The Deception of Bestseller Lists
How Do You Measure Your Bestsellers?
Do the national bestseller lists actually measure what they claim? Any publisher will tell you they do not— unless a book has appeared on several lists for several months. So how should you really measure the success of your books?
Let’s talk basics surrounding bestseller lists: (Lest you think, sour grapes here, yes, some of my books have appeared on bestseller lists. But, the ones that have been on such lists have not truly been bestsellers. And, some that have never appeared on any bestseller lists have been bestsellers according to Publishers Weekly standards as it reports end-of-year sales figures.)
Bestseller Lists Facts
- Bestseller lists report copies sold in a single week. (A recent glance at BookScan had in the Top 25 Bestsellers for the week, a book that had sold only 365 copies total for the year and a book that had sold more than 15,000. The difference in sales was not apparent to Average Joe or Joanna looking at the bestseller for the week.)
- It takes between 7,000 and 12,000 copies sold in one week to make a national bestseller list. Book ‘A’ might sell 8,000 copies in the first week and make the bestseller list, and then might sell only 200 copies for the remainder of the year, for a total of only 8,200 copies sold. Book ‘B’ might sell 7,000 copies in the first week and not make the bestseller list. But, Book ‘B’ might sell 4,000 copies each month for the remainder of the year, for a total of 51,000 copies in the first year, and never make the list!
- Copies sold can vary dramatically, depending on competing books that are released the same week.
Bestseller lists can be manipulated. The Wall Street Journal recently ran a story on ResultsSource, a company that charges authors a hefty fee to put their books on the bestseller lists:
Speakers give up their speaking fees, and instead ask clients to buy books with the fee. These fees/book orders are held until publication week and then split into individual book orders mailed to individual addresses so they count toward the bestseller list. Speakers themselves can take large orders in lieu of a speaking fee, and split the order into individual orders by a) mailing the books to individual addresses of audience members or b) asking several clients to place smaller orders through random retail stores around the country.
- Authors themselves can offer incentives to get on the bestseller lists: 1) Buy the book in X week, send me the receipt, and I’ll send you Y gift or refund the book price to the first 500 people who mail me a receipt. 2) Come to X event, and the book is part of your admission price. 3) Drop the price to free or 99 cents for four days. People respond too late for the special, but buy the book anyway. 4) Ask your friends and fans to “get the word out” in the same week, offering some incentive to encourage people to buy the book. (I’ve tried #4 myself.)
The above ways are not necessarily wrong or inappropriate. They simply do not measure real demand for a book.
I simply agree with Steve Piersanti, CEO of Berrett-Koehler, who recently blogged on this topic, as well. For years, I’ve advocated for better ways to measure bestsellers and definitely better ways to build long-term success as an author:
1) Discontinue weekly bestseller lists and go to monthly or quarterly bestseller lists.
2) Compare quantity of sales to quantity of returns.
3) Focus on total income derived from sale of the book (royalty, subrights sales, clients gained).
I’ll leave it to Steve Piersanti and Berrett-Koehler to argue the case with other major publishers for compiling true bestseller lists.
I’m simply suggesting that authors and speakers identify better ways to determine their investment of time and money, measure success, and build real demand for their books. Let me get specific…
Criteria Worth Considering
Positioning: Despite your expertise, experience and academic credentials, are you losing engagements to others who have written a book on the subject? If so, your probable goal in writing a book is prestige, distribution and major media coverage.
Repositioning: For the first 14 years in business, my company was known for business writing expertise because I’d published eight books on that topic. No matter that we delivered as many or more presentation workshops as writing workshops, the perception remained. Writing the first two books on presentation skills finally changed that perception: Clients began to get the picture that we covered the gambit of communication skills—not just writing skills.
Opening New Opportunities: I’ve received the most partnership offers because of a book that actually sold the fewest copies of all my business titles (Cutting Paperwork in the Corporate Culture, which sold no more than 15,000 copies back in the 1980s.) Two reasons: It won a prestigious award and gave practical guidelines that CEOs cared about back then.
Awards: Quality writing earns awards, which attracts attention and brings clients. Awards don’t always translate into immediate book sales—but they do garner media attention, attract fans and win clients. Neither of the titles that made Executive Soundview Summaries’ “25 Best Business Books of the Decade” nor American Library Association’s “Best Nonfiction of the Year” made it onto national bestseller lists. Nor did any of the titles that were major book club selections make it onto a national bestseller list—even though one selection involved a 30,000-copy hardcover buy. Why? Again, such purchases don’t count for bestsellers lists. But, these selections built growing demand and helped win million-dollar training contracts.
Time Investment: What’s the time-to-income ratio? Fresh-Cut Flowers for a Friend (Thomas Nelson) has been one of my bestselling books at 435,000 copies. Although the royalty stream has been good (especially since I spent only one day writing it, and zero time in promoting it), I do not consider that book a particular success. Why? It has no spin-off life. On the other hand, Executives Portfolio of Model Speeches (Prentice Hall) sold only 65,000 in hardcover, but positioned me in a slightly new way when it came out—executive coaching. The two-weeks writing time has led to many coaching assignments.
Damaged Reputation: Will writing this book damage your credibility? Will it mislead readers about how your approach or real area of expertise? Will it make your topic (or you) seem frivolous?
Bottom-line: Bestseller lists are deceptive. Invest dollars and days wisely. The best use of time and resources is to create long-term demand for your expertise in all its forms.