This week, I reviewed American Sniper (not a fan). I found myself bewildered as to how such a terribly written book could become a “#1 Best Seller”. I felt sad for everyone who picked up a copy thinking that meant it would be a terrific read. This got me to thinking: what makes a “best seller”? How can you avoid the best sellers that aren’t worth your time?
What Is A “Best Seller”?
The term “best seller” was first used in The Kansas Times & Star back in 1889, but the idea has been around basically as long as books have been mass-produced. The phrase is generally understood to indicate a book that has sold more than others over a given period (or is more frequently borrowed, don’t forget about your local library!).
Lists of these “best sellers” are published by various newspapers, magazines, and book-stores, the most widely-recognised ones being Publishers Weekly, the Washington Post, Amazon.com, and – of course – the New York Times (more on that one in a minute). Best seller lists are usually divided into categories – popular fiction, non-fiction, cookbooks, and so on – to make sure you’re not comparing apples and oranges.
The most important thing to understand is that the term “best seller” is associated only with copies sold or borrowed, so it has nothing to do with the book has academic or literary merit. As such, it is used very loosely by book publicists and publishers. They know that a book with “best seller” printed on the cover will (funnily enough) sell more copies than a book that is advertised as simply being “really good”. That’s the power of social proof for ya!
How Are Best Sellers Calculated?
It depends on the list, who publishes it, and why. Usually, best seller lists rely on sales data over a specific period – maybe a week, a month, or a year.
That’s a super-important factor, because the sales period is really the main determining factor in a book’s rank (or, indeed, whether a book appears at all). A classic book (like, say, Moby Dick) might sell way more books over a period of fifty years than a current book (like, say, Still Alice), but guess which one is going to make a best seller list calculated on a specific week of 2007?
Plus, think about what happens to books the week that the movie adaptation is released. People see ads for the movie, decide to buy the book before they see it, and all of a sudden – for just one or two weeks – a book that is 5-10 years old (or older!) is back on top of the list.
To put it another way: if best seller lists covered total sales from all time, The Bible would be in the number one spot every week.
Another really important factor in determining whether a book is a “best seller” is the category into which it is placed. The New York Times famously created a separate “Children’s Books” list in 2001, because Harry Potter had dominated the first, second, and third places in their fiction list for so long.
If the categories are narrow or niche (“21st century female memoir”, “children’s books by Australian authors”, “Young Adult fantasy hardcovers”), a book doesn’t have to sell all that many copies to make it to the top. If, on the other hand, the categories are really broad (“fiction” and “non-fiction”), the book would have to go like the clappers to even get a look-in at the top ten.
What all this means is that, while the number of copies sold does “count” in calculating whether a book is a “best seller”, it’s not the only factor (and it’s definitely not the most important factor). There’s a tonne of other things that go into these calculations, too: whether the book is hardcover or paperback, whether its sales are wholesale to book chains or private orders for independent bookstores or online orders, whether the author has previously had a best seller…
As complicated as it sounds, people have still found ways to game the system (of course). In 1995, the authors of The Discipline of Market Leaders personally ordered 10,000 copies of their own book through small bookstores that they knew were influential in the calculation of best seller figures. It worked, believe it or not: they made the top 10 in a bunch of the lists, and the authors laughed all the way to the bank.
The most widely-recognised list of all – the New York Times Best Seller List – remains a bit of a mystery. It’s been going since 1931, published each week in The New York Times Book Review. The exact method used to compile this particular list is literally a classified trade secret. As best we can tell, it’s based on weekly sales reports from selected independent and chain bookstores in the U.S., but no one really knows for sure. The secrecy is designed to prevent people from rigging the system (authors of The Discipline of Market Leaders, we’re looking at you!), but it also means that readers – like you and I – can’t really evaluate the value of its recommendations, because we don’t know where they come from.
For as long as there have been best seller lists, there have been criticisms of them, and they all boil down to pretty much the same thing: best seller lists can’t be relied upon to tell us which books are worthwhile. A classic book will always outsell this week’s flash-in-a-pan garbage celebrity memoir over time, but that’s not going to be reflected in a list that only takes this week or this month into account. Some lists are prone to double-counting, because they take into account both wholesale and retail sales, which gives us a false sense of how many people are buying and enjoying those books. And, most worryingly, there will always be authors and publishers that try to game the system, and the reader will (almost) never know when that has happened.
So, ultimately, the message is this: take best seller lists with a grain of salt. All they can really tell us is which books sold a lot of copies over a given period of time, and even then they can’t do that 100% accurately.
