Want to Write a Bestseller? Understanding the Bestsellers Game

The bestseller game is surrounded by myths and misconceptions. Understanding how it actually works can help you be realistic about the goals for your book.

What is true about the bestseller game? The big lists don’t accurately reflect book sales, lists are made of books that sold a lot of copies in a short amount of time, authors need to do their own promotion, self published books can sell a lot of copies, not every best written book becomes a bestseller and stacks of books in a store don’t always indicate a best seller.

The NYT Bestseller List does not accurately reflect book sales

The most misunderstood aspect of bestseller lists is that they are not lists of books that actually sold the most copies. How can this be? One reason is that it’s hard to get accurate data of how many books actually sold.

Nielson BookScan, a independent company that tracks book sales, only is able to collect about 75-85% percent of all sales. They don’t track sales from stores like Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club and self published books. Some lists, like the Wall Street Journal list, are based on this information.

The New York Times bestseller list, on the other hand, is based on sales reports from hand picked retailers. What’s wrong with this picture? Obviously, your results will be skewed.

Tim Grahl, a book launch expert, explains it all in his article The Truth Behind Bestseller Lists

You need a lot of books in a short amount of time to hit the big lists

Timing of a book launch matters. In order to hit one of the big lists, you have to sell a large number of books in a short amount of time. How large is large? 5000 to 20,000. How short is short? One week to one month, depending on whether you’re shooting for a weekly list or monthly list. 

The thing about a book launch is that all the pre-orders for the book count on the release date of the book, so they all are counted in the same week. If pre-orders plus sales during the week of release are high enough, your book could hit a list. 

That’s one reason why pre-orders are so important. 

Another reason is that it tells publishers, distributors and retailers how much interest there is in a book before the release. The whole machine works better if there’s clues to how well the book will do. 

Authors will have to do their own promotion

A common myth believed by aspiring authors is that once they sign a contract with a publisher, the publisher will do all the book promotion for them. 

The reality is that the traditional publishers do little to promote emerging authors and are looking for authors who already have a following. 

Another reality is that name recognition matters. It doesn’t even matter why, as celebrity memoirs will attest.

One of the slower ways to build a name for yourself is to write. The bottom line is if you want to sell books, you have to become known. Somehow, you need to build a platform so that people can get to know you and your work. 

The good news is, that living authors are more connected to their readers than ever before. There are channels available today that make it possible for readers to connect with authors. 

The other sad truth is that readers will not automatically find the authors they want, the algorithms will push the acceptable books and the demands of life just doesn’t leave readers enough time to do the leg work to find the right books for them.  

Can a self-published book become a best seller?

Getting an agent and pitching your book to a traditional publisher used to be the only way to sell a lot of books. That’s not true today. Self publishing and independent publishers are changing the game. Take the case of Hal Elrod and The Miracle Morning. He’s sold two million copies of his self published book. Now there’s no doubt that he’s good at marketing, that he’s passionate about his message and he’s driven to get it out into the world. But, the point is that he did it without a publisher. 

There’s a way to see how well a book is selling if it’s listed on Amazon. Dave Chesson of Kindleprenuer has developed a sales calculator based on the Amazon’s best sellers rank.

If you write a best seller, it will become a best seller

First of all, best selling books are not the best written books, nor the best books at all. They’ve just sold a lot of copies in a short amount of time and hit a list. Getting on a list gets attention. That makes them well-known and gives them credibility so they sell more copies. 

Book sales are not based on the quality of your work. Sad, but true. 

Stacks of books in a store doesn’t equal sales or popularity

It’s easy to (wrongly) assume when you see large stacks of a title in a store that’s an indication that it’s popular or selling a lot of copies. That might be true. But, it might not. I know this from my own experience as a book seller. The truth is, book sellers can return big stacks of books that sat in their store but didn’t sell. 

Of course, someone ordered them to begin with because someone thought they would sell. But just because they disappear doesn’t mean they’ve been sold. 

Another lesson learned from inventory is that some types of books sell better than others. Avid fiction readers often don’t have the budget to keep up with their reading habits. Libraries fit the bill better for them than bookstores. 

Some books, like devotionals, non-fiction books that you want to study, write in and mark up and gift books actually sell multiple copies. Books used in classes or Bible studies sell in bulk. If you want to sell a lot of copies, write those books.

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