It’s time we had a heart to heart about the term “Amazon Bestseller.”

I first started noticing the phrase come up on social media about a year ago. “I just released my new book and it’s already a bestseller!!!” some excited poster would say. Intrigued, I’d click through to their Amazon listing only to find a book with a couple of reviews and a sales ranking that indicated they were selling maybe 2 or 3 books a day. And I’d think, How is that a bestseller?

Eventually, I realized people were talking about placement in a particular category. They’d get to the #1 (or close) spot in a particular category and claim “bestseller” status. At some point (I’m not sure when) Amazon started awarding a cheery orange banner to any book that got to #1 in any category, proclaiming them “bestsellers.” 

bu1Well, okay. If Amazon’s calling you a bestseller, I can see why you’d be tempted to run with it, but it still seemed a bit dubious.

The term “bestseller” implies a lot of sales, which implies popularity and social proof, and it’s pretty easy to tell if a book is selling well (based on my own ranking/sales, I’d say this Kindle calculator gives fairly accurate numbers.) If you say you’re a bestseller and you’re not actually selling a lot of copies, it kind of undermines your credibility.

But whatever. Amazon says you’re a #1 Bestseller. Fine.

But then I noticed that people weren’t even talking about the #1 spot in a category. A few months ago, a very excited author posted about being a bestseller in 3 different categories! Hooray! Her childhood dream of being a bestselling author had come true! But when I looked up her book, I found it hovering around #50 in each category. Based on its sales ranking, it was selling probably 4-5 copies a day—which is actually pretty decent in the self-publishing world … but bestseller?


Amazon Bestseller

The books that are currently ranking in these categories are not the book I’m talking about.


More and more, people weren’t even talking about being #1 in a category or even in the top 10. They were talking about being in the top 100. And the category itself—which might be very competitive or not competitive at all—didn’t seem to matter.

Then just a few weeks ago, an entrepreneur I follow released a book. It went on the market set for free and within 24 hours of its release, the author had emailed her list to say that it was the  #1 bestseller in its category!

I checked, and sure enough it was #1—in the free list for its category. And that’s when I decided that enough was enough.

You guys, you can’t be a bestselling author IF YOU HAVEN’T ACTUALLY SOLD ANY BOOKS.

I don’t mean to come down hard on this author. I’ve followed her for a while, I even took one of her courses, and I think she’s a very nice, ethical person. I suspect her publisher just said, “Hey, look, you’re a bestseller!” and she ran with it. Because why wouldn’t she? She’s not a professional author, and she’s bought into the bestseller hype just like everyone else.

I don’t think she’s trying to deliberately mislead anyone, but — claiming that you’re a bestseller before you’ve sold any books?

It’s a really risky strategy, people. Sooner or later, someone’s going to call you on it.

To put this in perspective, to get a title listed in one of the major bestseller lists, like the New York Times or USA Today, you probably need to sell between 10 and 15 thousand copies of your book in a single week.

Now, I’m well aware that if an author or a publisher has deep enough pockets, you can buy your way onto those lists. They don’t necessarily represent spontaneous popularity; they represent a solid marketing plan and a big budget. And people do it because being able to say you’re a New York Times bestselling author has a lot of clout and will open doors for you.

So I hear self-publishing authors saying, “Well, the system is corrupt all they way down. Why shouldn’t I just claim my book is an Amazon bestseller and run with it?

You can. If you really think it will help, go for it. We’ll still be friends.

But remember this:

  1. If everyone is a bestseller, no one is
  2. Your credibility is on the line

Look, I don’t want to be the jerk who wrecks your childhood dream, but it’s my job to be honest with authors.  A ridiculous number of people are calling themselves bestsellers, which means that the term is rapidly losing all value.

Ho hum. Another Amazon Bestseller. Big deal.

Meanwhile, articles like this one (which calls the whole thing a “scam”) and this one, that explain exactly how few sales it actually takes, are going viral, meaning that the secret is out.

I’m betting that it won’t be long before the term “Amazon Bestseller” is little more than a joke.

Being a “bestseller” isn’t the be all and end all of book marketing. Remember that in the traditional publishing world, there are many, many books that have sold thousands of copies over the course of decades, yet never been on a bestseller list. And there are plenty of titles that hit the New York Times bestseller list for a week, and are never heard of again.

In a future post, I’ll explore ways that you can market your book beyond saying it’s a bestseller. For now, don’t worry about arbitrary lists, and don’t worry about other people’s arbitrary lists. Your job is to focus first on writing a good book, and your next job is to focus on getting it into the hands of the people who need it.

Five years (and quite possibly five months) from now, whether it was an Amazon Bestseller or not isn’t going to matter at all.

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