Bestseller – The Definition

What does it mean to be a bestseller? It seems they’re all over the place these days! The reason for this post is to describe to readers and newbie authors just what it means to be a bestseller.

Let’s play a little game of true or false.

True or false: If a book is a bestseller, it must be an amazing read!

Answer: False


Do I really need to explain? How many of you have picked up a book half the world raved about only to find it was mind-numbing, boring, predictable, or cliché? Or a combination?

A bestseller simply means that this particular book sold enough books within a period of time to make it to the bestseller list. It doesn’t even have to be on the list right now. It could have been on the list years ago yet it’s still considered a bestseller. It doesn’t mean the author is making millions. It simply means the book was on a list.

True or false: Since Kirkus is a newbie author and has two bestsellers, that must mean it’s easy.

Answer: False


Maybe for some it is, but not for the most of us. If it was that easy, then why isn’t every writer a bestseller? I’ve spent an average of 60 hours per week writing or promoting for the past year and a half, more during promotional periods. Do I deserve it? Maybe. But maybe not. That’s not for me to decide.

The word “deserve” isn’t even part of the picture. Regardless of “deserve,” I wrote two bestsellers. WOOHOO!!! Thanks to everybody who made it possible.

True or false: The only REAL bestseller list is that of the New York Times.

Answer: It depends on whom you ask.


For elitists, this may be true. I’ve heard readers say they’ll only buy a book if it’s been on the NYT bestseller list. My question for them: Are you crazy! Just look at my book reviews. Even if you may not like the books I’ve read, I personally would have missed some great reads if I’d only picked NYT bestsellers.

Bestseller List Set-Up

On the NYT, they’re broke up into categories like “Combined Print & E-Book Fiction” or “Hardcover Fiction.”

Amazon’s lists are set up a little different. On Amazon, we find bestsellers according to either their print sales, or their eBook sales. There is a “paid” bestseller list and a “free” bestseller list. It breaks down further by genre, and then further by sub-genre.

It’s possible that an eBook is the number one bestseller on Amazon yet isn’t on the NYT list (but not likely). Especially if it’s the number one bestseller in a sub-genre.

A Bestseller Not On the Bestseller List?

I’ll use my novel as an example (Sorry I pulled away from the true/false game. I know it was fun).

The highest overall rank for The Fall of Billy Hitchings (I’ll refer to it as TFBH from here on out to save time) before my promotional efforts was around 20k. Out of 1.3 million books, I was certainly happy. How many sales does this account for? A little over one per day is all.

I ran my first free promotion for TFBH in March, and two more shortly after.

TFBH made it to number four overall in Action & Adventure. There are no sub-genres.

TFBH made to number two overall in Mystery & Thrillers. However, there are a few sub-genres. TFBH made it to number one in Thrillers and number one in Suspense, a sub-genre of Mystery.

As of today, there are (I’m rounding) 37k books in the Action & Adventure genre, 63k in Mystery & Thriller, 24k in Thrillers, and 19k in Suspense.

Is it easier to compete with 63k in Mystery & Thriller, or 19k in Suspense? The 19k obviously. However, there is the argument that particular genres and sub-genres have a higher percentage of better writers.

My point is, if a book makes it to one of these genres or sub-genres lists, it’s on Amazon’s bestseller list.

Am I a Bestseller?

At first, my book only made it to the Free Amazon bestseller list, which I was more than happy with. People might argue it’s not the same as a paid bestseller. I was lucky again in that TFBH made it to the paid Suspense bestseller list shortly after my March promotion (It’s not even close these days. Funny how writing instead of promoting can affect sales!). Even though my book was on the paid Suspense bestseller list, my overall ranking on Amazon was around 2k – 3k.

The Fall of Billy Hitchings also made it to the Amazon bestseller lists in the United Kingdom, Germany, and Spain. Does this make me an international bestseller?

Your Thoughts?

What do you think? Should authors who made it to the “Free” bestseller list be able to call themselves a bestseller? If not, should they be able to call themselves a bestseller if they made it on the “Paid” lists? Or should authors only call themselves a bestseller if they’ve made it on the NYT bestseller list?

Do I have to dress like the guy on the right since I’m a bestselling author now?

I’m interested to hear your observations. But in the end, does any of this really matter beyond promotional reasons? In my mind and as a reader, not really. I pick my books according to reviews, friend suggestions, and a sample of the writing. If it came down to two books and one was a bestseller and the other wasn’t, then it might sway my choice. As a writer, HECK YEAH IT MATTERS! Any bestseller list is a great place to be.

When it comes down to it, a bestseller is a book that sold enough copies during a specified period to make it on a list, whether it’s the NYT or Amazon. Maybe if the author were to state where their book was a bestseller we’d all be better off.

If you’ve read and enjoyed The Fall of Billy Hitchings or In Search of Nectar, be sure to sign up for the Kirkus MacGowan newsletter for future updates and giveaways. Click here to join.

