How many books do you have to sell to be a bestseller?

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Here is a piece I ran late last year that has been requsted and read more often than just about any other piece. This is Part I of II:

One of the most common questions I get from authors is “how many books do I have to sell to be successful?” or “How many books will it take for me to make the bestseller list?” These questions are of course related, but not necessarily the same thing. And there are no real simple or pat answers to either question.

For instance, to make The New York Times Non-Fiction printed list, it isn’t how many copies you have to sell, it is how many copies you have to sell within a given period of time—vs. all the other bestsellers—in this case a single week. Every so often a book seems to come from nowhere and leaps to the #1 spot on Amazon.com and The New York Times.

For an extreme example of a non-business bestseller, take What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception, by Scott McClellan (PublicAffairs). That book was leaked to the press before its official publication date, sparking an unprecedented firestorm of press, and immediately became non-stop fodder for all of the cable news channels. When the book was finally released, it sold well over 20,000 copies its first week, about 100,000 copies its first month (according to Nielsen Bookscan).  Sales doubled to more than 50,000 in its third week, a phenomenon that can almost always be traced to positive word of mouth.

The ever-gushing press helped to catapult the book to #1 on the Times Non-Fiction list its first week out, knocking Barbara Walters’ kiss-and-tell-memoir (Audition, Knopf) down to #2, despite the sensational media her book garnered. (For a compelling article on bestsellerdom, please see The Guardian).    

Business books rarely have that kind of action for obvious reasons. Few business books are actually newsworthy, and certainly not to the extent of a stunning, revelatory book that comes from an insider of a sitting presidential administration. However, every so often a business book can be something of an event.

Take Jack Welch. His well-anticipated memoir, Jack: Straight from the Gut (Warner, 2001), debuted at #1 on the New York Times List regardless of the book’s unbelievably unfortunate publication date of September 11, 2001. Welch had received the second highest non-fiction advance in history (at $7.1 million, only the pope had received more. Then the Clintons beat them both, with Hillary at $8.5 million and Bill at $12 million).  Even though there had been more than fifteen books published about Jack Welch by that point, this was the first one from the man himself. Despite mostly lukewarm reviews, the book went on to sell about a million copies. That’s an impressive number but nowhere near the record number for a business memoir held by Chrysler savior Lee Iacocca’s Iacocca, which sold more than two million copies in a single year. It became the best-selling hardcover non-fiction book for two years running in 1984 and 1985. But that is a once-in-a-lifetime case (twice at most), what I call a phenomenon book.

What about the more traditional, “how-to” business book? That modern day genre was sparked, at least in part, by Peter Drucker in 1954 with the publication of The Practice of Management (Harper & Row), a book which remains, remarkably, in print to this day. He told me that before he wrote that book, he went to the library in search of anything that would help one to manage a business or corporation, “but there was nothing,” which is “why I had to make it up.” 

Fast forward to 1982 (see my post entitled The Business Book Revolution ). That was the year that started everything.  Between 1982 and 2001 publishers had no mechanism to figure out how many copies were sold by books published by compeitors. That changed with the emergence of Nielsen bookscan, a pay-service that tells publishers how many copies any book sold that week, that month, year, life-to-date, etc. That service changed the landscape by providing publishers with the first accurate data on how many copies a book sold in any particular week. In essence, it made publishing an open book test. The data comes out Wedesday mornings, and editors and publishers stay glued to their computers Wednesday morning, hoping that the latest numbers bring good tidings on their latest books (for a great article on “why writers never reveal how many copies their buddies have sold,” see Slate’s article by Dan Gross). 

Come back next posting to hear more on what it takes to be a bestseller—in Part II of  “How many books do you have to sell to be a bestseller. “

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