# One in 220 people will write a New York Times bestselling book in their lifetime. Huh?

According to this little “factoid” *One in 220 people will write a New York Times bestselling book in their lifetime *.

That number seems ridiculous to me. Did they mean to say 1 in 220 people who have written a book will write a best seller (still seems insanely high), or did they literally mean 1 in 250?

Wouldn’t that equate to over 1 million best sellers in the U.S. alone? Or is my math fuzzy?

That’s utterly bizarre. The intent is to compare it to the 0.4% acceptance rate - one in 250 - but it can’t possibly be true.

The key is probably the word “lifetime.” I bet somebody’s thinking went like this:

A person could live to be 100. There are 52 weeks/year, and 42 lists/week* each with at least 10 titles. That 2,184,000 chances to be a bestseller. By those numbers each person in a nation of 320 million has a 1 in 146 chance of making the list. Close enough to 1 in 220 if you change the components a tad.

But that ignores that gigantic overlap among the lists on any given week and the fact that some books stay on a list for weeks, even years.

That’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad thinking.
*Bet you thought there was just one.

Best selling might refer to anyone on the list, not just #1. And there are multiple lists. And you have to average this over your lifetime. But I’m unsure how you would do the math since you’d have to figure out the average length of time a books is on the list.

It could also be a problem with how they calculated the number of best-selling authors. Was it this year? Average in any given year? Total in the past ten years? Total since we started keeping records? If it’s the latter (or close), that would skew the probability if you only used current census as a denominator.

Plus, if you’re working of “a nation of 320 million” you have to adjust for the fact that not every author who features on the best-seller lists is a member of that nation.

Maybe it was jut a misquote. It would be closer to the truth to say one in 220 will READ a NYT best-seller in their lifetime.

Don’t know if I’d be overly concerned about the accuracy of click-bait factoids.

I wouldn’t think that many people will get a book published at all, let alone a best-seller.

Perhaps they meant to say that 1 in 220 professional authors will make it onto one of the 42 top ten lists at some point in their lifetime. They could have reached this conclusion by calculating 52x42x10=21,840 available slots and then divide that by the average length of time a book stays in the slot, then multiply by estimated lifespan after writing your first book, and compare that to the number of published authors in the world.

If you estimate 10,000,000 published authors who each wrote their first book at age 18 and live to be 72, that’s a professional lifespan of 54 years. If we assume that each book spends an average of six months (26 weeks) on one of the lists, then the number of books that make it onto a list during any 54-year period is 54x21,840/26 = 45,360. That number doesn’t sound crazy to me at all, might even be realistic. Compare that to 10,000,000 published authors and you get almost exactly 1 chance in 220.

Now, I’m assuming just one book per author but it works equally well if you merely assume that the author in question writes the same number of books as an average author writes.

I think this passes the sniff test. With 10 million contestants competing for 21,840 slots, each contestant has 1 chance in 220 of getting a slot at least once in 54 years (assuming that once you get picked you stay on the list for six months).

This makes a kind of sense. If you try out for Jeopardy you have a 0.4% chance of making onto the show. If you write a book and get it published, you have 1 chance in 220 that you will make it onto one of the NY Times bestseller lists during your lifetime. If you don’t write a book and get it published, you have the same chance as someone who never tries out for Jeopardy at all. zero.

Another important factor is that some authors write more than one best-selling book. In fact, I’d expect all the lists to have a lot of repeat authors. Just looking at the current New York Times hardcover fiction list I see James Patterson, Danielle Steele, Elizabeth Strout, Kristin Hannah, Melanie Benjamin, John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks, Stuart Woods, Harper Lee and Tami Hoag. All of them have written NYT bestsellers before, so at least 10 of the top 16 on that list are repeats.

The 45,360 number doesn’t sound crazy to me either, but the 10,000,000 does. The Times lists do not include self-published or electronic-only books. I know of no estimate that more than 50,000 conventionally books are issued a year. Over 54 years that’s 2,700,000 books. Many authors will get only one book on a list; some will get many. Let’s make the average 2.7 books/author. That’s 1,000,000 authors and 1 chance in 22.

This source says over 1 million books published in the US alone in 2009, and “More than two thirds of these books are self-published books, reprints of public domain works, and other print-on-demand books” which implies that roughly 300,000 are conventionally published new books. That was seven years ago.

Wikipedia says 304,912 “New titles and re-editions” in the US alone in 2013. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Books_published_per_country_per_year

This source from 2013 says “somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books published every year in the US alone” and “Many of those – perhaps as many as half or even more – are self-published.” which implies that there’s 300,000 or more, in the US alone, each year which are NOT self-published. http://www.forbes.com/sites/nickmorgan/2013/01/08/thinking-of-self-publishing-your-book-in-2013-heres-what-you-need-to-know/#68b7b2c329f4

I didn’t cherry-pick those sources, they were the first 3 that I found.

If there’s 300,000 per year in the US, it’s easy to believe 500,000 worldwide, just looking at books written in English. That’s 27,000,000 books in 54 years, which could easily represent 10,000,000 authors.

Seems to be knowingly inaccurate, its meant to be humorous.
Why is anyone quoting Gregory Baer as if it was somehow factual ?

Life: The Odds : And How to Improve Them Hardcover – Bargain Price, October 13, 2003
by Gregory Baer .

I think the only humorous part is the assumption that just anyone could decide to become an author, kinda like saying “Hey, don’t waste your money buying gold coins. You should just go to the Olympics and try to get a free gold medal. In 2012, there were 10,800 athletes competing for 961 gold medals, so your chances of getting one are roughly 1 in 11.” They skipped over the part where you have to get yourself onto the team. And the article being discussed here likewise skips over the part where you go from being a smart person who wants to write a book to being a published author.