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Almost every writer dreams of being a bestselling author. But how much of the dream is real … and how much of it is fantasy? In this post, we're taking a close look at the “bestseller” label. We'll be separating bestselling truth from … well, fiction. We'll talk about some of the things that make a book a bestseller, some of the scams that prey on ambitious authors, and what authors should expect in their quest to be a bestseller—and why it's actually better to not focus on it.
Myth #1: Writing a bestseller will make you rich.
There’s a saying that goes “Even when there's money in publishing, there's not much money.” Many authors cling to the best-case-scenario anecdotes about authors who make six- or seven-figure book advances and sell millions of copies. The truth is, most book deals and advances can be pretty modest. Your sales can be even smaller.
Sometimes it doesn't take a lot to become an Amazon bestseller. The site’s algorithm doesn't just look at how many books you've sold but how quickly those books sold within a short time frame. Several years ago, author and entrepreneur Brent Underwood released a book called Putting My Foot Down. In it, he simply took a photo of his foot; created a cover, description, and author biography; and asked some friends to buy it. Within hours, he became a “bestselling author,” having sold only three books (two of which he purchased himself). The incident resulted in Amazon changing its algorithms, but it also demonstrated that sometimes an algorithm can be almost human in its ability to make mistakes.
Income reports have shown that many popular and bestselling authors struggle to survive on merely their book sales and barely scrape together enough money to live. In his Salon article “My Amazon Bestseller Made Me Nothing,” author Patrick Wensick admitted that despite media attention and being a bestseller for a week, he reportedly netted only $12,000 for his “bestselling” book. While authors cling to the hope that they might one day be a James Patterson, a Stephen King, or a J. K. Rowling—all of whom have earned tens of millions—the reality is that most authors are better off relying on the modest but steady sales of several books and using their bestseller status as a means of increasing their reach and reputation.
Myth #2: You can only make money as an author if your book is a bestseller.
This is related to the first myth, and it’s the fear of many authors who’ve decided that being on a bestseller list is the only true mark of success.
But it’s simply not true. There are some types of books that are typically excluded from bestseller lists—for example, the New York Times plainly explains in their methodology that they don’t actively track things like required classroom reading, textbooks, reference and test preparation guides, e-books available exclusively from a single vendor, workbooks, calorie counters, and shopping guides.
And there are plenty of working writers out there who make a solid living writing textbooks and reference guides—or who publish e-books available exclusively from a single vendor like Amazon. They may not be raking in the millions or be interviewed by Entertainment Weekly, but as thriller writer J.A. Konrath wrote, “Any writer who puts food on the table with their writing is successful. It doesn't matter if it is a box of mac and cheese, or caviar and champagne. Taking your career into your own hands, giving it your best shot, striving to do better... that's the American Dream.”
Myth #3: Anyone can claim their book is a bestseller.
With Amazon being such an enormous presence in the book industry, many authors think that they can get away with claiming they are a bestselling author. However, due to the number of false claims, Amazon is now carefully vetting any “bestseller” labels to ensure that the books do indeed qualify for the term.
Myth #4: If you hire the right firm, they can get you a spot on the list.
Many years ago, a small number of ambitious authors were so anxious for the fame and status of becoming a bestseller that they bought thousands of copies of their own books. Now, of course, booksellers and publications are wise to these kinds of tricks, and measures have been put into place to keep scammers at bay. Bulk book sales are now flagged. But that doesn't mean that some authors and scam artists aren't always looking for ways to game the system. Some scams to avoid include:
- “Book laundering” services: These are companies that—for a hefty fee—will purchase thousands of copies of your book (also at your expense) in a way that looks like the books are being purchased in smaller numbers, which evades “bulk purchase” safeguards.
- Companies and individuals who can “teach you” how to become a bestseller through their own books, courses, webinars, consulting, and more.
Right now, bookselling lists and databases have significant checks and balances designed to keep people from cheating their way to bestseller status. But scammers are innovative and always looking for a way to take authors' money. If any company or individual promises they get you on a bestseller list, that’s a red flag.
Myth #5: It’s worth your time and energy to do all you can to become a bestseller.
Sure, writing a bestselling book can improve an author's sales and reputation. It's a coveted honor, and it certainly offers attractive rewards. But it’s so far beyond your control that it’s not the best use of your time. So what do we recommend you do?
- Stop obsessively checking your sales ranking.
- Invest your energy into long-term marketing and promotional strategies, such as advertising, social media marketing, newsletters, and public appearances
- Remind yourself that your book is meant for your readers. Not for status or awards, but to share your work with the world.