What Makes a Book a Bestseller

Sep 8, 2017
Topics: News

We’re often asked how books get onto bestseller lists. Do you need to sell a certain number of books? Is there a mysterious algorithm you need to crack? What is the secret of bestselling authors?

The answers are sort of; yes, but nobody knows what it is; and they don’t have a secret.

Before we dig a little deeper into the how, it’s important to determine if you even want your book to be bestseller. People publish books for all sorts of reasons. Some want the credibility that comes from being an author, others want to position themselves as thought leaders, and still others want their books to win awards.

If your primary goal is to write a book that’s a bestseller then you need to decide what bestseller list(s) you want to land on before you start planning your marketing. Do you want to crack the New York Times bestseller list or rank #1 in your category on Amazon? If your main goal is to be able to say you’re a bestselling author, not specifically a Wall Street Journal bestselling author, than making it onto a local list would call for a different strategy than making it onto a national list. Either way, a thoughtful, robust marketing sales and marketing plan is what’s going to drive your book sales.


Do you need to sell a certain number of books?

Bestseller lists are focused on fiction and non-fiction new releases, and high-profile bestseller lists such as the Globe & Mail and the New York Times compile their lists with weekly sales data from BookNet Canada and NPD BookScan (formerly Nielsen Bookscan) but then further curate them. And the formula they use for that final curation is a closely guarded secret.

Sales numbers are compiled over the course of a week and everyone wants to know how many books you have to sell to become a bestseller, but there truly is no magical number to aim for. We looked at BookNet Canada’s sales numbers for one week in August to get a general sense of numbers and the top 10 non-fiction books sold between 1,300 and 5,500 copies. These numbers vary widely depending on what books are released during a specific week, and what is popular in any given week.

Amazon Best Sellers lists their 100 most popular books based on sales and it’s updated hourly. This list is not limited to new releases or hardcover books; it reflects the books that are selling the most copies at any given time. But it still doesn’t divulge how many copies of each book are being sold. And some Amazon watchers have suggested that books published by Amazon’s own imprints seem to appear more often on the list; do Amazon’s algorithms favour their own books? It’s entirely possible but Amazon is as notoriously secretive about its ranking systems as the New York Times.

It’s a coup to chart in the top 100 of all books selling on Amazon, but you can also claim Amazon bestseller status by reaching the top in your category (e.g. Personal Finance). When we set up books for distribution on Amazon, we do careful keyword and category research, looking for categories that make sense for the book but are less populated as it increases your chances of reaching #1 in your category. 

Because sales numbers are compiled over a week, it’s smart to strategically make the week of your book launch count. Start by focusing on presales, because those will contribute to the overall number of your first week’s sales. And during your launch week if you’re running any event and you’re trying to crack one of the major print bestseller lists, be sure to partner with a bookseller whose sales numbers will contribute to your overall sales data. Note: books that you sell yourself or to groups will not count towards your overall sales figures. This is when you want to make the most of your big mouth list and be really clear about what you’re asking of your audience. Don’t be shy – if this is the week you want them to buy your book be really clear about that.


Is there a mysterious algorithm you need to crack?

With all these algorithms and curation and lack of a concrete sales number to aim for there is another question we’re asked – can you buy your way onto bestseller lists? There are companies such as ResultSource that promise to get your book onto bestseller lists, but their services cost into the six figures and they don’t guarantee sales, just that your book will make the bestseller list for at least one week.  

If you really want to get your book onto a specific list you have to ask yourself is it worth paying a company with a less-than-transparent reputation $150,000? Or would that money be better spent as part of your overall sales and marketing plan in a more organic way that would also contribute to your book being an ongoing, steady seller?


What is the secret of bestselling authors?

Bestselling authors don’t have any special secrets but they do know the power of a strong author platform.

Having an author platform doesn’t just mean having a Twitter or Instagram account, it also means using them strategically to share your #writerslife posts. Don’t just be active when your book is released, but in the lead-up to the release and on an ongoing basis as your book gains momentum. And your platform isn’t just your social media. Do you have a great email list you can market to? Or maybe you’re perfectly positioned to start a podcast in your area of expertise? Does your blog have an engaged following?

One of our clients, Michael Bungay Stanier, has sold over 200,000 copies of his book The Coaching Habit since it launched early in 2016, landing on the Wall Street Journal and Amazon bestseller lists along the way. He accomplished this through relentless, strategic marketing; he’s written a great article about his launch tactics that we recommend to anyone serious about selling books.

Very rarely in publishing is it a case of if you build it they will come. The odd book does “come out of nowhere” to become a runaway bestseller but why leave it to chance? Figure out how you define success for your book and then focus your marketing on making that happen. We’ll be delving deeper in the components of how a book becomes a bestseller throughout the fall so be sure to keep an eye on our blog or sign up for our email newsletter to receive our bestselling insight right to your inbox.

Whether you want to publish a bestseller, win an award, or boost your book sales we can help you position your book to align with what success means for you. Contact us to discover how.