Best-Sellers: The New York Times and Me

Michelle Ule

Blogger: Michelle Ule

Location: Main office, Santa Rosa, CA

Those of you who have been following my writing saga on the Books & Such blog may be interested in hearing the latest wrinkle. After releasing on September 1, 2011, A Log Cabin Christmas Collection hit #34 on The New York Times bestseller list for the week ending September 17.

To call me astounded would be an understatement. I keep repeating the words, “New York Times best-seller.” They still ring like a fantasy.

Maybe not even a fantasy; these are words I never even dreamed. So what does that make them? Fantastical? Improbable? Mythical?

Whatever. But, technically, true.

I realize A Log Cabin Christmas Collection is on the best-seller’s list because of the lead author: Wanda Brunstetter. Wanda has several other novels on the list this fall. But still, in small letters on the bottom of the cover appears, Michelle Ule–or my alias on the list: “et al.”

Some of my incredulous family members are suspicious. “How many copies of a book do you have to sell to make The New York Times Bestseller list?”

The answer varies between, “I don’t know,” and “it’s complicated.” But a more nuanced answer goes like this:

The New York Times first published their best-selling books list in 1942. The list is generated through the News Survey Department, which has nothing to do with their fine book review. The department uses weekly sales reporting samples of chain and independent bookstores, along with sales results from book wholesalers. It does not take into account Amazon’s sales or those of big box stores such as Costco or Wal-mart (which carries A Log Cabin Christmas Collection), or even Target—which also carries my book online.

It may be worth noting that only about one percent of books make it to the NYT best-seller list.

It also might be worth noting that the highest ranking A Log Cabin Christmas Collection hit on Amazon was 9,522.

Cynical family members also wonder if the NYT list could be manipulated. According to Wikipedia, it has been tried. In 1995, authors bought 10,000 copies of their book,  The Discipline of Market Leaders, claiming it was an excellent marketing investment for them. The book stayed on the list for 15 weeks and while not illegal, most publishers believe the authors’ purchase and skewing of the figures was unethical.

I didn’t do that.

The big question, of course, is what makes a book a best-seller? No one knows how to guarantee that a title will make the list, even though marketers promise they can get your book on the list. It basically winds down to catchy titles, intriguing book covers, creative marketing, hot genres, an author who has appeared on the list previously, and selling to all sorts of different people–crossover appeal.

In our case, A Log Cabin Christmas Collection is aimed at a niche market–Christmas stories in a historical setting–and is gorgeous. The greenery on the cover is embossed, and the pages are ragged-edged like a pine log. Novellas, short stories about 60 pages in length, make for quick reads, and of course these particular novellas are inspirational–one of the areas in publishing that is growing.

Sales were helped by Wanda Brunstetter’s name, but we had several other well-know writers in the mix: Jane Kirkpatrick and Margaret Brownley, not to mention Kelly Eileen Hake, Liz Johnson, Liz Tolsma, Debra Ullrick and Erica Vetsch.

All in all, it’s been a wonderful, fun experience. And in my own case, friends are laughing with me and asking a really hard question: “If your debut novella winds up on The New York Times bestseller list, what will you do next?”


Think of best-sellers you’ve enjoyed. What led you to that particular book? Did it make a difference that it was on The New York Times or some other bestseller list? What role do best-selling lists play in your choice of reading material? Should a list make that big of a difference? Do you think quality determines whether a book will be on a list?

Part 2 of the series: What Puts a Book on the List?

14 Responses

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  1. Carol Moncado says:

    So very excited for all of you!

    I was in the book store at the conference when someone [Margaret?] came in and told us. We were all so excited!

    I’ve since picked up a couple copies for myself and a Christmas present [recipient yet to be determined].

    But it’s sooooo awesome! Congrats!


  2. I do believe hot genres, cross-over appeal, and quality all play a huge role in NYT’s bestseller lists. (And yes, I do pay attention to who is on the list, and I admit, it does determine my purchases. I have many favorites, too, that have never made it on THE LIST and that I have solely read/bought because of others’ recommendations. And they’ve left a life-long impression.

