Bestseller Lists and Other Dreams

31 March 2017

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.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch, PG's Thoughts (such as they are), The Business of Writing

28 Comments to “Bestseller Lists and Other Dreams”

  1. ““Sales” were based on books shipped, not on books sold”

    Yup, which was why the big publishers carefully timed their releases so they didn’t step on each others’ ‘Best Seller(shipper) This Week!’ NYTs lists.

    Too bad for them the Amazon lists are for those that actually ‘sold’, not just shipped, so they can’t game it as easily.

    • The NYT has always had their own algorithm as to the ranking of their lists but it was primarily based on sales. Fortunately we have Bookscan which is based on POS from most retailers, including Amazon for print. But since Amazon won’t report ebook sales, we have PubTrack Digital, where major publishers report the ebook sales.

      I don’t know the last time anybody verified Amazon’s bestseller list but I’m sure they have their own algorithms as well.

  2. The Official Alphabetical List of Author Success

    I’d much rather be on the upper end of this list than any “bestseller” list.

    • I’m amazed he made it to the Z’s.

      Pretty much on the nose from Rowling/Meyer, er A, to N or P.
      Some of those latter ones I’ve met. But I would not recommend walking slowly away. My approach is “run away, run away, run away”. And I’m just a reader…

  3. From the Force article she links to: “If I’m going to make myself crazy over something, at the very least it ought to be something that really matters, like, you know, writing more books.”

    To me, that’s really the whole point, and writing is the only part I love (okay, research too–that’s great fun). That I can make a living doing it is really quite lovely.

  4. Today when we check out KKR’s Amazon books we get the following ranks:


    Not bad, but not real good, either. You can of course compare those numbers with the numbers we put up on March 24:

    Sometimes I wonder why we see so much ‘advice’ from KKR. For instance, all of these people are doing a lot better than she is on Amazon, but we never see blog post excerpts from them.

    Why is that?

    • If your book is consistently ranked around 100,000, it’s probably selling 2-3 copies a day. At $5 a book, that’s maybe $8 a day, or $3000 a year. Ten of those books, and you’re scraping by purely on your writing income. A hundred of those books, and you’re laughing.

      Someone who writes a best-seller that hits the top 100 may make a lot of money, but bset-seller status is fleeting. There are plenty of indie writers who were selling much better than KKR’s rankings a few years ago… and have now completely disappeared.

    • Could it be because those other people agree with them?

    • Maybe read KKR’s article on the bestseller lists at her blog. She includes her response to the people who post her ranks. 🙂

      She and her hubby make their living doing what they love: writing. She and her hubby also teach. She’s indie/trad (ie hybrid) and also regularly sells stories to SFWA-approved periodicals. She’s been around a long time, seeing changes happen, evolution.

      Maybe she blogs out of that part of her, examining, looking at industry changes, educating with what SHE knows and her friends know.

      And why are you always posting her ranks as if that negates her decades of experience in the publishing industry? She’s been a USA and NYTimes bestseller (if that matters). I think she’s got plenty cred.

      • Maybe amazon should get a “Total sales author rank” somewhere… Sales per writer, not per book. With a filter for living writers, and maybe an option for annual overall (rolling).

        Take care.

      • I’m proud to say that Kensington will be doing a hybrid deal with Marie Force to print the first three of her Gansett self published books, in mass market. This deal came out of my blogging here on the PV as well as Joe Konrath’s blog. We are also doing a print deal with Joe for three of his previous self published titles, starting with THE LIST.

    • /facepalm

    • 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.

      This is the definition I have always used for “successful writer.”

      When I was a kid I thought all writers met this criteria by default. But then as I started paying attention to author bios I noticed that several of them had day jobs. It was startling, and my first inkling that royalties are not paid out in the author’s favor.

      KKR doesn’t have to get a day job; she supports herself by writing. That’s successful. If you can only pay your mortgage every month with your royalties? Successful. If you can buy yourself a house outright with your royalties? You’re big time. And when you can buy a mountain to pass on to your kids? You’re in dream territory.

      When it comes to the business of writing I would prefer to take advice from people who meet my definition of success, and KKR (and DWS) fit the bill.

      The rankings you post indicate that indies don’t have to reach #1 in Amazon in order to be successful; 13k – 200k ranks is apparently enough to make a living (so long as you keep putting out books) and that’s awesome.

      • “The rankings you post indicate that indies don’t have to reach #1 in Amazon in order to be successful; 13k – 200k ranks is apparently enough to make a living (so long as you keep putting out books) and that’s awesome.”

        Frankly, with the corpus they’ve built, I’m not all that sure they actually need to “keep putting out books”. I’m glad they do, mind you. And yet…

        Take care

        • Even in the trade-publishing era, one of the reasons writers kept publishing books was to help boost their backlist sales (for books that were still available, anyway). I remember reading discussions on writing forums ten years ago on why it was so important to have a backlist in print and keep selling new books to push readers to find it.

    • She’s got a lot more books published than that. Did you check out her pen names, box sets and anthologies?

    • I see Greg that you try really hard to put out ebooks in your interest area; I think given your amz ‘ranks’ against number of stars given by your readers [often 1 to 3], and that many of your seventy ebooks have no reviews or just 1 to 3 reviews, that you know that even those things are not in any way reflective of your income in the aggregate. Reviews, stars, ranks, have nothing to do with the long distance runner who keeps going.

      As PG said, and as I and many others said on KKR’s post last week, where you also spent time to go look up, cut and paste the ever changing rankings of KKR’s books, it’s a long game. I would imagine if you’ve written seventy kindle books, you are doing same, but maybe I’m wrong.

    • I think you miss the whole point of the “not a best seller” thing.

