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Who Decides Which Books Become Bestsellers?

A deep dive into what really goes into making a book a bestseller—and what doesn’t make one whit of difference.

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You have the twistiest idea for a thriller ever, or a brilliant new theory on naps and productivity, or a memoir about teaching your dog to talk. You want your work published, and who wouldn’t? To become a published author, you need to find readers and sell books.

For some decades, the path was, if not simple, at least static: A would-be author finished a manuscript, sent it off to agents, then an agent shopped it around to editors, and when one acquired it, they began the process of turning the manuscript into a book. That’s not to say it was easy, and today, with more paths to publishing than ever – and it’s still not easy. There’s self publishing and hybrid publishing and traditional publishing, oh my!

One thing is certain: You want YOUR book to be a bestseller. But how does that happen? Who decides which books take off. . . and which ones flop? Is there a way to game the system, or is it based on hard metrics? Can your publisher or publishing method make a difference? Can you hire someone to guarantee your book takes off?

As the host of the podcast Missing Pages and a veteran of nearly 25 years in and around the book-publishing industry – as an editor, critic, writer, and author – I have a unique perspective on how to measure publishing success. I know about positive (and negative!) media, royalty statements, and asking for blurbs firsthand, among many other things, and I’m creating this collection so you can learn as much as possible about what really goes into making a book a bestseller, as well as what doesn’t make one whit of difference.

In Season Two of Missing Pages, we take deep dives into new ways writers and authors are hitting the bestseller lists, or ignoring them altogether, and still making bank. The important thing to understand overall about bestseller lists – whether they’re national, regional, genre-based, or reader-generated – is that they never tell the whole story. That’s why the links I’ve gathered may help you to get a fuller understanding of how the mysterious bestseller-list process works.

I’m starting with our Season 2 episode on Colleen Hoover, which may change your mind forever on how authors can reach the top of bestseller lists. Intrigued? Let’s start exploring the cogs that turn those bestseller-list wheels.

Image by Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

Paradigm Shift: The Colleen Hoover Story

Missing Pages
The Podglomerate

“For decades, many of the authors who hit the bestseller lists had elite educations and loads of connections in the literary world, making it tough for anyone without those privileges. But Colleen Hoover, who in 2022 had three (three!) top books of the year, threw all of that out the window. She started by self publishing. Is her path a new road, or is it a singular phenomenon?” -Bethanne Patrick

Paradigm Shift: Copyright & Fanfiction: Who Owns What?

Missing Pages
The Podglomerate

BP: “Who knew when we started Season 2 of Missing Pages that I’d be talking about something called ‘wolfkink’, derived from the series ‘Supernatural’? Learning the hair-raising truth behind fanfiction battles over copyright involved looking at the millions of stories generated, based on the lore of favorite series and adaptations. Does that power fall into the hands of the reader, or the writer? What about original copyright holders? Collective storytelling is alive and well in the fanfiction universe, although a collective bestseller might be some ways off.”

How the Bestseller Lists Work

The Podglomerate

BP: “Yes, Otherppl with Brad Listi is also a production of The Podglomerate, but it’s also been running since 2011, and ‘Craftwork’ episodes like this one are carefully tailored to an audience of writers. I find Listi’s voice incredibly soothing, which is helpful when hearing about infuriating things like bestseller lists. Here he speaks with Carly Watters, a ‘very online’ literary agent and co-host of ‘The Shit No One Tells You About Writing’ podcast, whose insights on the whole process have that boots-on-the-ground feel that you can’t replicate without real expertise.”

The Convoluted World of Best-Seller Lists, Explained

Constance Grady

BP: “Constance Grady covers publishing for Vox and her writing is fast, funny, accurate, and relevant. Although this piece about bestseller lists is from 2017, it’s an excellent introduction to the major bestseller lists, as well as the major controversies that people ask about regularly. Grady writes that these lists are attempts ‘to impose order and meaning on a chaotic, amorphous system.’”

The Dirty Secrets Behind the New York Times Bestseller List [WATCH]

Alyssa Matesic

BP: “Alyssa Matesic once worked for Penguin Random House, that Broadway behemoth that recently failed in its bid to acquire Simon & Schuster, and Matesic continues to use her considerable talents to create terrific BookTube videos about the publishing industry. She knows what she’s talking about and she updates her channel regularly, meaning she’ll soon put me out of a job – but will always help you navigate industry conundrums.”

How Bestseller Lists Actually Work : and How to Get on Them

Tucker Max

BP: “Tucker Max is the CEO of a self-publishing company called Book in a Box, but this piece for Entrepreneur magazine focuses less on how to self publish than it does on why a self-published author might not want to worry about the various bestseller lists, and he has some excellent points. As he writes, every bestseller list is limited in some way, and I find his perspective bracing: Entrepreneurs need to write the best possible book for the goal they want to achieve.”

The Murky Math of the New York Times Bestsellers List

Katherine Laidlaw

BP: “This late-October piece embodies ‘Show, don’t tell,’ with its infographics about the New York Times Bestseller list, Journalist Katharine Laidlaw makes a firm point about how chaotic the math is while reminding readers how important that List remains – which is, of course, why we all still read articles about it even as we know it’s skewed and inaccurate.”

The Murky Path To Becoming a New York Times Best Seller

Sophie Vershbow

BP: “Whenever Sophie Vershbow writes for Esquire, I wish the longtime men’s magazine could exclusively cover arts and culture, because I learn more about book-publishing from her articles than I sometimes did while working directly with its top players. In this look at the New York Times Bestseller list, Vershbow made me laugh but also made my eyes pop out of my head when I learned that there’s a company running campaigns to help authors land on the Gray Lady’s charts.”

Paradigm Shift: DOJ v. PRH: The Hidden Peaks of a Flat Industry

Missing Pages
The Podglomerate

BP: “Sometimes, in Missing Pages, I become part of the story (see Season One’s ‘Inventing Anna’ episode), because I do so many different things in the book world. In 2022, when the Department of Justice versus Penguin Random House trial took place, I was part of the Publishers Weekly team reporting on the proceedings, a trial that pulled back the curtain on an industry so enigmatic, not even the publishing executives on the witness stand were able to give clear answers about how the manuscript-to-book process works. The outcome of that trial will affect book publishing in many ways, perhaps including how future bestsellers are acquired and promoted in house.”

Bethanne Patrick

Bethanne Patrick is host of the Signal Award-winning and chart-topping "literary true crime" podcast Missing Pages, praised by Vulture, New York Magazine, The Guardian, and Washington Post for being one of the best podcasts of 2022. Missing Pages returns for its second season in fall 2023.

Bethanne Patrick is the ultimate literary insider. As an acclaimed literary critic for The Los Angeles Times, NPR Books, and many others, her reviews have moved hundreds of thousands of copies. Check your shelves: chances are you own a book (or three) with a Bethanne blurb on the cover. An influencer in the book world as @TheBookMaven, Patrick has 200k+ Twitter followers and originated the popular #FridayReads tag. The author of two books for National Geographic and editor of an anthology for Regan Arts, Patrick’s debut memoir Life B debuted from Counterpoint Press in May 2023. A board member at PEN/Faulkner, she lives in the DC area and teaches creative writing at American University.