Bestseller Breakdown: What it Takes to Become a Bestseller and Why it Does(n't) Matter

Writers dream of becoming bestselling authors so they can plaster that phrase next to their name on business cards, resumes, books, blog posts, and photos. And they can’t be blamed—that phrase counts for a lot, especially for authors hoping to attract customers with a “national bestseller” banner on their cover. But what exactly does it mean to be a bestselling author? And how much does it really matter?

Books are traditionally considered bestsellers when they meet one of three unofficial requirements: 1. placement on the New York Times bestseller list; 2. placement on the Wall Street Journal bestseller list; or 3. placement on the USA Today bestseller list. And, if we’re being frank, the highest prestige comes from making the illustrious New York Times list.

How do I get on a list? 

So what does it take to get on a bestseller list? The number of sold books required to achieve bestseller status is virtually indefinable. The necessary sales number is relative to the performance of other books competing in the market the same week. Books on the very same bestseller list can have drastically different sales counts. In his blog post “Bestseller: How Many Copies Do You Have to Sell to Become a Bestseller?” Jeffrey Krames sites a week in August 2010 in which Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love topped the lists, selling 140,000 copies. The fifth bestselling book that same week sold less than 11,000 copies—a 129,000 difference from the first-place seller.

Genre lists are an entirely different ballgame. The New York Times separates books into categories, and the number of books sold required to hit each of those genre categories is immensely different. For that same week in 2010 Krames discussed, Tom Rath’s StrengthsFinder 2.0 topped the business category, selling just over 9,000 copies. Number two on the list, The Big Short by Michael Lewis, measured in at 4,200.

It’s also important to note that bestseller lists only reflect velocity of sales—not overall success of a book. A title could be a “tortoise seller,” moving eight hundred books per week for an entire year but never making any of the lists. 

Not all sales are reported to the lists, either. Each list has its own way of determining quantity, usually through a catalog of sales reported to them by selected bookstores, and none of the lists are comprehensive. In fact, sales through specialty stores and Christian bookstores are usually not collected, and for some authors, those can provide the majority of their sales.

How important are bestseller lists?

In some ways, bestseller status is becoming less relevant in this age of ebooks, apps, and digital downloads. Can a free ebook downloaded 100,000 times in a week be considered a bestseller? Not according to the New York Times, but it certainly must have been one of the most-read books of the week. In the long run, that will matter a lot more.

The Times only recently started including ebook sales on their list, and ebook sales for advice books, how-to books, children’s books, and graphic books are not captured at all. Although ebooks only account for about five percent of overall book sales right now, that number is sure to rise.

The Times list is also backlogged by several weeks. Sales for the week ending August 6 won’t appear in the print edition of the Times until August 21. In our digital world, trends can rise and fall quickly; sometimes what was selling three weeks ago has no bearing on today.

Amazon, on the other hand, updates its list hourly, and the site separates free ebook lists from paid. This likely reflects actual popularity a little more closely than the Times list, but being an “Amazon bestseller” doesn’t exactly have the same ring to it. But will it eventually? Or are bestseller lists on their way to obsolescence?

Being on the New York Times bestseller list is still a great way to build sales and does hold a lot of cachet—we can’t deny that. But in the end, authors should concentrate on the longevity of their book and its cross-revenue potential.

Our advice? Don’t measure your success solely in book sales. Keep in mind the long-term strategy for your book—increased exposure for yourself and your company. If you only sell three thousand books but those books translate into more clients and, ultimately, more profits for you, then slow and steady can and will win the race.