What Makes a Book a Best-Seller?

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Since I published The Gravedigger’s Guild, I’ve had a lot of people ask how sales are doing and (good-naturedly) rib me about when they can expect to see me become a best-selling author.

I thought it would be interesting to share what it means to be a best-seller.

First, there are two major distinctions among best-selling authors since the rise of the e-book: Amazon Best-Sellers and New York Times Best-Sellers.

Amazon Best-Sellers

Amazon Best-Sellers are a bit easier to explain, so I’ll start there.

To be an Amazon Best Selling author, you must hit the Top 100 in the entire PAID U.S. Kindle store.

Not in one category. Not in the Free Store. In the Paid U.S. Kindle store. That is what earns you that coveted Amazon Best-Seller badge. And just like becoming a NYT-bestseller it is not an easy feat. The stars (and your advertising) must align just so.

Now, if you hit Number 1 in a Specific Category, you can still shout that from the rooftops, especially if gaining credibility in a particular genre or topic is way more important to your career. But if you’re going for raw sales numbers, ^see above.^

As difficult as this sounds, plenty of indie authors with the right know-how manage to hit the Top 100 every day. And it definitely pays off! Amazon rewards its big sellers.

New York Times Best-Sellers

Now New York Times Best Sellers are a whole other beast.

First off, it is a curated list. Which means like an Ivy League school, you can have all the goods (a.k.a. sales) and still not make the list because there are gatekeepers that favor books from the Big Four. That being said, what are the “reqs?”

You have to sell at least 5-10k copies in one week from diverse sources.

Huh? My email list is full of diverse sources. But the problem is that it’s just one list, so it counts as one bulk source. Same goes for bulk orders from B&N, Amazon, Walmart, etc. They might have hundreds of stores placing orders, but since it’s all “Walmart,” it only counts as one source.

To become an NYT bestseller, they are looking for lots of bulk sales to numerous retailers, including independent and university bookstores along with the Big Box chains and your direct online sales. One source won’t work.

The only people who have a list of these retailers who count towards your sales goal? The New York Times, of course. They don’t want anyone else gaming the system.

Oh, and in recent years, they’ve added a few more requirements. You’d better have a strong social media presence where you engage with your readers as well as a lit af pre-order.

Sound like a lot? It is. That’s why it’s extremely rare for indie authors to make the list. They’re not part of the Big Four garden, and they don’t have the resources to mount an attack on such an entrenched institution when they can sell their books and engage with readers where they’re at.

Is Trying To Be A Best-Seller Worth It?

I can’t make that call for you.

While there are other bestseller lists, these are the two biggest ones. There are certainly pros to striving to hit a bestseller list. It can keep you hungry and give you a big, hairy goal to strive for. In some industries, having a best-selling book can majorly boost your career, giving you the ability to ask for premium speaking and coaching fees, or driving in loads of customers to a burgeoning business.

But for other writers, it can leave you feeling like you’ve failed if you simply don’t have the time and resources to throw at it (and it takes a lot of marketing and PR to hit these lists!)

For most authors (indie, especially) a lot of the joy of writing comes from connecting with our readers, and lists like this can distract from our original goal: getting good stories to the readers who need them.

So the key is knowing your goals as a writer as well as knowing if you have the time and resources to give to such a big, shiny goal.

And if you have a friend who is a writer? Be supportive, whatever their goals! There are tons of indie writers now earning six (and even seven) figures a year who will never show up on the best-seller lists, but they are some of the most impressive people I know.

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