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Bestseller – The Definition — 12 Comments

  1. I don’t count free as best sellers because they weren’t a sale, but I do think it’s great exposure.

    I don’t think a book needs to be on the NYT bestseller list to be bestselling. A huge reason for this, for me, is that the NYT bestseller list isn’t based on genre and that will limit the number of books I’d be exposed to in my genres of interest. 

    Maybe I don’t like the ONE horror novel that made the NYT bestseller list, but maybe I would LOVE a horror novel that sold 10 less copies but didn’t make the list. It’s probably on a bestseller list for it’s genre, right under the one that made the NYT bestseller list. So I do think bestselling in a genre is helpful, even if it’s not bestselling overall :)

    I sell on average 40-50 books a day to keep my current “bestseller” rankings. I find the Amazon lists more helpful than the NYT list, but that’s just me. NYT is better at measuring what genres are hot overall, because that genre will take over the list. It doesn’t mean we’ll get to see what is bestselling in other genres, though.

    • Love this response! Amazon’s lists make so much more sense. If someone wants to read a fantasy and all they find on the NYTs is romance, they’re out of luck. :)

      Oh, and good point about giving a book away free not being a sale. Funny, I didn’t even think about it that way. :)

      Thanks again!

  2. I couldn’t tell you if I’ve ever read a NYT ranked best seller or not, probably have but who the hell cares.  Some one’s best seller is another persons door stop! 

    Lists are compiled by those with a vested interest in sales either directly, Amazon or through affiliation and for the advertising revenue brought in, NYT.

    To the rest of us peasants I don’t think they matter that much but I suppose to an author they might be important, but not so important if they are on No 1 to No 1000 on the free download list.  Having said that if 1000 people have read a free book and recommend it to a friend who then goes out and buys it, then it was probably worthwhile being on that list for a time.

    • Haha, I never paid attention to the NYT list either, at least before writing. And like you said, who wants to take a chance with a “door stop?”

      Much easier to find a friend with similar reading preferences to make a suggestion. Even then, thanks to Amazon I always check out a sample.

      The problem is, many readers do use these lists. But like you said, giving away that free book, or making it to a list here or there, can really pump up the sales.

      It’s funny when you think about it. Getting on a list pumps up your sales, but you need a bunch of sales to get there to begin with!

      Thanks for the input, Tom. :)

  3. To me, the Paid list on Amazon is where the true bestsellers are. 
    But I also know that by the standards you outlined here, my debut crime novel Blood Orchids is a bestseller several times over. 
    I just want to be conservative about claims becuase these things can be tricky, and what’s the point? 
    I guess the point is, making sure good books get to people who will appreciate them.
    Toby Neal
    Home – Toby Neal 

    • Hey there, Toby! Thanks for stopping over. :)

      I completely agree. As an Indie author, or any author for that matter, it’s easy to forget this whole thing is about writing and reading a good book.

      Great insight. Thanks again!

  4. Great post as always, Kirkus. Me…I know what you went through as at one time we joined forces. And, like you, I just couldn’t call myself a bestseller—even though I was told I could—until I made it on the “paid” list. When I was sitting so close to Nicholas Sparks’ “The Lucky One” at #23 in romantic-suspense, I said to myself, “Now, I can call myself a bestseller!”

    For those of you who haven’t read “TFBH”, get it. We Indie authors charge less than half of those NYT Bestsellers, and who knows, you may find a new author and can boast you put them on the NYT list. :)

    • Thanks for stopping over, Carmen. :)

      I felt the same way, like the “paid” part was a final sticking point.

      It’s too bad sitting up there on the bestseller list isn’t like a nice restaurant we chill out in. You could have bought Nicholas a shot and asked him for suggestions. :)

  5. Very interesting post.  My books have been at number one in various categories on Amazon UK; I was at number one in Women’s Fiction for about 4 days, a few weeks ago.  I’ve also reached the heady heights of number 24 in ‘all books’ – for about an hour!  So, by these standards, I could advertise myself as ‘Amazon best-selling author’.  But I won’t.  I don’t know why, I just think it’s naff.  I don’t mind other people doing it, I hasten to add, but I’d feel too self conscious doing it myself.  Perhaps I SHOULD do it!  But I’d feel like a fraud – especially when someone looked at one of my books and saw that it wasn’t at number one, but at number 4,333, or something!  

    Maybe it’s just because we English are reticent about these things, I don’t know!  To me, ‘best-selling’ means that it tops or gets in the top ten in A LOT of charts, not just Amazon’s Fiction>Romance>Suspense>Psychological>Whatever!

    But hey, that’s just me!

    • Top ten? Man, you set high standards for yourself. :) I know what you mean, though.

      The other day I noticed something on paperback covers I never paid attention too before. Many said, “NYT Bestseller,” but others said, “#1 NYT Bestseller.”

      With that in mind, maybe it could be the same with Amazon? #1 Amazon Suspense Bestseller? Besides on Twitter where we’re limited to 140 characters, adding a bit more on may make it clearer.

      Again, it’s all about labeling. Instead of saying I am a bestselling author, I find it more comfortable to say my book made it to the bestseller list.

      I have a better idea. How about we both just make it to the NYT bestseller list and then we don’t have to think about it anymore!

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