How do you know if you are a bestseller? Or more properly, whether your book is a bestseller. Well, as with many things in today’s publishing world, the answer is “that depends”. I get asked this quite often, and while this used to be a very cut and dried answer, in today’s world of Top 100 lists on every retailer’s website, that question is a bit more complex. The lists may vary by hardcover, paperback and ebook. They may vary whether they are fiction or non-fiction (it is rumored that the NY Times created the children’s book category when Harry Potter dominated). If your book isn’t in bookstores that use BookScan (run by Nielson, they provide point of sale data for books), well, that may mean you never make some lists no matter how many ebooks you sell on Amazon.
Here is a rundown of some of the most popular bestseller lists.
New York Times – the most traditional, and by far the most coveted by authors. Also, by far the most manipulated, and likely influenced by advertising dollars (says anecdotal evidence). According to official information, the data is based on a proprietary methodology, but is said to be derived from actual consumer sales. Interestingly, they state they do not track certain types of titles including self-published work – however, several self-published titles have appeared on the list, so it seems as though there is some flexibility in this rule.
“Among the categories not actively tracked at this time are: perennial sellers, required classroom reading, textbooks, reference and test preparation guides, journals, workbooks, calorie counters, shopping guides, comics, crossword puzzles and self-published books.”
Scroll to the bottom of the page to see the full description of the methodology.
USA Today – another traditional media source but by all appearances more universal and less arbitrary than the NY Times. They are fairly open about their methods.
From their site:
Methodology: Each week, USA TODAY collects sales data from booksellers representing a variety of outlets: bookstore chains, independent bookstores, mass merchandisers and online retailers. Using that data, we determine the week’s 150 top-selling titles. The first 50 are published in the print version of USA TODAY each Thursday, and the top 150 are published on the USA TODAY website. Each week’s analysis reflects sales of about 2.5 million books at about 7,000 physical retail outlets in addition to books sold online.
Book formats and rankings: USA TODAY’s Best-Selling Books list ranks titles regardless of format. Each week, for each title, available sales of hardcover, paperback and e-book versions are combined. If, for example, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice sells copies in hardcover, paperback and e-book during a particular week, sales from each format would be reflected in that week’s ranking. The ISBN for the format that sold the most copies is presented with each list entry.
Digital Book World – by far the most clear about their methods (although also up front that they do not tell us everything) and as one would surmise, focused on ebooks:
The basic methodology (according to their site):
1) Best-seller rank observed from five of six top retailers (Kindle, Nook, Google, Kobo, Sony)
2) Lists observed for seven consecutive days (Sun. – Sat.)*
3) Each appearance on a list gets an unweighted score based on the ranking
4) Ranking scores are logarithmically determined (i.e. top scores are much more valuable than lower scores)
5) Each retailer weighted by approximate market share as determined by the editors of Digital Book World and Iobyte Solutions
6) Additional appearance credit is awarded for appearing on multiple lists
7) Combined scores for the week determine final score for each title
8) Titles are ranked by final scores and also grouped into sub-lists by price (four separate price-band lists: $0 – $2.99; $3.00 – $7.99; $8.00 – $9.99; and $10.00 and above)
9) Minimum price that appeared at any point during the week on any retailer is used for determine price band (assumption that low price is an important driver of ranking)
Amazon – gives no information at all about how their lists are determined, aside from being directly tied to the sales rank. They even say as much on their own site. I can tell you from experience that book sales are not the full story. Click throughs, reviews, print vs. ebook purchases, all seem to have weight. And of course, there is a free versus paid rank to consider.
iTunes – a total mystery. They don’t even tell you how many “rankings” you need before they will display them (my own experiments say “5”). One of our authors made it to their “Top Author” list, but we have no idea why, specifically. However, if you do make it to the top somehow, you will sell more books.
Nook – this is one case where sales seem to be almost the entire driver. Sell the most, top the list. (I couldn’t even find anything on their site to link to. , if you do, please tell me in Comments!)
Kobo – simple, they don’t have bestseller lists. They don’t even have reviews.
So, how do you know if you get to call yourself a bestseller? As with many things, this is primarily marketing. For me, I say someone can call themselves a bestseller, once they have made it to #1 in an overall paid listing. In other words, I wouldn’t consider a book that was #1 on the free list on Amazon to be a best seller (nothing was actually sold). I also would not make that claim if something was #1 only in its specific category, unless you make that detailed claim i.e. #1 Bestselling Erotica Title on Amazon.
I guess the real question is, does claiming to be a bestseller improve your sales? Probably not. On the other hand, being on the actual list certainly improves your visibility and that WILL improve your sales. In other words, there are no shortcuts. Do the work, get the sales.