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What It Takes for a Book to Become a Bestseller

Jerry D. Simmons, Guest Author

The term "bestseller" is synonymous with a book being selected for a position on a list, in a recognized print medium, anywhere in the country. The designation of a book being a "national bestseller" is synonymous with a book being selected for a position on a list of the best selling books in a particular print medium that has national distribution. The selection of a book for a best-selling list does not mean that title has sold a certain number of copies; it only means that the book was selected for a position on that print medium's list of the best selling books in that market.

When you see the word "bestseller" printed somewhere on the cover, or more commonly the words "national bestseller," it gives the prospective reader the feeling that the book has sold a lot of copies. Which means it must have been read by a lot of people. The flap or jacket copy makes the story sound interesting and the publisher is comparing this book to (any mega-best-selling title). All misleading and part of the company's marketing effort used as a way of selling you that book.

If that were your book and you had written a novel, for example, that was being compared to the latest #1 national bestseller, you would be ecstatic! Place the shoe on the other foot, you are now the consumer, you buy a hardcover for a bit less than $30, you get home and soon discover it reads nothing like the particular book it was compared to. You are probably upset, especially if the book was not a good read and certainly not worth the price you paid.

Since publishers are keenly aware that they are not considered a brand in the minds of the consumer, that their author is the brand, they assume that readers will not retaliate against them, if at all, but against the author of the over priced, non-comparable book that was purchased for slightly less than $30. So whom can you trust? All publishers are guilty of the same over-aggressive marketing, aimed at readers who buy books. The truth is, few if any of the books labeled as "bestsellers" are truly best selling books.

Why is almost every new book published labeled a bestseller? It goes back to the fact that the industry today is focused on selling as many copies as possible to as many unsuspecting readers as they can. They stretch the truth as far as reasonably possible without violating standards. If a book is selected as one of the best selling titles by the local newspaper in Anywhere, USA and is placed on a printed list that appears in the paper, then it can be called a "bestseller."

The "national bestseller" is a bit more of a stretch, but, for example, if a newspaper selects a title anywhere on a list of best selling books and is placed on a printed list that appears in that paper, and the newspaper just happens to have distribution or even less, subscribers in far reaches of the country, then the title can be called a "national bestseller." There was a time many years ago when the term was used only with books on the New York Times or USA Today list, but that line was erased long ago and that's why today there are so many books that are bestsellers.

The obvious conclusion here is that almost any book can be called a bestseller. If the author's local hometown newspaper hears from the only bookstore in town that the new book is selling "pretty good," and the paper puts that in print, even though it is not positioned on what could be described as a bestseller list, then the publisher can call the book a "bestseller." If challenged, all the publisher has to do is produce a copy of the newspaper where the title is listed. Of course who's going to make such a challenge? Certainly not another publisher since they are all guilty of the same tactics.

In this example, the local bookstore may have only received four or five copies and could have sold as few as two or three, or none for that matter. The fact is that the book was listed or described in a recognized print medium as selling "pretty good." Translation: the book is a bestseller. Of course you can't just start your own newsletter and suddenly call your book a bestseller. It has to be an objective source, but the size of the source is not in question. The hometown newspaper may only have a distribution of a few hundred, as long as it is recognizable and objective.

As for the major national bestseller lists, that is a completely different story, to an extent. The major chain bookstores and discount retailers all have exact numbers of copies of books sold and paid for through their cash registers. They can provide any publisher with information on how many copies that publisher's titles sold the previous week by title, format, price, in what region of the country, and in which individual store location. However, these numbers are not always shared with the most recognizable national bestseller lists.

The USA Today has become a leading national newspaper and they describe their bestseller list as a compilation of sales from a variety of sources. They are secretive about their sources, but you can imagine it's practically the same as their competitor, which happens to reside in the heart of the publishing world. This newspaper will seldom follow any other national lists in position or duration of titles on their list.

The one list that everyone in the industry follows closely is, of course, The New York Times. Here is where the publishers have learned how to influence as many of the best-selling decisions as possible. The Times also uses a variety of sources to make decisions on what books should be listed on their weekly bestseller list. These sources are chosen from independent booksellers, chain bookstores in selected cities, and as they call them, "other credible booksellers," to make selections.

Having been directly involved with some of the largest retailers in the country for over twenty years, I can tell you that the Times, as late as the Fall of 2002, rarely used the single largest retailer in this country as a source for their weekly bestseller lists. Every publisher in New York City knows which sources or bookstores the Times uses and which carry the biggest weight in helping the Times make bestseller decisions.

Armed with this information, which is rotated periodically, every marketing department makes absolutely certain that every source is amply supplied with the latest and best of everything about the titles for which they strongly lobby. If you are one of the sources, you would assume the publisher is sending the same material to every single bookseller, but of course they would be wrong. Publishers pay particularly close attention to the source the Times uses for their bestseller list.

So every week the reporters for the book review call the sources and ask for a list of titles that have been selling the most copies. Would it surprise you to know that some of these sources do not use computers? Well, don't be shocked, but there are book retailers around the country who still count inventory by hand and thus they do not have actual unit sales to share. Let me be clear, as late as the Fall of 2002 this was the case. Things may have changed, but it's doubtful.

The reporters then combine the lists, sit down around a big table in their conference room and make decisions based on the all the information from their sources. Whether they actually try to make tabulations based on actual unit sales is still unclear, but their lists are definitely distinctive and are often questioned for their validity compared to the lists of actual unit sales the publishers accumulate on a weekly basis.

There is no threshold of a certain number of copies a book must sell to be a bestseller, there never has been and I doubt there ever will be. Until all booksellers are able to supply similar information on actual unit sales, there is no reason for the Times to change the way they make selections. Besides, there are publishers who will always be opposed to an actual unit sales mechanism for selecting bestsellers. Such a selection process would take away their ability to use any and all influence to impact the selections of the Times.

Hopefully this description of how bestsellers are determined has not disappointed you. This is the business, and when your book is published, you now have the ammunition to make certain it too becomes a bestseller.


Copyright © - Jerry D. Simmons. Jerry D. Simmons spent more than twenty years as an executive with The Time Warner Book Group in New York. He is the author of "INSIDE The Business of Publishing: What Writers Need to Know" and the creator of, where information essential to writers and their careers is available, FREE.


  If you would like to talk one-on-one with Larry James about issues related to this article, you are invited to arrange for a private coaching session by telephone. Go to Author & Speaker Coaching for specific details and fees.

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