Questions from My Mom – Episode 3

We recently covered the differences of how authors get paid and what the publishing process is. Today, we’ll cover something that many aspiring writers hope to see next to their name. We see it all the time on the covers of those books by the big-name authors.

“New York Times #1 Bestseller”
“Wall Street Journal #1 Bestseller”
“Washington Post #1 Bestseller”
“USA Today Bestseller”
“Amazon Bestseller”

One night, Mom and I happened upon a TV interview with James Patterson. He was talking to the host about his latest bestseller, and my mom looks at me and asks:

Her: Why don’t you become a bestselling author like him?
Me: Because bestseller lists are lies.

Let me repeat that for emphasis: Bestseller lists are LIES.

In fact, most of them are just constructs of the presses’ editorial departments and don’t actually reflect book sales.

Let me backtrack for a minute here to explain how these lists supposedly work, and I’m going to use the notorious New York Times as an example here.

First things first, before you can even be considered “worthy” of the NYT Bestsellers List, you have to have a traditional publishing deal with a New York based publisher (aka one of the Big Five, which, conveniently, all have bases in NYC). If you’re an indie publisher (like me) or represented by a small house, you’re not good enough for the NYT.

The next thing you need to do is have at least 10,000 pre-orders for your book (or 5000 if you’re an established, well known author). These pre-orders must come from a large, nationally recognized brick-and-mortar store like Barnes & Noble or from Amazon. Other online sales or sales via specialty or mom-and-pop shops don’t count. And, since NYT doesn’t count bulk sales, each one of those ten thousand has to be purchased individually.

This is where the big-name authors get to cheat and buy their way onto the list. No joke. They wait for the pre-ordering to open on the nationally recognized stores, and actually buy 10,000 copies (or more) of their own book. It takes only $200,000-$250,000 to pull it off, but the result is: Bestseller.

Even if you manage to shatter the required 10,000 sales, you still aren’t guaranteed a place on the list. Take, for example, a little book by William Blatty called The Exorcist. It’s HUGELY successful, selling well over ten million copies, and has been turned into a famous movie.

It never made it to the NYT Bestseller List.

In other words, the list is little more than a popularity contest for established authors. It’s a lie.

These days, there really isn’t any reason for *professional authors to pursue Bestseller status. While it remains a marker for the publishing industry, and could result in better deals with traditional publishers in the future, the term has become so watered down it’s not worth the time and effort. And, if you’re an indie author, chances are you don’t want a traditional publisher anyway because it could result in an enormous pay cut and loss of the rights to your book

By professional author, I mean someone who writes novels for a living instead of
someone who just happened to write a book but has a normal job to make a living.

It’s at this point when mom stops me and asks:

Her: What do you mean by the Bestseller status has been watered down?
Me: Amazon has made it much simpler to become a bestseller so the publishing industry no longer leaps into action at the mention of the word.

It used to be that when you put “bestselling author” on your resume, people would go nuts for you. This is particularly true if you’re a specialist in a certain area and you had a #1 Bestselling book because this made you an expert in your field. Since Amazon is now responsible for most of the book sales in the world, and has a relatively easy way to reach the top of their bestseller list, the term amounts to almost nothing.

Amazon is quite tight-lipped about how their process works, but I’ve read about one guy selling 3 copies to make his book #1. Meanwhile, there are authors that sell 10,000 copies in a week who aren’t appearing on the list. But if you are in the Top 100 in your Amazon category, you’re considered a bestseller (and you get to pick two out of the 300+ categories for a single book!).

With all this being said, if you really want to have your name associated with Bestseller, aim for USA Today’s list. It may not be as prestigious as the New York Times, but unlike NYT, USA Today’s list is based on Neilson Bookscan, which is database that tabulates book sales from all major retailers. Second best option: Wall Street Journal. They base their list on Bookscan as well, but they’re a bit more picky on their categories.

But that’s the ugly truth about bestseller lists.

With love and light,



Oh! As a little warning note, don’t fall for those people who guarantee you bestseller status in exchange for hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars. Like vanity publishers, they’re not going to help you.

Want more? Sign up for my newsletter (Psst! You’ll get a free ebook!).

One thought on “Questions from My Mom – Episode 3

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s