What Does Bestseller Really Mean?

imagesA recent article (see link here) about the ease with which a reporter for the Observer uploaded a ‘book’ (which comprised, basically, a photograph of his foot) onto Amazon and became an instant ‘#1 bestseller’ – despite only selling three copies – got me thinking. It got me thinking, not just about the idea of scamming your way to bestsellerdom, but about the whole concept of being a ‘bestselling’ author and the kudos this  provides and implies.

Like any author, I would love to be able to claim such a title – although (perhaps not like every author) I only want to earn the title as a result of stellar book sales.  It seems, however, that through various manipulations (most often in how a book is categorized on Amazon) that the notion of being a ‘bestseller’ has become, well, let’s just say a little fuzzy. Now, this article does point out that they have always existed inherent biases within bestseller book lists and they have probably always been authors desperate enough to game the system (such as by buying their own books in bulk) in order to have the title ‘bestselling author’ bestowed upon them. However, the advent of Amazon and the plethora of ways an author can upload, market and sell their own ebooks seems to have increased the opportunities for gaming the system exponentially.

I don’t intend (in this blog post at least) to rake over all the ways and means authors manage to legitimately (or not) claim the ‘bestseller’ title but rather to consider what the word ‘bestselling’ means today (if, indeed, it means anything). As a reader, I can’t say I pay much attention to claims made to bestseller status on Amazon (especially now I now how easy it can be to claim such a title) – my eyes simply glaze over – and my decision whether to buy the book or not is far more dependent on reviews and recommendations than any ‘top selling’ status I might see on a website, book cover or author page. I do, however, take note of the bestseller lists in the NYT Book Review – to my mind this seems a better reflection of the popularity of any given book (even though I know the list probably has its own limitations). As a writer, becoming a NYT bestseller is also an obvious and much treasured goal…but, although I’d love to plop the word ‘bestselling author’ next to my name I wonder, given how many authors claim this (beyond the NYT list), how much meaning this term really has anymore.

So what about you – do you think the term ‘bestseller’ has lost a lot of its value through being bandied about so much? Do you pay any attention to Amazon’s designation of a book or author as a ‘bestseller’? As a writer, how do you view the issue? Do you think working the system is simply fair game (why not get the crown of bestseller any way you can?..) – or do you view the system as a broken one which holds little intrinsic value any more?  Which bestseller lists do you pay attention to as a writer, reader and book buyer?

This entry was posted in Writing and tagged , , by Clare Langley-Hawthorne. Bookmark the permalink.

About Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Her first novel, Consequences of Sin, featuring the Oxford graduate, heiress, and militant suffragette Ursula Marlow, was published in 2007. This was followed by two more books in the series, The Serpent and The Scorpion (2008) and Unlikely Traitors (2014). Consequences of Sin was a San Francisco Chronicle Bay Area bestseller and a Macavity Award nominee for best historical mystery. http://www.clarelangleyhawthorne.com/

14 thoughts on “What Does Bestseller Really Mean?

  1. I agree with you, Clare. Matter of fact, the first time I hit the list I didn’t know what to do. So I decided to do nothing. In my eyes I haven’t earned the title…yet. Before I started writing the title of bestseller was for authors who amazed, intrigued, and transported me to far away places; they won Edgars and Shamus awards; their books were critically acclaimed; their name was synonymous with greatness. I admired these authors with every part of my being; their words stayed with me; their stories touched my heart. Now, in a day where anyone can manipulate the keywords to their advantage it’s lost its magic. For me, until I reach my personal goals through hard work and persistence I won’t wear the title. Naïve? Perhaps. But I like to lay my head on my pillow without regret. That said, I would never knock anyone else’s choices.

  2. Yes, and even NYT has lost its luster, with the knowledge that many have bought their way on via shill companies, etc. Old-school, literate readers might put stock in it, but less and less so I would guess.

    Still, if one has legitimately earned bestseller status, it’s fine to toot the trumpet. If one has reached #1 in an Amazon category, I propose the following practice: include the category when touting it. For example, the author of the piece should not claim to be a #1 Best Selling Author. He could say #1 Amazon Bestselling Transpersonal Psychology Author.

    Even so, bestseller status is not what it used to be, IMO. More important is a loyal and growing list of satisfied readers.

  3. While a certain degree of cheating might have always been considered ‘business cosmetics’ it is a tricky and enervating new market venture nowadays. I think you noted that very well, and quite subtle.

    Personally I noted before that I would prefer 5000 1 star reviews to a handful of 5 star reviews because I made the acquaintance of so many more-skilled-than-me authors who all couldn’t live from their work. And it is a lot of hard work and dry research to become good on the topics craved these days…

    Thanks for the article.

  4. You’re so right, Clare–“Bestseller” has become like a T-ball trophy–everyone claims to have one these days. The only bestseller lists I pay any attention to these days are NY Times and USA Today, and those, barely. I also still like the Independent Book Store Bestsellers lists, although those get much less publicity. The indie bestseller lists reflect the books that independent booksellers love, believe in, and are promoting in their stores.

