Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate. Author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. Former trade newspaper editor.
I got a Facebook message from a self-published author friend who asked about the apparent success of another author. I could feel the unspoken and heartbroken "If she can do this, why can't I?" question coming through the computer.
The "successful" author had posted that there were several thousand copies (over 10,000) of this book out in the world. Wow! That is quite an achievement for self- or even traditional publishing. My friend wondered if this was the result of being associated with a "big" publisher or due to a free book offer.
I knew what my friend was feeling. I had my own "Why not me too?" moment when I saw another self-published author flaunt an Amazon "best seller" status. But my envy and feelings of failure quickly turned into "You gotta be kidding me!" when I saw that the book had a sales rank of something like 14,000 or lower. That's what got me curious about best seller shenanigans.
Here's what I learned.
The Best Seller Book That Makes $0
One of the currently popular book marketing tactics is giving away a book for free, usually the eBook version, in the hopes of gaining early reviews and an Amazon "best seller" status.
This is usually done on Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) self-publishing platform. The eBook must be enrolled in the KDP Select program which requires a certain period of exclusivity on Amazon/KDP. As of this writing, under KDP Select, authors or publishers can offer a free Kindle eBook promotion for 5 days out of a 90-day period.
Then the author or publisher usually promotes the heck out of the free offer! Since Amazon still counts these copies as "sold," the Kindle eBook could become a "best seller" even though it hasn't made a dime.
That best-seller status is so valuable to some authors and publishers that they are willing to forfeit revenues to get it. Why? Because they may want to promote it as a "best seller" and possibly get better placement in search results on Amazon (best selling books can rank higher).
If a large proportion of sales were freebies, is the eBook still a best seller? Under Amazon's current sales tracking, yes, with some qualification. If you drill down on Amazon's Kindle best seller lists, the free and paid sales ranks are separated. Self-published authors who achieve a "free" best seller status may be embarrassed to disclose that it was such. Shenanigans!
Best-Selling Book in a Niche
So does a best selling status mean it's a best seller in Amazon's overall book universe? Hardly, although it might be. There are some books that are top sellers just based on sheer numbers. Those are usually the books published by the Big 5 trade publishers. But every other "best seller" is usually ranked in a niche.
To organize the database of up to millions of books, Amazon has hundreds of topic categories and subcategories. You can see what categories any book is classed in if you go to a book's product page on Amazon and scroll down to Product Details. Usually, you'll see a few Amazon Best Seller Rank categories and the book's current sales rank in each category/subcategory.
So if a book has an Amazon sales rank of #1 for a category/subcategory, is it a best seller? Technically, yes, but only in that niche... and maybe not for long.
Best Seller for an Hour
Amazon's sales data handling is truly astounding, making them one of the world's most formidable retailers. In fact, sales ranks are updated HOURLY for hundreds of millions of products, including books. Let that sink in for a moment. Hourly updates for hundreds of millions of products.
With that granular tracking of information, it is possible to have a product or book that is a best seller for a day, maybe even for just one hour.
So if a book or eBook has an Amazon sales rank of #1 for an hour, is it still a best seller? Again, technically, yes, but only for that time period.
The "International" Best Seller
This story really stretches the limits of the best seller status. One of my author friends pointed out an eBook that was promoted as an "International Best Seller," even though it appeared to be self-published and had only been out for a couple of months at best.
Amazon's Kindle program is available worldwide. So, of course, it's "international" by default. And if you can show that even one copy was sold outside the author's home country AND it qualifies for one of the other "best seller" statuses we've just discussed, it technically might be an international best seller. But that's stretching it.
My Own "Best Seller" on Amazon
Because I had heard the "use the KDP Select Free Offer" tactic so many times, I thought I'd put it to the test. I was able to achieve a #2 sales rank for a day in a super niche subcategory. In fact, I achieved that spot by selling only 12 free Kindle eBooks that day. Since it ranked in the Top 10 for that limited time, I guess I could say it was a best seller. But I'd have an integrity conflict in doing so.
Yes, this tactic can work. But like SEO, it can be a game. Also like SEO, if Amazon changes the rules and algorithms, this status may mean nothing in the future.
The Only Real Best Seller Lists
So how can you have a best seller book for real? Simply sell (really sell, not give away) thousands of copies (the number required varies) of your book in major retail channels that sell books within the time period the list tracks (e.g. weekly). Good luck with that! This is a feat way beyond the capabilities and resources of most self published authors. It can even be a challenge for traditional publishing houses who have the expertise, staffing, budgets, and connections to make significant volumes of retail book sales possible.
