What Does “Bestseller” Mean?

What Does “Bestseller” Mean?

Bestselling books have generally sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

Most authors and ghostwriters want to pen bestsellers, right? Because the term “bestseller” indicates that a book has sold better than others.

But how much better, exactly?

That’s what I started to wonder after seeing some authors in my area claim to have written bestsellers when I know (from previous conversations) that their sales are around 500 copies. No, not 500,000 copies – 500.

Let me assure you that a book that has sold 500 copies is not a bestseller on any list. Nor does 5,000 or 10,000 copies sold come close to reaching the top of a bestseller list. You have to hit hundreds of thousands of copies sold to qualify for true bestseller status.

A book I worked on years ago is a true bestseller, having sold close to 1 million copies thus far. I was the co-author with Ed Paulson on the first few editions of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Starting Your Own Business, which was a bestseller when it first debuted.

I also edited a more recent New York Times bestseller. While I don’t know the book’s sales figures, I can see it on the actual list to confirm it is, in fact, a bestseller.

Bestseller Lists

Granted, there are different bestseller lists. Amazon names bestsellers overall and in different categories. The New York Times, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal all have their own bestseller lists, as do other newspapers and magazines.

So what does it take to have a bestseller?

You need to sell thousands and thousands of books in a short period of time, so that editors responsible for compiling bestseller lists take note. That doesn’t always mean that your book has sold the absolute most – because lists are often compiled based on how well editors think a book will sell, versus how much it has.

Bestselling author Tucker Max explains this in an Entrepreneur article, characterizing bestseller lists as “popularity contests” and not straight rankings based on sales. He cites The New York Times lawsuit filed by William Blatty, author of The Exorcist, as proof that their list is part fact, part personal preference, reporting:

The New York Times defense was that ‘the list did not purport to be an objective compilation of information but instead was an editorial product.’ They won the case in multiple rulings all the way up to the Supreme Court, based on the argument that the list is not supposed to [be] accurate, but reflects their judgment.”

But speed of sales is a big factor in determining whether you have a bestseller, at least on Amazon’s chart.

Obtaining Amazon Bestseller Status

One way to game the Amazon system to hit the top of your category is to have dozens of people order your book during a short window of time, preferably in the middle of the night. That’s because few people are ordering books then and your book will sell much faster relative to many other books you’re competing with. That’s how you rise in the ranks – based on how fast people are buying your book relative to other books.

Then, once you’ve hit the top of the charts, you can forever claim that your book was an Amazon category bestseller.

It’s not as easy to gain entry onto established print bestseller lists, however, because those are based partly on sales figures and partly on book buyer intuition. But if you can get near the top of Amazon’s list and stay there for a few weeks, the newspapers will certainly take notice.

Given how hard it is to achieve bestseller status, don’t believe every author who claims to have written one. Which list, you might ask. You can easily verify such claims once you have that information.

And if you get a blank stare, it’s a good bet that the author doesn’t really understand what it takes sales-wise to reach that pinnacle.

Have you ever asked someone what list their “bestseller” is on?

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Marcia Layton Turner


  1. Tim Morrison on March 2, 2018 at 7:45 pm

    Thank you for this informative post. I tire of hearing people claiming to be best selling authors when in fact all they did was submit a chapter to a book (like Chicken Soup for the …..Soul) and the book made a legitimate best sellers list. That does not make that individual a best selling author.

    When I feel particularly flippant if an individual tells me he/she is a best selling author, I counter with “I am a best selling author as well.” That usually causes a moment of surprise. When pressed, I respond, “I was the best selling author at a book fair in my home town several years ago between the hours of 2pm and 4pm eastern time. And you?” The responses I receive range from “not really,” to “on Amazon”, to “I wrote a chapter in a book . . .” Great! I tell them. Neither of us has been on a recognized best sellers list but we are best selling authors aren’t we. The message is heard.

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