  5. I pay no attention to the NYT Bestseller lists because its methodology involves selected bookstores around the country that report their sales, and (according to Tess Gerritsen and Joe Finder, at least), a book can become a bestseller by selling as little as 5,000 copies in a week.

    I have to assume that if those 5,000 copies weren’t sold at those NYT stores, then a book that may well have sold MORE books than those on the list, might not make it to the list at all. I won’t even get into the slots that have been bought, at times, by the authors (or their people) themselves.

    As for Amazon, I think if you reach #1 in a category that isn’t six layers deep AND manage to hit the top 100 in the overall Kindle store, then you have every right to claim that as a bestselling book, because chances are good that you’ve sold more in that week than the average NYT Bestseller. If you’re an indie author, you’ve certainly made more money.

    Also, if you have a book that has sold, say, over 100,000 copies during an extended period of time, then I think you can definitely claim bestsellerdom.

    And while I love the idea of landing on the NYT list or the USA Today list or whatever, those lists mean far less to me, personally, than the KDP Book Reports list that ticks off the number of books I’m selling every day, every month, every year.

    I think bestseller lists are flattering, but are we REALLY in a competition over who sells the most books? That isn’t really an author thing, it’s a publisher thing. A PR thing. I know authors who sell better than me and I know authors who sell less. But nobody’s really keeping count and none of it matters beyond a bit of bragging rights.

    I’ve long been bothered by the “competition” aspect of our culture (and many others). I watched the Oscars last night and thought, why is Alicia Vikander’s performance any better than Jennifer Jason Leigh’s? Why do we even have to choose? Why can’t we simply celebrate everyone instead of trying to find who is the “best” for one fleeting moment in time?

    Am I glad to have had a couple bestselling books? Sure. But in the end, it’s about the work and the readers, not the lists. And, of course, for mercenaries like me, the amount of sales and page turns…

  6. “Bestseller” is supposed to mean “sold more than any other.” There can only be one.
    Please use “betterseller” if it sold more than another.
    You can use “goodseller” if you think it had more than paltry sales.
    Nowadays, I take words like awesome, best-of, miracle, etc. with a ton of salt.
    It’s all opinion and hype. I don’t know if it’s a great book until I read it, love it, and save it.

  7. The problem with the term “bestseller” is that it, like the word “natural” in food products, doesn’t have a quantified meaning. Maybe two copies in a day does make you the “#1 Amazon Bestselling Transpersonal Psychology Author”. It still won’t buy you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. In the music biz an RIAA certifed gold album has to sell 500,000 to call itself a “gold record”. There’s no equivalent quantified number for a book to be a bestseller. When I’ve read accounts of how few books actually have to sell in a given week – as few as 4000 for the NYT – it’s quite shocking. Not to mention that the list is derived from a sampling of specific retailers, not from any actual hard data. Publishers ain’t exactly spilling detailed sales stats to plebes, and certainly not on a weekly basis. Maybe if there were some quantifiable “gold book” equivalent (I’m thinking the threshold is going to have to be a tad lower than 500,000 units 😉 ) publishers might be willing to part with their data. I’m not holding my breath. In the meantime you go “#1 Amazon Bestselling Transpersonal Psychology Author”. I’ll take your bestseller status with a grain of salt.

  8. Hi everyone – for some reason I’m having trouble replying to individual comments on my computer but sounds like a lot of people feel the same about these ‘bestseller’ status crowns (or is that clowns?) 🙂

  9. Another ‘peeve’ is authors who put together a book bundle of their collected works and market it for 99 cents so it sells enough to make the NYT or USA list, and then they ‘legitimately’ claim they’re NYT bestselling authors. I hit #6 at the overall Kobo store, and #1 in my sub genre with some of my books, but those were short-lived and based on promotions (such as a BookBub ad), and I don’t use the term best-selling. (My editor once suggested I refer to my “best-selling Blackthorne, Inc.” series because it was ‘my’ best-selling series.)

    Another one I have trouble paying attention to is “Award Winning Author.” I’ve won awards, and they’re mentioned on my website, and I might include them in my bio for conference programs and intros, but given the awards out there, so many are meaningless (not to say I’m not proud of winning the Silver Falchion for my short story collection against CJ Box, Jefferey Deaver, Craig Johnson … 🙂 )

  10. Joining the chorus here… these days #1 Amazon bestseller means, well… we don’t know. But when you add a descriptor – like, USA Today Bestselling Author, or #1 Amazon Bestseller/crime procedural – then at least it’s legit. Amazon has changed the game in so many ways, this being one of them that remains unclear. I was at a writing conference recently where they actually had a session on the agenda on how to game the Amazon system to become a “#1 Bestseller.”

    Who knows where all this will land. But what goes up must come down, and when it does at least the landscape will no longer be in constant motion.

    Excellent post today, Clare.

  11. I rarely pay attention to bestseller status because I’ve seen the system played. Plus, a book that claims to be by a bestselling author can be horrible. Maybe their last book was great, but that doesn’t guarantee the next will be great too.
    I thought I was just cynical. It’s nice to know I’m not alone.

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