What I Learned from Not Hitting the New York Times Best Sellers List

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.”

New York Times New York Times
Photo Credit: Kevin Prichard Photography via Compfight cc

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:

  1. There’s more than one best sellers list (The New York Times currently has over 30 different lists based on genre).
  2. Every list has their own criteria for what qualifies as a “best seller” (surprisingly, it’s usually not just how many books you sell).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Some retailers, like airports, delay their reporting for weeks or even months, which can skew the results and dilute sales numbers.
  9. 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.
  10. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Writing Webinar

When was the last time you failed at something big? What did you learn? Share in the comments.

56 thoughts on “What I Learned from Not Hitting the New York Times Best Sellers List

  1. I really love these tips, especially the third one. There are always going to be people who seem to be more successful than you, but as long as you are exceeding your own goals as opposed to comparing yourself to others, you will be much happier!


  2. Love your honesty in this post, Jeff. Even though you didn’t hit the NYT list, your book is amazingly successful. Kudos to you!

  3. Some of us that know you were disappointed you didn’t make the list. Not that it mattered to us, we already loved the book and it already was a success. But it mattered because it mattered to you. Great post.

  4. Thank you for sharing so openly Jeff. I think attempting great things and failing works a valuable muscle. It will give you the strength to keep going and to dream even bigger next time. I have usually lived far too conservatively … trying to avoid failure rather than trying to achieve success. Life is so much richer when I take risks, either small or large.

  5. I am a getting little disillusioned with the value of being on the best sellers lists. Many people have learned how to scam the system by doing things like giving away copies of their book through a huge JV network, then asking people to buy a Kindle copy and send the receipt to the author to receive a bunch of bonuses. To my mind, they are buying a place on the list. Being on the best seller lists is going to lose all meaning.

  6. I would say something corny like, “you’re a best seller in my book!”…well looks like I just did. My bad. Seriously though, you have encouraged so many people, including me, to pursue our dreams and live the life we were meant to live! Those blessings are immeasurable. Thank you my brother.

  7. Bestseller lists are vanity. They feed the ego. Sure they build credibility, and the general public will be impressed by them; but it’s not the be-all end all of your work. Is it the best you could make it? Good.

    I’ve failed at a lot of things; shedding or shredding my ego. I’m more humble and compassionate now, and that is more important that things that make me feel like a big shot.

  8. Jeff, you could have failed at many, much more important things—things that would have caused you regret. You may not have made the list, but you have helped and encouraged thousands of people and continue to do so through the Facebook groups and the AOW course.

    I recently have spent countless hours and enormous energy fighting for some pretty important things and watching them fail anyway. Through it all, however, I’ve learned the importance of courage and chivalry. We all have opportunities to fight for someone or something, to do the right thing, every day. Even if it’s something that seems small and insignificant, it still matters. We don’t always win, and that hurts; but when we know we’ve done the right thing we can go on fighting because we know it was right.

    One of the key elements of chivalry is helping those in need of help. YOU have done that by giving of yourself, by laying out principles and steps that will guide people toward their calling, and by taking interest in others in a sincere and genuine way. YOU have been courageous by going for goals most would never dream of pursuing and even by sharing your “failure.” I don’t see any failure in that. 🙂

  9. I finished your book last night and it is on my ‘bestseller list’ right now. It was an amazing read and incredibly encouraging. I’m at a crossroads in my life right now — feeling strongly compelled to move in a ‘writerly’ direction — and your book has helped me to realize that I have to make that leap so that I can leave a legacy behind for my family. Thank you for putting this out into the world.

  10. Hey man, I’d love to only sell 15,000 books!

    One of the most important pieces of advice I ever got was during a really rough time in my life. I was in grad school for organic chemistry (synthetic/drug design) and had taken over has president of the school’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders. Somehow I was having trouble balancing my grad school course load, thesis research, teaching responsibilities, and running an organization with a six figure budget, dozens of active members, sub-committees, while planning an infrastructure project on another continent.

    I was basically having panic attacks over the fact that people were literally going to die because I couldn’t keep up, and one of the club advisers took me aside, and told me, “First off, failing to do something is far more noble than failing to do anything, and, second, successful people aren’t successful because the don’t fail. Successful people are successful people because they fail, over and over, then get up and keep trying, as many times as they have to.”

