The Meaningless Metrics of Fame

By: Mike April 11, 2014

One of the most frequently cited indicators of an author's popularity ( is their status on various bestseller lists. The most commonly cited are USA Today, Publisher's Weekly, and The New York Times lists. When an author has placed on one of these lists you can virtually guarantee that all future titles will be prominently tagged with Bestselling Author of Title. The author's walk develops a little swagger, and they're able to introduce themselves in signings or panels as "I'm bestselling author so-and-so". Bestselling authors typically get more promotion, more speaking engagements, and bigger advances, so the lists are an important metric. For all the caché attached to being a bestseller, there is a lot of misunderstanding of what it really means.

Ideally, bestseller status is an indicator of popularity. The assumption is that popularity means sales, and sales are proportional to income, so a #1 bestseller should be very, very lucrative. And, of course, to a certain extent, this is true. However, no bestseller list is perfect. For one thing, there's no way to perfectly measure sales. Some lists try to draw from major wholesale distributors, others query various retail outlets. Amazon, of course, uses their very own data set. Depending on the sampling method (and frequency) there may be any number of biases or errors introduced. Since the exact calculations are often kept secret (to make it harder for unscrupulous authors or publishers to manipulate the results) it's difficult to say how accurately a given list might reflect nationwide buying habits.

A bestsellers list is a measure of sales. Not total sales, but sales over a particular (usually short) period. Most lists are calculated weekly (though the Amazon lists are calculated hourly). It's accurate enough, but it's hard to extrapolate anything meaningful about long-term performance from such myopic data. The important part to remember is that the bestsellers lists are a measure of sales velocity, not total sales.

Consider the following diagram. I've omitted the units on both axis to simplify things. The X-axis is time — it could be in hours, days, or weeks. The Y axis represents the sales velocity. This might be books per minute, or hundreds of books sold per day, or any variant of quantity per unit time. Obiously, for any given bestseller list, there will be a threshold value to qualify as a bestseller, which I've represented by the dashed red line. I've shown the sales profile of a more-or-less typical novel in blue:

Sales For A Hypothetical Book

Books often arrive at the stores a week or so before the official release date, so there may be a few early sales before the novel is released. Sales build fairly quickly, and the maximum sales velocity is reached fairly early in the book's shelf life. After the peak, there's a long a gradual decline. There may be some temporary bumps and jiggles — maybe the author does a few signings or gets a TV spot, but the sales gradually taper off. In the example shown, the book failed to cross the bestseller threshold.

If a publisher has a title that they suspect might become a bestseller, there are several things they can do to increase its chances. They may put extra money into advertising, spring for higher-quality cover art or send the author on a signing tour. All of these are likely to increase sales, particularly during the first days after the book is released. Another common technique is enforcing a strict on-sale date. Instead of allowing the booksellers to start selling copies whenever they arrive, the publisher insists that no sales can be made prior to the official release date. In effect, they're trying to concentrate sales into a narrow time frame.

Before we continue, let me point out something about our chart. If we multiply the sales velocity by time, we get the total sales: sales/time * time = sales. So, the area under the curve indicates the total sales of the book, while the height of the curve indicates the instantaneous sales velocity (and the slope of the curve indicates the rate of change in velocity). If this is starting to feel like college physics, congratulations. But I digress, now back to our publisher's attempt to create a bestselling novel.

The next chart shows the effect of a good marketing campaign and a strict sale date. Even if no new sales were generated, by concentrating most of the sales in the few days around the release date, the sales velocity was high enough to cross the threshold, and this book is officially a bestseller.

Strict on Sale Compresses Early Sales

In this simple example, I kept the total sales of both novels the same, even though the second one (thanks to some clever marketing) became a bestseller. That's good for bragging rights, but it probably didn't justify the expense of a the marketing campaign. So why would a publisher do it? To answer that, we need to learn a little more about the bestseller lists, and talk about what that little red line in our chart really means.

A Fractured and Divided Landscape

There are a lot of bestseller lists, and they're often divided into various categories. Fiction is often tracked separately from nonfiction. Children's books, comic books, etc. may be split into separate categories. Ebooks, paperbacks, and hardcovers may be combined or treated separately. To make it worse, some sources list the top ten selling novels, while others may list as many as 150 of the top books each week. Depending on which list you look at, and how far down the list you scroll, a great many authors may be "bestsellers".

