When is a book a Bestseller?

Gather round, kids. I have good news, and I have bad news.

What constitutes a best seller? How does a book qualify for the moniker, and more to the point, for the modern author, what does it really mean to have written a bestseller?

Yay! Another Made-Up Graph! I missed you...

Yay! Another Made-Up Graph! I missed you…

What is a bestseller?

No points for stating the obvious, but a bestseller is a book which sells a lot, and quickly.

So how much you have to sell in order to get into the bestseller list depends on what country you’re in. Small country = fewer sales required. Which for authors in Ireland, is GREAT, until you realise that you could be topping the Bestseller List for 6 months… having sold around 12,000 copies in total. Which is not going to buy you that beach house in the Maldives. Irish sales figures are published every week and in some slow weeks, a book can make it onto the list with as few sales as 300 units. If I wasn’t already a country girl, I’d feel even more provincial.

The beauty is in the speaking of the English. Irish writers can sell in any English-speaking country, particularly with e-books. Hallelujah. Let’s look at some of the main English-speaking markets. And Ireland, of course, which isn’t main by any means, but it does happen to be where I live.

When Irish Folks Are Reading1. Ireland (Population: 4.78 million people, some bankers, and politicians)

WOO HOO HOOO!!!! YOU’RE ON THE LIST!! Straight in at No. 7! Ohmigod this is officially the bestest every thing that has ever happened to you EVER.


Hang on a second. You made the list by selling only 514 copies? A week? For 13 weeks? And that royalty cheque is for… €128.30???


2. United Kingdom (Population: 63.4 million)

Ok, better news! Your book starts to sell in the UK too and there are loads more people buying your life’s work! It’s actually great living next door to a much bigger house.

The Sunday Times bestsellers will have to offload thousands of copies to make the list. On a random week in September (well, not entirely random: last week, to be precise), the top spot in the Paperback Fiction category was won with sales of 20,755 copies. The number 10 book sold 8,545 copies. Hardback Non-Fiction sales ranged from 11,140 for number 1 and 1,650 for number 10.

That’s a hell of a lot of sales, by anybody’s book. Especially when you think that seasonal sales can double those numbers.

Star Spangled Bestseller3. Those States Which Are United 

(Population: A Lot. And E.L. James got most of that 316.7m reading bad prose.)

In the US, the New York Times don’t release sales figures every week. Why?

I can’t think of one decent reason why. A bestseller list compiled upon principles which seem to be inspired by the electoral college system is about as much use as a third armpit. They have their reasons, but it doesn’t help me with this post.

Amazon sales rankings are available, but it’s very hard to work out what’s selling in any given week. And Publisher’s Weekly don’t think it’s as many as you’d imagine, a lot of the time. They calculated – based on a random example in one random time period, it has to be said – that only just over 1,000 copies needed to sell per day to make it into Amazon’s Top 5.  If you take that to be 10,000 copies a week, or even 20,000, it’s not a whole lot when you think about the sheer size of the States.

Suffice to say though, if 20,000 copies of something sell in a week in the UK, you can be sure a hell of a lot more of the blockbuster titles are selling in the US.

And this great piece is extremely enlightening when it comes to what sales really mean; where they get you on the list; and how much money you actually make. Who would have thought that a print run of over 85,000 and a top 20 spot – after 65,000 sales in total – would result in earnings of less than $30,000 – and this is a good result, due mainly to the contracted advance?

4. Australia (Population 22.3 million. And a lot of space to sit and read in)

Except Australia isn’t telling us how much they’re selling either. Their figures are locked up even tighter than the US. I may yet be able to sign up to get their sales figures, but right now I’m too lazy.  At least I told you how many people live there. So by UK averages (combined with the usual guesswork), a top ten spot could be achieved in Australia, in a slow week, with sales of around 500 books. Much like Ireland. Maybe we read more here; I don’t know.

And The Wonderfully Sorry Conclusion Is…

Random picture of sun halo, to illustrate randomness of bestselling success... sort of

Random picture of sun halo, to illustrate randomness of bestselling success… sort of

Well, in the glass half full scenario, it’s a hell of a lot easier to write a best seller than you think, because best sellers don’t actually sell that many copies a lot of the time.

And if it’s half empty… well. I for one will not be giving up the day job. Mainly because writing makes my day job both meaningful and bearable. I will continue doing sums during the day and adding words together by night, because I couldn’t do one without the other.

  6 comments for “When is a book a Bestseller?

  1. October 1, 2013 at 3:55 pm

    It’s a problem I, and I am sure many others, would like to have, being a best seller – irrespective of whether that was with a few hundred or tens of thousands of sales. But hey, we can dream. And perhaps if next September Scotland (population just over 5m) becomes independent, my chances will increase. Whoopee!


    • October 1, 2013 at 5:08 pm

      Yes! Jaundiced as my commentary might be, I very much look forward to having this mighty problem myself sometime in the future 🙂

      And no need to wait for independence. Just lobby The Scotsman and get your own List!


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