Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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March 9, 2020

The Elusive and Enigmatic Bestseller

John Peragine

It is a golden light shining in the distance, that day we can finally say to family and friends that our book is a bestseller. We have made it, right? That's it, the academy award for our hard labor. But what does it mean?

Readers and those in the publishing industry can have different views of what bestseller status means.

For the Reader

For a reader, if a book is deemed a bestseller or appears on a list, it means the book is selling well. Therefore, the book must be good, correct?

Not necessarily. Have you ever seen the list of top movies for the Academy Awards? Have you always enjoyed them? Me neither. There are specific standards and processes that determine which a film gets nominated.

Bestseller books are often the same. Remember, they are called bestsellers—not "best books." And like movies, everyone has their own taste in books. Bestselling books reach that level because they have the best "selling" strategy. There is also a standard and process that goes into labeling a book a "bestseller."

With millions of books on the market, readers can't always decide what to read. They may have a particular genre or authors they love, but even then, they may have thousands of choices.

Bestseller status cuts through the noise a bit, and psychologically we conclude it is worth a try. It can't be that bad. I'll let you be the judge.

For the Author

As authors, we often review that acceptance speech for our book award, or imagine how cool we will look on TV when we are interviewed—or perhaps how many zeros will be on our royalty check.

We get that bestseller sticker on our book, we open our royalty statement, and there are a bunch of zeroes all right. What happened? Once we got the designation, it was supposed to be easy street.

I often tell the authors I work with that if they want to make money on a book, they must commit two things: a great book and a great marketing plan.

A Great Book

What makes a great book? It's well written, well edited, and looks great. That means you took the time to write it, no matter how long that takes, and didn't rush. Taking the time to write a great book gives it an evergreen quality that goes well beyond momentary bestseller status.

If your book was picked up by a publisher, then it will likely go through a developmental edit, a copy edit, and proofreading. If you are self-publishing, then you have found a way to fund a solid edit.

Finally, your cover looks great, as does the layout. Your book's appearance matters so much when people are considering whether to buy. The cover draws you in, and the fonts are perfect. The book looks professionally done and, unless the reader looks at the copyright page, they won't be able to determine whether your book was self-published or created by one of the big five publishers.

If you are self-publishing, there is going to be a cost. However, without the qualities I have mentioned above, your book will struggle to make sales and, therefore, struggle to become a bestseller.

You can do it.

It can take time, and it can mean that you have to ask others for help—but remember, a book is a business. Without some capital, it can be difficult. Many authors are discovering that, even if they are picked up by a publisher, their advances are quickly eaten up with marketing costs.

Great Marketing

Do you need to hire a marketing team or a publicist? It can help, but it's not always necessary. If you have a great book, people will notice—you just need an excellent plan to get it in front of your audience.

You need to be your own promoter. You need to get your book out there and be shameless about it. The competition is high, so you need to work harder than your competitors.

If you don't have a lot of funds initially to market, then educate yourself. WITS is a great place to start. You don't have to reinvent the wheel. You can become part of the writing community. We are all in this together, and partnering with other authors can be a great marketing plan.

Book marketing is never: "You write it, and they will come." You must bring your book to the people. Use social media, blogs, and podcasts. The more people who hear about your book, the more people who will buy it, and the closer you will come to bestseller status.

For the Publishing Industry

Those who understand how bestsellers work have a different view. We understand better how books make bestseller lists, and the truth is not always pretty, nor is it always clear.

The big lists like NYT and Publishers Weekly pull their lists from Nielsen BookScan. But is that all they base their lists on? How many books do you need to sell to be on those lists? Where do you need to sell books from to be counted?

These answers can become complicated quickly. If you sell 3,000 books at a big event, why wouldn't they be counted towards bestseller status? The answer lies in where the event bought the books. If they purchased through a local bookstore, then yes, there is a good chance they would count, but if they were shipped directly from the distributor, then no.

Then there is the whole question of the legitimacy of Amazon Bestsellers. There are strong opinions about Amazon, but mine is that it doesn't matter. It is a gamified system in which people can see their book on the top of a list at a particular time. Boom! They are a bestseller. Did they sell 1,000 books, 10,000 books, or perhaps two?

It doesn't matter because it is not about the authors or the publishing industry's perspective of Amazon Bestsellers. It has everything to do with the readers' perception. If they believe that an Amazon Bestseller status matters, then it matters. If it gets more people to buy more books, then it matters.

The caveat, of course, is that a book must have excellent writing and great editing, plus it needs to look great. That is what sells more books than any title of "bestseller.

Word of mouth. Positive, authentic reviews. Professional reviews. People talking about how great your book is provides you the most significant advantage of becoming a bestseller in large publications and guarantees fewer zeros on your royalty statement, unless you are counting those on the left of the decimal.

