One of the most common questions I get in my line of work is how to become a bestselling author. And for good reason. Having your book be a bestseller is, for many, the ultimate symbol of success for their book. It means your book sold more than many others in its category, and can be used as a stamp of credibility for you and your brand in perpetuity.
But while I’ve worked on quite a few successful bestseller campaigns myself over the years, and think that there is some merit to pursuing this as a marketing path for your book in certain situations, for most books, I actually think bestseller campaigns are a waste of time, energy, and money.
In this article, I’ll tell you why. But along the way, I also want to educate you about the world of bestsellers: what that title actually means, why it’s beneficial, and how to do it.
Let’s go through these one-by-one. If you want to skip around, you can use these links to do so:
- What, exactly, do we mean by bestseller?
- What are the benefits of being a bestseller?
- What’s required to become a bestseller?
- Should you try to become a bestseller?
What, exactly, is a bestselling book?
When you hear someone call themselves a bestselling author or describe their book as a bestseller, it sounds impressive, but it’s often not very descriptive. The label “bestselling” could apply to your book meeting a myriad of different criteria. It could be an Amazon bestseller, which has its own standards, or it could be a New York Times bestseller, which is something different altogether. So in order to determine if you want to pursue a bestseller campaign, you first need to identify which kind of bestseller you want to be and then realistically assess if you can actually pull it off.
Bestsellers fall into two general buckets: weekly bestsellers and hourly bestsellers. And each has their own different categories.
Weekly bestsellers are the creme de la creme of bestseller lists. The most prestigious among them is the New York Times list, but they also include the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Publisher’s Weekly, the LA Times, and more. Amazon has also recently launched their own weekly lists called “Amazon Charts”, which are calculated more like the other weekly lists than their category-based bestseller lists (see below). While each of these lists uses their own, secret algorithm to calculate which books make the cut, and each focuses on different genre classifications, they all have some universal characteristics.
First off, they are calculated on a (you guessed it) weekly basis. That means that they are looking at the total sales a book has over an entire week. One important thing to remember about these weekly lists is that the time that matters most is when the book is shipped, not when it is purchased. For example, if a book is pre-ordered in May, but shipped when the book goes live in the first week of September, the sale will count in September, not in May. This is a crucial wrinkle to understand if you’re trying to “bank” a lot of pre-orders to use for a weekly bestseller campaign at launch.
The other defining characteristic of these weekly lists is that they are not simply based on sales. They also take into account how these sales are distributed. For example, geographic distribution is important, and most weekly lists want to see strong sales in regions across the country. Most weekly lists also want to see sales coming from a wide variety of sales platforms, both on and offline. That means if a book only sells thousands of copies through Amazon, and has light sales in bookstores, it won’t rank on the weekly lists.
What’s the point of all this? Bestseller lists want to maintain the integrity of their brand, and there have been many authors and bestseller companies who try to game the system and essentially “buy” or “hack” their way onto bestseller lists. The thinking goes that if a book is selling across all regions and platforms, it must be an authentic bestseller.
Of course, it’s possible to hack those criteria as well, but there are further protections for that. Namely, most of the weeklies are editorialized. That means a person (or team of people) is reviewing all the sales and distribution data and then making a choice about which books are actually bestselling in their expert opinion. On one hand, this is a good thing because it helps them to protect the integrity of the list by “spotting” books that are trying to game the system. On the other hand, it makes it harder for “unknown” authors and books to make a splash onto a list in their first week.
For example, I ran a Wall Street Journal bestseller campaign several years ago for an author who had never been on a bestseller list before. Even though we had the third highest sales among business books (which the Wall St Journal focuses on) that week, and those sales were distributed widely across regions and platforms, we didn’t make the list! Above us were a bunch of books that were either written by famous authors and/or had been on the lists for many weeks prior. Lesson? Weekly list editors will assume that a spike in sales from an unknown author that is seemingly out of nowhere, must be gaming the system. And if you’re self-publishing (rather than going with a traditional publisher), your chances of being editorialized off the list are even greater.
