It is ironic that it is within the publishing industry—an industry of words and meaning—that the word “best-seller” is most often used with an imprecise meaning. So, let’s move beyond folklore and talk about what it actually connotes when the status is attributed.
If you are going to invest the time, transparency, and discipline to write a book you should want people to read it. This is especially true for books that point people to God. Christian books can be a means of making disciples, so it is praiseworthy when a God-honoring, biblically solid book finds a large audience. That’s what best-seller lists tell us, right? Well, after ten years in the publishing industry, I can unequivocally tell you that the “best-seller list” is a myth. In fact, best-seller lists do not necessarily or consistently reflect the books that are selling best. It is ironic that it is within the publishing industry—an industry of words and meaning—that the word “best-seller” is most often used with an imprecise meaning. So, let’s move beyond folklore and talk about what it actually connotes when the status is attributed to a book.
The consistent challenges with all best-seller lists are based in what sales are actually quantified and compared:
First, all best-seller lists evaluate sales within a particular timeframe. Some
best-seller lists are weekly, so quantify a single week of sales. Other best-seller
lists are monthly, thus quantifying a month of sales.
Second, all best-seller lists evaluate only those sales that have been submitted as transactions from reporting retailers. Not all retailers report their sales and those who do report their sales don’t necessarily report to all agencies from which lists are generated. Additionally, purchases from ministries or directly from authors are not reported or counted.
Third, each of the best-seller lists maintains specific, and generally secret, criteria by which they count some sales, ignore other sales, and elevate sales to particular retailers or channels over other retailers. Ultimately, there is an editorialized nature to all best-seller lists as those creating the lists maintain the right to emphasize genres, retailers, or types of sales over others.
It is certainly the right of any organization publishing a best-seller list to determine the criteria the organization will recognize. Yet, over time publishers (including me!) and authors have fallen to the temptation to try to hit best-seller lists by targeting strategies that will concentrate sales in a week to a particular mix of retailers so that recognition by the most prominent lists will be achieved. Those who manage those lists have responded by scrutinizing sales even further, which has distanced us more from lists that simply compare one book sold to another book sold. This escalation of pressure to control sales in a particular timeframe increases the pressure on authors to harness their audience to very specific action and pressures the publisher to concentrate marketing to a narrow window of time, risking the long-term influence of the book.
Are you confused and disheartened yet? Don’t worry; I’m getting to the encouraging part.
I can say with authority (and with access to years of sales data for all books in the market) that many of the books that have sold the most copies over time have never appeared on some of the best-seller lists. Take, for instance, one of B&H’s best-sellers, I Am a Church Member. It has received the ECPA Platinum Award for achieving more than one million copies in verified sales, yet it has never appeared on the New York Times Best-Seller List. There have been dozens of weeks when the lead sales reporting agency showed it as in the top three best-selling faith or advice books, yet it has never appeared on the NYT list and books that reported fewer units in sales did appear on the list on those weeks. That’s an example of a book that did not make the most prominent of best-seller lists because the list disqualified portions of the sales since they were purchased in bulk by churches. Other books sell consistently week after week but never have a single week when the sales spike to the level that qualifies the title for a best-seller list. Over time these books sell more copies than many of the books that have a strong week or two of sales and spend a brief time on one of the best-seller lists. A book we published that fits this description is Experiencing Grief. This small book has been a resource that hundreds of thousands of people have found in times of need, but it’s never been a “best-seller.” These two books are representative of dozens and dozens of books that have been immensely successful and yet have not been celebrated by some or all of the best-seller lists.
You do not need recognition from a best-seller list to be a best-seller and you definitely do not need recognition from a best-seller list to have a thriving, fruitful publishing ministry.
At its most pure expression, Christian publishing is about spreading a ministry message further than you can take it alone. It’s generally about utilizing the particular partnership, production, marketing, and distribution disciplines available from a publisher to take your message to people who you do not know. Bursting the bubble on the myth of the best-seller list is helpful because it takes our eyes off the golden calf the world has to offer and forces us to trust in the fruit that only God can bring. We must recognize that it’s possible that the deepest fruit may come from a book that few people read, but those who do are deeply transformed and live lives quietly marked by that message resulting in fruitful, faithful ministry that could impact a generation.
Do we want to sell a lot of books? Absolutely! We want to be good stewards of the resources we invest (time, money, relationships) and we believe that sales generally reflect individuals being conformed to the image of Christ through trustworthy content. We do not, however, want to be driven by selling lots of books. Authors and publishers must be compelled by obedience to God and the desire to glorify Him in what and how we publish.