In this post back in the wilds of 2013, I explored (with the aid of some lovely data. And maybe some pretty shoddy guesswork, it has to be said) how many books an author has to sell in the English-speaking world to achieve bestseller status.
In most countries, a bestseller is defined only by what makes the top 10 or top 5 list for one particular week in one particular list, usually run by a newspaper or industry periodical. In Ireland, you could make the Irish Times’ top 10 list in a slow season with as little as 300 sales in 1 week. (Which is great for PR. But disastrous for your bank account.) In the UK however, sales of 5,000 at the very least in 1 week would be needed in order to make the Sunday Times’ list.
One thing is clear however – since 2010 or thereabouts, tying in with the growing popularity of e-Readers – fewer books are selling in very large numbers. That’s not to say that people are buying fewer books; on the contrary, people may actually be buying more books than ever before. They’re just buying fewer of the same books.
Back in the 80s and 90s, as I posted here and here, bestseller lists were dominated by the same people; once they broke through as bestselling authors, they pretty much only had to churn out one each year in order to maintain the sales figures today’s authors could only dream about (or in the case of James Patterson, get a ghost writer to churn out 3 a year).
This was because back then, the vast majority of readers read the same trusted authors, time after time. But in this age of greater connectivity, we get to hear about breakthrough bestsellers or indie hits within weeks of their popularity rising, which in turn creates greater popularity, and then greater still. The new viral bestseller can go from 0 to 90 in days, pushing the old favourites off the shelf quicker than you can say “Dystopian Homicidal Vampire Chef Erotica”.
So, is the Bestseller Dead?
The bestselling book of the year nowadays will generally sell far fewer copies than the bestselling book of the year 10 or 20 years ago. Book sales are now split between more authors. Single titles sell fewer copies. But there still has to be a top 100: it’s just not locked up as tightly any longer. There aren’t so many barriers to entry to that list for emerging writers.
With all the talk of Amazon and e-Readers and self-publishing and the doomsday predictions of the imminent death of the book as we knew it, it seemed to get lost that it isn’t the way that we buy books which matters: it’s the way we hear about them. Increased accessibility helps, but nobody cares unless people are talking about your book, saying it’s a good read, and recommending that other people should go and read it too.
But is this new more open marketplace not enormously encouraging? Particularly for authors who might be considering self-publishing?
The next bestseller could come out of nowhere. Why can’t it be your novel?