Finally, weekly lists require a lot more sales than the hourlies. In order to make one of the New York Times’ bestseller lists, for example you’ll need to sell anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000 copies in any given week. And like I said above, you’re still not guaranteed to make it. In the Wall St. Journal campaign I mentioned above, we sold over 8,000 copies in one week and didn’t make a list where #1 had sold 12,000 that week and #10 had sold 1,500. The bottom line is that if you want to outcompete the other books in your genre, you’ll need to sell thousands of books in a very short period of time. And even if you’re one of the top selling books in that period, you could still miss the list.
Hourly (AKA Amazon) Bestsellers
In all honesty, this category should really be called “Amazon bestsellers,” because they are the primary platform that calculates bestsellers on an hourly basis. Barnes & Noble also does this, but they are a distant second to Amazon when it comes to online sales, so for the purposes of this blog, we’re going to focus on the house that Mr. Bezos built.
Most of the blogs and buzz about how to run a bestseller campaign these days is focused on Amazon. Why? Becoming an Amazon bestseller is FAR easier than hitting one of the weekly lists. In fact, pretty much anyone can become a bestseller in one of Amazon’s myriad genre categories if they apply a little ingenuity and/or money. That’s why, I believe, that the Amazon bestseller label has become pretty watered down, and doesn’t have much value (and one of the reasons they have recently launched a weekly list called Amazon Charts). That said, if you hit a bestseller list of any kind, you can technically call yourself a bestselling author. So it could be worth it.
So what is an Amazon bestseller? It essentially means that your book is in the top ten in any Amazon category at any given time (they update their rankings every hour). Being in the top ten isn’t a technical requirement; it’s more of a generally accepted industry guideline. The best way for me to explain it is to show you:
- Go to the main page for Amazon bestsellers. Here you’ll see a list of all the “overall” bestselling books on Amazon right now (calculated hourly). In this main category, every single genre is included, so it’s more difficult to be in the top one hundred here than in a more specific category.
- Now click on one of the general categories on the left side of the screen. Let’s go with Health, Fitness & Dieting for fun. Now you’ll see a new, more specific list of all bestsellers in this smaller category.
- But what makes Amazon bestsellers so easy to achieve is that you can keep drilling down into more subcategories. Let’s choose Exercise and Fitness. Another list of bestsellers, this time from an even smaller pool of competitors.
- We can now one more level down to Yoga and we’ve hit the “smallest” possible category of bestsellers.
So your book has a chance to be a bestseller in every layer of this Amazon onion, starting at “Overall” and working all the way down to Yoga. That’s four different lists you can make. What’s more is that you can enter your book into up to ten different subcategories!
And like I said before, you really only have to be in the top ten at any level in any given hour, which requires only a handful of sales. For example, here’s a list from one of our clients’ campaigns outlining how many hourly sales on average it requires to be #1 or #10 in any given category. You can see that for the smaller categories, you only need to sell 15 books in an hour!
A note about ebooks vs print books. For both weekly and Amazon bestseller categories, ebook and print books are counted separately. This will affect your strategy for trying to get on the lists, because you’re usually going to want your marketing efforts to focus on one or the other.
We’ll go into more detail about how to actually run a bestseller campaign lower down in the article, but first let’s talk about the benefits.
What are the benefits of becoming a bestseller?
Before we go any further, it’s important to review the key benefits to being able to label your book as a bestseller and you as a bestselling author so you can make your own decisions about whether or not you think it’s worth it.
Below are the main benefits to being a bestseller. Please note that each reason will vary in significance depending on whether you’re a weekly or an Amazon bestseller. I’ve noted in the title of each whether the benefit applies for both or just one.
Sales (Only Weeklies)
The most “oh, duh” benefit to becoming a best seller is that you get a lot of book sales. Not only will that lead to more royalties for you, but most people say that the best marketing for books is word of mouth; and by getting your book into the hands of more readers, your chances of them telling others about it increases dramatically. This, of course, is predicated upon the fact that your book really is great and the kind of thing people will talk about.
It should be noted, however, that this “sales” benefit really only applies to the weekly bestsellers that will require that you sell thousands of books in a week. For Amazon bestseller campaigns, your sales will be much lower. We’ll go into that in more detail in the next section.
