If you connect on Twitter with other authors or you see Facebook ads about books, you’ll often see tags like “bestseller” or “bestselling author.”
What does this mean, and how can your book become a bestseller?
Amazon Best Seller Lists
If you primarily sell your books in ebook editions or plan to, the best shot at a bestselling book is to hit one of Amazon’s Best Seller lists. These lists include the Top 100 sold or downloaded, update hourly, and are available for numerous categories and sub-categories. Each list has a Free ebook category and a Paid ebook category.
The more competition there is, the harder it is to get to the top of that list, even for an hour or two. Sub-category lists are easier to top than more general categories.
As an example, as I write this article, the No. 1 Kindle Best Seller in Literature & Fiction > Horror > Short Stories (Paid) is No. 2,616 on the overall Kindle Best Seller List (Paid). In contrast, the No. 1 Kindle Best Seller for the more general category of Horror is No. 4 on the overall list. So it takes a lot more sales to make it to the top of the Horror list than to make it to the more specific list of horror short stories.
It’s even harder to be on top of the Kindle Mystery, Thriller, & Suspense list, as the No. 1 book there right now is also No. 1 on the overall list.
Because the lists update hourly, though, one really good sales day can put your book in the Top 20 of more than one category even if you don't reach the Top 100 of the overall list.
The highest overall ranking my first thriller The Awakening reached was 128 on the overall Paid list and it stayed there for less than a day. But more than once it's hit No. 1 on the the Horror, Occult, and Feminist lists, and stayed in the Top 20 of those lists for many weeks.
As I noted Friday in Topping The Charts, Amazon recently rolled out Amazon Charts. The Charts list the top 20 Most Read and Most Sold books for fiction and non-fiction on Amazon.
Right now, these lists include mainly well-known authors and books that have been around for quite some time, such as the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. This suggests it’s quite challenging to get to the top of it.
All the same, the Amazon Charts may be easier to reach for self-published authors than the USA Today and New York Times bestseller lists.
That is so because, not surprisingly, the list does not require books to be available on multiple platforms, but only on Amazon. It also takes into account ebook, print, and audiobook sales combined.
Based on these factors, it appears to me an author who sells only Kindle books through Amazon could reach the list. Likewise, it seems an author whose living is mainly made through Kindle Unlimited page reads could see a popular book on the Most Read list.
Finally, most self-published authors I know rely heavily on ebook and audiobook sales. The fact that print sales are not favored means a better shot at the charts for them.
USA Today Bestseller List
To get on this list, a book must be available on multiple platforms. That means that if you sell your book only in a Kindle edition, it can’t become a USA Today Bestseller.
Author Joanna Penn describes in an article on her site how one of her J.F. Penn three-book box sets hit the USA Today list. The box set was normally priced at $6.99, and she put it on sale for $0.99. She lists her total sales for the week (4,294 Kindle, 491 Kobo, 544 iBook, 902 Nook), the places she advertised, and her costs versus sales.
While based on that week only, Penn reported a $787 loss, she felt it was well worth it for a host of reasons, including a bump in sales after hitting the list, a significant increase in her email list sign-ups, and the cachet of being a USA Today Bestselling Author.
I encourage reading the entire article, especially if you’d like to try the strategy yourself.
The New York Times Bestseller List
This list is what’s known as a curated list. It is not a by-the-numbers list of the books that sold the most for the week. Rather, the New York Times uses a formula, which it keeps secret, to choose the books.
It's been reported that only a select number of book stores throughout the country report their sales to the New York Times list. New York Times curators review the books that sold the most and decide which ones are worthy of being New York Times Bestsellers.
There is a lot of speculation about what factors influence the list, including that is it is weighted toward independent book stores and does not count big box stores such as Sam’s Club, that it favors authors who have been on the list before, that it looks at sales stamina as well as one-week sales, and that bulk orders (such as 50 books that a corporation orders for a seminar) are not counted the same way as individual sales.
The list splits out print and ebook sales. This means that you might sell enough overall to qualify for the list but not enough to reach either the print or ebook list.
Author and marketer Tim Grahl's article analyzing the New York Times Bestseller list and what it means and doesn’t mean is also well worth a read.