What you never knew about bestsellers

bestsellers

Silk’s Post #126 — Okay, okay … this post really should be titled “What I never knew about bestsellers.” Maybe you’re even more of a book trivia geek than I am, and all this is old hat to you, but look at it this way: I got you to read this far on the slightly dubious claim of my title’s hook.

That should be your first clue that the hallowed term “bestseller” is a bit of a trickster.

Poking around the net for blog fodder today, I had one of those “I wonder” moments that often turn into deep wormholes of hypnotic surfing. What exactly is a bestseller? Surely there are some sort of defined metrics, like gold or platinum records in the heyday of the music business.

After all, there are a lot of books on the shelf that are labelled “bestseller” right there on the cover. They must have qualified for that claim somehow, right? Sold a certain number of copies … or flew off the shelves at some measurable rate of speed … or sold more copies than some defined group of other books.

I mean, you can’t just call your book a bestseller without something to back up your claim. Can you? The truth-in-advertising squad would drag you off to the hoosegow. The book police would revoke your license to write, and possibly speak harshly to your publisher. You’d be outed online as the heinous fraud that you are, and Amazon would drop your title like a bag full of snakes.

Yes, I know. I’m a hopeless dreamer when it comes to thinking words actually mean something.

The whole topic of “bestsellers” is filled with fascinating mystique, myths and interesting surprises. In fact the term itself, according to our old friend Wikipedia, is quite modern:

“‘Bestseller’ is a relatively recent term, first recorded in print in 1889 in the Kansas City newspaper The Kansas Times & Star, but the phenomenon of immediate popularity goes back to the early days of mass production of printed books. For earlier books, when the maximum number of copies that would be printed was relatively small, a count of editions is the best way to assess sales.”

But in the days when copyright laws barely existed, publishing was something of a free-for-all, apparently, and piracy was rampant. (As late as the mid-1800’s, America was still essentially an open domain in which even popular authors like Mark Twain couldn’t rely on royalties as a source of income). In such an open marketplace, it’s doubtful that anyone effectively kept track of who printed, sold or bought how many of what books.

Today, of course, things are different. We live in a world of bean counters and computers. Surely somebody must know the sales numbers behind modern bestsellers.

Yes, well. It seems to be a matter of perspective. And lists.

Many, many lists.

Fiction lists, non-fiction lists, genre lists, lists of children’s books, hardcover lists, paperback lists, trade paperback lists, indie lists, consolidated lists, Amazon lists, Publishers Weekly lists, and the granddaddy of lists, The New York Times bestseller list.

Many of these lists use their own particular, even proprietary, methods of ranking bestsellers based on a variety of sources. Some use both wholesale and retail sales. Some use sales only from certain kinds of outlets, such as independent bookstores. Amazon has created its own closed universe, which ranks books hourly based solely on sales on their own website. The New York Times method for bestseller rankings is apparently as closely guarded a secret as the Coca Cola formula.

So, yes. Everything these days is tracked and measured, but it seems ranking bestsellers is often as much an art as a science. And of course, there’s also the promotion factor. Show me a ranking list of anything and I’ll show you 100 interested parties whose job it is to get their “property” further up the list – whether it be an athlete, a political candidate, a car, a liveable city, a recording, or a bestselling book. Did I say 100 promoters? I meant 1,000.

But in all this swirl of rankings, there must be some magic quantity of books you have to sell to be called a “bestseller” – some numerical threshold. A million? A hundred thousand? Surely not fewer than that. After all, not one of the seven Harry Potter books sold less than 50 million copies. Even Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time sold 10 million copies. And that’s a science book, for crying out loud!

Still, my inner skeptic is suspicious about the sheer number of books that claim bestseller status. Either the sales threshold is lower than might be expected, or there’s an astronomical number of books being consumed these days. Or perhaps the “bestseller” designation on many books is, well, a bit of a stretch to be taken with a grain of salt.

A little digging yielded scant, but surprising results. Here in Canada the numbers are famously depressing, or elating, depending on whether you’re a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty person. Reportedly, if you sell a total of 5,000 copies of your book you can call it a bestseller!

In the US, the stakes are higher, and typically factor in both number of books sold and the speed at which they’re moving. By some accounts, you need to sell 9,000 copies of your book in the first week of its release to hit the New York Times bestseller list. However, the blogosphere is full of discussions about such sales thresholds, with some claiming that it’s possible to achieve the Nirvana of NYT bestsellerdom with sales of just 5,000 books per week. This set bestselling author and blogger Tess Gerritsen to wondering whether anyone in America is reading books these days. “When a mere 5,000 book buyers determine the top sellers in a country of 300 million people, the industry is in trouble,” she wrote.

Bestselling author and entrepreneur Danielle LaPorte, whose blog reaches 200,000 readers, decodes The NYT list with an insider’s eye. Her introduction is as revealing as it is entertaining:

“Powerful. Elusive. Mysterious. Coveted. Nonsensical. Magical. Antiquated. Leading edge. This sums up most opinions of The New York Times bestseller list. It’s an ever-evolving system of measurement and reward that publishers and authors toil to understand and optimize. Writing an amazing book is a very small part of achieving a ‘bestseller’.”

On Amazon, the bestseller numbers are, if such a thing is possible, even more obscure. This monster outlet – acknowledged to be the largest bookseller in America – is now thought be responsible for about 30% of all print book sales, with some estimating that an average of about 300 copies sold per day will get you on Amazon’s top five list.

Award-winning author Kailin Gow, who has learned the art of tracking her own bestsellers on the lists, tried to explain it all in a piece for Fast Company, titled “What Being a ‘Bestselling Author’ Really Means.”