Exposure (Mostly Weeklies)
Another benefit to making a bestseller list is that your book will appear on that list and be seen by the thousands (more like millions for the NY Times) of people who view the lists both online and in print. Many people love to check out the more reputable bestseller lists like the NY Times or the Wall St Journal to find their next good read, so getting your book on one of them could be a huge boon for your exposure.
Like the first category above, this “exposure” benefit is mostly for the weekly lists that have much larger exposure than the Amazon lists. There is a decent amount of traffic for the “overall” bestseller lists on Amazon and some of the top level categories, but it pales in comparison to the weeklies. Plus, since the Amazon lists are cultivated hourly, your book is likely only going to be listed there for a short period of time, which will also limit your exposure.
In my view, the biggest benefit to becoming a bestselling author is that you and your book get to add that title to your resume forever. Once you make a bestseller list, regardless of which kind, you can call yourself a bestselling author forever; you can call your book a bestseller forever. And you can list this impressive tag in as many places as possible: in your bio, on your website, in the descriptive copy of your book on Amazon, etc. You can even redesign your cover to add a “bestseller” symbol or language.
This is why most people run bestseller campaigns. Being a bestselling author can be a boon to your career, as a writer or otherwise. If you’re a business consultant, for example, and you’ve published a bestselling book on your subject, it gives you more authority in the eyes of potential clients. You can get more gigs and charge higher fees.
It also lends credibility to the book itself. If you let potential buyers know that your book is “bestselling,” regardless of whether you made the NY Times or an obscure Amazon sub-sub-sub-category list, they are more likely to think of it as a high quality product and therefore buy it. This is one of the reasons that Amazon bestsellers are starting to carry less and less weight. You can still use the moniker “bestseller” regardless of what kind you are, and it will be effective to a degree, but consumers (and especially media) are getting wise to people gaming the Amazon system in order to “say” they are a bestseller.
Pretty much anyone who writes a book would love for it to become a bestseller. There’s a certain kind of validation and pride that comes from this stamp of approval. And while most of us wouldn’t admit it, simply “being” a bestselling author feels pretty cool; and is often driving our desire to run campaigns to a significant degree.
I personally think this is fine. Why not get to have the good feeling of considering yourself a bestselling author after doing all that work to write it? Especially if you earned it!
What’s required to become a bestseller? (aka, how do you do it?)
Okay, now that we’ve done all this work to explain what exactly a bestseller is and why it’s beneficial to become one, it’s time to get down to the nitty gritty of how to pull it off. I’m going to tackle these two categories one at a time, because the strategy behind becoming a weekly bestseller is VERY different from being an Amazon bestseller.
Hitting a Weekly Bestseller List
Before I go any further, let me say that unless you have either a huge marketing budget or a large and extensive existing platform of followers, hitting a weekly bestseller list is virtually impossible. Some companies have figured out how to game the system and get your book on the list, but their campaigns run in the tens of thousands of dollars.
But if you have the budget and platform, here are a few tips you can implement to pull it off:
- Bank a lot of pre-orders. The good news about weekly bestsellers is that they are calculated the week that your book is shipped, not when it’s purchased. So if you can accumulate a lot of orders prior to launch date, all of those sales will be counted the week the book goes live, which is when Amazon (and other online retailers) will fulfill the orders. There are a lot of ways to build pre-orders, which I won’t go into too much detail about now. Remember, we’re talking about sales volumes in the thousands, so if you’re really trying to hit a weekly list, I recommend banking at least 1,000 pre-orders and try to have them distributed across multiple online retailers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books A Million, etc). You can also bank pre-orders yourself (as opposed to via an online retailer) and then fulfill them strategically during launch week. This tactic is outlined below.
- Get national media attention. This is easier said than done, especially if there’s nothing newsworthy about your book. You’re probably not going to get booked on CNN, for example, if you have a book about a new approach to leadership. But the media landscape is changing rapidly, and most people now get a lot of their content through podcasts or social media, which have global reach. If you can hire a publicist to pitch you to popular podcasts in your niche or genre, you can garner significant sales. You’ll want to focus as much of this media during your bestseller week as possible, and do some in advance of release to get pre-orders.
