What Makes a Book Bestseller?

Table of Contents


What makes a book bestseller?

A bestseller is generally defined as a book that appears on a published bestseller list, such as the New York Times Best Sellers, USA Today’s Best-Selling Books, or other listings familiar to you.

These lists track book sales from various sources like bookstores, online retailers, and wholesalers to determine the top-selling books across different categories and genres.

What makes a book bestseller?

Appearing on a major bestseller list signifies that a book has achieved a high volume of sales within a certain period. This distinction is coveted in the publishing industry as it dramatically increases a book’s visibility and marketability.

Bestseller status can launch an author’s career, resulting in more lucrative book deals, speaking engagements, and adaptation opportunities. John Grisham, J.K. Rowling, and Stephen King are just a few examples of authors who made it big time with their early books and made a killing in subsequent book releases.

How Bestsellers Help Publishers Subsidize Operation

For publishers, bestsellers are highly profitable and help subsidize the publication of lesser-known works. Thanks to their high sales volume and often higher retail price, a bestseller significantly boosts a publisher’s revenue. This substantial income can then be used to offset the costs associated with publishing lesser-known books.

These might include advances for authors, editing, design, printing, marketing, and distribution costs. Essentially, the profits from a bestseller provide a financial cushion that allows publishers to take risks on new or less established authors, fostering diversity and innovation in their catalog.

While no definitive formula exists for writing a bestseller, certain patterns have emerged. Bestselling fiction titles tend to be fast-paced page-turners with compelling characters and riveting plots full of twists and surprises.

Non-fiction bestsellers such as James Clear’s Atomic Habits often address timely topics or offer prescriptive advice from established experts. However, becoming a bestseller ultimately requires some combination of strong writing, savvy marketing, buzzworthy endorsements, and a bit of luck.

Regardless of genre, bestselling books share the ability to resonate widely with readers. Appearing on a major bestseller list represents achieving the pinnacle of mainstream success in the publishing world.

Section 2: The Role of Sales in Becoming a Bestseller

Landing on a bestseller list is the crowning achievement for most published books. While no definitive factor guarantees bestseller status, sales numbers are crucial. Generally, selling many books quickly is needed to have a shot at bestseller glory.

The 5,000 Book Sales Benchmark

Industry insiders often cite selling at least 5,000 print copies within one week as the unofficial threshold for a book to be considered for a spot on a major bestseller list. The key lists publishers aim for include the New York Times, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly. Each has criteria, but hitting the 5,000-copy mark weekly puts a book in contention.

According to Nielsen BookScan data, out of the over 1 million unique ISBNs published yearly in the U.S., only 25,000 sell more than 5,000 copies. And far fewer accomplish that feat within a single week. So, clearing the 5,000 sales hurdle is an accomplishment that separates potential bestsellers from the rest of the pack.

The Role of List Criteria

While rapid sales growth improves the odds, placement on major bestseller lists also depends on the specific criteria of each list. For example, the New York Times ranks by sales from a curated list of approximately 4,500 bookstores, wholesalers, and other sources. The USA Today list draws from a similar pool of 4,000 outlets. Publishers Weekly relies on voluntary reports from major retailers.

Selling 5,000+ books quickly is not a guarantee, but it does mean your book will be on the radar of list editors. Other factors like release date, genre, author brand, and reviews also come into play. However, explosive sales growth is arguably the most influential element for bestseller consideration.

In short, while achieving definitive “bestseller” status depends on a mix of factors, generating a surge of several thousand sales within a compressed timeframe is typically required to get your foot in the door.

Behind the Scenes of a Bestseller

Becoming a bestseller involves much more than just writing a great book. Many players behind the scenes help determine if a book has the potential to reach bestseller status.

The Role of Literary Agents

Literary agents are often the first filter for potential bestsellers. They read hundreds of manuscripts yearly and only take on books they believe have commercial appeal and bestseller potential. Agents provide editorial guidance to authors and pitch books to publishers. A reputable agent with industry connections increases a book’s chances of getting a major publishing deal.

The Publisher’s Role

Once a publisher acquires a book, an entire team makes it a success. Editors work closely with authors to refine the manuscript. The marketing and publicity departments create buzz leading up to publication with galleys, author interviews and events, social media campaigns, and securing reviews. Sales teams pitch the book to retailers to ensure wide distribution and visibility. Publishers invest significant resources into books they believe could reach bestseller lists.

The Influence of Reviews

Positive reviews from major publications like the New York Times Book Review and trade journals like Publishers Weekly or Kirkus Reviews can boost credibility. High-profile endorsements lend prestige and signal a must-read title. Reviews help drive pre-orders and early sales, which helps propel a book up the bestseller charts.

The Role of Booksellers

Major bookstore chains and independent bookshops curate selections to highlight on shelves. Placement in storefront displays and staff recommendations help books gain reader attention. Booksellers also report sales data that contributes to bestseller metrics.

Librarians as Influencers

Librarians often preview and recommend upcoming books. Books placed on library “new release” shelves are exposed to many readers. Libraries drive significant book sales, so librarian buzz can ignite word-of-mouth excitement.

The Power of Marketing

Publishers invest in advertising and promotions to increase visibility and drive sales. Campaigns target avid readers through digital ads, social media, author events, and traditional media. Savvy marketing creates consumer demand, so a book flies off shelves during its critical launch window.

The High Stakes of Publishing

The publishing industry is extremely competitive, with over one million books published in the U.S. each year. Yet only a small percentage of these titles will become bestsellers. This intense competition creates high stakes for large publishing houses that rely on bestsellers for a significant portion of their revenue.

