What Does the Term “Best Seller”

Really Mean Anyway?

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Best seller is one of those terms everyone associates with books, but it has such a vague meaning as to be all but useless on its own. Of course, everyone wants a best seller, but what does that really mean, and how do you get there?

New York Times Best Seller List

Traditionally, the best seller benchmark has been the ratings as provided by the New York Times, which has been providing a list since 1936. It’s based on weekly sales at the retail rather than wholesale level in order to reflect the book’s actual popularity among readers.

Because it is based on weekly sales, the New York Times’ best seller list measures success in the short term rather than the long term. Books that sell far fewer copies on a weekly basis but keep their momentum over a long period of time can easily sell more copies overall than a best seller, so an author certainly shouldn’t gauge their success entirely on whether they are making best seller lists. Especially since you can buy your way onto it—if you have enough money.

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Amazon and other Best Seller List Sources

Today, the New York Times is not the only source of best seller lists, or even of highly respected best seller lists. Amazon measures best sellers based on their own sales, which, considering the tremendous volume sold by Amazon every week, is a more than small measure of success.

Highlights from Critics and Reviewers

How does one get to be a best seller, regardless how you measure it? One direction comes from book reviews. While some people simply go to a bookstore and browse until they find something interesting, many people are going to first turn to reviews to get an idea of what they should be looking for.

Previously, this has primarily come from professional critics who publish in magazine and newspapers. These reviews are easy to find and come from people respected in the field. However, the reviews of common people are becoming increasingly important, particularly on sites such as Amazon, which allows anyone to critique a book (or other product).

Of course, there are some problems with this. The reader has no idea of the history of this type of reviewer. It might be the author himself trying to drum up business, or it might be someone who delights in complaining.


Another source of recommendation is word-of-mouth: people who like the book telling people they know about it. This can be particularly valuable because the review is no longer coming from an anonymous source. Rather it comes from someone respected, trusted, and personally known. Therefore, getting people to talk about your book can be vitally important in helping sales figures.

The Sales Rep

The sales rep is also vitally important, because he’s the one who is going to convince booksellers to sell your book. Like the word-of-mouth reviewer, this is the person that should constantly be talking up a book or its author and not just to booksellers. Talking to others in the business such as editors also contributes to an author’s visibility, which can only contribute to success.


It’s hard news for the new writer, but the fact is name recognition sells books both to readers and publishing companies. New writers are a much higher risk than established authors, who have already proved themselves bankable.

Being a best seller is about much more than just how many people buy and like your book. It’s also about who is willing to take a risk on you in the first place. While providing a great product is an intimate part of that process, the word of others as well as writing history are also major components in becoming a best seller.