When Are You a Bestseller?

You've seen it on book covers—perhaps it even graces the cover of yours: the “bestselling author” label. But what does it really mean and how do authors get it?

The answer may surprise you.

What Makes a Bestselling Author?

Generally, once an author gets a book on one of the lists (which we’ll talk about in a bit), they can claim the “bestselling author” title. That means that when you see the label, it usually means that the author has another book that’s been listed as a bestseller somewhere.

If you write Book A, and it’s listed as a bestseller, when you write Book B and publish it, you can have “Bestselling author” on your book cover. Pretty slick, huh? It’s a great way to say, “Hey, I write good books” and show people your latest book is worth picking up.

So a bestselling author is someone who has a book (or books) on a bestseller list.

How to Get Your Book on a Bestseller List

But getting a book on a bestseller list isn’t a one-size-fits-all sort of thing. USA Today, New York Times (NYT), and Amazon all have their own version of bestseller lists, for example, and getting on one list doesn’t mean you’ll get on all of them.

If you guessed that selling a lot of books gets you on a list, you’d be right—on the surface level, anyway. USA Today, NYT, and Amazon all track how many books you sell and compare them with sales of other books. But where they get the information and how they calculate the data differs.

USA Today and NYT both use data from more sources: think booksellers and online retailers. They use those numbers to calculate who’s selling the most books, usually in any given week. Amazon is one online retailer, so they only count books sold on their site, meaning it’s easier to be an Amazon bestseller.

USA Today and NYT track more than Amazon sales, so there are more reporting sources, and therefore more competition. But the way USA Today and NYT calculate and show their list isn’t the same. USA Today combines all ebook and print sales, whereas NYT separates out their list by age group and format.

A quick scan of the NYT lists show that format can influence sales. The top selling books for YA fiction, for example, aren’t the same across hardcover, paperback, and ebook. As I write this, Paper Towns by John Green is listed as #1 YA paperback and Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo is listed as #1 for YA ebook and hardcover. Six of Crows doesn’t make the paperback list because it’s only out in hardcover.

But on USA Today, which compiles all books together, Paper Towns is #51 and Six of Crows is #80. Keep in mind for this list, which reflect sales ending October 3rd, Six of Crows hadn’t been released yet, which means it’ll likely jump on the list after its publication date.

How often these lists are calculated affects whether your book makes the list, too. USA Today tracks sales Monday through Sunday, NYT tracks Sunday through Saturday, and Amazon updates its bestseller lists hourly.

Let’s pause a moment to let that last one sink in.

Why “Bestselling Author” Can Be Misleading

If Amazon updates its lists hourly, that means it’s much easier to be an Amazon bestseller. Your book might top the list for an hour, and you can claim the bestseller status. Every category on Amazon has its own list, which muddies things further. If you’re in an obscure category, with 2,000 other titles, you’ll hit #1 at lot faster (and with fewer sales) than in a general category, like Romance (with 680,799 other books to compete with).

When authors control what goes on their book cover, they can put whatever they want on there. Savvy readers know the “bestselling” label isn’t as clear cut as it may seem and generally ignore it, especially on self published titles.

Are you really a bestselling author if your book hits #1 on an obscure Amazon category for an hour? Technically, yes. But whether it’s something you should be touting on your book cover or in promotional materials, well, that’s something only you can decide.

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