Publishers used to be pretty careful about when they decided to put the Bestseller stamp on their author's next book. If you hit the NYT print list, or the USA Today's top fifty it's pretty defensible to claim bestseller status. But, as always, things change. Many authors consider themselves bestsellers if they appear in any list, regardless of position. I've even overheard authors saying that they are Amazon bestsellers because their book was listed on the "Amazon Best Sellers Rank" — at number one-million and something. So, when someone is presented as "bestselling author" they might be a legitimately popular author, or they might be someone who ranked in the top ten thousand fantasy authors beginning with the letter 'A' for an hour.

Show Me the Money

Most publishing professionals only really pay attention to the USA Today, Publishers Weekly and NYT lists in terms of marketing. They're sort of the gold standard in bestsellers. They're established, widely recognized, and use well-explained methods for calculating their lists. These lists are watched not only by publishers, but buy book buyers, radio stations etc. and getting on one of these lists is a great way to dramatically increase sales.

In the example above, we showed that a good marketing campaign could take a book that was almost at bestseller levels, and push it over the line without really increasing sales. However, as soon as that book becomes a beseller, a whole new dynamic comes into play. Many of the thousands of little bookstores at airports and bus terminals that only have shelf space for bestselling novels will now stock this title. Those bookstores move a lot of books, so the sales figures are going to get a healthy boost. Radio shows, TV shows, and book bloggers are far more interested in interviewing bestselling authors, so a number of additional promotional opportunities open up. And, as every author knows, the point of promotion is to drive additional sales. Finally, the author is now and forevermore a bestselling author, which is a good marketing bullet. And that, gentle readers, is why both publishers and authors are willing to spend considerable time and effort to make a book a bestseller.

Hitting a Moving Target

So, if the bestseller's lists are a measure of sales velocity, how many books does an author need to sell per day to become a bestseller? And therein lies the problem with using short-term sales velocity as a performance metric: each time a new list is calculated the numbers change. This week, maybe a dozen mega-authors are releasing new titles, and you may have to sell 10,000 books per day to make the list. Next week, perhaps all the major publishers will be paralyzed by a shipping dispute, and you can top the charts with 500 books per day. Instead of representing the "bestseller threshold" as a solid line, it should be shown wandering all over the place.

The Bestseller Threshold is Not Constant

Here we can see that the author tried all the usual tricks to maximize early sales, but didn't quite make it. Maybe Patterson and King had titles that came out the same week. If the author had released a few days earlier, or even a few days later, that book would have been a bestseller. When you hear someone say that they're a bestselling author, or even a #1 NYT bestselling author, take it for what it's worth: at some point in time their books sold more quickly than the competition.

It's also worth noting that the bestseller threshold doesn't just jump around randomly. It responds to big-name author releases and seasonal demands. Patty is a #1 NYT bestselling author, but her sales are far lower than George R.R. Martin, J.K. Rowling or John Grisham. The highest book sales are in the fall, right before Christmas. The publishers know this, and position their heavy hitters to release then to maximize sales. If you want to top the charts in October or November you'll be slugging it out with the big boys. The lowest book sales are in the spring, when everyone is trying to pay off their credit cards. The major league players have left the field, so the junior woodchucks have a chance. Patty's books are released in March, when the competition is not at its peak.

Let's assume that you're gaining some popularity, and have managed to hit a couple of the bestseller lists. That's awesome, but you'd like to be able to put "#1 Bestselling Author" on your next book. Knowing that the market fluctuates, and that that some of those changes are predictable, you can take steps to position your book to maximize the odds of being a #1 bestseller. Most of the big-name authors list their publication dates far in advance. They need to, because the promotion engine will be winding up at least a year prior to publication. So, if you sit down with a calendar you can figure out when, in the next year or so, all the major players will be releasing their new books. With a bit of luck, you'll find a week where none of the big-name authors are releasing anything — the first week in January might be a good bet. And that is your release date. It won't matter that three weeks earlier Patterson just shattered the previous record for books sold in a single week, or that the next week Danielle Steel's eagerly-anticipated book is going to blow the lid off the charts. That week, maybe, you have a chance to take the top spot, and #1 bestseller looks just as impressive on your next novel as it would on J.K. Rowling's.

Finally, when talking to other authors, remember that bestseller status is a poor indicator of sales or success. Some authors have an active fan-base who largely buy on the release date. Their books frequently hit the bestsellers lists in the initial weeks after release, but sales fall off quickly. Patty is an example of this type of author. There are also authors whose work sells steadily over months or years, seldom topping the charts. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, and has been selling very well for over fifty years at this point, dipping into bestseller territory on an irregular basis. Remember, sales (and therefore income) are the area under the sales curve. Any author with an ounce of sense would love to have a book with a sales curve this broad, even if it never became a bestseller. So, if you've managed to become a bestselling author, remember what it really means, and don't get cocky. The non-bestseller sitting next to you at the next convention might be hugely successful!