What is a bestseller?

I’ve noticed a growing number of author Twitter profiles with the word bestseller or best-selling, even new authors. This made me think: Just what is a bestseller and are these folks being optimistic, or even misleading with their claims?

Let’s start at the beginning: Leading dictionaries define bestseller as:

a book that is among those having the largest sales during a given period.”

any product that among those of its kind is selling particularly well at a given time

The problem lies in the non-quantifiable period of time, number of sales and that horrible, weak word among. Does among represent the top 5, top 10, top 100, top 1000? Technically if my book peaked on the Amazon top 10 for one day, I can claim to have a bestseller. OK, but what if it only took 300 sales in a day to reach that place? I don’t think that’s what people think of when they become impressed by the bestseller label.

The subject becomes further mired when we consider that after having reached bestseller status by selling a few hundred books on one day (making me among the largest sales), I can now refer to myself as a bestselling author for eternity. What if all my future books tank? What if I never achieve a top 100 ranking ever again? Am I really still a best-selling author? Yes I am, because the definition makes no reference to maintaining my sales, or even duplicating them outside the given period. Again, this isn’t really what the average reader expects.

Poll  readers of any genre and I’m certain they’ll consider the definitive measure of bestselling status to be the New York Times Bestseller List. We expect the top 10 on this list to sell hundred of thousands if not millions of copies. Ask an average reader to list bestselling authors, and I guarantee they will list Stephen King, JK Rowling, James Patterson, Agatha Christie, etc. In other words, authors who have sold tens of millions of copies.

Depending upon your source, a book can rank on the NYTimes List with  35,000 copies, or 5000 hardcovers in a week, and in the Amazon top 10 with as little as 500 copies in a single day. CJ Lyons‘ book “Blind Faith” made it to #2 on the NYT List in 2011, selling 240,000 copies in 2 months. That last number makes considerably more sense to me. That’s a lot of books to sell in such a short period!

The engineer in me wants there to be a quantifiable definition of a bestseller, specifying number of copies in a specific time period, though I realize that without  a sales report from every retail outlet, that number is subject to enormous error. Amazon, with such a huge and growing slice of the market, is in the best position to operate an accurate system.

That would define a best-selling book, but a best-selling author is a tougher metric. Perhaps the definition should be total sales of all books, with or without a qualifying time period, e.g. everyone who sells 500,000 or more books can claim to be a bestseller. That’s a huge achievement, and still reachable by midlist authors over time. However, eventually we’d end up with a lot of best-sellers. :) Should we make it tougher, and say that you have to maintain 500,000 books over each 10 year period to maintain your status as a best-selling author?

So why am I challenging this whole process? Can’t I just leave it be? As always, I think of the reader. I believe it misleading to the readers to claim bestselling status based on just a few hundred or thousand sales, and I know there are authors out there guilty of this! To an Indie author, 10,000 sales is a fantastic achievement for a book. Awesome! Great job! But does that make me or my book a best-seller? I don’t think that most readers would say so.

The other problem, that affects authors too, is that if every book and author has bestseller plastered all over it and the marketing material, the reader is going to tune it out and it ceases to have any importance at all. I’ve seen several reviewers rank a book down because it was hyped by the tease of being a bestseller, and clearly was not worthy.

What do you think? As a reader, what do you consider a bestseller? As an author, what are your metrics? Am I just full of hot air? :)

 

 

2 Responses to What is a bestseller?

  1. Jen says:

    Love this post! I was thinking the same thing a few weeks ago when a friend of mine hit the Amazon best seller list (the free one, which means he didn’t actually make any sales at all) and immediately put ‘Best Selling Author’ on his author page. It’s depressing how many authors are probably doing this and it leaves the term best selling author meaning nothing.

    • Graeme says:

      Thank you, and welcome, Jen. :) I’m glad I’m not the only person concerned about the bestselling term, particularly in the new world of Indie authors. Hopefully, once the NYT and other prestigious publications fully embrace Indie, we can continue to use them as the “official” hallmark of a bestseller, although the criteria still worry me.

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