(Over the next couple of weeks, I want to look at what goes into making a bestseller. The first stop on that tour will be to get a better understanding of the term.)


Romeo famously asked, “What’s in a name?” By the end of the play, he got his answer—apparently quite a lot!

I wish the same could be said for the word bestseller (though I’d prefer not to see anyone die over it). I am beginning to wonder how long the word will hold much meaning at all as it is being bandied about these days much like “organic” and “free-range” were before the USDA regulated their definitions.

Just misunderstood?

Today “bestseller” is used to describe almost every book out there regardless of merit. It is the marketing catchword of the publishing industry. Nothing says, “This book has been tried and tested—it’s crowd-source approved!” like declaring a book a bestseller. It says, “Enough others have noticed this book to make it a bestseller, maybe you should pay attention to it?” Or, even more often, “This person wrote a book that was good enough to become a bestseller—they must be someone worth paying to listen to.”

However, as far as I know, there are no bestseller police officers out there determining who can use the word “bestseller” in their marketing copy and who cannot. As a result, it is beginning to feel like every book ever written by someone who wants to be noticed has either written a bestseller or has written a book that has won some award (which I would guess is usually true, only it’s hard to determine just what the merit of some of these awards are and who actually judged them worthy of receiving it—maybe it was their cat?).

Sorry, I digress.

Anyway, at it’s lowest point, bestseller should mean the book has made some reputable bestseller list like the New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, etc., not the bestseller chart at the local bookstore, on your website, or—the most abused of all, I think—

Suffice it to say, there are two uses of the word I highly distrust: (1) just using bestseller without specifying which list it made or (2) calling the book an “Amazon bestseller”—which usually means that they niched their category down so far that their book only has two or three other books to compete against—and they came in 3rd. (Sure, you were #1 bestseller on Amazon under the categories of Leadership > Voodoo > Stories that Include Parakeets, but please stop pretending like that is any great accomplishment or that you sold more than 50 books, or that the bulk of those weren’t to your relatives.)

Therefore, to me, to be a bestseller is to make one of the big lists and you should specify somewhere in your marketing copy which list that was.

But some bestsellers don’t make those lists . . .

On the other hand, some books that sell incredibly well never make these lists because they weren’t bought from reporting stores. For example, Jesus Freaks has sold over 1.7 million copies, but never hit the NY Times list. The highest it ever got on the CBA paperback charts was #2. The Final Move Beyond Iraq, however, debuted at #1 on the NY Times Paperback Nonfiction bestseller list, but had only sold somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 last I checked. The Final Move was bought in the right quantities at the right bookstores to make the list, Jesus Freaks wasn’t, even though it sold six or seven times as many books overall. It’s a weird system I know, but that is the way it works. It’s not about gross sales, it’s about who sells in the right places.

At the same time, the vast majority of books don’t sell 5,000 copies. If I was going to use baseball terms, selling 5,000 would be hitting a single (most of those break even or make a little money), selling 25,000 is a double, selling 50,000 is a triple, and selling over 100,000 is a home run. (Thus selling a 1,000,000 or more is a monster home run!) A book like that can make the year for a publisher, while most are just happy to see books sell through their first print run.

Verify your sources

So, in today’s market, what does calling a book a “bestseller” really mean? Well, if it’s not qualified with a specific list name—Wall Street Journal; NY Times Advice, How-to & Miscellaneous; or something like that—probably not much. Amazon Bestseller? Again, unless they specify it was an overall Amazon list, it’s just clever marketing.

Which just proves that ancient wisdom still holds true in oh-so-many different ways: caveat emptor still rules the day—“let the buyer beware.” “Not all that glitters is gold”—and not all books that are called bestsellers really are.

Now that we have established that, watch for next week’s post where we will start to explore the factors that help make a book a true bestseller.

So, is any of this news to you? What do you think? Should we have a better way of determining what is and isn’t a bestseller? What would you do if you were in charge?

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