As you can see, it’s not that hard for a really average book to make it to the top of a best seller list. Best seller lists really aren’t your best guide to what’s worth reading – sometimes they get it right (check out my list of best sellers that ARE worth reading here), but there are plenty of best sellers that aren’t worth your time (or your hard-earned cash!). Have you read any terrible best sellers lately? Let me know in the comments below (or name and shame them over at KUWTP on Facebook!).
August 24, 2018 at 10:39 AM
Were you in on that big story last year when an author purposely cheated her way onto the bestseller list? She manipulated sales and orders. It was scandalous. Library Goodreads and ALA forums were in arms.
I’m a little questioning our bookish friendship since Twilight is on your list and you haven’t read it. But, I kinda think you’d hate it. Heck, you’d hate it. I’m not going to lie, I am a fan. As a librarian, it got EVERYONE reading just like Fifty Shades, and YUP, I’M A FAN even though it was f’ed up. I agree, it needed serious editing. I rolled my eyes A LOT. I had no idea she was an indie author originally.
OH MAN, and the Maze Runner. F’!!! Ok, I get that none of these should be “bestsellers” or top reads, but I enjoy them for the fluff that they are. I did like the Maze Rummer, though. It’s not comparable to Twilight or 50.
I respect your opinions. I’m like those little old ladies who come into the library and only read best-selling Patterson books (who doesn’t even write his own sh*t anymore).
P.S. My WP reader is clearly censoring you, which is a problem. It’s been picky all week, and even though I am signed up for in app notifications it won’t notify me of new posts. Gah! WTF WP? Last week it doubled up my follows and wouldn’t let me comment on posts.
I hope we can still be friends since I just followed you on FB ; )
Christine, The Uncorked Librarian
August 24, 2018 at 3:31 PM
I’m here for fluff!! I love a good fluff (haha). And if people read 50 Shades of Grey or Twilight or any of the rest and really enjoy them and get a kick out of them, I wholeheartedly support and respect that 😉 As I said, I’m not here to shit all over something that brings people joy. I guess what I was hoping to get at with the list is that choosing books purely on the basis that they’re “popular” or “best sellers” is not a winning strategy, and you’re going to end up reading a lot of books that you won’t necessarily enjoy and aren’t necessarily that great.
I debated long and hard with myself about whether to include Twilight, seeing as (you quite astutely point out) I hadn’t read it, BUT if I hadn’t included it I’m sure I would have been flooded with responses going BUT WHAT ABOUT TWILIGHT?! (it’s happened before! hahaha).
I’m sure our bookish friendship can survive a difference of opinion about Twilight and WP gremlins 😛 I’m so loving following your stuff, and I’m so grateful to have you to bounce back and forth on all things bookish! 😀
August 24, 2018 at 11:01 PM
Update: now WP reader is censoring ME. It’s not notifying me of my own posts, dear lord!
I hope one day you do skim through Twilight. Curiosity always gets the best of me with “best sellers.” Like Gone Girl and Girl on the Train, I just HAVE to know why everyone is picking up these titles. When I sat at the reference desk, I wanted to be up to date and know what was trending. Now that I work from home, that isn’t the case as much. I actually feel a little left out.
You can totally shit all over our joy lol. It makes me laugh, and I love controversial opinions over books. Makes them even more interesting!!
August 26, 2018 at 1:28 PM
Hahaha I’m sure I will pick it up at some point, I’m exactly the same way!! That’s where this whole blog project came about: I fell into this rut of only re-reading a handful of my own favourites, and I felt like I was missing out on what everything else was reading. It’s actually been really great to read some crap bestsellers and classics, books I’d never pick up myself – there’s been a couple of pleasant surprises, AND I’m always 100% honest in my reviews no matter what, so I almost always find I’m not alone and there’s someone else that hated a super-popular book too 😂❤️
August 24, 2018 at 11:10 AM
It’s so American to think that because a book has sold a lot of copies it must be good – or regardless of quality, I ought to buy it too!
I try to stay out of this trap – I’ve been disappointed too often to rely on such criteria for book selection.
August 24, 2018 at 3:36 PM
Hahahaha well, if it makes you feel better Lory, I think a lot of us Aussies fall victim to it, too. 😉 Keep fighting it, though, and I’m sure you’ll continue uncovering more less-popular-but-more-brilliant gems!
August 27, 2018 at 6:00 PM
These are some fascinating facts about best seller lists. I had no idea that the New York Times kept its methodology a secret. As I think that you know, I tend not to read many best sellers. I think that some of the historical biographies that I read over the years may have fit under the category.
