What Makes a Book a Bestseller?

All authors want their books to be bestsellers, but what actually defines a bestseller? How many copies need to be sold? Can an author be considered successful without reaching bestseller status?

Every author dreams of writing a bestselling book, but few new authors really understand what it takes to be a bestseller and just what defines a bestseller.

What it takes is selling a lot of books. How to do so is an entire topic of its own, but before figuring out how to reach the goal, authors first need to understand what the goal is. Just what does it mean to have a bestselling book—how many books do you have to sell?

Today, a bestseller is usually determined either by 1) Making the New York Times Bestseller list, 2) Having a high Amazon sales rank, or 3) Selling a large number of copies.

How does a book get on the New York Times Bestseller list? The truth of the matter is it’s rather arbitrary. The New York Times has relationships with numerous bookstores that report their weekly sales to the New York Times. (Note that the New York Times’ numbers do not include Internet sales, sales in department stores like Walmart, or sales in local gift shops). The books that sell the most each week in the targeted stores determine which ones make the list. If your fishing book is selling like hotcakes in Minnesota, but no bookstore there is reporting to the New York Times, your book isn’t going to make the list, even if you sell more copies than the current Harry Potter of that week. Just as political polls have margins for error, so do the bestseller lists because it would be impossible to track each week every book sold everywhere in the country.

A book that never appears on the New York Times Bestseller list may well be a bestseller and outsell books on that list over time. Books that do not make a hit when they first come out can become popular through word-of-mouth and sell enough copies to achieve bestseller status even if they never appear on any bestseller lists. (Note that other lists exist such as Publishers Weekly, but the New York Times is the best known. Comparing a few different lists will show different books and different ranks, which shows no numbers are perfect representations of book sales. Accurate numbers are nearly impossible to acquire since publishers withhold sales numbers as privileged information, until generally books sell a million copies and then publishers simply print something like “Over a million copies sold” on paperback reprints).

Amazon has also become a key player in determining a bestseller because it provides a sales rank for each book listed. By getting a high sales ranking, for example, top 100, a book can also claim bestseller status. Like the New York Times, however, if a book on Amazon sells steadily but does not sell a large number within a short timeframe, its sales rank is not likely to go up as high as a book that sells ten thousand in a week. According to Brent Sampson’s “Sell Your Book on Amazon” (2007) to acquire a ranking of 1-10, a book must sell over 500 copies in a day. Books that sell only one copy a week by comparison, end up in the 10,000-100,000 ranking. Many authors follow various strategies to manipulate and increase their book’s Amazon rating by holding campaigns to sell as many books as possible within a week.

So just how many books do you need to sell to claim bestseller status? According to self-publishing guru, Dan Poynter, the number is 35,000. Since the popularity of a bestseller can be long or short, I think that’s a fair number. A book might come out and make a huge hit and sell a million copies in a year, and then be forgotten. Other books, like the Bible, “A Tale of Two Cities” or “Pride and Prejudice” never appear on bestseller lists but they continue to sell steadily and have far outsold most books making the bestseller lists simply by their quality, word of mouth, and acceptance as great literature.

To sell 35,000 copies of your book is a big task. Studies show that 500,000 books a year are now being published. Of those, over 98% will sell less than 500 copies. If you’re just starting out, shooting for 500 is a good start. After that, I would say you’re moderately successful—and ready to strive for the thousands.

How important is it to claim “bestseller status”? At Wikipedia is an excellent list of all top ten bestsellers by year in the United States. Take a look at the list from 1951:

  1. From Here to Eternity by James Jones
  2. The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk
  3. Moses by Sholem Asch
  4. The Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson
  5. A Woman Called Fancy by Frank Yerby
  6. The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat
  7. Melville Goodwin, U.S.A. by John P. Marquand
  8. Return to Paradise by James A. Michener
  9. The Foundling by Cardinal Spellman
  10. The Wanderer by Mika Waltari

My guess is that, with the exception of maybe the first two listed, most of us have never heard of these books. So I ask again, how important is it to have a bestseller?

Your book may never make a bestseller list, but steady wins the race. Over time, you may sell more copies of your book than those books that make the bestseller lists. Authors dream of becoming famous over night, but producing a quality book is the best investment if you’re looking for longevity, and longevity, in my opinion, is the best indication of success.

<strong>Irene Watson</strong> is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find <a href=”http://www.readerviews.com/” target=”_new”>reviews</a> of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides <a href=”http://readerviews.com/services_about.html” target=”_new”>author publicity</a> and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.
4 Responses to What Makes a Book a Bestseller?
  1. Rosanne Dingli
    October 1, 2010 | 7:01 am

    “The Cruel Sea” by Nicholas Monsarrat is one of the most amazing books of all time. He wrote it while living in Malta, where I was born and raised. He also wrote another best seller called “The Kappillan of Malta” which is still selling nicely, thank you very much – and my own “Death in Malta”, ditto. To see what Elmo and Malta have to do with each other (Elmo!?) read my blog.

    Rosanne Dingli – author of thrillers that include Malta as a location (and yes, she did meet Nicholas Monsarrat, but she was four!)
    http://rosannedingli.blogspot.com

  2. Michael N. Marcus
    October 1, 2010 | 1:13 pm

    >>Amazon has also become a key player in determining a bestseller because it provides a sales rank for each book listed. By getting a high sales ranking, for example, top 100, a book can also claim bestseller status.<<

    Amazon rates books as bestsellers within categories, as well as overall.

    One of my books has been on two Amazon bestseller lists, in categories I would not have designated for the book. But if Amazon says the book is a bestseller, I won't complain and ask for a new category.

    Michael N. Marcus

  3. T. Matheno Matthews EL
    September 19, 2011 | 8:02 am

    One of my books Moorish America’s Light of Ali, has been on Amazon’s top 100 list for it’s category for weeks. But that is not yet reflected in sales info released to me (4) books sold. The publisher’s reply is that it may take quite some time to sort out returns etc.. The book has always been ranked about he same, and appears so far on well over 100 sites all over the planet! Not sure what to make of this!

  4. [...] in the publishing industry agree should equal “bestseller.”  Some say it’s 10,000 copies. Some say 35,000. Sometimes it depends on the type of book. One publishing insider, writing on the blog Editorial [...]