    It didn’t instantly remove the weight of it all from my shoulders, but it’s something I’ve come back to over and over these last few years. Every time I fall short of a goal, I remind myself, “Right, this is part of the process.”

  11. You know, it makes sense that they keep a lot of this secret. The world of marketing is filled with people always trying to find a way to game it. Just look at what happened with the Hugo Awards for Best Science Fiction. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, a group found a way to control the results. If it were just sales, it would be pretty easy to manipulate.

    Great read! Another things that I loved about this was the honesty. Many famous authors wouldn’t have the guts to come back and say “I didn’t reach my goal…and here is why.” To me, that is the most powerful lesson possible.

  12. thanks for the candor, Jeff! It’s very encouraging. Also, if you look at impact, you’ve made tremendous impact, even if you didn’t hit the popularity/critical acclaim you had hoped by making the list.

  13. I’m in the middle of this right now. I developed a web-based reality mini-series about my attempts to raise $5k in 30 days for a relocation to Nashville, and we’re in the middle part right now… where we’re not sure if we’ll hit the goal or not. There’s all kinds of “judgment” that comes up around “what if we don’t hit it?” and then there’s the other side: “Who cares!? It’s an awesome journey!”

    Great stories deserve to be told, regardless of the outcome. The truth – even if it’s vulnerable and appears to be a “failure” – is always meaningful and leads the way for others on their own success journey.

  14. Jeff, We get caught up in the numbers and you would be lying to yourself (and all of us) if you didn’t admit your disappointment. That is what naturally comes with not meeting a goal. Five years ago, I set off to run 5 miles a day and lose 30 pounds. I could feel myself becoming anxious as my deadline was approaching and didn’t want to fail. Even though only one other person knew about my goal, I didn’t want to look foolish. And then she asked me, “If you lose 28 pounds instead of 30, would you consider that a success or failure?” I immediately said “failure” and could tell that I had said the wrong thing as I looked at her…and then I looked at it differently. I viewed my success as the number LOST not the number NOT lost. Everything matters and we measure by numbers because that is what they do — but it doesn’t always reflect the way we should see things. Perspective is EVERYTHING. Oh, and by the way, I lost 31 pounds by my deadline. =)

  15. I think selling 15,000 pre-orders is a pretty major accomplishment, but I also understand why you wish you’d hit your goal. Celebrate what you *did* achieve would be my advice, and go ahead and shake your tiny fist at the NYT if you want.
    When I launched my online writing course and coaching service in March I of course harbored secret dreams that it would become an overnight sensation. And maybe it would have if I’d charged only $9.99 or made it a free e-book. But that course is based on 30 years of professional writing experience (eight of them online) and I didn’t want to give it away.
    The bad news: It didn’t sell a million copies overnight and Google didn’t hire me to coach its writers.
    The good news: It *is* selling and I’ve picked up a few coaching clients.
    My new motto: Build slowly if you must, but BUILD.
    Thanks for sharing your goals — and your disappointment — so honestly.

  16. Some of hitting the list has to do with the timing of your book. There are weeks when it’s easier to make the list than the others. I did a series of posts for the literary agency where I work a couple years ago about the NYT best sellers list which some might find interesting: https://www.booksandsuch.com/blog/best-sellers-a-little-historical-context-2/

    Ultimately, however, I believe it’s in God’s hands. I made the list, the very bottom of the list as part of a collection of novellas, for one week only, without doing a single thing four years ago. I firmly believe, however, that it will play a part in something else in my career further down the line.

    And yes, 15K pre-orders is phenomenal. Congratulations on that.

  17. Thank you Jeff this come at the right time for me. I submitted a poem a while back and they finally replied and they told me “unfortunately we’ll have to pass on your submission” they hardest things I’ve ever read. I was mad at myself but I also felt they falsified what they were looking for they wanted originality and to be real and I did just that but after reading this I feel a little better and I’m not going to stop or even change my style and play it safe. Thanks man I really needed to hear this

  18. You are a cool person and a wonderful writer, Jeff, list or no list. I’ve read your book (I was one of the 15,000) and really enjoyed it. And have been following your blog for a few years now. Maybe touching people’s lives is more important than how many lives you touch. Your down-to-earth honesty and integrity in your posts and writings is what appeals to me and has moved me. I already see you as very much “a success.”. “Living Large” can also mean embracing with greater depth of gratitude all of the many very good and amazing things and people already in our lives. YOU are already Amazing : ). And, thanks for again sharing honestly your feelings with us today. I wish you continued joy in writing and connecting with others. This work itself, in my view, is where true success lies….

