Critiquing the “Bestseller”

You see it on books and in book descriptions all over Amazon. New York Times Bestseller. Best Selling Author of [insert book name]. It’s the brass ring title of authors. But what does the term mean and is it really what we think it it means?

Nielsen BookScan  scans about 70%-75% of book sales. Right there we have a problem. 25%-30% or more is missing so it’s not going to be overly accurate. When you go to their website, you notice that what they have in terms of book sales are general. There’s a Top Ten for adult fiction, non-fiction and audiobooks. Notice the glaring, gaping hole. Ebooks. Why? Simple. Amazon and Barnes & Nobles don’t share sales data. That’s significant given that ebook sales take up about 20% of total book sales and that’s according to 2013. Add to that that sales for ebooks in terms of monetary intake rose…well…the best way to say it is an unreal amount, from $68 million to $3 billion (I believe the math on that, something like 4400%) and we know something is off.

This all impacts the way we look at the term “bestseller”. It’s obvious someone is making some money at this thing. How do we know when we’ve hit bestseller status when the numbers aren’t there and the numbers that are are not consistent?

Back in my early youth as a writer, I thought that bestseller meant a million copies. I mean, record labels have quantified that kind of thing. A gold record is 500,000 copies sold while platinum is 1 million. It’s got to be the same for book publishing, right? Oh, how young and foolish I was.

The reason why publishers keep the numbers so ambiguous with a term like “bestseller” is because the numbers aren’t that impressive.

Case in point:

A romance book was touted as being an international bestseller. How many books were sold? 8,998 copies. Apparently that’s enough to make it to the New York Times extended list. In addition, time appears to be a factor as well. If you sell about that many books in five days, it will get you on the bestseller list according to the Wall Street Journal.

Even when we look at books that list “1 Million Copies Sold!”, the key there is to look at when the book was first published and divide that amount by the years up to date. If a book has been in publication for 45 years, they’ve been selling about 22,000 copies a year. Now, for an indie publisher, that is golden for one book. If you have multiple books, even better. But it’s not groundbreaking numbers. That’s for personal use, not genuine marketing.

What many authors don’t realize is that “besetseller” is a red herring term meant to boost sales or at least slow down waning ones. The numbers end up being arbitrary with no consistent standard by which to judge whether something is a bestseller. Readers are trained to gravitate towards books described with that term not really knowing what it means.

So, what is a bestseller? For all intents and purposes, when you look deeper into it, it doesn’t mean much at all. In this day and age for the independent publisher, it’s this simple: the book that’s earned you the most money and sold the most copies. That’s your bestseller. In short, every author has a bestseller. However, I wouldn’t go around putting it in your sales copy. Just be comforted in the fact that you have one.

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