- Book speaking events during launch week. The old days of going from bookstore to bookstore giving talks are numbered, but live speaking events are a great way to sell a lot of books in a short period of time. You can do this via in-person events, like conferences, where you get booked as a speaker. Or you can do this virtually via online summits. You could even organize your own virtual event during launch week and promote it to your network. You could even invite a well-known person to join you in order to access their networks as well.
- Run an email sales campaign. While email isn’t as powerful as it used to be with the rise of social media, it is still the most effective way to get a lot of people to do something all at once. So it’s important that your bestseller campaign include a significant email blast. If you have a big list yourself, you should definitely hit it hard during pre-launch and during launch week. But you shouldn’t stop there. Find partners to email their lists. Some will do this as favors; others will do it for a reciprocal mailing to your list. There are even email lists of book readers on platforms like BookBub that you can buy. If you’re trying to hit a weekly list, you’re going to want your total number of email subscribers who are receiving a message about your book to be in the millions.
- Bank orders and fulfill them via bookstores. One method that I have used in past campaigns, and that I’ve read about others doing variations on, is setting up a way to bank your own pre-orders, then fulfill those sales through a wide variety of bookstores during launch week. The logic behind this is that the most elusive element of the mostly secret algorithms that the weekly lists use is having good sales from bookstores across the country in addition to strong Amazon sales. The idea is that you offer people the opportunity to buy a book directly from you on a website and take their address and payment. You then fulfill those orders via bookstores during launch week. Here’s a curated list of 100 bookstores around the country that report sales to Bookscan, which is what the weekly lists use to get official sales numbers, that I used for a past campaign (warning, it may not be up-to-date). You can bank these sales in whatever way you choose, through the kinds of marketing vehicles listed above, or find other creative ways to incentivize pre-orders. Some people will offer some kind of bonus (like a free digital gift) in return for these kinds of pre-orders. Others will offer discounts if people buy in bulk. The key is to bank as many of these sales as possible and then fulfill them via bookstores that report to the weekly lists!
- Work closely with your publisher. If you’re going to run something as big and complex as a bestseller campaign, it’s crucial that you work closely with your publisher and their team to pull it off. There are two dimensions to this collaboration: marketing opportunities and distribution coordination.
- On the first point, your publisher will have their own marketing team that can give you access to opportunities you can’t get on your own. For example, many publishers can get you deals promoting your book in Barnes & Noble or in airport bookstores. It’s important to pick their brains thoroughly as you build your plan.
- The second dimension is coordinating with the publisher so that enough books are printed for your launch to be able to fulfill all the orders during launch week. If you’re trying to sell 7-10k books in the first week, for example, you’ll need to make sure that the publisher prints enough copies in their initial print run to cover that number. And those copies will need to be available across a wide variety of distribution channels. It’s crucial that you are as transparent as possible with your publisher about your plans so they can make sure they support your effort. Be prepared for them to need “proof” that you’re going to do what you say you’re going to do. Publishers tend to be risk averse and don’t want to print extra books unless you can give them confidence that you’ll be able to sell them.
- Hire a company. There are a handful of companies that you can pay to run a weekly bestseller campaign for you. The most infamous is ResultSource, whose semi-shady methods have led many of the weekly bestseller lists to upgrade their review methods to identify people who are attempting to game the system. But there are others. Do your homework and make sure you’re extremely careful in who you choose to work with. There are a lot of snake oil salesmen out there in the book industry. One company that I can vouch for is Authors Unite. They run bestseller campaigns for ebooks only, focusing on getting books onto either the USA Today or Wall St. Journal list. They are pricey (upwards of $60k for a campaign), but they will give you your money back if you don’t hit one of the target lists. Again, there are a lot of dubious claims out there when it comes to bestseller campaigns, so screen potential companies thoroughly if you choose to go that route.
A final caveat. I’ve said this before, but I want to say it again. You can do everything I listed above, spend tens of thousands of dollars, and sell enough books to make a weekly bestseller list and still be left off by the lists’ curator. So please remember that there are no guarantees!
How to Become An Amazon Bestseller
As I’ve explained earlier in this article, making it onto an Amazon bestseller list is FAR easier than making it onto one of the weekly lists. Why?