  19. Jeff, I agree with your friends who said, “Dude! Congrats! That’s amazing!” It’s a great book and I recommended it to others after I read it. What I like about you is that you are authentic and humble and very encouraging to other writers.

  20. Jeff, when I saw how high you were in Amazon and Kindle rankings and how many five star review you had, I immediately thought, “bestseller,” but I understand, when you’ve set a certain benchmark it can be disappointing. Thank you for your transparency and for sharing what you’ve learned. I found your post extremely uplifting and an encouragement to me to not be afraid to think bigger, to learn from my failures and keep trying.

  21. Jeff, thanks for that article. I’m working on a book and I too, have my high hopes. But at least now they’re tempered and I completely understand what you are saying. I admire your bravery in saying it too. That’s not easy. I’m finishing up “The Art of Work,” and it’s so good. Thank you for that too!

  22. I’ve found a great happiness in being a very successful midlist author. I make a living, a nice living, without the pressure of not having a NYT bestseller, and then having anything less than that seem like a failure. Lists aren’t the be all end all of anything, let alone a measure of happiness.

  23. A brilliant author recently quoted
    Eric Miller as saying “More people are watching your life and . . . are gaining
    strength in their own lives and in their own challenges because of what you’re
    going through. I promise you: your life matters, your life is significant …”
    I understand that right now not making the list hurts like hell (with the odd
    bit of wounded pride thrown in). As a mum, I wish I could hug that pain away
    for you – but I can’t. All I can say is that your book and your work does
    matter. Sometimes mattering is more important than listing.

  24. Hi Jeff,

    As a follower of yours for many years, even attending your very first online blog training, I really appreciated this post. I am sorry to hear of your disappointment. I hope you realize the valuable impact you have made on so many readers and writers out here – in non-NYT-land. My dad used to remind me of “the man in the arena,” and I found this post that summed it up well. https://mentalfloss.com/article/63389/roosevelts-man-arena

  25. Last time I failed at something big: We took in a foster child and then adopted her. We were trying to give her a happy life, but she was broken in that department and did not know how to relax and be happy. The end was sad, and for her, life is still sad.
    And we felt as if we’d failed her until we remembered: the state was about to place her in a mental institution—we’d been her last chance at normal. So she did escape that, at least, and so it was not a total fail…

  26. I fail every single week. Sometimes I pick up the ashes of failed ideas every day. Most of the times it’s disappointing to the point of heartache. Some nights I don’t sleep. I wake up each morning and I’m tempted by hope that this new idea might work. It’s a mixture of joy and fear. Hard to explain. But I try again and see what happens from another experiment. You live and you learn.

  27. Such a timely article for me! I spent half the evening tonight wallowing in fear and doubt, burdened by my dreams, asking myself, who do I think I am to even dream of having a successful writing career? Thank you from reminding me its ok to dream, even more ok to fail, and what really matters is the journey.

  28. Another thought, Jeff. Tonight, because of things happening here in my own life, I’m feeling like the ONLY thing that matters is… is it being done with **Love**. This is the true measure of success…..

  29. I sold 29.5K books in one week.
    No NYT list.
    Man, I’m not gonna lie. I freaking cried and cursed.

  30. “There’s something satisfying about seeing other people struggle, too.For me, it’s just nice to know that I’m not alone.” Those are your words Jeff and that’s why I love reading your stuff. You share from the heart, your victories and struggles. You inspire me and countless others. Please don’t ever stop!

    1. If you are talking about friends who think you ‘are wasting your time trying to be a writer’ then there is only one way: Work hard, get a book published that sells at a decent clip, and become an author. That should shut them up some.

      However, if that fails to work get new friends who are compatible with who you are. No one needs an albatross hanging about their neck weighing them down.

        1. I would say you don’t need them at all. Chances are, writing is not the only area they fail to support you in. Get some real friends.

  31. Great summary Jeff – and even greater perspective. I love the part about your friends not caring. We all carry around more than our share of baggage. Thanks for helping the rest of us dump ours.

