What Exactly Makes a Best Seller?

Kate Knapp, Smith Publicity Director of Publicity Services,
offers surprising answers to this often asked question

According to Merriam-Webster, a best seller is an article (as a book) whose sales are among the highest of its class. Often, best sellers are broken into categories based on genre (non-fiction, fiction, cookbooks, business).

The most recognized best seller list is the New York Times Best Sellers list. Other lists include USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and Amazon.

To determine which books are classified as best sellers, sales from bookstores plus online sales are taken into consideration. The most often used source for determining best seller lists is Nielsen BookScan. According to their website:

Nielsen BookScan, which monitors the English-language book industry worldwide, gathers point-of-sale book data from about 12,000 locations across the U.S., representing about 75% of the nation’s book sales. Print-book data providers include all major booksellers and Web retailers, as well as food stores (excluding Walmart and Sam’s Club). E-book data providers include all major e-book retailers. BookScan enables its subscribers to access comprehensive reports from a wide variety of perspectives organized by title and author, by category, by region or by DMA. In a typical week, sales of over 400,000 different titles are collected, coded and analyzed, producing complete market information for retailers, publishers and the media.

Here are some interesting facts:

  • The term best seller is not associated with a specific volume of sales (for example, in the music industry a “gold” album means 500,000 sold).
  • Sometimes, an author or publisher will use the generic term “best seller” for publicity or marketing purposes on a book cover—without the best seller award being tied to a specific list.
  • Some books, over a long period of time, have sold many more books than the contemporary best seller.

The New York Times:

Started in 1942, The New York Times publishes the most well-known best seller list. Published every Sunday, with additional categories online, best seller categories include Hardcover Fiction, Hardcover Non-Fiction, Paperback Trade Fiction, Mass Market, Paperback Non-Fiction, and Children’s.

According to Fast Company, for The New York Times, the number of copies sold really has no relationship to becoming a best seller. The bestseller lists actually identify only how quickly a book sells rather than cumulative overall sales.

The Fast Company article further explains that how the list is exactly compiled is considered a trade secret. This is what is known: The New York Times prepares a list of expected bestsellers (based in part on past performance and on wholesale preorders and what the publishers tell them should be on the list) and sends that list to bookstores. The bookstores then rank the books and are provided space to indicate which books not on the list are big movers.

USA Today:

From DearAuthor: 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, they determine the week’s 150 top-selling titles. The first 50 are published in the print version of USA TODAY each Thursday, while the top 150 are published online. The rankings reflect sales from the previous Monday through Sunday.

The Wall Street Journal:

The Wall Street Journal’s list reflects nationwide sales of hardcover books during the week ending the previous Saturday. From The Wall Street Journal: Nielsen BookScan gathers point-of-sale book data from more than 11,000 locations across the U.S., representing about 75% of the nation’s book sales. Data providers include all major booksellers and Internet retailers, and food stores (excluding Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club). The fiction and non-fiction lists include both adult and juvenile titles; the business and spotlight lists include only adult titles.


Amazon is now the biggest bookseller in America. Although sales rankings are available on the site and are even updated hourly, Amazon does not say how many unit sales it takes to make a book on Amazon a best seller.

According to Amazon’s website:

While the Amazon Best Sellers list is a good indicator of how well a product is selling overall, it doesn’t always indicate how well an item is selling among other similar items. Category and subcategory best seller lists were created to highlight an item’s rank in the categories or subcategories where it really stands out.

We choose a few of the most popular subcategories in which the item has a high ranking in relation to other items in that subcategory, and showcase the item’s rank on the product page. As with the main Amazon Best Sellers list, these category rankings are based on Amazon.com sales and are updated hourly.

Note: For the Kindle Store, Amazon Best Sellers lists are divided into Top 100 Paid and Top 100 Free. Both lists are updated hourly. For competitive reasons, Amazon.com generally does not publish the ranking formula.

So what does it mean to be a best-selling author?  I like how a DearAuthor blogger sums it up:  “All bestseller lists do is capture, imperfectly, what books are high in the national reading consciousness.  The next time you see ‘bestseller’ next to an author’s name, you might want to consider how flawed that status is and take a chance on a lesser-known author. Who knows what gem you might find?”