Bestseller Significance

Does being a bestseller matter? The answer truly lies in you. If it matters to you, then it matters. It can be difficult, expensive, and frustrating, but never impossible. If you have the writing, the editing, and the look, you have a better chance of achieving "bestseller."

If you ask other writers who have achieved NYT Bestseller status whether it helped their sales or increased their future success on new books, you get mixed reviews. Often it comes down to expectations.

If they thought a NYT Bestseller status would win them the Pulitzer, triple their sales, or double their next advance, they could be disappointed. If it was merely a dream, and they were happy to see their name listed, then it could be their greatest accomplishment.

Be brilliant, keep the dream, and write on!

Have you been a bestseller? Do you long to be a bestseller? What does bestseller status mean to you?

About John

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is PeragineHeadshot2019-200x300.jpg

John Peragine has published 14 books and ghostwritten more than 100 others. He is a contributor for HuffPost, Reuters, and The Today Show. He covered the John Edwards trial exclusively for Bloomberg News and The New York Times. He has written for Wine EnthusiastGrapevine Magazine, Realtor.com, WineMakermagazine, and Writer's Digest.

John began writing professionally in 2007, after working 13 years in social work and as the piccolo player for the Western Piedmont Symphony for over 25 years. Peragine is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. His newest book, Max and the Spice Pirates, will be released in Summer 2020.  

18 comments on “The Elusive and Enigmatic Bestseller”

  1. I know my editor wants to be able to tout me as a NYT or USA Today best selling author, but those aren't my goals. A more realistic goal for me is to have people come up to me at conferences and say "I love your books" instead of "I love your Blog."
    What really irks me are those who get a nice boost in rankings in a tiny category for one day based on a BookBub ad and call themselves best-selling authors. I've hit #1 based on featured deals, but would never call myself a #1 best-selling author.
    For a while (not sure it's still the case), Amazon wasn't allowing that on book covers unless you could back it up with those NYT or USA lists (or their own "Amazon Best-Seller" flag).
    I recall my high school English teacher saying, "if you want to read a "good" book, avoid the NYT best seller list. (There was no USA Today back then.)

    1. Yes, yes, yes to everything you said Terry. I could not agree more. And I do believe that is the case that you can't put best seller on your cover. But...people (general public) are still impressed when they hear- "bestseller". So do you think it's dishonest for writers to use "bestseller" in Amazon or on a Bookbub A?

  2. I know authors who lust after the bestseller lists and those who don't care. The ones who just focus on their stories are happier. That being said, I think I'd lose my mind for a minute over hitting the NYT or USA Today list. It's a great thing for the resume. 🙂

    1. I think I'd lose my mind too--- but then I'd spend a whole lot of time trying to figure out how I did it. It would suck the joy from the experience.

  3. I've had three of my books hit different Amazon bestselling lists. One, a part of a collection with three other authors, stayed at #1 for over a week. Yes, I loved loved seeing that little yellow flag every time I went on to Amazon. But, like most authors are probably seeing, the royalties weren't half as exciting as that little yellow flag. While I would love to be able to hit that NYT or USA Today list, I think, for me, it would take the joy out of writing. After hitting those lists, I know I would be beating myself up for every book after those that didn't hit them. I'm a perfectionist, and I know myself well. I'd rather do what Jenny Hansen says and focus on my stories. Happy is priceless.

    1. Christina I agree- the reality of the sales compared to that little tag can be daunting. I agree though- stick to why you love writing- the stories. A good story will always find it's place!

  4. I would love to be a bestselling author, and it's on my goal list, but it's not the most important thing. I want to be successful, and they aren't necessarily the same.

    Agreed on the Amazon list, you can pick and choose how you label your book to make it a bestseller by tweaking the categories with smaller margins. I've seen authors doing it regularly to get the bestseller in at least one category. And, they're not selling huge quantities of books.

    Yes, I'd still be happy to have the Amazon bestseller banner, but I'd like it to be because my book is worthy, not because I spent hours tweaking categories which only quasi fit the story.


  5. I'd prefer to be happy with my work and pleased that other people benefited by way of learning something new, or joyed in the reading than being a best seller. I agree with Christina, Happiness is priceless.

  6. I have no delusions of having a best seller on my hands. I'm not to say that wouldn't love to see it happen, but I have no expectations. I have a horrid marketing plan...as in I have NO marketing plan. It's an area I need a lot of help with. It's a good thing I love writing, because it will likely never be a money maker for me.

  7. I agree with Terry Odell - I want people to love my book (and that may indeed, be singular), more than I want to hit a bestseller list. But, John, I still think it's wise to be prepared and plan what I'll wear on my Good Morning America apprearance!

      1. The closest I have got to that is a client who I ghostwrote for- gave her book to Oprah.

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