Bestsellers: What it Takes

Who doesn’t want to be a bestselling author? Now you can do it, too. It’s easy. Publish a book on Amazon, give a couple of hundred dollars to each of a few friends, and have them buy your book, one copy every couple of hours, for twenty-four hours and chances are you’ll wind up a bestseller in some finely sliced Amazon category: #2 in Container Gardening, or #6 in Popular Culture in Social Sciences, or #9 in New Adult & College Romance Fiction.

That’s the reality of To reach those heights on, you might have to buy five an hour.

Either way, it’s a small investment if all you want is to more-or-less-legitimately call yourself a bestselling author. Doesn’t much matter if the book is fifty pages or five hundred, or priced at $3.99 or $39.00. Even if you’re book is called How to Get a Bigger Butt in Ten Days, all you need is a relatively high turnover of copies in a short period of time and, boom, you’re a star in the “45-minute Health, Fitness & Dieting Short Reads” category.

To get into the top ten overall on is harder but still within reach of most. Depending on the time of year, 150 copies in 18 hours will probably get you there. It’s still cheaper than many creative writing programs. Two hundred copies and you’re probably in the top three.

For, you’ll require about five to ten times that number of purchases. For someone determined to have ‘bestselling author’ on the resume, it’s not that high a price. Take a screen-shot and you own it forever.

Getting onto the Globe & Mail bestseller list is tougher. It is based on weekly data taken from a broad spectrum of book retailers. It’s not the whole story of the book marketplace—Amazon sales, in particular, are under-represented—but it’s probably the most reliable list we have in Canada.

The difficulty of making the Globe list varies depending on the time of year. Right now we’re at the peak of the book release cycle. There are a lot of books in the market and sales are relatively high. Not Christmas level high, but higher than in the dead of winter or the dog days of summer. I’m told you probably need to sell at least 2,500 copies a week across Canada to get into the top ten right now. In a slow period, you might have a shot with 1,000 sales.

If you’re really ambitious and want to hit the New York Times bestseller list—the most prestigious of them all—you’ll need much more money and a better book. The Times is openly biased in favor of serious books by established authors working with reputable publishing companies and selling in respectable bookstores. You have to clear those hurdles and sell a minimum of 5,000 and probably closer to 10,000 copies in a week to make the Times’ list. Again, the time of year matters: in peak seasons, 10,000 might not do.

The very bestselling books in Canada move 8,000 to 15,000 copies a week, and those are mostly children’s and self-help titles. In the US, it’s 60,000 to 150,000, and these days they are primarily self-help and Trump books (essentially the same genre, when you think about it).

There are different kinds of writers. At the extremes, there are those who pursue quality with little or no thought to the market, and those who seek sales with little or no consideration of merit. Merit and sales are by no means mutually exclusive, but most writers lean one way or the other.

Most don’t lean enough that they are incapable of feeling conflicted. Writers who care mostly about merit can weep to see their books in remainder bins. Others who want nothing more than a line at the checkout counter can be stung by a negative review. But one way or another, they lean, and their efforts follow their inclinations, as do their results.

Unfortunately for serious writers, whatever their leanings, Amazon has managed to debase both currencies: the bestseller list, and the book review.

With all its obscure categories, and it’s up to the minute scoring, pretty much every author can get a sniff of bestseller status on Amazon. Look at how many second-tier business people on LinkedIn have “bestselling author” under their names, right next to “keynote speaker,” another impressive-sounding but meaningless phrase.

Amazon’s on-site reviews have meanwhile had an inflationary effect on the notion of merit. I randomly searched biographies of Gandhi and looked at more than seventy without finding a single one that was rated less than four out of five stars. Every player’s a winner!

I thought maybe the subject matter was skewing my results so I searched biographies of Hitler. Apparently it’s impossible to get less than four stars writing about him, too.

Think I’m exaggerating? Even Mein Kampf has 4.25 stars on Amazon:

Another triumph of machine learning

A few more thoughts on bestseller lists and Amazon’s corrosion of our culture. Two weeks ago, I mentioned that a new artificial-intelligence system called GPT-3 is showing an astonishing facility with the English language. You can read a story written by GPT-3 in the Guardian, telling you there is nothing to fear from artificial intelligence (so it has already learned to lie).

The capacities of this new program scared the hell out of me. I could imagine, a few years from now, GPT-3 pumping out biographies of every major public figure in North American history over a weekend, all of them five-star bestsellers. It wasn’t until I visited last Saturday that my fears were calmed.

I noticed, on that visit, a forthcoming Sutherland House book ranked as Amazon’s #1 “soccer biography.” There it was, top of the list, casting its long shadow on books by Lionel Messi, Christiano Ronaldo, and Canada’s own Christine Sinclair. It was first-time author Marci Warhaft’s The Good Stripper: A Soccer Mom’s Memoir of Loss, Lies, and Lap Dances.

Publishers give Amazon and other booksellers metadata that categorizes our books. I don’t recall what terms we used to categorize The Good Stripper but probably ones like “adult memoir” and “women’s sexuality.” We did not suggest “soccer stars.” Amazon’s algorithmic mind came up with that all on its own.

These miscategorizations are not rare. My biography of Herbert Hoover was once Amazon’s #1 “boxer biography.” Hoover, as a young mining engineer in China, lived through the Boxer Rebellion, an event that had nothing to do with boxing, at least not as understood by Jersey Joe Walcott and Hector “Macho” Camacho, who also had books on the list.

If the singularity is already here (to borrow from William Gibson), it is certainly not evenly distributed. And it probably won’t be for a while if Amazon is any indication.