Bestsellers are crucial to the financial success of major publishers. The top 10% of books published generate over 90% of total profit for publishers. Bestsellers not only bring in substantial direct revenue through strong sales but also boost the publisher’s prestige and allow them to take more risks on new authors. An established roster of bestselling authors enables publishers to command higher advances and better terms from retailers.

However, with so many books published annually, competition is fierce. The odds are stacked against any single title, which makes it big. Industry estimates suggest less than 1% of traditionally published books sell over 5,000 copies. And far fewer—just a couple hundred titles each year—achieve national bestseller status.

The difficulty of predicting which books will succeed adds to the high stakes. Editors at major publishing houses receive thousands of submissions each year. Determining which manuscripts to invest in requires instinct, experience, and some degree of luck. An editor’s reputation depends on their ability to select books with bestseller potential.

Once a promising manuscript is acquired, publishers invest heavily in editing, marketing, and distribution. However, substantial upfront investments in books that fail to generate significant sales can be damaging. This pressure motivates large publishers to focus on finding and supporting books that can make the bestseller lists.

Key Factors Driving the Focus on Bestsellers

  • Bestsellers account for a disproportionate share of publisher revenue and profit
  • The publishing market is extremely competitive, with long odds of success
  • Predicting successful books is challenging and risky for publishers
  • Major investments are required to edit, produce, and market books

The Influence of Literary Awards and Established Authors

Literary awards can have a significant impact on book sales and bestseller status. Winning a major literary prize brings a lot of publicity and exposure for the book and its author. This increased attention often leads to a spike in sales.

Winning a prestigious award for lesser-known authors can launch them into the mainstream and greatly expand their readership. Even if the book was not widely read, the award can greatly boost it. For example, after winning the Man Booker Prize (Now the Booker Prize), previously obscure titles like The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton and A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James became popular bestsellers.

However, for already famous and commercially successful writers, the impact of literary prizes on book sales is less clear. Books by authors like Stephen King or John Grisham routinely land on bestseller lists regardless of whether they win awards. Still, the increased media coverage from winning a prize may give an extra nudge.

The visibility and reputation of the author are key. When an acclaimed literary giant like Toni Morrison or Philip Roth publishes a new work, it is far more likely to become a bestseller due to its prior success. The book already has a built-in audience eagerly awaiting it.

So, while awards don’t automatically translate into sales, they can elevate a book’s profile and bring it to the attention of many more potential readers. This effect is especially noteworthy for new authors looking to break through. Ultimately, compelling writing and positive word-of-mouth are what make a true bestseller.

Nielsen BookScan and Data Gathering

Nielsen BookScan is considered the gold standard for tracking weekly retail sales of print books in the US. This service collects sales data directly from major chain retailers, independent bookstores, and online merchants, covering around 85% of the country’s print book sales.

Some key advantages of BookScan data:

  • Provides publishers and wholesalers detailed insights into which books are selling and where.
  • Allows tracking of sales trends over time to identify rising titles.
  • Informs marketing and inventory decisions by identifying high-performing titles and stores.
  • Helps forecast demand and manage print runs for new releases.

While not perfect, BookScan aims to eliminate subjectivity and manual reporting in bestseller lists. The New York Times compiles its prestigious lists using BookScan data but also incorporates manual reviews and adjustments.

Other data sources, such as Amazon sales rankings, Goodreads ratings, and social media mentions, allow publishers to gauge interest and buzz around new books. However, BookScan provides the most authoritative snapshot of true sales velocity.

Access to better data has empowered publishers to make smarter decisions about print runs, store distribution, targeted promotions, and pricing—all in the service of driving sales and profits.

So, What Makes a Book a Bestseller?

Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, once gave simple but profound advice on creating a bestselling book:

get the reader to turn the page.

While many complex factors go into making a book successful, Fleming’s guidance cuts to the core—engaging storytelling and compelling content play crucial roles.

What makes a reader unable to put a book down?

First and foremost, it must have an intriguing premise and build narrative tension. The stakes must feel high, with twists and turns that surprise the reader. Well-developed characters are also key, as readers want to go on a journey with people they care about. Strong writing style helps, too, including vivid descriptions, crisp dialogue, and a compelling voice to keep the pages turning.

Beyond pure entertainment, bestsellers often provide value by presenting new ideas, timely themes, or universal truths. Non-fiction bestsellers may reveal fascinating research or provide applicable advice. Fiction can offer thought-provoking social commentary or insights into the human condition. Books that stir imagination, emotion, and intellect have a good chance of resonating widely.

Of course, many other factors influence success, like marketing and luck. But at its core, a bestseller needs a great story artfully told. As Fleming knew, good writing that engages readers stands the test of time even amid changing technologies and markets. The most powerful stories connect with people on a deeper level – and keep them eagerly turning pages.


This write-up explored the multifaceted factors contributing to a book becoming a bestseller. From defining bestsellers and examining the role of sales to looking behind the scenes at the publishing industry, literary awards, data gathering, and compelling storytelling, it’s clear there is no single “secret recipe” for bestseller success.

However, by summarizing some key points, we can glean valuable insights:

  • Bestsellers are typically defined by appearance on published lists, with minimum sales thresholds.
  • Agents, editors, marketing, and retail promotion drive book sales.
  • Established authors have an advantage, as do award-winners.
  • Precise sales data helps publishers and sellers.
  • Engaging content and storytelling retain reader interest.

While fame and fortune are alluring, at its core, a bestseller gets readers to turn the pages eagerly. We can all aspire to this by focusing on strong writing and storytelling that captivates an audience.

So, go forth and explore the world of books as a reader and a writer. Immerse yourself in thrilling tales, daring characters, and profound ideas. Seek out new authors, genres, and perspectives. And if you have a story to tell, study the craft and let your voice be heard.