What Makes a Book a Bestseller: Insights from Top Lists + 10 Strategies to Improve Book Sales

Writing a bestseller might be a goal for some authors. Among the most popular bestseller lists are the Wall Street Journal Bestselling Books list, The New York Times Best Seller list, USA Today's Best-Selling Books list, and Amazon's top charts.

What makes a book a bestseller? Let's look at a few bestseller lists and see how each one works.

Key Takeaways:

  • Different bestseller lists have their unique methodologies and criteria for selecting best-selling books. Authors should familiarize themselves with these lists to strategize effectively.
  • For self-published authors, Amazon offers significant opportunities to become bestsellers through platforms like Amazon Charts and Amazon Best Sellers. Strategies such as choosing the right category, leveraging pre-orders, and understanding Amazon's ranking algorithms are essential for success.
  • Authors should employ a mix of marketing and promotional strategies, including online advertising, email marketing, and collaboration with other authors, to increase book visibility and reach a wider audience. Pricing strategies and understanding retailer algorithms are also crucial for maximizing sales potential.

This write-up goes over:

1. Amazon Charts & Best Sellers

For self-published authors, Amazon is the best option if their goal is to sell thousands of books and get on a bestseller list. It's the most accessible platform to get listed as a bestseller author.

Here’s why.

Amazon offers two different bestseller lists:

a) Amazon Charts

Charts appear once a week after they track the books with the most sold or most read copies in any format (on Amazon and in its Kindle store, Audible store, and brick-and-mortar storefronts) and the most read or listened-to books on Kindle and Audible.

They are divided into two sections, each with 20 top titles: most read and most sold Fiction and Nonfiction books.

Here's a breakdown of how each category works:

Most Sold

  • Sales Data: This category tracks the books that have sold the most copies in any given week. It includes sales across all formats (eBook, print, and audio), Kindle Unlimited borrows, and Audible listens. This provides a comprehensive look at what books are popular purchases and borrows among Amazon customers.
  • Pre-orders: Pre-order sales are also counted in the week of the book’s release, boosting new books that have generated significant anticipation. This means that a book's position on the "Most Sold" list can reflect both current interest and accumulated anticipation.

Most Read

  • Engagement: This category goes beyond just sales and offers insight into what books are being actively read or listened to through Amazon devices and apps. This includes Kindle eBooks and Audible audiobooks.
  • Completion Rates: This list is particularly interesting because it might include books that weren’t necessarily top-sellers but have captivated readers' attention to the point of completion. It's a testament to engagement and interest, highlighting books that keep readers hooked.

b) Amazon Best Sellers

The Amazon Best Sellers list is a dynamic list reflecting the books that are most sold across Amazon's vast marketplace, updated hourly. This list gives authors, publishers, and readers a real-time snapshot of what books are currently in demand.

Here's a breakdown of how it works and how to get on Amazon Best Seller list:

Mechanics of Ranking

  • Hourly Updates: Unlike traditional bestseller lists that update weekly or monthly, Amazon's Best Sellers list refreshes hourly. This means the ranking can fluctuate significantly throughout the day based on real-time sales data.
  • Categorization: Amazon breaks down its bestseller lists into various categories and genres. This allows books to achieve bestseller status within specific niches, even if they might not be overall top sellers on the platform. Categories range from broad genres like Fiction and Nonfiction to more specific ones like Paranormal Romance or Business & Money.
  • Sales Data: The primary factor for ranking on this list is sales volume. This includes not just physical copies but also digital sales and, in some cases, audiobook sales. Amazon does not publicly disclose the exact formula or weight given to different types of sales (e.g., eBooks vs. print books), making it a bit of a black box.

How many books need to be sold to be a bestseller on Amazon? Amazon changes the book ranking based on sales and how quickly those sales happen. This is why selling fewer books in an hour can weigh heavier than selling more books in a week.

This method may become challenging if you’re competing with a book that sells 5,000 copies a day.