I have not read Twilight. I have a friend who I know considers herself a strong feminist who loves the series. That does not really say anything about any underlying message. However. I will ask her what she thinks.
August 28, 2018 at 12:59 PM
Yep, they’re keeping it under their hats, and I understand why – if the methodology is public, (1) there’s nothing to stop other outlets recreating it and scooping you before each one is released, and (2) it’s too easy for unscrupulous writers/authors to game the system. I’ve really only started ticking off best sellers (aside from Harry Potter, which doesn’t really count) since I started this project – it’s been eye opening! 😉
August 29, 2018 at 11:58 PM
Add to this absolutely anything by Dan Brown – dreadful.
However I’m as much a victim of junk fiction as anyone – really enjoying “they thirst” https://www.amazon.com/They-Thirst-Robert-McCammon/dp/0671735632/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8 once upon a time.
I guess the impact of all this nonsense is why a number of people (myself included) stick within genre that they love and largely to proven authors.
I can’t waste any more life reading dreadful fiction.
August 30, 2018 at 7:19 PM
Hey, EVERYONE has a guilty-pleasure junk read – it’s like Macdonalds for the brain! No shame 😉👍🏼
August 30, 2018 at 12:35 AM
I just got around to reading The Kite Runner in April this year, and UGHH! I hated every word of it. I’ve only talked to one other person who shares my loathing for it. Haa! Anyway, just discovered your blog through Modern Mrs. Darcy and it seems like we’re on similar quests to read the greats. I’ll definitely be keeping up with you. 🙂
August 30, 2018 at 7:20 PM
Yes, I’ve just found yours too, loving it!!! 😉👍🏼 I’m sure I came across another blogger that hated The Kite Runner too, I’ll see if I can dig out their review and send you the link… It’s always reassuring to know you’re not alone!!
August 30, 2018 at 12:37 PM
They tell us such a lot about herd mentality too. Humans must be a bit like sheep, no matter what anyone says, and our tendency to be swayed by gauges such as these are a sort of proof. Going with the majority has merit in some ways, but you’ve reminded me of the length some authors have taken to get themselves on bestseller lists, including buying all copies of their books off shelves across entire cities. I haven’t been tempted by any of those on your list except The Secret, and I admit the lure to transform my life got to me 🙂 I’m glad for your tip about Artemis, since we loved The Martian, but wondered if the new one would come close. Thanks for another interesting and informative post.
August 30, 2018 at 7:22 PM
The power of social proof knows no bounds 😉👍🏼 Immediately after finishing The Martian, I thought “oooh, yeah, got to read the follow up”, but then I checked out a couple of reviews and… well, inclusion of Artemis in this list is testament enough hahaha. I won’t be rushing to check it out. Thank you so much!! ❤️
September 24, 2018 at 10:30 PM
For my sins I have read Twilight and its sequels. Trust me, you don’t need to read them to know they are bad on so many levels! Of course I also don’t want to trash the enjoyment of reading that many have got from these books. However, the books presentation of abusive relationships and the grooming of children as romantic is too disturbing. Meanwhile there are now many excellent books to encourage young adults to read!
Disappointed to hear about the background of the Maze Runner’s author. My son recently got into these books when he noticed them in a charity shop. Maybe that’s why they were there! Oh dear…
September 25, 2018 at 12:59 PM
I’m with you: I’m not here to yuck anyone’s yums, but I think young women learning about relationships through Twilight and developing (demonstrably unhealthy) models for their own as a result is a legitimate concerns. I’m certainly not on any book-snobbery high horse here: I read the entire Fifty Shades trilogy, so there you go 😉
Re: James Dashner – I’m really not in a position to comment on the content of The Maze Runner series itself as I said, I’m yet to read it (though it’s on The List, so a review is coming soon), but yeah, the author is probably not a guy I’d want to sit next to at dinner. It comes back to the ol’ can-you-separate-the-artist-from-the art debate, and there’s probably an entire blog post (hell, an entire blog) we could dedicate to that question… Ultimately, though, as long as your son is reading and enjoying it, that’s surely the most important thing <3 I'm sure if there's anyone in a position to encourage him to think critically about his content and its sources, it's you 😉
April 17, 2019 at 7:31 AM
Totally agree with Artemis. I expected so much after The Martian and got so little. I also really dislike Twilight, but it definitely deserves its bestsellers status for getting so many people into reading.
April 18, 2019 at 5:29 PM
True! Same for 50 Shades Of Grey – not a great book by any stretch, but any book that gets people reading is doing great work 😍