So, what does it take to be a bestselling writer? In fact, what does it take for a book to be a bestseller? Have you ever gazed on the New York Times bestseller list, or the Amazon list of today’s best sellers and wondered how these books got there? I know I have, and even more to the point, recently I’ve often wondered what it really means when an author’s LinkedIn or Twitter profile says “bestselling author of…” and I’ve never heard of them. The truth is that whatever you may have thought through the years, whatever you infer from those “bestselling” monikers, all bets are off. The landscape has changed. It ain’t what it used to be. And that’s important – for readers. And for writers who actually care.
So I did some research (you’re welcome).
What is a bestseller?
Let’s begin by going back to definitions – dictionary and other. The Oxford English Dictionary, arguably one of the premier arbiters of word meanings in our language, says that a bestseller is “[a] book or other product that sells in very large numbers.” Okay, this definition implies that there ought to be some kind of quantitative measure of what it takes to be a bestseller, although falling short of actually telling us what that number might be. However, the phrase “very large numbers” does have some resonance, n’est ce pas?
Back as far as 1955 a bestseller was defined as “a book for which demand, within a short time of that book’s initial publication, vastly exceeds what is then considered to be big sales.” Again the concepts both of high demand and bigger than “big” sales.
Next, we’ll join the twenty-first century and see what other online definitions might offer to us in our quest for understanding. Of course, next stop Wikipedia which says this:
“A bestseller is a book that is identified as extremely popular by its inclusion on lists of currently top selling or frequently borrowed titles that are based on publishing industry and book trade figures and library circulation statistics and then published by newspapers, magazines, or book store chains.”
Wikipedia further suggests that the term is evidently not associated with any specific number of sales and that the term is often applied rather “loosely” often as a marketing ploy, but that it does, in fact, refer to a book that is “extremely popular.”
It seems, then, that a real bestseller is a popular book in high demand with high sales. As reasonably intelligent readers (or writers) we can conclude that a book isn’t a bestseller unless it sells lots and lots of copies. So how is it possible that so many of these online self-published authors suggest that they are bestselling authors? Remember what I said earlier? The landscape has shifted. Dramatically.
The Making of a Bestseller
In the past few years, it’s become clear that there are ways of manipulating online book sales figures to artificially create a bestseller, thereby giving the author marketing cred, even if it is a bit disingenuous. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that this is just a recent, eBook phenomenon.
Back in 1995, two ambitious consultants wrote a book titled The Discipline of Market Leaders which was published by Addison-Wesley. Rather than let it languish in a warehouse or gather dust on bookstore shelves only to be returned if unsold (the dreaded ‘returns’ of the book selling business – don’t get me started), the authors decided to figure out a way to get that book on the New York Times bestseller list so that they could use this as a springboard to marketing themselves as consultants, and thereby make more money. As business experts, they were willing to make a financial investment and take the risk that it would have a big payout in the end.
In summary (you can read the whole story in the online archive of Business Week linked in my footnotes below) they spent $250,000 buying 10,000 copies of their own $25 book from small and large bookstores throughout the US resulting in it climbing to #8 on the NYT bestseller list where it stayed for 15 weeks and peaked at #1 on the BusinessWeek list. The results of this manipulation were spectacular for their consulting business: speaking engagements, new clients, future book deals. Illegal? No. Unethical? Clearly. Readers draw the conclusion that a book on the top of the bestseller list has made it there on its own merits. When it didn’t, those who colluded to get it there are effectively lying. That was then. This is now. And the opportunities for this kind of manipulation are even more available.
In 2013 Publisher’s Weekly tried to get bestseller numbers from Amazon, but were unsuccessful, so they decided to try to figure it out by looking at the status of a couple of books over the course of two weeks. They began with the hypothesis that was widely held that a book would have to sell 300 copies a day to reach the top five on Amazon’s list and found that this wasn’t far off, but that it varies considerably depending on the time of year. For example, in holiday sales times, the numbers would have to be higher. Nevertheless, if you can get approach this level of sales for a day or two, whatever ranking you achieve on the bestsellers list sticks with the book based on the Amazon algorithm. And there you have a “bestseller” that doesn’t even come close to the definitions above, nor the connotation associated with it by potential readers. So, just about anyone can use the term bestselling author based on just about any criteria he or she decides applies. Hmm.
So, when is a best seller not a best seller?
A few years ago, my husband and I wrote a piece on our travel blog The Discerning Travelers about when a perk (from an airline, a hotel etc. via loyalty programs) is not a perk. We concluded that a perk is not a perk when everyone has it (for our full explanation read The ups and downs of travel loyalty programs: When is a perk not a perk?). It loses its real meaning.
I submit to you that when everyone is a so-called bestselling author, no one is. And that is sad. I’d love to be a bestselling author, but I’m more interested in being a writer. When the term bestseller now applies to everyone and his or her dog, I don’t really care about that anymore. How about you?
 Steinberg, S. H. 1955. Five Hundred Years of Printing. as quoted in Wikipedia.