I confess that everything I read merely confirmed what I already deeply suspected: the entire business of “bestseller” rankings is opaque to mere mortals. And maybe deliberately so.

Because there’s dark side to all this.

If you can scratch up the investment money to do it, you can buy your way onto a bestseller list. Seriously. It doesn’t come cheap, because the basic strategy is simply to buy up a sh*tload of your own books. Fast. Enough to spike the sales per day or sales per week figure into bestseller territory. There are even book promotion consultants who’ll engineer it for you, for a fee. Sound far-fetched, even creepy? It’s happening, baby.

But let me end on a high note: a list of the bestselling books of all time – books that have sold at least 50 million copies. FIFTY MILLION! This list is full of surprises too. But be forewarned: such a list is pretty hard to verify, and it no doubt comes with some major skews. For instance, published lists I found never included books of a religious nature, whose distribution is difficult to track (the Bible is usually thought to be the best selling book of all time, with estimates of over 5 billion copies).

I wonder if any of these authors went out and bought a few million copies of their own books just to become known as mega-bestsellers?

  • A Tale of Two CitiesCharles Dickens (1859) – 200 million (estimated)
  • Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien (1954-1955) – 150 million
  • The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1943) – 140 million
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling (1997) – 107 million
  • And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie (1939) – 100 million
  • Dream of the Red Chamber, Cao Xueqin (1754-1791) – 100 million
  • The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien (1937) – 100 million
  • She: A History of Adventure, H. Rider Haggard (1857) – 100 million
  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis (1950) – 85 million
  • The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown (2003) – 80 million
  • Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill (1937) – 70 million
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling (2005) – 65 million
  • The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger (1951) – 65 million
  • The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho (1988) – 65 million
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling (1998) – 60 million
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling (1998) – 55 million
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling (2000) – 55 million
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling (2003) – 55 million
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling (2007) – 50 million
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude, Garbriel Garcia Marquez (1967) – 50 million
  • Lolita, Vladimir Navokov (1955) – 50 million
  • Heidi, Johanna Spyri (1880) – 50 million
  • The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, Dr. Benjamin Spock (1946) – 50 million
  • Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery (1908) – 50 million
  • Black Beauty, Anna Sewell (1877) – 50 million
  • The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco (1980) – 50 million
  • The Eagle Has Landed, Jack Higgins (1975) – 50 million
  • Watership Down, Richard Adams (1972) – 50 million
  • The Hite Report, Shere Hite (1976) – 50 million
  • Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White (1952) – 50 million
  • The Ginger Man, J.P. Donleavy (1955) – 50 million
  • The Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller (1992) – 50 million
  • Ben-Hur, Lew Wallace (1880) – 50 million
  • The Mark of Zorro, Johnston McCulley (1924) – 50 million

 

 

 

11 thoughts on “What you never knew about bestsellers

    • Some of the surprises on the mega-bestseller list for me were: how many were children’s or at least young-at-heart stories, how many were fiction (I’ve always been told non-fiction outsells fiction, but obviously it’s the storytelling that has the staying power), and the fact that 20% of this list was written by a single (now billionaire) author. BTW, I’ve read about 70% of these titles … you?

      • I’ve read exactly 50%. Rowling and her books and the phenomenal success of them all feels kind of surreal. Don and I read them all out loud to each other. It was our vacation reading for a few years.

  1. As always, interesting. When my first teensy book was published by Blue Heron Publishing out of Hillsboro, OR (near Portland and the press no longer exists), my publisher told me 10,000 copies = best-seller. My first book reached that mark so when my second teensy book was published two years later, the first cover design of the second one included my name and “author of best-selling Title of first.” I was mortified and asked them to remove it. By the time the press was sold, I was an orphaned, single mother of two books and knocking on New York’s door. Being able to tell Penguin that together the books had sold about 20K was what made the next deal happen, I am sure. Now, on my own, I use “best-selling author,” because I use lifetime sales (20 years!), which are now probably close to 75K or more. It is a marketing device. I have a friend who has sold that many and more e-books, self-publishing half a dozen mysteries. She is far more humble than I and doesn’t say a peep about it.

    • Thanks for the comment Elizabeth. You deserve every bit of the “bestselling author” title, wear it proudly! My brief research foray merely revealed how much I don’t know about how the bestseller lists actually work, and I’m only beginning to appreciate the importance of a smart strategy to work your way up a list and distinguish your work from the sea of choices out there. It’s just a whole lot more complex than I think many people assume. Having spent 35 years in marketing-related work, I say take every advantage you can of this system to sell your books! I think I stop short at manipulating the numbers by buying masses of your own book, but given the high costs of doing this effectively, most of us don’t have to worry in the slightest about being tempted.

  2. You did it again, Silk! A truly bestselling blog post. What a fascinating look at this aspect of marketing and publishing. Amazing what you find crawling under that rock once you lift it.

      • Wow, Elizabeth, what a concept. I’m flattered! Had not even imagined this but now that you suggest it my mind is working on the idea. We’re unpublished greenhorns, all of us, and not credentialed experts, so I’m not sure about the strength of our platform. What we do have, though is our original “quest” story: 5 unpublished writers trying to help each other along to become 5 published writers. Thing is, that story hasn’t reached its conclusion yet. But what a great additional goal that would give us! Thanks for the thought!

  3. Choose your own measures, and I’d bet almost anything could be called a bestseller. 🙂 For me, the overuse—and abuse—of the concept has rendered it meaningless. Not that any big names in writing or publishing will care about my lone opinion!

  4. Pingback: Midsummer trivia – part 1 | 5 Writers 5 Novels 5 Months

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