From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:
In March, Marie Force announced she would no longer chase the bestseller lists when she released her latest book title. She wrote a great, honest, and direct blog about her thinking, and I urge you to read it all.
In the blog, she describes a trajectory of obsession and disillusionment that is very familiar to me. I’ve gone through that range of emotions several times in my long writing career. Ironically, the change in my attitude toward the bestseller lists and the status they confer (or don’t) came when I was still a 100% traditionally published novelist. (I’m hybrid, traditional and indie, although I don’t publish my novels [in English, anyway] traditionally any more.)
Why is that ironic? Because by the time it became easier to chase a bestseller list, I was no longer interested. Yet the entire focus of the first wave of indie writers after the introduction of Kindle Direct Publishing was on the various bestseller lists, first on Amazon, and then the established ones, like The New York Times and USA Today.
. . . .
Whenever I write a blog post that upsets a certain group of indie writers, they discuss the post on their blogs and cite whatever Amazon rankings they can find of my books at the moment. Often the books they find have low rankings, and they use that to say I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Okay. Fine. Whatever floats your boat. My business is based on a lot of product, published wide in a worldwide market, using print, audio, ebook, translations, and more. I don’t usually look at an individual book’s ranking in one format in one marketplace—and even though Amazon is the biggest marketplace at the moment, it’s certainly not the only one.
I write that with complete calmness, and a bit of a shrug, but believe me, that calmness and shrug came years after I got rid of my bestseller list obsession.
. . . .
I knew I wanted to be a fiction writer from as far back as I can remember. I wrote my first novel in grade school (and, sadly, illustrated it too). I didn’t know any professional fiction writers. I firmly believed in the myths, that it was impossible to make a living as a fiction writer—unless you hit a bestseller list, specifically The New York Times, which was the only one I saw in the books around my parents’ house.
So, I imprinted young: bestseller list = enough money to make a living = success.
And as I got older, I met a lot of writers. Some were journalists (making a living: check); some were poets (working as professors: check); some were fiction writers (making money…how?). It took me a long time to realize that you could make a good living without hitting a bestseller list. A lot of successful writers taught me that, sometimes directly and sometimes through example. To say I’m grateful is an understatement.
Before Roc Books bought my first novel, I had made friends with an outspoken book dealer. He was trying to qualify as a New York Times bookstore—the first I’d ever heard of such a thing. He ran an sf and fantasy store, and he was campaigning to be one of the stores that the Times spoke to on a weekly basis to compile the sales.
I have no memory of whether or not he succeeded. I don’t think he did. Over the years, I met many booksellers who were Times qualified. They were required to keep their status quiet, but some didn’t. And some told me years after they were no longer on the Times list.
I remember being shocked at what I learned: no one independently verified the bookseller’s numbers. No cash register receipts were submitted, no one checked shipping orders. The bookseller could have conflated his best friend’s book if he wanted to.
I don’t think any bookseller did that—at least not any I knew—but the temptation was there. And my outspoken friend was most worried about being told which books to include in his list, because he had heard the Times sometimes nudged a bookseller in a particular direction.
True? God knows. Maybe true in the late 1980s when these discussions took place. Maybe a beloved conspiracy theory among genre booksellers. I have no way to verify.
. . . .
Then in the year 2000, the New York Times got really peeved at J.K. Rowling and the YA writers who “hogged” the adult hardcover list. The Times introduced a “children’s book list” for bestselling books, and made no bones about why they were doing so:
The New York Times Book Review will print a separate best-seller list for children’s books starting on July 23. The change is largely in response to the expected demand for the fourth in the Harry Potter series of children’s books, editors at the Book Review said…. With an enormous initial print run of 3.8 million in the United States alone, it is widely expected to reach the top of the list.
”The time has come when we need to clear some room” on the list, said Charles McGrath, the editor of the Book Review…
The phrase missing here is “for more worthy titles.” Adult titles, even though adults were reading Harry Potter.
I had never noticed the Times monkeying with the list before, not like this, and not so blatantly. I was offended, upset, and crushed—in my dreams.
. . . .
This was when I really learned that the lists were based on velocity—how fast a book sold—not on actual total sales. This finally answered my questions about the way that genre writers could earn a hefty living while literary (and critical darlings) often had to teach. “Sales” were based on books shipped, not on books sold, which really came home to me from traveling.
I went through O’Hare around this point, saw a book by a writer I knew, and the book was on every bookstand, at every checkout place, even at the restaurants. The book was there on Thursday, as I flew out, and in seemingly the same numbers on Monday when I flew home. At the time, I thought that the books had been replenished.
Nope. They hadn’t sold.
But for that week, my friend was on the bestseller list. And he couldn’t sell another book after that, because his sell-through was so abysmal as to make him untouchable under that name.
Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.
PG says it’s great when indie authors appear on bestseller lists, but the point Kris makes about velocity of sales is key to understanding bestseller lists and in placing them in their proper business perspective.
If you sell 1,000 ebooks in a single day, you’ll likely be at the top of an Amazon bestseller list and probably more than one list. For marketing purposes, you can probably advertise yourself as “#1 Amazon best-selling author” forever because it actually did happen one time. Lots of traditionally-published authors have been promoted as a “New York Times best-selling author” many years after any of their books actually appeared on an NYT list.
However “best-selling author” is used so often that PG expects it may not be a terribly-effective marketing claim regardless of how much it impresses Uncle Jake. Just like all the students in Lake Wobegon who are above-average, a lot of authors have been bestsellers.
PG thinks a better mark of business success in writing is whether an author can quit their day job and support themselves with their books or otherwise generate a reliable income stream. Still a better indicator is if they can support themselves by writing year after year after year. If an aspiring writer wants a model to emulate, the author who quit the day job ten years ago is probably a better example than someone who was #1 on an Amazon romance list three years ago and still works the swing shift at 7-11 to make ends meet.
To be clear, PG is not denigrating anyone who works at writing, day job or not, and who has been or is listed on a bestseller list. That’s an accomplishment that many indie authors never enjoy.
However, earning your living and making a career as an author is more of a long game. Selling 1,000 ebooks in a single day won’t pay the rent next year. Writing ten books that each sell 40 copies per week on average won’t make you an Amazon Sales Rank queen for a day, but they’ll be a far more significant benefit to your household budget. If you work hard and add another ten books then another and keep doing the sorts of things that generate that 40 copies per week in sales for each one, you’re looking at a successful business career as a professional writer.
That’s the sort of thing that Kris has done for a long time and why PG believes what she says about how she’s done it is worth considering.