How Many Books Does it Take to be a bestseller, Part II

This posting originally appeared last summer, when book sales in all cataegories were more robust. However, this, Part II of the series, gives you a good idea about what it takes to become a business bestseller:  

In the last post I highlighted the business book revolution which started in 1982. Perhaps the most remarkable thing to come out of that period was the number of business bestsellers to make the list on the same week. In the 1983-1984 business book season, there were multiple weeks in which as many as seven entries on The New York Times Non-Fiction list were business books. Iacocca, In Search of Excellence, The One Minute Manager, Megatrends, and more—all appeared the same week on the same list. In recent years, business book publishers have been lucky to get one or two titles on that list the same week. In fact, most weeks the Times has no business books on its printed list of 1-15 (there is an extended NY Times list that is not printed in the paper). 

Let’s look at the numbers to figure out why.  What follows is the #1 overall non-fiction book vs. the #1 business bestseller, followed by the 50th bestselling non-fiction book vs. the 50th best-selling business book (taken from last week’s Bookscan’s figures):   

Overall Non-Fiction                                                          Business

#1. The Last Lecture: 53,000+ sold                  #1. Strengths Finder: 8,000+ sold

#50: The Tipping Point: about 4,200 sold        #50. Secret History of Amer. Empire: < 900 sold 

source: Nielsen Bookscan

Remember there are only 15 slots on the NY Times Non-Fiction list. In this particular week, the #15 bestselling (overall) non-fiction book was a book called Eat this, not That, a book that sold almost 11,000 copies. Obviously since the #1 bestselling business book sold a little over 8,000, there is no way that a business book could capture a slot on the NY Times printed list this week (since its top selling title sold 3,000 fewer than the #15 overall, non-fiction book). 

That’s not an abberation. That’s a pattern that we see week in and week out. Also, the #1 bestselling non-fiction books typically sells 3-6 times as many as the #1 bestselling business book. Why is this? The non-fiction category contains just too much firepower for the business book category: biographies, political books, self-help—more than 40 distinct categories make up the non-fiction list and business is only one of them (albeit one of the strongest categories).                               

This begs the question: why did business books dominate the bestseller list for a brief period in the early-to-mid 1980s? There could only be one explanation. This was the beginning of an era in which business and “corporate America” swept through the country like a firestorm. We were transfixed and transformed: from an uninspiring period of sinking stock prices and multiple recessions to one in which the world of business and Wall Street captured the imaginations of those on Main Street. Suddenly, the stock market took off, business books were in, and a new class of affluent investors were created. Will history repeat itself and make business the dominant category on the NY Times non-fiction list again? It’s not likely. That’s because business is now an established, thriving category. That means it cannot suddenly one day emerge as a new and incredible area of interest, as it did in the early 1980s. But never say never.

Back to how many copies it takes for a business book to be succesful? As a very general rule of thumb, if a business book sells more than say, 20,000 – 25,000 copies its first year, that’s a strong showing, particularly if it’s someone’s first book. Of course, that doesn’t include the extremes, the Jack Welch’s and Warren Buffett’s at the high end, or the specialized niche books at the other end (say, a book on financial engineering or option trading). However, as Coach John Wooden (of UCLA)  liked to say, don’t keep watching the scoreboard. Write what you’re most passionate about, play a leading role in the book’s promotional campaign, and let the chips fall where they may. (Read this interesting article to learn about what happens to books that never come close to the bestseller list).


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