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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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 Enthusiast, Grapevine 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.
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