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What is a Best Seller?

Updated on September 27, 2015
heidithorne profile image

Heidi Thorne is a self publishing expert, author of 21 (and counting!) business books and eBooks, and a former trade newspaper editor.

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Do you want your book to be a best seller? Most writers do! But what is a best seller exactly? Fact is, there is more than one way to define this status.

Best Seller Definition

A "best seller" can be defined as a book, product or service that achieves a superior level of sales when compared to other offerings. However, books will be discussed here. The sales ranking of a book can be determined by:

  • Industry sales data
  • Sales data for a particular sales source or channel (e.g., Amazon.com sales rank)
  • Sales for a certain market or customer type (e.g., best selling reference guide for dentists).

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Who's Counting... and How's It Being Counted?

Measuring sales should be pretty straightforward, right? Not really. Though it might be easy to measure sales of a particular book for a single store or sales outlet, here's where it can get messy.

There is a difference between "retail" sales and "wholesale" sales. Retail is the purchase of by actual customers/readers. Wholesale is the purchase of books for sale to customers, e.g., a bookstore's bulk purchase of books. A best seller is a book whose retail sales are high, not including wholesale sales. Compilation of this retail data across the industry can be a complicated and expensive process.

As well, the retail sales numbers are ranked for a particular period of time, say by week or year. The longer a book remains on a best seller list, the implication is that it is a popular book. However, some books, such as the Bible and literature classics, are perennial best sellers and may or may not be included in such rankings.

And who's measuring these sales? Sales data could be compiled by research organizations, industry groups or publications. For example, the popular The New York Times Best Seller List is compiled from retail sales data collected by The New York Times. As the example illustrates, the best seller list may include the name of the organization publishing or compiling the survey data. If the list publisher is an authoritative source, this can lend authority to the list and the books that are on it.

Though not an industry-wide compiled list such as those just mentioned, Amazon reports sales rank for books and Kindle books sold on their site. These ranks are included in the book product listing and can be seen by customers when purchasing. Sales rankings can vary widely over time. However, with Amazon being in the leadership position for retail book sales, these sales ranks can be an additional signal of best seller status. (Amazon sales rank is discussed again later in this article.)

Being ranked on one of the authoritative best seller lists can be a signal to readers that the book has value, encouraging even more sales of the book.

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Gaming the Best Seller System

With the potential for bigger sales for those books that make it onto a well known best seller list, there is also a temptation for publishers and authors to try to game the system by doing things such as buying up large quantities of books through retail. However, like Google with their search algorithm secrets, best seller list compilers may wish to keep their methodologies secret to thwart manipulative practices which can skew data and give unfair competitive advantage to certain titles.

Another gaming strategy observed is calling a book a "best seller" simply because its sales are ranked on Amazon. I have seen this done with self published books. For example, a self published book was promoted by the author as an "Amazon Best Selling Book." Its Amazon Best Sellers Rank on Amazon.com hovered around 2.5 to 3 million, meaning that on Amazon's list of best selling books, it was ranked as about the 2.5 to 3 millionth best seller on the site. Should it still be called a "best seller?"

Looking at the example book's rank, in one sense it could have some bragging rights. Since there are over 40 million books listed on Amazon.com as of this writing (estimated from number of listings for "Books" in all formats), that would place it in the top 10 percent or so of books. Not too shabby.

But a book's sales rank on Amazon can swing wildly and is updated hourly... yes, hourly. As I'm writing this, sales ranks reported for my books on my Amazon Author Central account have experienced variances in rank ranging from a gain of 1,540 to a loss of 82,818 (for print and Kindle editions). Amazon sales rank is a constantly moving target, making it difficult to tout one's "best selling" status for any length of time.

Caution is recommended for self publishers when promoting an Amazon best seller status to avoid misrepresenting the book's ranking.

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"Best Seller" versus "Best for Seller"

Does a book really have to have a best seller status to be successful? No. In fact, very few books—whether traditional or self published—achieve this status. Both publishers and authors need to determine what they believe constitutes a successful book on both a personal and professional level. In other words, they need to determine what is "best for the seller," regardless of whether it is a true "best seller."

Both publishers and authors need to determine what they believe constitutes a successful book...In other words, they need to determine what is "best for the seller," regardless of whether it is a true "best seller."

— Heidi Thorne

Disclaimer: Any examples used are for illustrative purposes only and do not suggest affiliation or endorsement. The author/publisher has used best efforts in preparation of this article. No representations or warranties for its contents, either expressed or implied, are offered or allowed and all parties disclaim any implied warranties of merchantability or fitness for your particular purpose. The advice, strategies and recommendations presented herein may not be suitable for you, your situation or business. Consult with a professional adviser where and when appropriate. The author/publisher shall not be liable for any loss of profit or any other damages, including but not limited to special, incidental, consequential, or other damages. So by reading and using this information, you accept this risk.

© 2015 Heidi Thorne

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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Now I'll know when I've written one. One thing I knew for sure before reading this: I hadn't had one yet. :) Have a great week!

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Happy Monday, billybuc! You and me both. :) But one day... maybe. You have a great week, too! (BTW, I've got to catch up on my billybuc reading this week. Don't want you to miss my snarky comments.)

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

      How tricky some people can be! I didn't know hey went to such gray lengths to game the system but am not surprised now having read this. Great examples!

    • heidithorne profile image
      Author

      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi FlourishAnyway! A best seller status is a coveted prize which can mean more sales. But still, I'd feel odd about touting the status if it wasn't genuine. Thanks for stopping by! Have a beautiful day!

    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 2 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hi Heidi. How interesting. I have always wondered how a book makes it onto a best seller list. Even more interesting is the length that some will go to in order to get on a best seller list. Great job. Have a great week.

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi bdegiulio! Yep, it's quite a process getting onto these lists, making it a real badge of honor (if done honorably, of course). Glad you found it interesting. Thanks for stopping by and have a lovely day!

    • Blackspaniel1 profile image

      Blackspaniel1 2 years ago

      Yes, it has to be retail sales because bookstores can return books not selling, so the wholesale sales are not permanent sales.

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi Blackspaniel1! Indeed you are correct! Returns can be quite an issue. Thanks for emphasizing that point. Appreciate you joining the conversation. Have a great weekend!

    • Snowsprite profile image

      Fay 20 months ago from Cornwall, UK

      I never realized it was so complicated. I'd always counted it as books sold to individuals. I know that some books are more likely to do well either due to their placement on the selves or because they are promoted more if for example, someone is well known.

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 20 months ago from Chicago Area

      Hi Snowsprite! Yep, it's complicated. Glad you got some additional insight on the issue. Thanks for stopping by and have a great day!

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