What is a bestseller anymore? And does it do anything for sales?

There’s been a lot of talk this year about bestseller lists. From gaming the New York Times best-seller list to the same venerable institution cutting 10 categories from its lists and how Amazon ranks its bestsellers, it’s a lot for an author to monitor and digest. But… what do bestseller lists even mean anymore? How much impact do they have on book publicity?

The big lists

The New York Times Bestseller List – The New York Times uses a mysterious, seemingly mystical combination of super-secret retail store reporting (which various entities will gladly help you to parse out for thousands of dollars) combined with some editorial oversight, and has been accused of snubbing politically-conservative titles

Publishers Weekly Bestseller ListPW relies solely on NPD BookScan’s point-of-sale data, which tracks 80%–85% of print sales in the country but doesn’t include data on e-book sales.

Wall Street Journal Bestseller List – This list also relies on Neilson BookScan data, but DOES include ebook sales.

Amazon Bestseller Lists – Amazon tracks ebook sales and print book sales in real time, but is not transparent about how they report sales to other outlets.

These are somewhat simplified explanations, but cover the breadth of how different major outlets compile their bestseller lists. With all these disparities and a dozen or more high profile bestseller lists out there, what does it mean to be a bestseller these days?

“Even when it comes to ‘national bestseller,’ it seems that we don’t have a consensus about the meaning of the term,” one agent told Publisher’s Weekly. “Not that long ago, it meant a lot if you said a book was a bestseller. Why? Because a select number of books earned that accolade, and we all understood and agreed what it meant.”

There’s general consternation that the meaning of the term “bestseller” has been diluted.

“I think it helps give a book credibility, and caché, to say it’s a bestseller,” said Smith Publicity Executive Director of Publicity Mike Onorato. “It can sway major media towards coverage. But, I haven’t found it to be a huge factor in a book marketing campaign’s success.”

President Sandy Smith largely agrees. “A bestseller accolade can give an author a sense of accomplishment and sparks them to keep up promotional activity. As for impacting a book publicity campaign’s success, if it is a well known bestseller list, then we add this achievement to our pitches/press material while we encourage the author to add the achievement their website, social media platforms, Amazon page and book cover. Bestseller status can help separate a book from others, especially with fiction.”

They both agree that the lists mentioned above have the highest prestige. Smith adds, “I would love to see one list that includes both print and e-book sales from physical chain and independent retail stores and online sales. Until then, the New York Times has the highest consumer brand recognition, although there is criticism that how they compile data may be too narrow. The Publishers Weekly list and data collection methodology is more transparent.”

The Publishers Weekly article also quotes local independent bookstore Main Point Books staff as saying, “the real sales boosters are good reviews; coverage in high-profile media such as NPR, 60 Minutes, and morning TV shows; and word-of-mouth.”

So what should authors focus on instead of bestseller lists, which they have little control over anyway?

“Reviews,” Onorato says. “Encourage reviews on places like Goodreads, NetGalley, Amazon and B&N.com. We know that more reviews of a book can help it get exposure and buzz; it behooves an author to have as many reviews of their book available as possible.”

Smith has more specific advice for fiction authors.

“For fiction, authors should try Goodreads giveaways, which offer visibility on this important discoverability platform—and winners are those who are active in the book’s genre, and submitting their title to BookBub, which offers “vetted” ebooks at a discount to book lovers interested in the author’s genre. Both these strategies help get a book in front of new, targeted readers and encourage both word of mouth recommendation and new book reviews. Also keep in mind these are great for a series—offer the first book at lower price/giveaway when launching next book to hook readers.”