The Indie Author’s Guide to Hitting the USA Today Bestseller List

The Indie Author’s Guide to Hitting the USA Today Bestseller List

Have you ever dreamed of becoming a bestselling author?

It’s certainly possible, but not everyone who sells well makes it onto the list. As it turns out, you need to meet certain criteria to even be considered for a list like the USA Today bestseller list.

Earlier this year, I hit the USA Today bestseller list with a multi-author box set.

I then joined a second list-aiming set, and in June, I ran a large promotion on my own series bundle. I didn’t make it that time, but I did learn a lot about what it takes to become a bestselling author.

The USA Today bestseller list ranks the top 150 best-selling books using data collected from the previous week from online and brick-and-mortar retailers. They publish the first 50 in the print version of USA Today and publish the top 150 online every Thursday.

Making the list can mean exposure for you, and the privilege of adding the title of “USA Today Bestselling Author” to your credentials.

Think you might want to aim for the list? Here’s what indie authors need to know before running a promotion.

1. Run your promotion Monday through Sunday

Keep in mind that the bestseller lists only give a snapshot of what’s selling really well during any given week.

That means a book that sells well consistently but never sells thousands in one week may never hit the list.

Likewise, a book that sells really well one week but stops selling well later on — or even goes out of print — can still make it. Even books that are several years old can rise to hit the charts with a good promotional strategy behind them.

The USA Today list adds up sales from the previous Monday through Sunday to determine the bestsellers for that week. So if you’re going to make a go at it, plan your run for those days.

(See point #5 if you plan to make a list run on a new release.)

2. Sell on more than one platform

To be considered for the USA Today bestseller list, your reported sales have to come from more than one platform.

That means that if you’re digitally exclusive to Amazon in KDP Select, you don’t have a chance no matter how many copies you sell. (Unless you’re selling enough print copies, which is rare for indie authors.)

It’s also worth noting that the USA Today list doesn’t collect data from every sales platform. If you’re trying to hit the list by selling enough print copies through print-on-demand (POD) companies like Createspace, those sales won’t count. Furthermore, Google Play isn’t included on their list of contributors, so those sales won’t count, either.

(You can view a list of contributors here.)

That said, if you sell enough copies on platforms like Amazon, Nook, and iBooks, all those sales will combine to determine your book’s ranking. Indie authors typically focus on digital sales.

3. Aim for at least 500 sales on Nook or iBooks

Amazon is arguably the easiest platform to sell on for indie authors, especially when running a major promotion.

However, since you need sales on more than one platform, your best shot at getting enough sales as an indie is to focus on iBooks or Nook as your secondary platform.

However, these two retailers won’t report numbers to the list unless you’ve received 500 U.S. sales for the week. Be sure this goal is part of your promo strategy.

usa today bestseller list 4. Shoot for 6K U.S. sales minimum

There is no real number needed to hit the list.

It all depends on what else is selling that week, and some seasons are more competitive than others. I’ve been told  summertime is a good time to aim for the list because there’s less competition.

However, 6,000 sales is generally a “safe zone” for making the bottom of the list (though it’s best to aim higher because that number is never a guarantee).

Also note that these sales have to be in the U.S. to count.

5. Consider a pre-order period to gather more sales

Any book can make the bestseller list no matter when it was released. However, many authors aim for the list with a new release. One of the benefits to this strategy is that you can set up digital pre-orders on platforms like Amazon, Nook and iBooks.

Note that your Amazon sales ranking is determined based on when a pre-order is placed, but the USA Today list counts your pre-order numbers when the book is released. A pre-order period gives you more time to gather those sales.

A word of warning: Due to time zone differences, pre-order numbers can sometimes hit the night before your scheduled release.

That’s why if you’re going to go this route, you’ll want to release on a Tuesday. That way if pre-orders do hit the night before, you still get those numbers on Monday, which is when the clock starts for your list run.

6. Give it all you’ve got

Make no mistake: Hitting the list isn’t easy, even when multiple authors are working together.

Expect to invest a lot of money into marketing. How much really depends on your genre since some books are easier to sell than others. I’m in the young adult genre, and several authors I know — including myself — didn’t make it with a $2,000-$3,000 marketing budget.

That’s just a marketing figure for the week. It doesn’t count the cost of publishing a book, such as the cover design, editing, formatting, etc. You’ll need all those aspects down first before you run a huge marketing campaign.

It also takes an incredible time commitment. I spent a month of daily work preparing for my solo promotion, but it’s pretty typical for authors to run three-month pre-order periods prior to a list run.

I won’t claim to be an expert on the USA Today list, and I’m sure much of this information is subject to change over the next few years.

However, after aiming for the list three times in the past year, I’ve learned a lot about what it takes, and I hope that other indie authors can learn something from it, too.

Do you plan on trying to hit the USA Today bestseller list within the next year? Tell us about your plans in the comment section.

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7 comments

  • Learned a lot from your tips Alicia. Thanks for writing about this topic.

    Keep on helping writers!

  • @Alicia
    It seems to be an aim too high but unless we dream we can never make it. Thanks for giving my aim a vertical leap.
    Hope you make it soon.

  • Wendy says:

    “In a multi-author box set”
    How’d you end up there? And was it your work that was pulling the weight, or were you riding someone else’s coat-tails?

    I’d be very much interested in how this set came together.

    • Alicia Rades says:

      These sets are very common in the indie community. They’re usually set up by an organizer (there are lots of different organizers in many genres). You either have to apply or be invited. It’s really just about networking.

      Everyone is expected to pull the same weight.

      In doing multi-author box sets and my own list run, I’ve learned that it’s actually a lot harder to sell multi-author sets, even when everyone is pitching in a huge effort and a big budget. And there are a LOT of sets that never make the list.

  • When you say createspace sales do not count do you mean sales purchased directly from them? Do sales of POD books from Amazon (printed by createspace) count?

    • Alicia Rades says:

      Createspace isn’t on the list of contributors that report to the USA Today list. I don’t know if Amazon reports print sales numbers, but if they do, that would still only give you one platform reporting to the list if you’re exclusive digitally to Amazon. (And you need more than one platform to report for them to consider you.) To my knowledge, authors published through Amazon’s own traditional imprints don’t have a chance at USA Today because they sell exclusively on Amazon. The same would apply to indies exclusive to Amazon. That’s why indies aiming for the list focus on other digital platforms. I don’t know of anyone who has made the list being digitally exclusive to Amazon and selling enough print copies to count. This person could certainly be out there, but it would be a rare occurrence.

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