The other day, my friend Darrell asked me on a webinar in front of hundreds of people how it felt to not hit The New York Times Best Sellers list with my latest book. I said, “Well, not good. But thanks for reminding me.”
Anyone who’s paid attention to my recent launch knows I set a public goal of hitting that list. It was one of a handful of aspirations I had for the year. And I honestly thought I had it in the bag. I followed the rules: wrote the goal down, pictured it in my mind, and worked like mad to make it happen.
Then, it didn’t.
In spite of all my wishing and work, the dream just didn’t come true. That kind of disappointment is hard. But what I learned from the experience was invaluable.
When I launched The Art of Work in March, I ended selling more copies than planned. The book did about 15,000 preorders instead of the anticipated 10,000 (which some say is the magic number you need to hit the list, but nobody knows for sure). For some reason, though, the book didn’t make the NYT list.
It hit USA Today, Publisher’s weekly (two weeks in a row), and the Washington Post best sellers list. But no New York Times. Why not?
How best sellers lists work
First, it’s helpful to understand how these lists work. Most people have no idea. I certainly didn’t — until I began researching this subject. The best overview of the different lists and how they work can be found on Tim Ferriss’s blog.
Suffice it to say, they’re all different but have some similarities, and landing a spot on any one of them is difficult.
Here are some things you may not have known about the best sellers lists:
- There's more than one best sellers list (The New York Times currently has over 30 different lists based on genre).
- Every list has their own criteria for what qualifies as a “best seller” (surprisingly, it's usually not just how many books you sell).
- USA Today is the only list that calculates the rank of a book solely by sales figures. They also only have one list, which, some say, makes it a more objective list.
- The Wall Street Journal list is made up of mostly business hardcover and non-fiction books. You can sell a ton of books and not hit that list if it's not the right genre or format.
- Some stores don’t report to Nielsen Bookscan, which accounts for roughly 75% of total book sales. In other words, the best sellers lists aren't looking at all book sales.
- Best sellers lists are calculated weekly, so if a book sells a lot in its lifetime but never has a strong sales week, it won’t become a best seller.
- There’s no magic number. If reported sales are low one week, you could hit the list with a few thousand sales. Another week, you might miss it with over 10,000 sales. It's all relative.
- Some retailers, like airports, delay their reporting for weeks or even months, which can skew the results and dilute sales numbers.
- All preorders count towards the first week of sales. However, if the book ships early, sales numbers can be spread out over a couple of weeks and dilute the book's rank on a best sellers list.
- The New York Times does not disclose all factors they consider in determining whether or not a book will hit the list. So it's impossible to predict or plan. You can sell just as many, or more, books as someone who makes the list and not know why they didn't pick you.
What’s broken about this system is that most people don’t understand what it means to be a “best seller.” Even the lists themselves don't seem to understand that, since it’s not just a certain number of sales that lands you on one of these lists.
Yes, the best sellers lists are biased and basically a popularity contest. Then again, that's their prerogative. The New York Times Best Sellers list, after all, belongs to The New York Times. So they can do whatever they want.
Nonetheless, this can be frustrating for writers who try to play by the rules and still don’t make it on a best sellers list. Perhaps the solution, then, is to not play the game in the first place.
To read more about this, check out “The NYT and WSJ Best Seller Lists Must Die.”
What I learned from not hitting the list
Was I disappointed my book didn’t hit the NYT list? Of course. That’s a huge accomplishment and I don’t disparage any author who’s done it. It’s hard. But after the initial disappointment, I dug deep and asked myself what I could learn from this. Here’s what I came up with:
- It’s better to attempt great things and fail than to never attempt them at all. Given the choice between trying and failing and not trying at all, I’ll choose something brave and try every time. I’d rather fail at something audacious than succeed at something safe.
- If you only set goals you know you can achieve, you’re not dreaming big enough. We’re not promised success in everything we attempt, but we can keep setting goals that are just a few steps away from delusion (for more on that, listen to this goal-setting interview I did with Michael Hyatt).
- Don’t measure your success by someone else’s standard. Measure it by your effort. In retrospect, I should’ve set a goal of total book sales (which is more in my control than what the NY Times decides to do). Giving someone else the key to your success is a sure-fire recipe for disappointment.
- No matter what, be grateful. After my book launch, I kept complaining to friends about how I didn’t hit the list. And you know what? None of them really cared. When they heard how I sold 15,000 books, they would say, “Dude! Congrats! That’s amazing!” It took some time, but I finally started agreeing.
The next time you attempt something audacious, I hope you’ll learn from my biggest mistake, which wasn’t trying to hit The New York Times list. It was forgetting to celebrate what I did achieve. That’s the trouble with large goals: they can sometimes blind you from what you've already done.
In your quest to do something big, don't miss the joy that comes with the attempt. It's really the most fun part: the journey, not the destination. As for me, I’ll keep chasing audacious dreams, because I don’t much care for the alternative: settling for the safety of the status quo.
And if that means I occasionally have to face disappointment, then so be it.
If you want to hear more about book launches, failure, and what I’ve learned from the past four years of trying things that didn’t always work, watch this video.
When was the last time you failed at something big? What did you learn? Share in the comments.