Why you shouldn’t try to write a bestseller

Yeah, I know it’s spelled wrong. I think that’s sort of fitting.

Every coach, publisher, and vendor targeting authors is telling you that it will help your book become a bestseller.

They are bamboozling you. It’s like a hairstylist saying they can make you beautiful. First off, they can’t (unless you’re already beautiful). And second, being beautiful isn’t a very good goal anyway.

In the same way, becoming a bestseller is likely an unattainable, and probably fruitless, goal.

Why you probably can’t be a bestseller

There are ten slots on the New York Times advice and how-to list. This week, six of those are repeats from previous weeks. (Atomic Habits has been on the list for 217 weeks, and The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck has been there for 317 weeks.) I haven’t done a complete analysis, but I’d guess that about 200 new books appear on the list in a year. You are vying for one of four or five open slots in any given week, because the rest are inevitably going to books that have been selling well for a very long time.

Of course, this is not the only list. There are other New York Times lists. The Washington Post has a list. USA Today has a list. (The Wall Street Journal used to have a list, but no longer does.)

To get on one of those lists, you need to sell 4,000 or 5,000 books in a week — maybe a little more, maybe a little less.

There are various ways to do that.

If you are famous, you can just go on TV and say, “Hey, I wrote a book,” and your vast following will buy copies in the launch week. Same if you already wrote a huge bestseller and have a following. If you’re a big TikTok star, you can get people excited with that.

If you speak a lot to large groups, you can tell all your speaking clients to buy books in lieu of part of your fee. For this to work, you need to speak to a whole lot of people and you will be giving up a bunch of money. (Remember, if the event buys 500 books, it’s going to cost them about $13,000 — they’re not going to do that for nothing.)

If you are rich, you can pay shady organizations called distributed buying programs to buy a bunch of books and make it appear as if the purchases come from multiple buyers. If they buy 5,000 books through retail, that’s going to cost them $120,000 or so. They don’t work for free, so you’re probably out more like $180,000. And if you get caught, you’ll look like a charlatan.

Oh, and those bulk buys for speaking or distributing buying programs? The bestseller lists are on the lookout for those. If they believe you did that, they may just decide not to include your book on the list.

Let’s talk about those four or five slots available in a given launch week. Since there are multiple lists, isn’t that really around 20 possible slots? Well, no. Because the lists track the same purchase sources, if you miss one list, you probably miss them all.

So you’re trying to be one of the four or five — or let’s be generous, maybe ten — bestselling new books in a week that probably has a thousand new book launches. You are up against Bill Gates, or LeBron James, or Tucker Carlson, or Dr. Sanjay Gupta, or whatever other folks who people already know happen to be launching a book. You think you can beat all those people?

There’s also a Porchlight list. (Porchlight is an outfit that helps with bulk purchases, it used to be called 800CEOREAD.) Porchlight is a fine organization, but bulk purchases are inherently lumpy. One or two speaking gigs that buy 500 books a piece will probably get you on that list. I’ve been on that list a few times. It means nothing except that you found somebody willing to buy a lot of books at once.

But wait, you say, what about Amazon? You probably know people who were the top seller in Amazon and got an orange ribbon on their book for being the top new book in a category or subcategory.

Yeah, you can do that. I’ve done that several times. It’s not hard. A few hundred sales will do it. It’s also not very impressive. If you do that and say you are a bestseller, real authors and readers will just laugh at you. It’s a participation trophy — don’t hoist it up high and imagine that you’re impressing anyone.

(By the way, I call myself a bestselling author. Why? My book Groundswell, written with Charlene Li and published with Harvard Business Press in 2008, made the BusinessWeek bestseller list [which no longer exists, but it once did]. It was legit: that book has sold 150,000 copies. So I’m not making up a credential — but we weren’t chasing it, either, it just happened because it was a good book with exquisite timing.)

Being a bestseller is the wrong goal

Think a minute. Why are you writing a book?

In my author survey, the top reason authors said they wrote books were “to boost my reputation” and “to share the knowledge I had.” Others hoped to generate leads and get speaking gigs.

While one week on a bestseller list will help with some of those goals, it’s certainly not a requirement.

Let’s say you wrote a book on marketing. If you get to speak at marketing conferences, get interviewed in articles about marketing, get hired by companies to help them with their marketing, or get a sweet job offer from a marketing services company, you’ve accomplished some truly worthwhile goals. None of those goals require you to be a bestseller. In fact, I’d argue that the two don’t have much to do with each other. If you are a star among your peers — leaders in marketing strategy — then you’ve succeeded.

That doesn’t take a whole lot of sales — it takes healthy sales to people interested in marketing strategy. You need a reputation in your niche. A leader in the philosophy of marketing can be famous among marketers and unknown among general readers — and that’s just fine.

Look at my own book Build a Better Business Book. It is selling just fine. It will never get anywhere near a bestseller list, because the market is business authors, and there are just a few thousand of them.

But since I wrote and published it, two things have happened.

My leads have gotten more numerous and richer. It’s helped me to close in excess of $100,000 in business already, and it’s been out less than a year. In the case of one lucrative and competitive contract, the client literally said, “We are hiring you because you wrote the book on this stuff.” They were right, too: I had exactly the skills they needed, and the book proved it.

It has also made connections for me within the publishing industry and led to a couple of high-profile speaking appearances at conferences.

Your goals are probably like mine. You want to be known. You want to be respected. You want people to call you and say, “I need to hire you because you wrote the book on this stuff.”

Your book can realistically accomplish that. Even if it’s hybrid published or self-published. Even if never gets further than an orange ribbon on Amazon.

If it influences the right set of people, you’re in good shape.

That’s not only more achievable than hitting the bestseller list, it’s more valuable, too.

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