There is perhaps no term in publishing more coveted and less understood than “best-selling.”
Seeing this qualifier in front of an author’s name or a book title adds an air of success and nearly instant gravitas, even more so if it comes with a prestige publication like The New York Times tacked onto it. The deceptive simplicity of these two words “best” and “selling” makes it seem like the book in question must have been a major commercial hit, raking in cash for both the author and publisher. The reality is that some books stick around the bestseller list for a long time without ever becoming profitable, while some never get close but make a profit almost straight out of the gate.
One of the most important things to keep in mind with these lists is that they are published every week and only reflect sales for that week. That means a book might debut at #9 during a relatively slow sales week, drop off the list the next week and never return, but still get to bear the bestseller moniker for the rest of its days on the shelves. On the flip side, an author might debut with fantastic sales but, in some bizarre twist of fate, release their book the same week as Nicolas Sparks, J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown ot George R.R. Martin, never peaking above the sought-after #20 spot that earns you the bestseller badge for life.
Then there are those that do land on the bestseller lists and still don’t end up earning any royalties. Author Lynn Viehl had total sales of 61,663 on her 2009 paranormal romance, Twilight Fall, earning her a spot on The New York Times mass market paperback bestseller list but it wasn’t enough to earn her any royalties over the $50,000 advance she received from her publisher. And to get as much as $50,000 in the first place is hardly a guarantee in the world of traditional publishing. Advance figures are often intentionally kept secret unless they set new record highs for debuts (Garth Risk Hallberg’s $2 million deal for City On Fire) or if they become the stuff of legend because they were so abysmally low in comparison to how well the book ended up selling (Roxane Gay’s mega-hit Bad Feminist sold for $15,000).
There are plenty of blog posts out there that run through hypothetical math problems of what authors can stand to earn with hypothetical advances and hypothetical book sales at hypothetical prices. There are also plenty of blog posts calling all bestseller lists a bunch of hollow shams that benefit no one. Neither lot are helpful. These symbolic labels are meaningful and validating, and to dismiss them outright undermines how much work goes into the production of a book from beginning to end. Writers shouldn’t have to choose between wanting that recognition and wanting to make a steady and reliable profit from their work.
At some point though, they do need to decide how much of their publishing effort can be aimed at prestige alone and what portion they need to be focused on profit. Of course, some writers will always seek out the safety and perceived prestige of a traditional publisher regardless of potential earning potential. Others enjoy the thrill of driving their own high-margin sales too much to ever consider it. There was one author who cared enough about The New York Times bestseller list to pay $200K to an agency that could fabricate enough sales to land him on it for just one week.
I regularly advise first-time authors using Reedsy (the publishing marketplace I co-founded in 2014) not to fixate on making the “best-selling” label their absolute publishing goal. Small profit margins mean that selling a lot of copies doesn’t guarantee millions in the bank. What really matters is that authors understand the dynamics of the current publishing market: the differences between self-publishing and traditional publishing, how book marketing works now... and above all, the timeless, invaluable importance of working with a professional editor and designer to produce a beautiful book.