Who Gets to Be a Bestseller and Why

I can’t remember ever having done a post that stemmed from being fed up, but that’s exactly what’s prompting this month’s newsletter.

In the past several months I’ve been on more than a few webinars and teleseminars in which coaches and authors are claiming to have the secrets to being a bestseller, or even claiming that their books are bestsellers. Because I have access to a tool called Bookscan that gives sales data, I’ve checked sales figures on these so-called bestsellers and found myself dismayed by the numbers—not because I have a judgment that they’ve been low, but because I can’t wrap my mind around how someone can claim to have a bestseller when there is evidence that said book has not sold particularly well.

I’m really not trying to burst these coaches’ and authors’ bubbles as much as I would like them to understand that using the term bestseller for a book that is not undermines and discredits real bestsellers, and it’s misleading to the general public.

Wikipedia states:

A book that is identified as a “bestseller” greatly improves its chance of selling to a much wider audience. In this way, bestseller has taken on its own popular meaning, rather independent of empirical data, by becoming a compromised product category and, in effect, attempting to create a marketing image. For example, a “summer bestseller” is usually determined long before the summer is over, and signals a book’s suitability for millions of lounging pool-side readers.

A bestseller, by definition, is quantified by its sales. Sales figures are gathered from a number of bookstore and other sales reports. Part of the confusion may be that there are national, regional, and specialty lists. Add to that Amazon’s list, which is based only on sales from its own site (which they update every hour). So lots of authors can claim to be Amazon bestsellers, if only for the hour during which they sent everyone they know to buy their book. Sending everyone you know to Amazon at the same time is actually a good strategy to bump yourself to the top of their rankings, but I don’t think it should automatically qualify a book as a bestseller.

Having had the privilege of working with New York Times bestseller Mark Nepo, while he was riding the New York Times list for his Book of Awakening a few times during 2011 and 2012, I know that the weekly point-of-sale numbers were in the thousands week in and week out. On the weeks he climbed onto the New York Times list, his book was selling near 10,000 copies a week. In a climate where a book is considered successful if it sells 5,000 copies over the course of its entire shelf life, you can see how 10,000 in one week should put you on the bestseller list—and especially the list to trump all other lists. And yes, today it does mean more than ever to be a New York Times bestseller rather than just a bestseller, which is why you consistently see authors claiming this accreditation.

Maggie Galehouse wrote on her blog Bookish that “the first bestseller list was created in 1895 by a trade magazine called The Bookman. Publishers Weekly started a list in 1912, the New York Times in 1942. Now, every major publication has some sort of list.” And perhaps this very fact—that every major publication has some sort of list—is at the root of the term’s dilution. It’s funny because, in general, I’m a believer of breaking down barriers to entry. When it comes to publishing, I’ve written a lot about not letting the gatekeepers (agents and editors) determine your worth or worthiness, but when it comes to claiming bestseller status, I want authors to stop using the term as a measure of their own book’s success when there are no sales numbers to back up the claim.

I suppose one could argue that today being a New York Times bestseller is the new indicator of bestseller-dom. The New York Times bestseller list is the preeminent list when it comes to bestselling books in the U.S. According to Wikipedia, however, the exact methodology they use to create the list is classified as a trade secret.

Book Review staff editor Gregory Cowles explained the method “is a secret both to protect our product and to make sure people can’t try to rig the system. Even in the Book Review itself, we don’t know (the news surveys department’s) precise methods.

I in fact contacted someone (a colleague of a friend of an author) at the Times to comment for this post, but he declined, stating that his opinion about what I was writing about had nothing to do with how the Times determines a bestseller. Of course, that’s not what I was asking for. After all, if you go onto www.nytimes.com you can easily read their methodology, despite it being classified as a “trade secret,” basically because this is a very vague description of how they http://www.ciprobuyonline.org gather their information:

The appearance of a ranked title reflects the fact that sales data from reporting vendors has been provided to The Times and has satisfied commonly accepted industry standards of universal identification (such as ISBN13 and EISBN13 codes). Publishers and vendors of all ranked titles conformed in timely fashion to The New York Times Best Seller Lists requirement to allow for independent corroboration of sales for that week.

The Times’ current categories for bestsellers are vast and varied. A look at this week’s list shows the following categories: combined print & e-book fiction; combined print & e-book nonfiction; hardcover fiction; hardcover nonfiction; paperback trade fiction; Paperback Mass-Market Fiction; Paperback Nonfiction; E-Book Fiction; E-Book Nonfiction; Paperback Advice & Misc.; Children’s Picture Books; Children’s Chapter Books; Children’s Paperback Books; Children’s Series; Hardcover Graphic Books; Paperback Graphic Books; Manga; Combined Hardcover & Paperback Fiction; Combined Hardcover & Paperback Nonfiction.

Who knew manga was a dedicated category? This might be an opportunity for some ambitious authors out there since the less competition you have in your category, the easier it is to get onto a bestseller list. Just saying.

Meanwhile, I did find an interesting but old article from the Midwest Book Review, by Dan Poynter, who wrote:

But most books are not sold through bookstores. Even if you move a million books via mail-order distribution, you won’t make a bestseller list. On the other hand, you may calculate that your book is the bestselling book in its field and there is no reason you can’t mention this in your advertising. For example, Parachuting Manual with Log [now out of print] is the bestselling skydiving book of all time with over 500,000 sold.

Dan Poynter’s book on hang gliding went through the press ten times in ten years (it was revised with each printing) for 130,000 in print. That comes out to 13,000 copies sold each year—not enough to make a bestseller list. But that book allowed Dan to move back to California and buy a home in Santa Barbara.

I appreciate Poynter’s take here, as it applies to books today, because yes, there are vast numbers of books sold through non-retail outlets, and sure, a book that’s sold 130,000 books over the course of its lifetime deserves accolades. But does it deserve to be called a bestseller because the author calculates that it’s the bestselling book in its field? I don’t think it does.

Part of what bothers me about this desire authors have to slap the bestseller label on their own books is that it’s arbitrary and there’s no way to prove sales numbers outside of Bookscan, which claims to measure only 70% of all sales. In a culture where people are always trying to out-best each other, claiming bestseller status when you’re not is the equivalent of telling people you were a valedictorian when you were not, or that you got your MBA from an Ivy League when you did not. To me it’s something that certain books achieve (for better or worse), and no author, just because they want to look good, should be able to co-opt just because. And yet it happens every day. Which circles back around to the reason this post is stemming from my being fed up.

In conclusion, I’d like to make a case for adopting a whole new term, which tells the world that a book kicks ass without claiming that it’s a bestseller. We have this for movies. It’s called a blockbuster. A blockbuster is a term for a movie that’s popular or successful, but it doesn’t claim to be the top-grossing film of the year, because we have measures for these things that don’t translate to the book world.

I’d also like to acknowledge each and every author out there for their very awesome achievement to have written a whole book and then have gotten it published—whether you published on a major trade house or self-published. It’s a feat. It’s on countless people’s bucket lists. It’s freaking hard as hell and requires so much of you! I understand this now more than ever as I round the homestretch into finishing my own first book. None of us has to co-opt the word bestseller in order to make ourselves look good. We can all feel awesome about what we’ve created and produced regardless. And honestly, even if you don’t think a certain book—or books, look at Fifty Shades of Gray, Fifty Shades of Darker, and Fifty Shades of Freed taking the one, two, three slots this week!—deserves to be a bestseller, well, suck it up. You only have to support the authors you want to read. After all, those of us who love good books are always going to find them, and knowing there’s a readership for our books and going after those readers is really what we should be focused on when we’re doing our marketing and thinking about all the ways to reach our readers.

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