It's tough being a legitimate publisher, in the current market of publishers and book sites who stretch the truth, manipulate sales rankings and report "success" for their authors, using deceptive promotional jargon. I spent a good part of one day just trying to understand the term "best seller" on Amazon. (Though, as I will point out later, Amazon is not alone in the practice of deceptive book marketing.)
Some time back, I was speaking with an author who was thrilled to tell me of her "bestseller" status on Amazon. As it turned out, her book was indeed a #1 bestseller, in the category of Children's Books>Toddlers>Featuring Toys (or something like that!). Furthermore, according to what I read, the sales rankings for both Kindle and print are "updated hourly," which means that the poor author's #1 status may well have changed an hour after she looked at it. (Details have been changed to protect the innocent.)
Even more confounding is the Free vs. Paid ranking on Kindle. A book might indeed show up with a very high rank on Kindle, but a glance at the labeling with reveal that the book was available for free download, and the ranking was based on this. The book’s ranking may be misconstrued as “bestseller,’ since Amazon lumps both Free and Paid listings under the heading Amazon Best Sellers Rank. Short of that, the publisher may report that a given book reached #1 status on Amazon, but fail to explain the particulars.
In reality, rankings on Amazon are not "historical" so much as "time sensitive." According to Amazon: "For the Kindle Store, Amazon Best Sellers lists are divided into Top 100 Paid and Top 100 Free. … Both lists are updated hourly." Such rankings do not give a true picture of how a book has done throughout its history, but are simply snapshots in time, showing how a book did within the last hour. So, essentially Amazon has taken it upon itself to redefine the age-old definitions of bestseller, recasting the term for its own benefit. It also throws the term around loosely, lumping various categories and modes of distribution under it, so that the unwary public can be duped into thinking they are buying a more popular book than is the case.
Lest you think I scorn the public’s naivete, let me tell you that I, myself, have been used this way. Years ago, when my book, The Priest, first came out, it achieved #7 in a fairly broad Christian category. I was elated, until I looked a little deeper into the stats. As it turned out, this was a blip on the register, due to a book club in a small town in Texas that had just purchased several copies at once. For a fleeting hour (probably), my book had skyrocketed…all due to the algorithm employed by Amazon.
I have been focusing on Amazon, but the tendency for the publishing/book marketing industry to “stretch the truth” is nothing new. It far predates the era of the internet. Many years ago, I was talking with an editor from a prestigious publishing house, who explained to me how book marketing was often manipulated. He said the term “copies in print,” often used as a marketing ploy (i.e. One Million copies in print!) actually referred to the number of books printed (not bound) and stored in a publisher’s warehouse. This was a legitimate way of promoting a book but did not necessarily translate to sales. Later, those unbound copies might actually be destroyed, or, if bound, “remaindered,” and sent out onto the secondary market. As for the term “books sold” (i.e. One Million sold!), he told me that a select group of bookstores were routinely queried for numbers of books sold in a given period. Those bookstores, in cahoots with publishers, would place outlandish orders for books, so that, on paper, it appeared sales for a given book were wonderful. After the book was listed in the newspaper as a bestseller, those orders were often downsized or cancelled. (Wikipedia has this to say about the NYT Bestseller list: It is “compiled according to ‘reports from leading booksellers in 22 cities.’ This methodology of ranking by bookseller sales figures remains to this day although the exact data compilation process is a trade secret and has evolved over time.”)
I know this may seem incredible, but “fact stretching” goes on in many ways, even among authors, themselves. I sat in on a seminar for book promotion, taught by an “expert” on the topic. He told the group, who were all wannabee bestsellers, that one way to catch the eye of a publisher is to have an agent. If you cannot find an agent who will take on your book, find someone who is willing to pose as your agent. He gave an example of an author who used his wife in this way. Her last name was different than his, so publishers were none the wiser (although I am sure most savvy publishers would see through this). Reviews can be garnered this way, too, as you promise whatever to your friends, if they will post great reviews of your book. Authors have even been known to sink boatloads of money into purchasing their own books, to elevate the sales figures, a tactic that is ultimately self-defeating.
So, what exactly is a bestseller? Traditionally, any book that sells over 50,000 has been considered a bestseller. 50,000 is a good minimum for hardback, paperback, fiction, non-fiction, religious, secular. I was told, years ago, that if a book sold 50,000, lightning had struck.
So, what is the takeaway from this blog? Ellen, are you just trying to discourage all those writers and readers who have been duped by this system? No…the takeaway is this, just as it has always been: DON’T WRITE FOR THE MARKET! Write to express your own soul, your interests, your heart. Write to encourage others, to educate, to inform. Be willing to promote your product, but don’t put promotion ahead of the quality of the product itself.
One of my favorite editors at Tyndale House Publishers told me, eons ago: “Cream rises to the top.” And, I would add that “the top” is also a matter of definition. If your book touches the heart or changes the life of only one reader, for the better, it has reached the top.