In a small category, a book may be ranked only #50,000 in the whole Kindle store. If your book reaches the #49,999 spot, you’ll be a bestselling author. However, in a general category, the top book can easily be ranked #20. To beat it, you’d need around 3,000 sales in a single day.

💡Your book can get faster on this list if you choose the right category and with a book promotion strategy that includes well-crafted Amazon ads.

Learn how to publish a book on Amazon with PublishDrive.

2. IndieBound Bestseller List

IndieBound offers a distinctive approach to highlighting bestseller books, focusing on the contributions and sales from independent bookstores across the United States. Unlike Amazon's real-time, algorithm-driven lists, IndieBound's bestseller lists are curated weekly and emphasize the collective preferences of independent bookstore customers. 

Here's an in-depth look at how IndieBound works and its impact on books and authors.

  • Weekly Updates: IndieBound updates its bestseller lists weekly, reflecting the preceding week's sales. 
  • Sales from Independent Bookstores: IndieBound's key factor is its exclusive reliance on sales data from independent bookstores. This network includes hundreds of independently owned bookstores nationwide, each contributing its sales data to the collective list. These bookstores are members of the American Booksellers Association (ABA), which aggregates the sales data from its member stores to compile the weekly bestseller lists.
  • Categorization: Similar to other bestseller lists, IndieBound organizes its bestsellers into categories, including fiction, nonfiction, and children's literature, among others. This organization helps readers discover popular books within their specific interests.

If you wish to be included on this list, you must distribute your book to a specific store (find one here) that reports its sales to the ABA. 

Here are the bestsellers categories:

  • Hardcover Bestsellers (Fiction & Nonfiction)
  • Trade Paperback Bestsellers (Fiction & Nonfiction)
  • Mass Market Bestsellers
  • Children's Illustrated Bestsellers
  • Children's Interest Bestsellers

3. USA Today Bestseller List

Another bestseller list is USA Today, which gathers book sales data from bookstore chains, independent bookstores, mass merchandisers, and online retailers. 

The USA Today bestseller list is one of the most comprehensive and inclusive book rankings, known for its wide-ranging snapshot of book sales across the United States. 

Unlike other lists that may separate books by format or genre, the USA Today list amalgamates sales data for fiction, nonfiction, hardcover, paperback, and electronic books into a single, unified list. This approach provides a broad overview of what's popular with readers at any given time. Here's how the USA Today bestseller list works and the criteria used for choosing books:

They can't track sales outside a store—online or physical—so if your book is sold at a book fair, for example, it won't be counted.

But with the data they have, they're determining a weekly 150 top-selling titles (Monday-Sunday). The first 50 titles are also published in the print version of USA Today each Thursday. 

Compilation Method

  • Sales Data Aggregation: The USA Today bestseller list is compiled based on weekly sales data from various sources. This includes major book retailers, independent bookstores, mass merchandisers, and direct-to-consumer sales. This comprehensive aggregation gives USA Today a broad market overview. This data reflects combined sales of titles in print and electronic format if a book has both versions. In the final list, the title of the book will come together with an indicator of the format that was sold the most: hardcover (H), paperback (P), and ebook (E).
  • Format and Genre Inclusivity: Unlike other bestseller lists that might categorize books by format (e.g., hardcover, paperback) or separate fiction from non-fiction, the USA Today list combines all formats and genres into one list. This means a paperback romance novel can be ranked alongside a hardcover business book or an eBook on history.
  • Weekly Updates: The list is updated weekly, reflecting the sales pace and trends in the book market in near-real-time.

Criteria for Selection

  • Volume of Sales: The primary criterion for a book to appear on the USA Today bestseller list is the volume of sales across all reporting channels during the tracking week. This single metric ensures that the list reflects the most purchased books among U.S. readers. To make the list, you need at least 5,000 copies sold in one week.
  • Nationwide Sales: The list considers sales from across the entire United States rather than focusing on specific regions or types of stores. This nationwide scope is part of what makes the USA Today list a valuable indicator of overall book market trends.