The New York Times Best Seller List
The pinnacle of book publishing sales success is to make it to the New York Times Best Seller List. As the name suggests, this is compiled by the New York Times news organization and is a complex (and proprietary) auditing and research process. This list is further broken down into fiction, nonfiction, children's, hardcover, trade paperback, and other designations. This list is a difficult one to game which is why it has such an authoritative reputation.
Lists by other newspapers and news organizations also rank. Some of note include lists by Publishers Weekly, The Wall Street Journal, and major metropolitan newspapers. These are also compiled lists that are more difficult to sway.
What About Amazon?
But what about Amazon? True, Amazon is currently the dominant book retailer, and having substantial sales through them is a badge of honor. The lists that really show achievement in this realm are the "Top 100" by category for both physical books and Kindle eBooks. Sure, it might be possible to be in the Top 100 for a super small subcategory. But when you can claim best seller status in larger overall categories such as nonfiction, that really says something. Be aware that their "best seller" book lists are constantly being updated in almost real-time, meaning that any status could change by the end of the same day.
The changing-by-the-hour Amazon best selling status also points to another aspect of best seller lists: They are temporary. Even though your book may continue to sell over the years, best seller lists only measure sales for a specified time period (week, month, etc.). Even the vaunted New York Times Best Seller List status is measured by the week. It then becomes a chase for staying on the best seller list longer. Tough to do.
You should also be aware that Amazon may be on to contrived best seller claims and games. In a Huffington Post article, New at KDP & Amazon: "Bestseller" Authors Need to Prove Their Status (or risk getting pulled) (March 8, 2017), it was reported that authors who use unauthorized references to best selling status or sales rank may be asked to prove that status or remove these references from their cover artwork. Otherwise, these books may be at risk of being removed for sale on Amazon.
You've been warned.
So How Did the "Successful" Author Get 10,000+ Distribution? (And Why It May Not Matter)
Though I cannot verify, I am guessing that the apparently successful author my friend pointed out had achieved wide distribution for this book through the use of a free book offer of some sort. When I actually looked at the book details on Amazon, it was published through what I perceive to be a small independent press. So this volume of distribution was not likely achieved because it was done through a "big" publisher, as my friend reasoned. It was probably achieved through some excellent PR, email marketing to a large in-house list, or, more likely, a free book offer.
We can talk the number of copies distributed all day long. But what I really want to know is what did the author or publisher earn from those 10,000+ copies? If it was $0 because of a free book giveaway, the author may have even sustained a loss if the investment in publishing the book was high. Distribution level is irrelevant if it doesn't bring in dollars!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2017 Heidi Thorne
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 22, 2019:
Even though I totally know that best sellers on Amazon are a racket, I did take screenshots when my experiments hit No. 2 in a couple of categories and were in the Top 100 Free.
I have to admit that I'm afraid to promote a Amazon best seller status because it's so short lived, and people may think I'm lying. I've just seen it too many times where an author will boldly flaunt this status and then when I go to the book on Amazon, it has a sales rank in the millions (which isn't good).
As long as authors are not delusional about their Amazon best seller status, it can be encouraging.
Thanks for sharing your experience with us! Have a great day!
Amelia Griggs from U.S. on July 21, 2019:
Well said Heidi! The closest I came to number one for my children’s books was number 11 and that was when I was running a free Kindle promo. However, I have achieved number one in certain categories for all three of my computer books and I have to say that the feeling I got the first time I saw the bestseller banner was euphoric!
You are so correct though when you say that it is deceiving, because I did have a couple friends ask me how I did that and they were so amazed. But let’s face it, if you run free promos and promote your book a lot it can definitely happen and more than once. Does it mean you sell 1000 copies, or even 100, maybe so but they might have been free.
If anything I feel that overall it is a giant motivator and boost to the morale. I like to take screen prints and share, as it can definitely attract customers do you buy your book.
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on May 10, 2017:
Hi savvydating! Glad you found it useful and can identify "shenanigans" when you see them. :) If you do eventually write a book, please let your HP writer friends know. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting! Have a great day!
Yves on May 10, 2017:
It seems to me that it is best to make some money from a book, however small the amount. Your information on "best sellers" was quite interesting, and it makes sense (however sad) that some "shenanigans" are involved in achieving that "status."
I've never tried to write a book, but if I ever do, this information will help me to keep my head on straight. Lol.
Quite an informative piece you've written here, Heidi.
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on May 03, 2017:
MsDora, it's surprising how many people are willing to fool themselves into thinking they're winning when they're not. I'd rather see small, but steady, gains that I know I've truly achieved. Thanks for putting the exclamation point on the conversation! Have a beautiful day!
