If I had a dime for each time an author has asked me this question, I wouldn’t need to be a bestseller myself to be rich. Until recently though, my answer has always been a disappointing, “I have no idea.” Or, “There’s nothing anyone can do.”
Then I had a fascinating conversation with the team over at Greenleaf Book Group, an independent publisher and book distributor. Greenleaf not only helps develop ideas into books which they then publish, promote and distribute they also also work with qualifying authors to make that bestseller list dream come true. And they’re successful at it.
What I learned was so eye-opening that I’ve invited Greenleaf marketing associate Magdalene Thomas to talk with me about strategies for reaching those bestseller lists in a Q&A here on Writer Unboxed. Magdalene’s work planning and executing strategic marketing campaigns with independent authors has resulted in numerous bestseller placements.
Welcome, Magdalene. Let’s dive in!
SB: When I heard that there are actually steps authors can take to help their books hit bestseller lists, I had to hit the universal reset button. Is it true?
MT: Yes, there really are steps that certain authors with the serious goal of becoming bestsellers can take. They primarily involve controlling volume and velocity of sales.
SB: That sounds so easy. What’s the rub?
MT: Every time I develop a marketing campaign for one of the many authors I work with, I ask: “What are your goals for this book?” Nine times out of ten, their response is some iteration of “I want to have a best seller.”
As someone who is acutely aware of the realities of placing on a best-seller list, I have to take a deep breath before I respond. Hitting a bestseller list is the ultimate validation of an author’s time, emotion, energy and ideas. Yet planning for this takes resources and the outcome is not guaranteed. So even though I can help my authors take the necessary steps, I also have to help them set expectations and encourage them to set more realistic goals.
There is a time and place for marketing campaigns focusing on high-level bestseller lists such as The New York Times. That type of campaign is not right for every book and author. Luckily there are also other types of bestseller campaigns that are more accessible, like on Amazon. It’s important for authors to assess which if any of these are best given their specific situations.
SB: What situations lend themselves to working toward placement on national bestseller lists like the New York Times or Wall Street Journal?
MT: A push for placement on a third-party best-seller list like The New York Times works best if you have an existing audience that is primed to purchase your book as it hits shelves.
These best-seller lists are determined by sales numbers within a period of seven days, along with a few other proprietary factors like the balance of brick-and-mortar versus online sales. If you want to contend for a coveted spot, you’ll need to sell thousands of books in a single week. That concentration and volume of sales is really only achievable if you have a huge audience already in front of you that is chomping at the bit to read your work when it publishes. This means many months or even years of communicating with your audience in advance so they are poised to hit “purchase” when it’s time.
SB: That certainly limits the number of authors who could make an intentional goal of trying to hit a national bestseller list.
MT: It does. That level of audience and activity simply isn’t the norm for the vast majority of authors. Most authors have full-time jobs and families and lives outside of writing that take their focus and resources away from developing a cult following.
In this case, setting a goal to hit a national best-seller list is unachievable. It’s harsh, but it’s true. And if you put all of your resources into one unachievable goal, you’ll do so at the expense of other genuinely valuable opportunities.
SB: What about for authors that do have the coveted cult following? Say, a blogger whose site gets a quarter of a million monthly hits, or a business owner with many thousands of loyal clients? Do they stand a pretty good chance?
MT: Even if you do have an audience of thousands and the resources to stoke the fires of their fanaticism, there are still obstacles to hitting that bestseller goal. It’s impossible to know exactly how many books you actually need to sell to land on a best-seller list. There’s no threshold at which a book is guaranteed to place; much depends on market conditions, like what other competing titles are being released in that same week. A book may sell 5,000 copies and land at number 4 one week while the very next week it might need to sell 12,000 to eke in at number 10.
That’s why it’s so important for all authors, including those with large followings, to manage expectations accordingly.
SB: There must be cases where it works out. What sorts of successes have you seen in helping authors push for bestseller list placement, and what are the benefits? Do they outweigh the costs?
