When are you a “bestselling author”?

You’ve undoubtedly seen the claim of being a “bestselling author” on book covers, online book blurbs, and promotional material. So what technically makes someone a bestselling author? And are those claims legit?

There’s no hard and fast rule that makes one a bestselling author. However, there is one generality that for better or worse qualifies a book as a bestseller (and by inference the author as “bestselling”): Once you hit the top 100 list in your category for book sales, you have a bestseller.

Traditionally, that has been difficult to achieve as there weren’t many lists. Only a few major newspapers carried them, most notably The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, as well as Publishers Weekly. During the 1980s, USA Today entered the fray. Soon businesses did as well, with Barnes & Noble and Walmart getting the most attention, and during the past decade or so, Amazon.com maintaining multiple lists that usually update hourly.

That means there are many lists you could hit, some more easily than others. The lone sale of a hiking trail guidebook for Iowa easily can push that title to the top of Amazon’s Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Nonfiction > Travel > United States > States > Iowa list, technically making it a bestseller. A novel might sell 300 copies but never make the sales list for its Amazon category and hence not be a bestseller. Because of this, some bestseller lists carry more weight than others, which usually is why authors note that they are a “New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author.”

In addition, not all bestsellers lists measure the same thing. Amazon, for example, bases its lists almost entirely on sales. So if you’re No. 20 on the list, that means 19 books outsold you in that category over a certain period of time. In contrast, The New York Times samples brick and mortar bookstores to see how many copies of a book were shipped during a week to them in anticipation of sales (Note: The Times recently began factoring online sales into its formula as well.).

These different metrics mean that which books hit a given bestsellers list varies greatly. One ebook sale on Iowa hiking trails can get you to the top of an Amazon list but nowhere near The New York Times bestsellers. Meanwhile, author Amanda Hocking sold more than a million books through Amazon, topping its list, but never cracked The New York Times, where a shipment of 20,000 books usually can land you on the low end of the top 100. Yet author John Locke, who also sold more than a million books, topped both Amazon and The Times’ lists.


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.