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on May 01, 2017:
I agree wholeheartedly with your conclusion. We'd be fools to make believe that we're earning when we're not.
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on April 24, 2017:
Hi Lawrence! First, congrats on publishing your second novel! You're right, it's a tough selling market on Amazon (and elsewhere). Using a freebie offer on the first book might be a good way to drum up some interest in the second. There's a theory that the best way to promote one book is to keep writing more books. Let us know how your freebie offer goes. I'm always looking for reports on these strategies used "in the wild." Thank you for adding your experience to the conversation and good luck with both your first and second novels!
Lawrence Hebb on April 22, 2017:
I found this interesting. I'm at the point of just published my second Novel. As I set things up I realised that my first novel, which hasn't sold any books for a while (and sits somewhere around the number one million mark on Amazon, pretty far down) was actually eligible for the 'free offer'
I'm wanting to boost my circulation, and not dumb enough to seriously think it's going to make any 'Best seller' list so I'm hoping to use the 'freebie' to help get more sales of the second!
Whether the strategy will work? I don't know, but hopefully more people will enjoy the story, and stop by the second one!
As for 'marketing the heck out of it' well, that I'm still figuring out, but some things are clearly 'off limits'
Thanks for the heads up though.
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on April 04, 2017:
Suhail, hey, the bevy of best sellers befuddled me for ages, too. Then I decided to do a little digging (or peel that onion).
You bring up a great question about social media decreasing the number of serious readers. That is a truly valid question. These days, folks are "snacking" on content, be it on social media or "short reads" on Kindle. As authors, I think it will mean that we'll need to "bite size" our offerings. Maybe by filling up on our snacks, they'll get a serious content meal. :)
Thanks to you and your canine sidekick for stopping by and chiming in with a great question! Have a wonderful day!
Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on April 04, 2017:
Very informative hub once again, Heidi!
I used to wonder how so many authors have Best Sellers. Being an engineer by education, I should have peeled the onion myself. However, your hub has done the same for me ha-ha.
I have other concerns. With so many social media outlets, will there be any serious readers of books left at all in the days to come?
Suhail and my dog K2
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 27, 2017:
Flourish, you bring up an interesting perspective on the free book giveaways. Some authors have used them as an email list opt-in incentive or a reward for their followers. I get that. But complete strangers? Well, I guess it depends on the book. If it is a "business card" type book, then it might be a strategy to gain new customers. But if not, what's the point? I have seen a couple of true best selling authors do book giveaways because they were trying to start a movement or promote a cause. I kind of get that. But even at that, it's still just a "business card" for a cause. Thanks for adding that angle to the conversation! Have a great week ahead!
FlourishAnyway from USA on March 26, 2017:
People are very tricky. I have seen claims of best seller status and thought no way! You explained exactly how they get by with this stuff. I've seen daily free offers for ebooks but I've never sampled them. I've always assumed they were not worth reading if authors are just giving them away to strangers with nothing requested in return. Might be faulty thinking on my part.
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 26, 2017:
Yes, Blond, when everyone is "special," there's nothing special about anyone. :) I'm hoping Amazon's monitoring of these cover claims will send a message. But it will be tough for them to monitor these claims off of Amazon and "in the wild." Like the "once in a lifetime" sales, I'm taking any of these designations with a grain of salt and it actually makes me think less of the author. Thanks for adding that perspective to the conversation! Have a lovely Sunday!
Mary Wickison from Brazil on March 26, 2017:
It sounds like before long all we will see are book covers with stickers on the front which say, "best seller".
Amazon could be shooting themselves in the foot, with their buying public if all of these 'best sellers' aren't worth the paper they are printed (or not) on.
It is akin to JCPenny's having a once in a lifetime sale (again).
Maybe credibility isn't worth much anymore.
This was very interesting.
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 26, 2017:
G'morning, billybuc! Gives me a headache, too. Like you, I never lose sleep over whether my books are, or are not, best sellers. I am constantly stunned by how important this designation is for some people, even if it is contrived. For me, if my books sell, great. If they don't, they help me sell other parts of my business. Plus, I usually read books that friends have suggested (or written) before those that are on a best seller list. Thanks for stopping by this Sunday morning! Have a lovely weekend!
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 26, 2017:
I'll get a headache if I think about all this. I write novels because I love to write novels. The sales will or will not happen. There are too many factors at play for me to lose sleep over it. I'm a writer...that's what I do....and my job is to improve with each book. Bestseller? LOL
Happy Sunday my friend.