- Amazon bestsellers are calculated hourly not weekly, and therefore require only a short spike in sales instead of a prolonged wave.
- Also, you can become a bestseller in a specific subcategory for your book (or many subcategories for that matter), which means that you are competing against far fewer books than on the weekly lists, and require less sales.
- You can focus your sales on one platform, Amazon, and don’t have to generate sales in bookstores and across regions.
- There are no editors curating these lists. They are COMPLETELY based on the number of sales you generate. So it’s easier to create outcomes.
So how do you do it? First, let’s talk about a few of the general rules you need to follow in order to become an Amazon bestseller, then we’ll go into some specific tactics for how to apply these rules:
- Get your book into as many small subcategories as possible. The more specific the subcategories you can get your book assigned to, the less sales will be required to achieve a top 10 sales ranking. (Here’s a list from a recent campaign outlining how many sales are required for a bunch of different categories). Whether you are self-publishing or working with a publisher, your book will initially only be listed in three categories. But there’s a trick for adding up to 10. Create an Amazon Author Central account and then add your book to the account. This will not only allow you to update your Amazon profile, you can use the Amazon Author Central portal to access direct customer service (via live chat or phone). You can call them up and ask them to add your book to more subcategories, up to ten total for both print and ebook.
- Focus your sales on a short time window. Amazon calculates their bestsellers on an hourly basis and is technically looking for which books sold the most copies in a specific category in any given hour. Therefore, you want to focus your sales as much as you can on one specific hour. They do give some weight to your ranking in previous hours, so you’ll want to spread out your sales over a longer period of time (6-12 hours), starting slowly and rising to the peak hour you’re trying to maximize.
- Individual sales are better than bulk sales. While it’s not completely clear just exactly how Amazon calculates sales, there is a lot of evidence suggesting that multiple smaller sales are given more weight than bulk sales. That means that 10 separate purchases of one book each (regardless of who makes the purchase) will help you more than one sale of 10 books.
- Focus on one country. As you may know, Amazon has sub-sites for each country. For example, if you’re in Canada, you buy your books through Amazon.ca. In India, it’s Amazon.in. Bestsellers are calculated by country and internationally distributed sales aren’t thrown into the same basket. So it’s best to focus your campaign on one country market, because “international sales” won’t help your ranking.
- Bestsellers are format specific. Ebook bestsellers and print bestsellers are calculated separately, so you’ll want to choose the main format you’re emphasizing. It’s impossible to control this completely, because potential buyers visiting your Amazon page will choose the format they prefer. But there are some things you can do, like temporarily lowering the price of the ebook, to keep buyers focused on one format.
Okay, now that we know the “rules,” here are some specific strategies you can use to optimize your chances of becoming an Amazon bestseller:
- Get your “tribe” on board to help you hit an Amazon bestseller list. Everyone has a group of people that they can turn to for favors. For some of us, it’s family, friends, and professional connections. For others who have some semblance of a following (on social media, an email list, people who have taken online courses from you, etc). When you’re running a bestseller campaign, it’s crucial to identify your “tribe” and then get them onboard to help you achieve your goal. You can reach out to them in advance your campaign to get them excited about your book and ask them to help you make it a bestseller. Remember, no tribe is too small to have an impact. Even getting 10 people on board to help you out during your launch can launch you into bestseller status within the very specific subcategories. You can then give them some very specific “asks” towards that goal, including:
- Buying at least one copy of your book during the “peak hour” of your campaign. Make sure to include direct links to the proper format of your book on Amazon, and then remind them at least once when it’s time to take action.
- Suggest that they buy multiple copies as gifts and to do so as individual purchases during the peak hours.
- Ask them to leave a customer review on Amazon. This will help make other buyers who visit your page more likely to buy.
- Ask them to spread the word about your book to their networks (via social media and/or email) and provide them with the “assets” they need to do so, including copy, images, and links. Suggest that they make their announcement during the day of your launch.
- Run an ebook-specific price promotion. One tactic that many people use to boost the sales ranking of their ebook is to drop the price temporarily to $0.99 during the several days leading up to your peak launch. You can then build your price promo into all the other marketing you do around the launch. You’ll lose some royalty $$, of course, but this could be worth it if you can hit a bestseller list.