4. Publishers Weekly Bestseller List

Publishers Weekly uses Nielsen's BookScan service to track printed book sales in the US.

BookScan draws its data from major sellers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, Walmart, and independent bookstores. However, BookScan doesn't track books sold at independent bookstores that don't use a tracking system compatible with BookScan or those sold at conferences or gift shops.

What's more, is that it also doesn't track ebook sales. So, it may be difficult to get into this list if you're a self-published author, especially if you choose the print-on-demand service.

Besides Nielsen Book Scan, Publishers Weekly gathers its sales data to compile bestseller lists through a collaborative process involving direct reporting from a wide network of sales outlets.

Sales Data Sources

  • Bookstores: Both chain and independent bookstores report their sales figures to Publishers Weekly. This includes physical bookstores across the United States, ranging from large national chains to local independent shops, providing a diverse view of consumer purchases.
  • Wholesalers and Distributors: These entities supply books to retailers and libraries and report their sales data to Publishers Weekly. Their reporting offers insight into broader distribution trends beyond direct consumer purchases, including the sales volume moving through various channels in the supply chain.
  • Publishers: Some publishers report sales of their titles to Publishers Weekly directly. This can include sales through their own channels, such as direct-to-consumer sales, which might not be captured through traditional retail reporting.

Data Compilation and Verification

  • Aggregation: Publishers Weekly aggregates the data collected from these various sources to compile its bestseller lists. This aggregation process involves consolidating and analyzing sales figures to determine the ranking of books across different categories.
  • Verification: To ensure accuracy and integrity, Publishers Weekly employs methods to verify the sales data it receives. This may involve cross-referencing reported figures and using established algorithms to account for discrepancies or anomalies in the data.

Publishers Weekly divides the bestseller book categories by format (hardcover, trade paper, and mass-market paperback), age category (adult and children), and genre.

5. Wall Street Journal Bestseller List

The Wall Street Journal's (WSJ) Bestselling Books list indicates book popularity and sales performance in the United States. It covers a range of categories, including fiction, nonfiction, and sometimes specific genres or formats like hardcover, paperback, and eBooks. The WSJ compiles its bestselling books list by gathering and analyzing sales data from various sources. 

Here’s an overview of how the WSJ chooses its bestselling books:

Sales Data Collection

  • Wide Range of Retailers: The Wall Street Journal collects sales data from a broad spectrum of book retailers, including national bookstore chains, independent bookstores, mass merchandisers, and online retailers. This comprehensive approach ensures a balanced view that represents the entire market.
  • Direct Sales and More: Besides traditional retail channels, the WSJ list may also consider direct sales from publishers, book clubs, and other non-standard sales channels, giving a more complete picture of a book's popularity.
  • Nielsen's BookScan: Nielsen BookScan is known for offering one of the most comprehensive retail sales data collections in the publishing industry. It captures a significant portion of print book sales across the United States.

While specific numbers are not publicly available, industry insiders and authors who have made the list suggest that the sales needed to appear on the WSJ Bestseller List can range widely. For instance, a book might need to sell between 3,000 to 5,000 copies in a week to appear on the list, though these numbers can be higher or lower based on factors such as book category, market trends, and the time of the year.

6. The New York Times Bestseller list

Launched in 1931, the NY Times Bestseller List is one of the most prestigious and influential bestseller lists in the publishing industry, widely regarded as a definitive record of bestselling books in the United States. 

It covers various categories, including fiction, nonfiction, paperback, and children’s books, and is updated weekly. The process and criteria for selecting books for The New York Times Best Seller list are nuanced and include factors beyond simple sales numbers.

