Clients often ask me: What does it take to become a bestseller in Canada? I give them the vague and deeply unsatisfying answer that they need to sell enough books in a given week at particular retailers to make a newspaper's bestseller's list. The exact number of books isn't clear, and likely changes from list to list, but the figure 5,000 seems to float around.
But then I ask why they want to be a bestseller. Isn't it more important for them to have a quality book that tells their story, builds trust with their audience and entices the reader back for more? "Bestseller" doesn't inherently mean any of that. In fact, the term has kind of been poisoned.
You likely know, in your gut, that not all "bestsellers" are equal. Many people want to be able to say they're bestsellers, because they believe it casts them in a warm aura that will convince the general public to trust them/hire them/go on a date with them. It's great marketing, they'll say.
Here's a non-scientific poll of my Twitter followers on the subject:
How did "bestseller" become a dirty word?
"Bestselling author" had a bucketload of prestige attached for a long time. There were gatekeepers (such as the New York Times) who guarded entry to the list with a secret formula of books sold or ordered from bellwether retailers.
Today, there are still prestigious bestseller lists authors can aspire to.
But there are also a bunch of services that offer to help turn anyone into a bestseller. And if anyone can be a bestseller, then does the word have any meaning anymore? Yes, absolutely. That's what makes it so appealing to so many people. It's why there are so many services to hire to turn you into a best-seller.
When "bestseller" is earned with an un-put-down-able book and bestowed by a respected list, the honorific "bestseller" deserves to be celebrated. In such cases, the term is a key indicator that you hold in your hands a book worth, at the very least, reading the back of.
But, as we know, not all bestsellers are equal.
You can scam some bestseller lists with little effort, 10 minutes and a few Toonies
It's not always clear from the book cover, or someone's Twitter bio, what their use of "bestseller" means. When you see someone call themselves a bestselling author, be sure to do a little research of your own before you put them up on a shelf beside John Hodgman and Marie Kondo. Research can be as simple as Googling them, judging their online presence for yourself and taking a peek into their book via an online retailer.
You can be a "bestseller" with five minutes of work and $3. For an amusing, but frustrating example of this, consider "best-selling author" Brent Underwood's piece for Observer.com. Underwood became an Amazon bestseller by gaming Amazon's categories and taking a quick screenshot:
As Amazon has become the big dog in the book world, the “Amazon Bestseller” status has come to be synonymous with being an actual bestseller. This is not true, and I can prove it. ... Last week, I put up a fake book on Amazon. I took a photo of my foot, uploaded to Amazon, and in a matter of hours, had achieved “No. 1 Best Seller” status, complete with the orange banner and everything.
Even big names on reputed lists may be there thanks to deep pockets more than organic sales. Here's Forbes describing the process of buying one's way onto the New York Times list:
...essentially a laundering operation aimed at deceiving the book-buying public into believing a title is more in-demand than it is.
If not a bestseller, then what?
In a world where "bestseller" has a nebulous definition, what aspirations are still out there for authors?
I recommend starting with "author." An author is someone who has taken the time and effort to craft a lengthy, well-organized manuscript that represents their thoughts. Being an author doesn't automatically make you a subject-matter expert (though some will claim it does). What it absolutely does do, in my experience, is show that an individual has invested time to develop an idea, edit and revise that idea, and craft it in a way that is meant to be helpful to some public audience.
Being an author shows dedication. That includes authors who have the professional guidance of an editor and those who dictate the content to a ghostwriter (hey, writing isn't everybody's jam).
Writing a book is not particularly easy. There are formulas you can follow and outlines that make it a more straight-forward process. Yet, inevitably, to create a very good book, you need time, thoughtfulness, an honest and talented editor, and the fortitude to put your words out into the world.
In my books, putting in the sweat and tears to earn the title "author" is a gold standard all its own.
More sources about what it really means to be a bestselling author:
Melissa Leong in the National Post on how her vampire novel became a Canadian bestseller in six months (but didn't make her much money)
Kailin Gow for Fast Company on what being a bestselling author really means (including a comparison of Amazon's top lists and the New York Times'.)
Samantha Francis for BooknetCanada.ca on what it means to be a bestseller in Canada (this one is from 2013)