What is a bestselling book? As a writer, if you haven’t already achieved the status, you may have a goal, or perhaps just a hope, that one of your books will someday become a bestseller.
A definition of the term is a good place to begin our discussion. The Oxford English Dictionary, arguably one of the premier arbiters of word meanings in our language, says that a bestseller is “[a] book or other product that sells in very large numbers.” This definition implies that there ought to be some kind of quantitative measure of what it takes to be a bestseller, though falling short of actually telling us what that number might be. However, the phrase “very large numbers” does have some resonance, doesn’t it?
As far back as 1955, a bestseller was defined as “a book for which demand, within a short time of that book’s initial [emphasis added] publication, vastly exceeds what is then considered to be big sales.” Again the concepts both of high demand and bigger than “big” sales.
Of course, our next stop is the twenty-first century where Wikipedia suggests the following:
“A bestseller is a book that is identified as extremely popular by its inclusion on lists of currently top selling or frequently borrowed titles that are based on publishing industry and book trade figures and library circulation statistics and then published by newspapers, magazines, or book store chains.”
Wikipedia seems to be defining a bestseller not on documented sales but rather on a book’s appearance on “lists” that can and are produced by anyone and everyone. It further suggests that the term is evidently not associated with any specific number of sales and that the term is often applied rather “loosely” often as a marketing ploy, but that it does, in fact, refer to a book that is “extremely popular,” by whatever measure this might be – it is never defined.
It seems, then, that a true bestseller is a popular book in high demand with high sales. As reasonably intelligent readers (or writers) we can conclude that a book isn’t a bestseller unless it sells lots and lots of copies. So how is it possible that so many of these online self-published authors suggest that they are bestselling authors? Remember what I said earlier? The landscape has shifted. Dramatically.
Over the past few years, it’s become clear that there are ways of manipulating online book sales figures to artificially create a bestseller, thereby giving the author marketing cred, even if it is a bit disingenuous. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that this is just a recent, eBook phenomenon.
Twenty-five years ago, two ambitious consultants wrote a book titled The Discipline of Market Leaders, published by Addison-Wesley. Rather than let it languish in a warehouse or gather dust on bookstore shelves only to be returned if unsold (the dreaded ‘returns’ of the book selling business – the bane of every bona fide writer’s life), the authors decided to figure out a way to get that book onto the New York Times bestseller list so that they could use this as a springboard to marketing themselves as consultants, and thereby make more money. As business experts, they were willing to make a financial investment and take the risk that it would have a big payout in the end.
In summary (you can read the whole story in the online archive of Business Week linked in the footnotes ) they spent $250,000 buying 10,000 copies of their own $25 book from small and large bookstores throughout the United States. The result was that it climbed #8 on the NYT bestseller list where it stayed for 15 weeks and peaked at #1 on the BusinessWeek list. The results of this manipulation were spectacular for their consulting business: speaking engagements, new clients, future book deals. Illegal? No. Unethical? Clearly.
Why is this morally suspect, you ask? Because readers draw the conclusion that a book on the top of a bestseller list has made it there on its own merits. When it didn’t, those who colluded to get it there are effectively lying. That was then. This is now. And the opportunities for this kind of manipulation are even more available.
In 2013, Publisher’s Weekly tried to get bestseller numbers from Amazon, but were unsuccessful, so they decided to try to figure it out by looking at the status of a couple of books over the course of two weeks. They began with the widely held hypothesis that a book would have to sell 300 copies a day to reach the top five on Amazon’s list. They found that this wasn’t far off, but that it varies depending on the time of year.
For example, during holiday sales times, the numbers would have to be higher. Nevertheless, if you can approach this level of sales for a day or two, whatever ranking you achieve on the bestseller list sticks with the book based on the Amazon algorithm. And there you have a “bestseller” that doesn’t even come close to the definitions above, nor the connotation associated with it by potential readers. So, just about anyone can use the term bestselling author based on just about any criteria he or she decides applies.
And it gets even better. Go to the blog Quartz and read this submission to see how it’s done today: I became a best-selling author on Amazon in five minutes with three dollars then tell us that Amazon bestseller isn’t bogus.
This means is that being a bestselling author isn’t what it appears to be to readers or to other writers.
When the term bestseller can now apply to everyone and his or her dog, it means almost nothing. Perhaps writers just need to concentrate on the writing. Make the writing better first. Sell books later. That’s the way it should work.
 Steinberg, S. H. 1955. Five Hundred Years of Printing. as quoted in Wikipedia.
[An early version of this post appeared on patriciajparsons.com]