction, it’s important to remember that the lists are less of a final judgment by readers on a book or topic and more of an ongoing conversation. Each week tells a different story. The only way to get a true sense of trends in the book world and in our culture is to look at the lists over many weeks, months and even years.



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