Wednesday, October 17, 2012

You Call That A Bestseller?

Most consumers – maybe even many authors -- assume a “best-seller” means a book has sold a lot of copies.  In some cases that’s true, but in many cases people don’t realize it only takes a few thousand well-timed book sales for a book to hit a bestseller list.

Just look at the best-seller tabulations in Publishers Weekly for the first week in October.  Take the category of hardcover non-fiction.  Its top-selling book that week was Killing Kennedy by Bill O’Reilly.  117,168 copies were sold to the stores (not by consumers).  Okay, that is a lot of books, but to be No. 10 on the list you only had to sell 8,608--one more than Ann Coulter’s Mugged sold.  The threshold to make the list-at -- No. 25- is just 3,618, which is what Salman Rushdie sold for his latest book.

Hardcover fiction has lower numbers.  By selling fewer than 5,000 copies you’d hit as high as 16th on the list. Whether you’re No. 1 or 16 or 25-you’re a best-selling author.  People don’t remember where you ranked on the list, just that you made it.

Trade paperback non-fiction was an easy list to make if you sold at least 3,369 copies, as Stephen King did for 11/22/63.  But the easiest list to crack was the children’s front list fiction list.  You could reach the top 10 by selling 4,120 books or make the list with as few as David Weber’s Fire Season sale of 2,450 copies.

But even with the best-seller list only requiring an author to sell 3,000 or so copies of a book is apparently too challenging for 99.9999% of all published books.  Why?

For one, the book sales must take place in a one week period and be verified by participating sales outlets, such as mainstream bookstores.  What you sell at an event, trade show, your Web site, and other venues don’t count towards the sales used to tabulate best-sellers.

Still, with all of the social media, advertising, book publicity and marketing efforts of talented publishers, experienced pros, and energized authors, few books will make the bestseller list, even ones that merely requires a few thousand sales.

It’s a humbling lesson for the industry and it’s also a reminder that if you can get your ducks lined up in a row, you may just make the best-seller list.

But probably not.

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer, the nation’s largest book promoter. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person

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