  5. “And why are you always posting her ranks as if that negates her decades of experience in the publishing industry?”

    Which, let’s be honest, if your going to criticize her, shouldn’t you ranks be better than hers at least? Otherwise what other credentials are you relying on to say shes wrong?

  6. The postings of sales ranks is “arguing from authority” and is not a Good Thing.

    The experts have been wrong about a lot of things.

    KKR’s points about velocity versus consistency is valid. Best-seller rankings mean nothing except a certain amount of books was pushed out at that point in time. It says nothing about the quality of the book itself, at least to a general audience.

    (Insert “some people like James Patterson / Nora Roberts and some like Don DeLillo / Joyce Carol Oates” here)

    Focusing on best-sellerdom to the exclusion of everything else is a sop to the ego, a waste of time, and detrimental to the artist. If the person buys into the “I’m No. 1” and worries that their next book won’t be, they’ve lost their focus from making the work good rather than popular.

    Personally, a best-seller label is worthless except to those who still believe it means anything. That became apparent to me when a particular author bragged about their “NYT / USAToday best-seller” badge for putting a novella into a group’s 99 cent box collection.

    (To be honest, authors and publishers have tried to manipulate the lists ever since they debuted in the 1920s. I personally saw a book buyer at the Charlotte NC Brentano’s buying their stock of “Bridges of Madison County.” Unless she was a big fan of a book I hadn’t heard of until it hit the list soon thereafter. )

  7. I used to be more impressed by “staying home full-time to write” before I realized that many people’s situations are so different as to defy comparison.

    Dual-income households with no dependents who can “support themselves writing” have a far easier time than a one-income household with kids, or aging parents. A writer in that first situation and a writer in that second situation can be making the exact same income, but one can stay home and the other is working that swing shift at 7-11, and grateful for it. And now that people are judging one another on that criterion, I find myself even less patient with it. Some have gone so far as to make comments that sound a lot like ‘well, if you’d made better life choices, you could be where I am.’ About having kids. Or taking care of older family.

    I know it’s human nature to want to put people in boxes and then stack them to figure out where everyone fits in the social hierarchy, but I continue to find it disappointing when this behavior misses important nuances.

    • +1

    • And yet I think it’s valid to consider oneself a success in writing if one can support oneself (and we all consider “supporting income” differently). Some writers don’t mind having side jobs or full time day jobs, but others just want to write full time. Some are happy writing 1 or 2 hours a day and making enough for a good dinner out every week or month or enough to pay the light bill or car payment. I don’t begrudge whatever one’s definition of success is. It may not even have to do with moolah at all.

      I have friends who have three and five kids who have to fit in writing in the wee hours when they and spouses are asleep, and some make good indie money (generally the ones more involved in marketing/promo/ads), some make pocket money. It’s up to them to define success.

      Me, I can’t help but think that making enough to qualify as a decent income is great success. Because even in non-writing jobs, you might make very little. Ask teachers if they are satisfied with their pay, waitresses, medical assistants, hairdressers. People would always like “a little more” or “a lot more,” even in non-writing jobs.

      I’ll always personally consider it a huge success when I hear “I was able to quit my day job just to write.” And if they can do that year in and year out, despite illnesses, aging parents, kids, no kids, no illnesses, natural disasters, divorces, relocations, then all the greater the success. I won’t minimize how HUGE that is in my eyes: the full time writer living decently off their income. Huge, especially when we hear (30 years ago, 2 years ago, today) what the “average” income of writers is estimated to be.


    • Well, if I’d made better life choices, right now I’d be an astronaut, instead of working tech support… except that even if I’d made all the right life choices, maybe I would have died in that house fire right as I was waiting on the ASCAN program response. Because life, random chance, and unforeseen events always have their own say in our plans!

      We do the best we can with what we’ve got. And KKR touched on income a few posts back – that if you get a surplus, sink it into paying off your debts & your house so it can’t go away when you have a bad year.

      We were doing fine on just Peter’s income, until we bought a house, and then had a year of multiple hospital adventures. Now I have a job, we have heath insurance, and we’re paying off medical debt and looking forward to the day that his income alone will be sufficient. It’s not failure; it’s just dealing with life and moving on.

      All the same, I like reading advice from people who’ve managed to make a go of it for decades. Kris and Dean are as honest about their failures as their successes – and if I don’t agree with them on a point, it’s often because we have different worldview and different priorities… and sometimes we’re using the same words to mean different things. (Bestseller, writing to market, career, audience, success… these words have many different meanings, especially when trad pub and indie authors are talking past each other.)

      • dorothy grant +++

      • Word, Dorothy! If I’d made better life choices, I would be a single archeologist with no children and probably have tenure somewhere respectable. But, that’s life. Hindsight, as I used to remind people, is 20/20. We can all see what we “should” have done, and it seems so simple.

        My career would be further along, but first my mother got sick (and died but was revived), then my father, then my son had issues, then my own health went haywire. All within three years. This is what DWS calls “life rolls”. Or, as the meme goes, sh*t happens.

        I’ve not been impressed by best sellers lists for a long time, probably three decades or so. It’s all smoke and mirrors. Now, if someone is the #1 author in Amazon’s whole store, that means they’ve really sold a lot of books. That is impressive, but still fleeting and somehow empty.

        What makes me happy is knowing that people who aren’t related to me have bought my books, and judging from the low return rates they’re getting something out of them.

        • I am very impressed with these regrets you and Dorothy Grant have: archaeologist and astronaut!

          Very cool. Had I made better life choices I’d be a foreign correspondent, but eh 🙂

          If it hasn’t happened already, may you and your families return to good health (and stay that way).

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