Bestseller Breakdown: What It Takes to Become a Bestseller and Why It Does(n’t) Matter

Writers dream of plastering the words “Bestselling Author” next to their name on business cards, resumes, books, blog posts, photos, and virtually every other place their moniker appears. And they can’t be blamed—that phrase counts for a lot, especially for authors hoping to attract customers with a “national bestseller” banner on their cover. But what exactly does it mean to be a bestseller? And how much does it really matter?

Books are traditionally considered bestsellers when they meet one of three unofficial requirements: (1) placement on the New York Times bestseller list; (2) placement on theWall Street Journal bestseller list; or (3) placement on the USA Today bestseller list. And, if we’re being frank, the biggest prestige comes in making the illustrious New York Timeslist.

So what does it take to get on one of these things? The number of sold books required to achieve bestseller status is virtually indefinable. The numbers necessary are relative to which other books are in the market the same week as yours. Books on the very same bestseller list can have drastically different sales counts. In his blog post “Bestseller: How Many Copies Do You Have to Sell to Become a Bestseller?” Jeffrey Krames sites a week in August 2010 in which Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love topped the lists, selling 140,000 copies. The fifth bestselling book that same week sold less than 11,000 copies—a 129,000 difference from the first-place seller.

Genre lists are an entirely different ballgame. The New York Times separates books into categories, and the number of books sold required to hit each of those genre categories is immensely different. For that same week in 2010 Krames discussed, Tom Rath’sStrengthsFinder 2.0 topped the business category, selling just over 9,000 copies. Number two on the list, The Big Short by Michael Lewis, measured in at 4,200.

It’s also important to note that bestseller lists only reflect velocity of sales—not overall success of a book. A title could be a “tortoise seller,” moving eight hundred books per week for an entire year but never making any of the lists. Not all sales are reported to the lists, either. Each list has its own way of determining quantity, usually through a catalog of sales reported to them by selected bookstores, and none of the lists are comprehensive. In fact, sales through specialty stores like Walmart, Target, and Christian bookstores are usually not collected, and for some authors, those can be the locations of the majority of their sales.

In some ways, bestseller status is becoming less relevant in this age of ebooks, apps, and digital downloads. Can a free ebook downloaded 100,000 times in a week be considered a bestseller? Not according to the New York Times, but it certainly must have been one of the most-read books of the week. In the long run, that will matter a lot more.

The Times only recently started including ebook sales on their list, and ebook sales for advice books, how-to books, children’s books, and graphic books are not captured at all. Although ebooks only account for about five percent of overall book sales right now, that number is sure to rise.

The Times list is also backlogged by several weeks. Sales for the week ending August 6 won’t appear in the print edition of the Times until August 21. In our digital world, trends can rise and fall with almost terrifying rapidity (silly bands, anyone?); sometimes what was selling three weeks ago has no bearing on today.

by Carly Willsie, Greenleaf Book Group

Greenleaf Book Group ( is a publisher and distributor best known for its innovative business model, distribution power and award-winning designs. Named one of the fastest growing companies in the United States by Inc. magazine, it has represented more than 1,000 titles, including more than 20 that have hit the New York Times, Wall Street Journal or USA Today bestseller lists.