MT: Yes! We’ve seen the greatest success when running ebook bestseller campaigns, including Amazon bestseller placements (more on that later) and Wall Street Journal bestseller placements. A few immediate benefits include a healthy ego boost, the right to add “bestseller author” to your branding, increased visibility online, and “new news” opportunities. By “new news opportunities,” I mean that hitting a bestseller list gives you something new to talk about when engaging with your audience, reaching out to form partnerships with other organizations, or pitch an article idea to media.
Ebook bestseller campaigns don’t have to require a huge financial investment–even modest advertising budgets paired with a fair amount of elbow grease can get results.
SB: Even if a national bestseller list strategy isn’t for everyone, you mentioned that other strategies, like pushing for an Amazon list, are more accessible. When are these approaches most valuable and which authors should consider them?
MT: An Amazon bestseller strategy works best for first-time authors and authors who are looking to gain the attention of new readers.
We all know Amazon. Amazon is convenient and it’s prices are competitive, which makes it an incredibly strong bookseller. More importantly, Amazon knows what readers are interested in on the basis of their browsing, purchase, and review history and will proactively make recommendations to users browsing their site.
To consumers, Amazon’s recommendation algorithm that predicts what we want – and shows it to us – is extremely unsettling. But to authors marketing their books, it’s a goldmine for helping draw readers to a title.
SB: We hear a lot about Amazon’s magical algorithms. But what are they, really, and how do they work?
MT: Amazon’s technology notices when products receive significant traffic on their page. This traffic could come in the form of page views, clicks, new reviews, or purchases.
If a product page receives enough traffic, Amazon can reasonably assume that consumers like it. In the interest of continuing that momentum, Amazon starts recommending the product to consumers who have a similar browsing or purchase history.
For authors whose books get recognized by Amazon’s promotional algorithm, this means that Amazon will do some of the heavy lifting of finding new, primed audiences for them.
SB: Amazon sells millions of books. How can authors make sure their book gets into that algorithm when they’re competing against so many others?
MT: The best way to get a book into Amazon’s promotion algorithm is by becoming a browse-category bestseller. The top 100 books in each category are considered by Amazon to be bestsellers.
Here’s a step-by-step method to boost your ranking and visibility on Amazon: [is this most applicable to self-published authors?]
- Set the browse categories for your book through your Amazon Author Central profile. Since you’re looking to hit the top 100 of a category, you’ll want to choose representative categories with the least competition.
- Plan a campaign that will create a high, concentrated level of activity on the Amazon page at a specific time. This may be as simple as driving your social media followers to the Amazon page to leave a review one Thursday evening, or, for authors who have the right to control their pricing, advertising a one-day ebook flash sale to encourage a flurry of buys on a Saturday.
- Watch your book rise through the ranks. Category rankings are updated every hour, so check back throughout the day.
- If your book falls short of top 100, come back with a new plan in a few weeks. You can try different promotional techniques or even select different categories for your book.
SB: That seems simple!
MT: Yes, that’s it! Having an Amazon best seller is very achievable with some strategic planning ahead of time and a supportive audience, whether they’re a part of your newsletter list or follow you on social media. And the potential benefits are pretty big, since once a book is on an Amazon bestseller list, it becomes more visible to new audiences.
It’s worth noting that, like national best-selling lists, there is no sales threshold to becoming an Amazon bestseller. Amazon’s bestseller lists are updated hourly and based on both sales numbers and activity on the book’s product page, which means you could drive thousands of people to your book’s Amazon page but only sell a handful of books and still technically become an Amazon best seller.
Some authors may balk at this; it does seem a little like cheating to claim you’ve had an Amazon bestseller if you’ve only sold a dozen copies. Instead of thinking of having an Amazon bestseller as a long-term title to carry with you, think of it as a short-term tool you can use to get your book in front of new readers.
Finally, remember: In book publishing and promotion there are many outcomes that are hard if not impossible to predict. Whatever goals you decide on, staying grounded in reality will help you weather the setbacks and enjoy the potential nice surprises.