What is a Bestseller, Anyway?


As you probably know, my new book is titled Best Seller. One word (bestseller) or two words (best seller) is acceptable when you’re talking about a best-selling novel (and hyphenated is correct when it’s used as an adjective). My book is about a novel that hits The New York Times Best Seller list back in the late 1970s. And the NYT Best Seller List is considered the preeminent list in the United States. But then you have the USA Today Best Seller list. And plenty of others, including the many, many lists on Amazon.

If you list your book on Amazon and pick one of those not-so-popular niche categories, you might hit a bestseller list. You could be #98 in Mystery, Thriller & Suspense-Crime Fiction-Murder-Humorous-Lesbian Protagonists-Outer Space and call your book a best seller (yes, tongue firmly planted in cheek). Hey, I hit a bestseller list on Amazon a few months ago. My novel Bits of Broken Glass hit a category under “Gay & Lesbian” and actually reached #1 for a few days in a row, eclipsing the likes of Wally Lamb and Armistead Maupin. But I knew the deal. I had discounted the book to 99 cents. I did not place it in the ‘Gay & Lesbian’ category – Amazon did! And it was because one of my four main characters was gay, so I used ‘gay’ as one of seven allowable keywords. Amazon did all the rest. But still, I can call that book an “Amazon #1 bestseller.” I just feel as though I should put an asterisk next to it.

So does that mean if you drop the price of your e-book to a ridiculously low amount (or even give it away), you’ll hit the best seller list, too? Maybe. Is it worth it? I don’t know. The more books labeled as bestsellers, the less impact the word has. I’m aware of that. Once I returned Bits of Broken Glass to (the still ridiculously low price of) $2.99, sales dropped dramatically. Wally Lamb’s We Are Water is still at the top of the list.


12 thoughts on “What is a Bestseller, Anyway?

  1. Martha, thank you for being so honest about this topic. My books have also made it to “best seller” lists a few times while running a sale AND advertising it. However, I’m not eager to use the term. The day I make a list (if ever) at regular price, and stay on it for more than two days, is the day I’ll get excited about it. LOL. As you say, the term is used so frequently these days, it doesn’t seem to mean a whole lot. And honestly, if I see best seller by an author’s name, that in itself isn’t going to convince me to read his or her book. It still has to be something that looks like I’d be into.

    Congrats on the new book! 🙂


    1. Thanks, Shelly. I think the overuse of “best seller” (AND “bestseller!) has brought the meaning to a new low. I won’t put it on any of my books, and after writing this post and reading the comments, I’m going to stop using it to describe myself. I’d rather let the novels do what they’re meant to do. xoxo


  2. “You could be #98 in Mystery, Thriller & Suspense-Crime Fiction-Murder-Humorous-Lesbian Protagonists-Outer Space…” LOVE IT. The term “best seller” lost its luster for me when I found out authors and publishers would buy thousands of copies of their own books pre-release, then mark them up and re-sell them after launch, just so they could make it onto the list. And I made it to #1 on several Amazon lists in the good old days of free promos, but I still never call myself a best seller (because I didn’t really “sell” any books, did I?), although maybe I was a best downloader. I think you have more legitimacy having actually sold your way onto a list, no matter how obscure that list may be (see above-quoted category that’s still making me giggle), even if it was at a huge discount. But I’m with you, Martha, on feeling the need for an asterisk in those cases, and if that’s the case, is it really all that legit? Or maybe we’re all suffering from imposter syndrome and need to stop feeling like frauds and OWN our successes. 😉


    1. Thanks, Brea. I certainly need to stop feeling like a fraud! No matter the ranking, I’ll keep writing. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll stop obsessing about stupid rankings. ❤


  3. Well said. My debut novel was a number one bestseller… and I feel totally awkward saying that, because of the new definition of that term! I have reluctantly added that info to my website, but I look forward to the day where I can feel more authentic in my bragging!


  4. Hugh Howey who wrote the wildly successful series Wool (self-published, I think) was asked why he priced his e-book so low (perhaps around the $2 mark, I forget). And his reply was: “because I’m a big nobody”. Well, now he is not anymore, but I thought his reply interesting. Congrats on the book, Martha.


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