But it's also the most difficult to get into. Here are a few reasons why:

  • You must come through a traditional publisher to get accepted and featured on the list.
  • You should sell 5,000 to 10,000 copies in one week to be considered.
  • Book sales must come from one of their chosen bookstores and online shops in the US.
  • They sometimes have other criteria for ranking, such as the type of editorial content (see the widely discussed case of William Blatty and his book Legion). 

There's also a list of monthly bestsellers (audio fiction/nonfiction, business, graphic, books and manga, mass market, middle-grade paperback, young adult paperback)

Selection Process

  • Sales Data Gathering: The New York Times collects sales data from various independent and chain bookstores, book wholesalers, and online retailers across the United States. This comprehensive approach helps ensure that the list reflects nationwide sales trends.
  • Confidential and Diverse Sources: The exact list of reporting retailers is confidential and carefully selected to prevent potential manipulation of the rankings. This selection creates a diverse and accurate representation of book sales across different regions and market segments.
  • Categorization and Segmentation: Books are categorized into specific lists, including hardcover fiction, hardcover non-fiction, paperback trade fiction, paperback non-fiction, and more. This allows readers to find bestsellers in their preferred genres or formats easily.

Criteria for Ranking

  • Volume of Sales: While the primary criterion for making the list is the sales volume, The New York Times also considers the distribution of these sales. Books that sell well across various locations and sales channels are more likely to be ranked.
  • Editorial Discretion: The New York Times employs a degree of editorial discretion in curating its bestseller lists. This means that not all sales are treated equally, and the list may reflect considerations beyond raw sales numbers, such as the book’s content, quality, and broader consumer interest.

Check out their entire methodology.

How Does a Book Become a Bestseller: A Few Tips to Sell More Books

Achieving bestseller status is a combination of quality, strategy, and, sometimes, timing. Here are key insights and tips to help your book climb the ranks.

1. Craft a compelling story

At the heart of every bestseller is a compelling story, whether it's fiction or non-fiction. Invest time in refining your narrative, ensuring it resonates with your target audience. Engage beta readers and hire professional editors to polish your manuscript to perfection.

2. Design an eye-catching book cover

Never underestimate your book cover. I talked with a friend who works at a prestigious bookstore. She told me that, as far as she noticed, well-designed covers with a minimalist approach are sold way better.

Moreover, if a book is part of a series with similar cover designs, making a homogeneous look when placed together, they are sold really well. That's because people want to have the entire collection.

So, by all means, put your effort into your book cover design if you wish to see your work on the Amazon best seller list or any other.

3. Write a book description like it's a sales pitch

Your book description is used for your book marketing, book discovery, and sales purposes, which means it has to be well-written to get your audience's interest.

Think about your book description as a sales pitch. You can't be there where the reader is considering it, but the description is.

4. Know your audience well

Understanding who your book appeals to is crucial in crafting targeted marketing strategies. Use social media, reader surveys, and market research to gather insights about your audience's preferences and behaviors.

5. Build your author brand

A robust author platform can significantly impact your book's success. Establish a presence on social media, create a professional website, and engage with your audience through newsletters and blog posts. Building a community around your work fosters loyalty and increases word-of-mouth promotion.

6. Generate buzz with early reviews

Early reviews can make or break a book's launch. Reach out to book bloggers, influencers, and reviewers in your genre well before your release date. Offer Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs) to encourage early reviews, which can drive pre-orders and first-week sales.

See this list of reviewers you can reach out to. 

7. Drive early sales with pre-orders

Pre-orders count towards your first week's sales, often a critical period for hitting bestseller lists. Create incentives for readers to pre-order your book, such as exclusive content, access to a launch event, or discounts.

8. Understand retailers algorithms 

If you're selling on platforms like Amazon, understanding and optimizing for their algorithms can help increase your book's visibility. Use relevant keywords in your book's title, description, and metadata. Encourage readers to leave reviews and rate your book on these platforms.

9. Invest in marketing and promotion

Use a mix of advertising strategies to reach potential readers. This includes online advertising through social media and Google Ads, Amazon Ads, email marketing, and possibly traditional advertising if your budget allows. Collaborate with other authors for cross-promotions to tap into new audiences.

