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I've seen "New York Times Bestseller" written across the top of more books than I can count. It seems every other book I look at has this advertisement, so much so that I discount it as a meaningful accomplishment.

But what does it really mean? Is it based on number of copies sold? Does the NYT actually have editors read the books and only choose ones that they enjoyed enough?

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The number of sales needed to get on it will vary of course, but someone said about 5000+ per week here: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/236/… –  MGOwen Nov 22 '10 at 1:48
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up vote 12 down vote accepted

It means that a book has been - for any length of time - on the New York Time's Best Seller's List. This list aggregates sales data from thousands of venues in the United States for several different genres of books. It gathers data weekly and the data is published two weeks after data gathering (so the November 28 print edition contains the November 14th data).

Being a New York Times best seller is not necessarily an index of quality. It is an index of "hotness." A book is moving fast to make it onto that list. The idea behind advertising it is to help the book pick up even more steam. If a book spends several weeks on the list, this is an indication of a book that sells extremely well.

The reason that it seems like this encompasses so many books is that you hear about books that are NYT best sellers because they are being purchased, read, and talked about. The reality is that this list contains fewer books than you would think.

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My .02 cents on this, from working in bookstores, is that sales numbers are almost completely driven by pre-orders from large bookselling chains. This is how books end up on the bestsellers list before they're even available to the public. So, at least initially, the numbers only reflect the opinion of the management of Borders & Barnes and Noble (and their various subsidiaries) on which books people are likely to buy. Of course, then people buy based on the list, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. –  Satanicpuppy Nov 19 '10 at 21:04
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From http://www.nytimes.com/best-sellers-books/overview.html:

Rankings reflect sales, for the week ending November 7, 2010, at many thousands of venues where a wide range of general interest books are sold nationwide. These include hundreds of independent book retailers (statistically weighed to represent all such outlets); national, regional and local chains; online and multimedia entertainment retailers; university, gift, supermarket, discount department stores and newsstands.

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