BESTSELLER: How Many Copies Do You Have to Sell to Become a Bestseller?

bestseller - wood typeLast year I wrote what became my most popular posting ever—entitled “How many books do you have to sell to be a bestseller?” Since then, remarkably, people in more than 54 countries have googled “bestseller” and have found that posting. Today I want to shed more light into that all-so-elusive bestseller space. Since my specialty is business books, I will devote much of this blog posting to that subject. However, I will also give you a more macro-view by comparing business to the larger non-fiction bookshelf. Although on this particular week, there is no comparison.

In this particular week in late August of 2010, the top two bestselling non-fiction works are two different paperback versions of the same book, Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert (Penguin), an incredible phenomenon that has sold well over 5 million copies since it was published in February, 2006. This book was a rare gem in the publishing industry from the start. In August of 2010, a movie version of the book was released starring Julia Roberts, which put the book back in the epicenter of the publishing world once again (there is even a preview of the movie that you can watch on the Amazon site). The movie, which grossed close to $25 million its first week at the box-office, explains why the book sold almost 140,000 copies the week the movie was released (as measured by Nielsen Bookscan, which covers about 75% of all book sales in the U.S.). That is an extremely impressive and rare achievement for a 3-year old book—especially when one examines the rest of the non-fiction bestseller list. The fifth bestselling book, for example, Love at Last Sight by Kerry Shook, sold under 11,000 copies that same week.  In fact, only five non-fiction books topped 10,000 copies in this week in August, with Eat, Pray, Love, topping the list. 

Now let’s turn to the business category where there are very few books turned into movies (quick quiz: can you think of any business book that became a good movie? Find the answer at the end of this posting). On this particular week in August, the bestselling book of the week more than doubled the second bestseller. The #1 book, which has topped this list many times since it was published in early 2007, is StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath (Gallup Press). On this particular week, this fabulous book sold just over 9,000 copies, and just under 300,000 for all of 2010 (to date). The second bestselling book, The Big Short, by the same author as The Blind Side, Moneyball, and Liar’s Poker—Michael Lewis—sold 4,200+ for the week, and almost 400,000 copies in 2010.

Let’s fast-forward a week and see if anything meaningful changed:  On the non-fiction front, the number one and two books were still Eat, Pray, Love. However, sales of the two editions of the book had fallen by almost half, to about 73,000 units (a dramatic fall-off that we see more often with movies than books). On the business book front, StrengthsFinder 2.0 kept its #1 status and actually increased in sales, to almost 10,000 copies, a nice 10 percent pop from the previous week.

What did it take to make it on the top 50 business bestseller list that publishers are so focused on? In the last week of August, a period that used to be the kiss of death for business publishing (because the whole publishing world was on vacation), the 50th bestselling business book sold almost 850 copies. (Since Bookscan only captures about 75% of sales, the real number is likely over 1,000 copies). That is an impressive statistic, and is a reflection of the times in which we live. Given the tough economy, fewer business people are taking multi-week, summer vacations. Those that still have their jobs are searching for books that can make them more effective at work. In days of old, no one in publishing worked in August. But that has changed forever. When I contacted the top ten business book editors the last few weeks, all but one were hard at work, sitting at their desks, searching for that next all-so-elusive bestseller.  I hope that gives you some idea about how many copies a business book has to sell to make it on to a bestseller list. Of course, and I will cover this in a future posting, it’s the velocity of sales that ultimately determines whether a book makes it on to a bestseller list or not.

ANSWER:  So what business book made for the best movie? My vote goes to Barbarians at the Gate, that terrific book by Burroughs and Helyar. First published in 1990, it is one of my favorite business books of all time, selling many hundreds of thousands of copies before it was turned into an engaging, fast-paced HBO movie starring James Garner in 1993.


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