  32. Hi all! I usually don’t like when people self-promote, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do! My name is Julia Nesbitt and I’m a fiction short story writer. I would love it if you checked out my blog https://nesbittwrites.weebly.com/ and could leave a comment or just simply read it. Thanks!

  33. Way to go, Jeff! It requires courage to share such humbling experiences. Thanks! Giving up is not an option – make a new/ a different/a wiser plan. I started learning a third language – hiccup arrived, put on hold, still not removed from the backburner. Working to break into the fiction market, traditional route. Easy? Absolutely not. Giving it up as a lost cause – No, Sir! Then I will die trying. Danie Botha

  34. I hate the NYT Best Seller list. It only took me three times buying one of their “Best Sellers” to realize my taste was their taste. I like action, emotional encounters, a story that moves along at a decent clip without all the wasted words in flowery prose. Not the slow, boring, so-what? stories they seem to like to push for the east coast publishing houses, or perhaps their friends who happen to be writers.

    I am not politically correct, driven to please, nor do I believe in the Like my page, and I will LIke yours. I will Like a Face book author I think has talent, or a page I agree with. I will not lie just to help an acquaintance tick off readers who paid for Kindle self-published books offering poor grammar and weak stories that I could predict chapters in advance.

    Some may consider me rude at times. However, as a busy writer myself I think I am just being honest. I would never beg anyone to ‘Like” my excerpt or page unless they truly liked it. I expect to earn my praise by the hard work I do, and by no lesser means.

    1. I also hate the NYT Best Seller list, simply because most of the stuff that reaches it is badly written (Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code for instance). I had to read this because some misguided friend gave it to us for Christmas and I thought I might be asked questions about it. It’s not the only “bestseller” I’ve read that was badly written so now I avoid any book that hits these lists. And maybe that’s unfair. But too bad. My husband once complained to me about a Jack Higgens book in which the protagonist cast his yacht from its moorings without first turning on the engine. Then the goodies flew a small aircraft to an island where the baddies had a restaurant. On the way back the pilot had to crash land the plane because the baddies had tampered with it in a way that Roger says the pilot would have discovered in his preflight check. I wasn’t sympathetic. I told him, “That’s what you get for reading bestsellers.”

      1. I don’t mind Dan Brown in general, but he goes to far into describing the mechanics of how electronics (for example, works), etc. Dan, tone down the detail and get on with the storyline. Or write for Popular Mechanics, Architectural Digest, or whichever magazine requires it.

  35. Isn’t the life of an author odd? We toil in a silent world, then all dream of hitting “the list.” But what a beautiful reminder of what’s really important in this world of words.
    What’s helped me the most is the last tip–being grateful. Grateful for my audience, for those loyal readers, for the ones who get what I was trying to convey. I’ll take 2 of those for every 2,000 who don’t!
    I’m just grateful.
    Thank you for this!

  36. I have started six nonprofits from scratch. I learned early on to set big goals way beyond my personal capabilities. Sometimes I achieved them; sometime I didn’t. But even when I didn’t achieve them, some great things still happened. Perhaps they never would have happened if I had set more modest goals. Jeff, I think you are doing great. Keep setting your sights higher. You’ve helped a lot of people.

  37. I have consistently struggled with #3 for the past few months. Thanks for the priority re-alignment! (And congrats on hitting so many other best-seller lists! :])

  38. Even though you didn’t hit the NYT list, you still hit the USA Today list, which I still consider to be just as good, if not better than the NYT. I think hitting any bestseller list is an accomplishment. Your attempt was definitely not a failure. You achieved your goal.

  39. I’m here to say I just might start using “#1 New York Times Bestselling Author” as a way to avoid crappy authors. It seems that whenever I pick up a truly horribly thought-out book, it will have #1 New York Times Bestselling Author on the cover. That is why I started researching how to get on this list, because I fear if it is all about what the general public thinks is good writing, we’re doomed.

  40. Love this post. I am working on my first memoir with one of the “big” goals to hit many of the top bestseller lists including NYTimes and USA Today. It’s a lofty goal. Although I’ve hit #1 on Amazon many times over, the next level is definitely the next level.

    Like you Jeff, I am making a public declaration. From previous successes (and failures) I am fully aware of playing big, going public and leaving no stone un-turned.

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