How to become a bestselling author

Do you want your book to become a bestseller? Many authors launch their book with this goal in mind. Reaching bestseller status was defined for decades by gatekeepers like the New York Times, who held their bestsellers to high standards—typically selling thousands of copies in a week. Today, many authors still consider becoming a bestseller to be the ultimate mark of success. With Amazon playing such a central role in today’s publishing industry, becoming an “Amazon bestseller” sounds like a badge of honor on the world’s top book retailer.

And many companies have positioned themselves to take advantage of authors with that mindset. They’ll tell any author they can become an Amazon bestseller if they pay to publish with them, and will happily take their money without offering any other services to publish a quality book, capable of long-term success. And it’s probably true that they can make the book into a “bestseller” — but they’re misleading authors about what that really means in today’s publishing landscape.  

Amazon Bestseller

What is an Amazon bestseller?

There are two key elements to understand about Amazon bestsellers. First, they are rankings within individual book categories, and second, these rankings are updated every hour. So if a category has minimal competition, for example in a very specialized niche, it might take very few sales to become a bestseller. And since they’re updated every hour, an author could sell a single book in the right category at the right time and be able to call themselves an Amazon bestseller. Perhaps it’s a customer in another time zone halfway around the world, spending 99 cents—that single purchase could still qualify you to become a bestseller, in the right category.

So what do we know about those Amazon categories? We asked Amazon if they have a list and a total count for their book categories. This is Amazon’s reply:

Unfortunately, we don't have a place that lists the number of total categories for Amazon and books. However, we do have more than 20,000 different categories to choose from, that being paperback and eBook categories.

Let’s do some simple math. If there are 20,000 bestselling books an hour and 24 hours in a day that means 480,000 books could earn bestselling status for their author every single day. If these books and sales were distributed evenly across Amazon’s highly specific categories and throughout the hours of each day, that means it’s within the realm of possibility for every book published on Amazon to become a “bestseller.”

Congratulations you’ve become one of up to 175,200,000 possible bestselling authors in a year!


Selling the “bestseller” status

We have seen a trend with some up-and-coming small publishers. They’ve made a science out of playing this system to effectively guarantee that books will become bestsellers. They’ll promise the author bestseller status, and they’ll slap a conspicuously cheap-looking #1 bestseller sticker on the cover. We’ve seen them include the sticker before the book has even been released—that’s how confident they are in their ability to ensure a book will become a bestseller. Already, that should be a red flag for authors.

 

Do not let the "bestseller” status fool you.

Be leery of publishing companies that offer bestselling status as the central point in a sales pitch encouraging authors to spend thousands of dollars on a book project. They’re misleading authors to believe this status is an accomplishment in itself while providing authors with very little for their investment. Spending money on a book project to sell only a handful of copies leaves authors without a way to earn back that investment. And the companies themselves are doing little to give authors a path toward real success since they’ve only promised bestseller status—and barely need to lift a finger to make that a reality.

In their effort to achieve “bestseller” status for books, these companies are also manipulating Amazon’s category system. Amazon allows authors to choose up to ten categories, including specialized categories if they make a request directly to Amazon.

We looked at a book called Turn Your Podcast Into a Book That Builds Your Business by Jenn Foster. It’s listed in perfectly relevant categories like Computers & Technology > Internet Social Media > Podcasts & Webcasts. Seems straightforward enough. But it’s also listed in low-volume categories like Computers & Technology > Interactive & Multimedia, and Engineering & Transportation > Engineering > Telecommunications & Sensors. Some of these categories are a stretch for a book about turning a podcast into a book to promote a business.  

Bestseller Image 1
Bestseller Image 2

The book also already includes a “No. 1 Bestseller” sticker on its cover—weeks before it’s been published.

Bestseller Image 3

Meanwhile, third-party software estimates the book selling just one copy monthly.

Bestseller Image 4

Let’s Compare

During the first week of July 2020, The Naked Communist: Exposing Communism and Restoring Freedom sold over 100 copies a day. It never reached bestseller status like the above example. Why is this? For one, the categories for communism and socialism are much more competitive. And the book was placed in accurate categories to reach interested readers. Also, each format such as eBook, print, and audiobook are all ranked differently. Amazon treats each version like a stand-alone book, meaning sales for eBook, print, and audiobook versions are never combined for a title. So it is possible to sell only a few copies of an eBook and get “bestseller” status, and possible to sell many copies of a book, and never achieve that status.

 

There are no “bestselling” shortcuts

Putting books into inappropriate categories may help them achieve “bestseller” status. But it also does a disservice to readers searching for books, and could even lead to bad reviews when your audience searches within a topic category and then finds your book is about something else altogether. These bad reviews will hurt your book more than that bestseller sticker will ever help it. Selling a few copies for bestseller status won’t get books into the hands of the right readers, which is key to long-term success. It won’t help earn back the author’s investment. It won’t help authors build their platform. When all is said and done, it might not sell more than a handful of copies. Unless your goal is to simply be able to say you published a bestseller, like over 480,000 other authors every day, it won’t do very much to help you achieve any professional, financial, or writing goals.

Real book marketing goes deeper to achieve long-term, substantive success. At Izzard, we start every project with a Title Information Sheet (TI sheet). The TI sheet is used throughout the publishing process to help give the editor, cover designer, marketing team, and everyone else the information they need to position the book to appeal to the intended audience. At every step of the process, we consider the audience and genre, and get input from experts who have worked for years in the genre with major publishers. We gather keywords that are relevant to readers, to help the right audience find the book. This results in happy readers, and great reviews. All this comes alongside quality design and editing. The kind of sustained success this can achieve will do far more for any author than winning “bestseller” status with a technicality.

 

Real “bestsellers” take work

The digital era has made it easy to publish a book, but difficult to stand out and succeed. While simply having a book published was once an accomplishment, today anyone can do it. Serious authors need to go above and beyond. Bestseller status is similar. It’s now easy to achieve by manipulating the system but doesn’t necessarily mean very much. Serious authors need to outline their real goals, have a business plan to earn back their investment and develop a platform to reach their audience. This real publishing success if well-worth the effort.