10. Consider pricing strategies

Pricing your book competitively can influence buying decisions. Research prices of similar titles in your genre and consider promotional pricing to attract readers. Ebooks, in particular, offer flexibility in pricing, which can be adjusted to drive sales during specific periods.


1. What makes a book a bestseller?

A book becomes a bestseller primarily through high sales volume within a short period, driven by quality content, effective marketing, and broad distribution. Factors such as author reputation, genre popularity, and timing also play significant roles. Success on specific bestseller lists may vary due to their unique criteria, including sales data sources and calculation methods.

Different lists don't use the same book sales data because they don't have access to all the sales made online or in all the bookstores during a specific period.

That's why each list has its methodology for gathering this data and compiling a bestseller list. Once they have it, they break it down into categories. 

2. Can a self-published book become a bestseller?

Yes, your book can become a bestseller even if you choose self-publishing.

Truth be told, it's easier to get your book on a NY Times bestseller list if you choose traditional publishing. I say this because they have the most challenging entry barrier. 

If you've self-published and your book sells like crazy, you'll probably get on the NYT bestseller list only after a literary agent picks it up.

But there are lists for indies: Amazon and IndieBound. So when you think about self publishing vs traditional publishing associated with bestseller lists, know there are options for both. 

Besides, you can earn quite well as a self-published author, so being on the NYT bestseller list is optional when it comes to earning.

3. Have any self-published books become best sellers?

Yes, several self-published books have become bestsellers. Notable examples include The Martian by Andy Weir, Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, and Still Alice by Lisa Genova. These successes showcase the potential for self-published authors to reach a wide audience and achieve significant sales.

4. What are a few examples of successful self-published authors?

Here are a few examples of successful self-published authors who have made significant impacts with their work:

  • E.L. James: Originally self-published, her Fifty Shades of Grey series became a global phenomenon, leading to traditional publishing deals and film adaptations.
  • Andy Weir: His novel, The Martian, began as a self-published work, which then caught the attention of a traditional publisher and was adapted into a successful Hollywood movie.
  • Hugh Howey: Known for his Silo series, starting with Wool, Howey's self-publishing success led to international acclaim and traditional publishing offers.
  • Amanda Hocking: One of the first breakout successes in self-publishing, Hocking wrote a series of paranormal romance young adult novels that sold millions of copies.
  • Lisa Genova: Self-published her novel Still Alice, which was later picked up by a traditional publisher and adapted into an Oscar-winning film.

5. How many books need to be sold to be a bestseller?

The number of books needed to be sold to achieve bestseller status varies widely depending on the list and market conditions. Generally, selling 5,000 to 10,000 copies in a week can put a book in contention for major bestseller lists like The New York Times. However, this number can fluctuate based on the time of year, competition, and specific criteria of each bestseller list.

6. How many books do you need to sell on Amazon to be a bestseller?

The number of books needed on Amazon to achieve bestseller status can vary significantly depending on the category and the overall sales volume at any given time. In some niche categories, selling as few as 100 to 500 books in a short period can propel a book to the top of its category. 

For more competitive categories or the overall bestseller list, several thousand sales within a few days might be necessary. Amazon updates its bestseller lists hourly, so sales momentum over a short period can also impact bestseller status.

Final Thoughts

It's clear that while there's no magic formula, success is not purely left to chance, either. It involves a blend of quality writing, strategic marketing, and a deep understanding of your audience. The journey from manuscript to bestseller list is as much about connecting with readers as it is about writing. 

Remember, each bestseller list has its unique criteria and methodology, which means a tailored approach can significantly increase your chances of success. Whether it's optimizing for the dynamism of Amazon's hourly rankings, tapping into the indie spirit through IndieBound, capturing the broad market through The New York Times, or navigating the comprehensive landscape of the USA Today list, there's a path for every author.

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