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What Does 'Bestseller' Mean?

I’m no conspiracy theorist, but I noticed something suspicious recently. A surprising number of my books are “bestsellers.” While I know some people who buy almost exclusively from the bestseller list, I’ve never been one of them. Yet many of my thrift store finds and discarded library books have “bestseller” emblazoned on their covers.

Maybe that’s not too weird, but then the plot thickens: no one has ever heard of these books. I’m notorious among my family and friends for my reading random (I prefer “eclectic”) titles, but if my books are bestsellers, I expect at least one other person to have heard of them.

I thought I was imagining things. I was ready to write off the whole issue, when Publishers Weekly ran this article: “Does Anyone Know What a Bestseller Is?

The tentative answer? Not really.

The article explains that some of the confusion comes from the sheer number of bestseller lists out there. The New York Times list is famous, but it’s hardly the only one. There are separate lists for every genre on the market. There are separate lists for print and ebook sales. Amazon is responsible for introducing

much of this confusion, generating constantly updated rankings by genre, and even sub-genre.

It’s also not always clear how these lists are determined. The New York Times list comes from a sample of retailers. Other lists use BookScan’s sales data, but this isn’t comprehensive, either; BookScan only covers 80% to 85% of the print market, and this doesn’t include ebook sales. Naturally, Amazon doesn’t like to share the data behind their rankings.

To make things even worse, crooked authors sometimes trump up their own sales figures to steal bestseller status. Here’s a particularly nasty example from a few years back: wealthy authors worked with this company to buy their way onto major bestseller lists. Schemes like this tarnish the reputation of self-publishing, hurting many legitimate authors.

Bestseller lists may be confusing, even questionable, but we can’t ignore them. A few weeks ago, I wrote about why book awards matter to Indie authors. Like awards, “bestseller” labels give indie authors credibility in the eyes of potential readers. Without major publishing houses and PR firms to represent them, indie authors need this legitimacy.

Literary awards, book reviews (which contain their own biases), and bestseller lists are flawed, but important as indicators of quality. We may not always like them, but we need to understand them if we want to succeed in this business.

Authors, please remember that while rankings are important, you shouldn’t obsess over them; the most important thing is to keep writing. Even if your book doesn’t sell as well as you’d like, you need to move on. Keep writing, keep improving, and with any luck, your next title will do better.

Readers, when you pick up a new book, judge the writing, not the ranking. At the end of the day, we’re all here because we love good stories, and your future favorite book might not be on any list.

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