What is a Best Seller?

In an effort to increase my market knowledge, I delved into this topic headlong and found it particularly daunting. Here I’ll sum up what I’ve found, and perhaps ‘de-mystify’ it for you some as well.

The question that led me on this journey was ‘what does it mean to have a ‘BEST-SELLING’ book?’ and ‘what does it mean to be a BEST-SELLING author?’

First off, both are relative. Technically, if Author A publishes through small press B which only publishes 10 titles, and theirs sells 20 copies, whereas the other nine sell 2-3, they are a BEST-SELLING author of a BEST-SELLING title. Best selling where, according to whom, and compared to what are the questions one could ask following Author A’s “Best Selling” claim. (The same goes for ‘Award-Winning’ . . . it’s all relative, and it can all be a means of hyping an author or title.) There are plenty of smaller magazines and editorials that make their own lists, specific to genre, etc. And sometimes, those are more realistic. After all, in a small genre, you can’t expect to outsell a widely-appealing summer beach/airport read one could pick up at Walmart – that doesn’t mean it’s not a best seller or a success, when comparing apples to apples.

Quick Disclaimer: From a marketing perspective, let me just say I totally understand the reasons for highlighting what you can when you’re selling your self, your brand, or your product (book). I’m not attempting to ‘de-bunk’ these claims, nor am I de-valuing them. I’m just callin’ it like I see it.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s forget the people who just claim ‘Best-Selling Author A’ without qualifying it, leave out e-books, and focus on the best-known BSLs (Best Sellers Lists): the New York Times, and USA Today. These are two examples of two different types of listings. Also note that there are ‘top list’ and ‘mid list’ rankings, unofficially.

General Note on reading these lists – you’ll see three columns of numbers:

The column in big print on the left is the title’s current position on the list. The blue column is last week’s ranking, and the red column is the number of weeks on this list. In this example, you can see the number 1 slot for fiction debuted this week at number one. Number four has been there, in the number four slot, for four weeks.

The NYT breaks out their best-sellers by categories based on Fiction/Non-Fiction and how the book is bound (trade paperback, hardcover, mass market paperback, etc.).

They supposedly put Children’s books on their own list in 2001, due to the raging success of the Harry Potter books, which they just couldn’t shake off the other lists. The ‘Children’s Books’ listing is now separated into ‘picture books’, ‘chapter books’ and ‘series’ – of which, Harry Potter is on its 191st week on the NYT . Anyhow, children’s books aside, there are 35 slots on each of these lists on any given week. Midlist starts around the #10 slot. (Publisher’s Weekly follows a system close to that of the Times, but only lists 15 titles, as opposed to 35.)

The USA Today list, on the other hand, lists all books, regardless of genre and format. The list has 150 slots reported per week. Midlist starts around the #25 slot.

So, uh . . . what qualifies as a NYT/USA Today bestseller?

*sigh* Relative. Relative. Relative. Book sales fluctuate, just like anything. There are slow times in the book market, just like any other market. And again – are you comparing it to other books in its ‘class’?

The only consistency seems to be that both of these lists rely on sales feedback from the major chain booksellers: B&N, Borders, Powell’s, Costco, etc. And, at a casual glance, they seem fairly consistent, if you consider the differences between the broken-out and non-broken listing.

You want a straight answer you say?

Hmm… it looks to me like a FICTION HARD COVER selling between 5,000-10,000 copies in a week will be on the NYT. Of course, a mass market paperback would have to sell more. A non-fiction title, perhaps less. And it also depends on the week. Say highly awaited series conclusion XYZ comes out in a week where there’s a lull, and the list is simply dominated by books that have been selling steadily in the 5-7K range for weeks, and XYZ sells 25,000 copies. Well, it takes the number one slot. But the same book coming out against ten other highly-anticipated books might fall into the middle of the list somewhere. It’s relative. And . . . truth be told, I don’t think the they really want us to know what determines a USA Today or NYT ranking. What it takes to earn your spot is a secret guarded closer than the recipe for Bush’s baked beans.

It depends on genre too. I remember reading a story about how a particular author’s publisher decided to market her book as romance vs. fantasy. Why? Well, a romance ‘best-seller’ sells through in the 40-50K area, where a fantasy ‘best-seller’ sells through with 10-15K copies.

Okay, what about a NYT/USA Today bestselling AUTHOR?

Heh. Sorry, relative again. Each publisher has their own rules depending on… who knows what … that determines when they will claim one of their authors is a ‘NYT Best Selling Author’. Simply making the list isn’t enough. They might require you stay on it for a minimum number of weeks, or hit a certain slot, etc.

In the end, of course, we also face the question: ‘Just because the masses like it, doesn’t mean it’s good’. Sure. True enough. But in some cases, the numbers don’t lie. (Who doesn’t have Harry Potter on a shelf somewhere?)

Some argue that the NYT and other lists mean nothing. After all, they don’t account for eBooks, or for what is selling in small independent ‘brick and mortar’ bookstores. Those have their own listings, which seldom resemble the Times.

Some other lists to look at which might sing to their own tune:
Amazon – Updated Hourly
Booksense (Independent Booksellers Only)

Long story short – a ‘Best Seller’ might be something to aspire to, but there are several levels of best sellers, and sales status according to limited (and in some cases skewed) surveys doesn’t necessarily indicate quality, or even popularity. Sadly, there are plenty of amazing authors and books who might have a very loyal following, yet never make the list, or never break mid-list simply because of poor timing, poor marketing, or some other crappy unfairness of life. Just because it says ‘bestselling blah blah blah’ on the cover doesn’t mean you’ll love it. I mean, plenty of people think Tide is the best detergent, but it makes me break out in hives.

Personally, I take the ratings with a grain of salt and rely on recommendations from people I trust, or my own gut instinct on an unknown title/author I want to check out.

And now that I know what goes into it – my dreams won’t be shattered if I can’t put those words after my name. They’re just . . . words. There are so many more interesting ones.

… Queen of the Underworld
…….. Chocolate Connaiseuse Extraordinaire
…………… Clive Owen’s Personal Sex Slave

3 Replies to “What is a Best Seller?”

  1. Very interesting, Gwen. (I still think you’re nuts to analyze it this throughly, though, lol. But at least you’ve done the work for us so we don’t have to.)

    Twi-hard Girly-Girl
    (for now)
    (who knows what tomorrow will bring)

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