    And all of our inquiring minds really do want to know, Michelle…What IS next? 🙂

  3. Heidi Chiavaroli says:

    How wonderful, Michelle! Congratulations!
    As for bestseller lists, I like to look them over, but when it comes to actually purchasing a book I usually consider a friend’s recommendation (one that has enjoyed the same books as me in the past) over a list.
    Again, congrats!

  4. Amariah says:

    First, Congratulations!

    I also wanted to send out a big THANK YOU! to Wendy for her generous answer to a question I had last week.
    You all are such a Blessing!

    As for the bestseller, I purchase the book that speaks to my soul or sometimes purchase it just out of curiosity to find out what made it a bestseller.

  5. Larry Carney says:

    Congratulations! I guess you won’t have to worry about pitching your next project:

    Editor: “So what about your platform?”

    Michelle: “Well, my previous work was on the New York Times’ Bestsellers List…”

    I think the question you asked, “Does quality determine is a book will be on a bestseller list” depends on what we mean by quality. There are some who say that unless a book is a literary masterpiece it is a waste of paper, and there are those who say unless the story is enjoyable it doesn’t matter how pretty the words are.

    I wouldn’t say quality is subjective, but taste definitely is. I think our industry would be a better place if people nibbled on something besides their personal comfort food once in a while, and things like best sellers’ list could perform a function of informing people of what else is out there.

    For example, I like that the New York Times’ Book Review publishes the best selling e-books now, but space contstraits aside, maybe they could be a bit more like the Billboard music charts and show bestsellers by genre.

    Though a question I have is, how many writer pals have asked for their newly minted New York Times Best Selling author pal to give a blurb for their books 🙂

  6. The question of “quality” determining whether a book is on the list or not is a very sticky wicket, because “quality” implies a judgment, and who can define “quality” in literature? I think we could expect a very wide range of answers to that question. For me personally, choosing a book to read for pleasure is usually more a factor of the author and genre than any lists, although as a writer I do try to read from the NYTimes list frequently just to see what kind of writing readers are enjoying. Doing so has given me many hours of delight … and a few hours of great disappointment. CONGRATULATIONS, Michelle! May this be the first of many best-sellers for you! What a thrill.

  7. Obviously sales, not quality, determine what books get on the list. Nevertheless, I’m sure anything by you is of the finest quality and I’m delighted that you’ve made it to fame. Perhaps fortune will follow. One can always hope.

  8. Michelle Ule says:

    Thank you for all your congratulations and for just laughing with me at how fun this all is. I recognize the source of this success, completely, and I don’t think it was me–though I did write a fine story if I say so myself. 🙂

    As I explore what makes a book a best seller throughout the week, you’ll see that while a quality project enhances your chances of sales, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get great sales. So many other aspects of a project weigh in, that I’m at a loss to specifically say what will make the list and how–as are all the experts.

    I do look at the best seller list often to see what is selling (like Stephanie, I consider it part of my job), but I’ve been reading the NYTimes book review for decades to find interesting books to read. On today’s list, I’ve read four of the top ten fiction and four of the top ten non-fiction–and I have to say I liked them all.

    I use the list as a benchmark for personal reading and I do take a second look if I know a book has been on the best seller list. For example, I read “Eat, Pray, Love” because it was on the list, but couldn’t stand the book after the Italy section. That did, however, provide me with a benchmark–of what people are reading, what is selling, and what our queriers are referencing when they talk about their projects.

    (I suppose that could be risky–since I have a very strong opinion about that book . . . ).

    Anyway, thanks for your comments and good wishes. Still amazed . . . .

  9. Wonderful news, Michelle. Congratulations. I have my copy here and can’t wait to read it.

    Word of mouth still plays a big role in my world. When Left Behind first came out, my family scooped it up. This always amazed me because they aren’t exactly religious people, but I think everyone is curious about others’ ideas of the end times. I kept hearing how much they enjoyed the series with each new release, so I finally broke down and bought a copy of the first book. I was hooked after that.

    I rarely check any bestselling list–though that would change if my book was on it. 🙂

    Congratulations again. I’m thrilled for you!

  10. Nikole Hahn says:

    I don’t take that into consideration when choosing a book to read. For nonfiction, I look at the author’s website and the author, then the book to see if it’s worth investing my time. For fiction, I strictly go by the back flap and the cover. Of course, the cover fooled me in Jordon River’s book.

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