- Hold a virtual event during your peak bestseller hour. One great way to get a lot of people to buy your book during a specific period of time, is to hold a virtual event during your peak launch hour. You can do this solo or invite a guest with a big following to have a dialogue. You can make it a live event broadcast via various social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, etc), and promote it via your email lists. This is a great way to get viewers to take action during the event.
- Buy copies of your book for all your friends and family. This might seem a little shady, but if you’re willing to pay retail price for your own book (as opposed to the author price), you can order copies for the people in your life that you think would be interested; and make those orders during your peak hour.
- Get access to email lists. You can reach out to members of your tribe that you know have large email lists and ask them to do a mailing during your peak hour. You can offer to reciprocate by promoting something of theirs to your own list. You can even “buy” access to various book-specific email lists from companies like BookBub.
Should you try to become a bestseller?
Now that we’ve gone over the definitions and required tactics for the different kinds of bestseller lists, it’s time to answer the question: should you try to become a bestseller?
Of course, everyone has to answer this question for themselves. Each person’s book, platform, budget, and inclinations are different. But while I can’t answer this question for you, I can give you some parameters to aid your calculus. And because the requirements for hitting weekly vs Amazon lists are so different, I’ll address each of them separately.
When to Go For An Amazon Bestseller List
Because the bar for achieving bestseller status in one of Amazon’s subcategories is so low, it can be a realistic goal for even novice authors. But it isn’t necessarily for everyone. Here are a few criteria I suggest you have in place in order to pursue an Amazon bestseller campaign:
- You have access to large networks of email subscribers or social media followers that you can activate to take action during a finite period of time.
- You have access to a passionate group of grassroots followers or a family/professional network who are willing to buy books (ideally more than one) during a finite period of time.
- You are willing to invest in growing one or both of the above prior to launch.
When to Go for a Weekly Bestseller List
Due to the extremely competitive nature of the weekly bestseller lists, I rarely suggest that authors go this route. My feeling is that if you have the marketing muscle to actually pull off making a weekly list, then you probably don’t need to be overly focused on it. It should be a natural result of your efforts and reach. That said, here are a few criteria:
- First, you’ll need to meet the criteria from the Amazon bestseller section above, but at a much larger scale. Your email subscribership should be at least in the tens of thousands, and your social media followers should be twice that. Ideally, you’d have direct access (via email or social media) to promote your book to at least a million people.
- You should have a traditional publisher. Not only will this give you the institutional infrastructure required to pull off a bestseller campaign, but you’ll be much more likely to get past the “gatekeepers” who curate the bestseller lists. Self-published books (or those published by hybrid publishers) still have a stigma in the eyes of weekly list editors, and will likely be disqualified, even if sales are strong.
- You should have a widely popular book. If you’re writing about the culinary habits of 19th century immigrants in Minnesota, for example, the target audience for your book probably isn’t large enough to get you onto a list.
- Your book needs to be good. This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised at how often this is overlooked. By “good,” I don’t mean the Pulitzer prize. I mean that it should be unique enough (in its topic, story, or advice) to stand out from its competition and compel people to buy it. And then it needs to be well-written enough to make those who read it tell their friends. Nothing sells a book better than those who’ve read it becoming a “true fan” of your work.
- You have a marketing budget in the tens of thousands of dollars. You’ll want to hire a publicist, put money into email and digital marketing, actively grow your social media accounts, and potentially buy access to email lists. This all costs money and you’ll need a lot of it to hit a weekly list.
- You should be okay with failure, both financially and personally. Again, I’ve worked on campaigns that hit the NY Times lists and I’ve worked on some that didn’t. There’s just no guarantee, so you need to be able to survive not hitting the list. Don’t go into your savings account to pay for it!
Okay, we’ve gotten to the end of this extraordinarily long exploration of all things bestsellers. I hope you’ve found it useful! If you’d like to learn more about how my company can help you with any aspect of your book (from production to promotion), we have a lot of services and courses available. Please reach out!
Also, if you have any advice related to bestseller campaigns from your own experience. I’d love to hear about it! This is a vast, complex, and ever-changing topic, so it’s important to always stay up to date and do your homework!