When is a bestseller not a bestseller?

bestseller 2So, 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.”[1]  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.”[2] 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.”[3]

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[4]) 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.

amazon bestsellerIn 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.[5]  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?

[1] http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/bestseller

[2] Steinberg, S. H. 1955. Five Hundred Years of Printing. as quoted in Wikipedia.

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bestseller

[4] Did dirty tricks create a bestseller? August 7, 1995. Business Week (from the online web archive), http://goo.gl/lmqR9y

[5] Gabe Habash. March 10, 2013.  How Many Copies Does It Take To Be an Amazon Bestseller? Not So Much. http://goo.gl/ULwI6a

When a publisher stops publishing: A writer takes control

So, it actually happens.  In fact, it happens more often than you might think.  And it has happened to me more than once, although I’m happy to say that not as often as it hasn’t!  Publishers go out of business for one reason or another.

The backstory:  Just like most serious writers out there, I had always gravitated toward traditional publishers.  They have the experience. They have the expertise.  They have the money. Well, maybe this last one is not a given.  In any case, until recently, it was probably the only route to being taken seriously as an author, although it has to be said that in some circles this is still the case.  Nevertheless, on almost a dozen occasions, I went through the long, drawn out process of querying, waiting, submitting, waiting, reviewing, waiting, editing, waiting and so it goes.  Eventually the books saw the light of day and I moved on.  But what happens to your property (your book that you slaved over for a chunk of your life) when your publisher ceases to publish?  Notwithstanding the legal issues of who owns copyright (you should), here’s one of my stories.

In 2008 I finally found a publisher for my memoir about being the mom to an elite ballet dancer who happened to be a boy in a hockey-mad country. The publisher was a small one with a years-long publishing record and the publisher loved the story.  When the book was published in the spring of 2009, I hosted the book launch, bringing my son, the ballet dancer, and one of his female partners from the National Ballet of Canada back to Halifax to entertain my captive audience.  Of course they came to see him dance, but had to listen to me talk about the book!  It was all very exciting.

Another Pointe of View: The Life & Times of a Ballet Mom didn’t really do very well, and the publisher was not into electronic publishing at all, so it was never available as a downloadable e-book, effectively cutting off a significant and increasing proportion of the potential readership.  The publisher sent me 100 books that I did not order, and they sat untouched in my office. (I’m sorry, but I’m not one of those people who are prepared to sell books out of the trunk of a car.  Nor do I think that people interested in ballet stories are likely to buy them that way.  But that’s just me.)

For the next two years I tried to get the publisher to send me a royalty statement: even if a book sells not a single copy, the author is entitled to see the statements, and in fact the publisher was bound by our contract to send me one periodically.  The truth, however, was as low as the sales might have been, I knew that there had been sales since several people mentioned to me that they had bought it and had enjoyed it.  So, imagine my surprise when I received a letter one day in 2011 indicating to me that I owed the publisher $1800.00!

The letter was from a woman who indicated she had been hired by the publisher to wind down operations – this was the first I had heard.  She told me that the owner of the company was ill and would be retiring thus freeing the authors from any further obligations to the publisher except for this unpaid bill for 100 copies of my book (how it amounted to that much money I’ll never know).  M y response was as follows: I most certainly was not going to pay any money for books I did not order – she could have them back if she was prepared to send money for the shipping; nor was I going to pay money to a publisher who had not once provided me with a royalty statement and was therefore in breach of contract.  I asked for all rights to revert to me and I wanted it in writing.  That letter came and not another word was uttered about money owning.  I guess threatening to have my lawyer in touch with them did the trick.

So there I was with the book that I might as well have published myself.  So, what do you do with a property that returns to you?

The newly designed cover for 'Ballet Mom' created for me by Tugboat Design
The newly designed cover for ‘Ballet Mom’ created for me by Tugboat Design

I decided that the evolution in publishing over the past several years provided me with a significant opportunity to revisit the book and see if I could garner a new audience for it.  At this point the remnants of the publisher were unable to provide me with the final, edited manuscript in editable form, so I took the uneditable form and had it converted, then began the process of updating the work.

I decided that the book might find an audience these days with the e-book readers.  I hired a book cover designer to come up with a more eye-catching cover, and then finished formatting the manuscript for electronic downloads.  Then I published myself it via Kindle Direct and began letting people know that it’s available.

It’s funny how things have changed over the past several years.  With Twitter and Facebook and other online possibilities, I had a request for a copy for review within a week from an international dance magazine who evidently had not heard of it before despite my publisher’s so-called promotion based on the marketing plan that I had delivered to her.

I think that my next step will be to make updated hard-copies available as well, thus making the ones currently available from online sellers (and from which authors receive not a single cent in royalties once a book is out of print) outdated and unwanted.

But what did I learn from all of this (and what could I offer as advice to other writers?)?

  • Don’t trust your publisher to market your book for you. (I already knew this, but the experience brought it into sharp focus.)
  • Publishers go out of business and leave you high and dry.
  • Authors need to keep a certain amount of control over their properties, even when signing contracts with traditional publishers.
  • If you have a well-edited manuscript (read: professionally edited), you can feel good about indie publishing.

But most importantly I learned that…

  • You can breathe new life into old work.

…and that’s what I’m going to do with several other books, published by traditional publishers before the electronic era whose rights have reverted to me.  Stay tuned!

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