Who’s really a “Number One bestselling author”?

I’ve come across yet another novelist who claims to be “the number one internationally bestselling author.”  This isn’t just your standard hype put out by an overzealous publicist; this actually appears on the author’s own website.  It makes me roll my eyes, because unless your last name is Rowling, Grisham, Brown, or Meyer, it’s pretty hard to back up such a claim.   Yet it’s a boast that I’m hearing more and more these days, and I’ve wondered how authors can justify it.  Does “Number One” mean that one of your titles was the top selling book in the world?  Does it mean you’ve sold more books overall than anyone else around the world? 

I think I’ve now figured out what that term “number one internationally bestselling author” has come to mean, in this age of hype and exaggeration.  It means that, somewhere in the world, one of your books hit #1 on a bestseller list.  Even if the only place you were a #1 bestseller was in Inner Mongolia, you can claim primacy in the international book world.  I know it sounds nutty, but that seems to be the new definition.  Although I’ve hit #1 in the UK and in Germany, I’d be embarrassed to claim such a crown because it sounds grandiose and delusional.  It makes me think of Jack standing at the bow of the Titanic, crowing to the world: “I’m king of the world!”

And we all know what happened to him.

These exaggerations seem to be rampant in publishing.  Books are frequently touted as “bestsellers” or “international bestsellers”.  The problem is, there’s no firm definition of what these words mean.  Publishers have slapped the “bestselling” label on so many books that the word itself has lost its significance.  Was the book a bestseller on the New York Times, or in the author’s home town?  Maybe in the local Waldenbooks?  Hitting the list in any of these venues now qualifies a book for the label.

Likewise, wildly exaggerated numbers are bandied about when referring to how many books an author has sold.  Journalists always ask me for that number, and I’ve come up with the answer of fifteen million, but the truth is, I honestly don’t know.  I’ve written 21 books that are now published in 33 countries.  Foreign royalty statements are often indecipherable.  I don’t have a tally of my sales through direct-mail book clubs, which alone probably total in the seven figures.  Nine of my books have hit the NYT bestseller list so far, and hopefully THE KEEPSAKE will be #10.  To my astonishment, the re-releases of my old romance novels are now hitting top-10 lists overseas.  So I think I’m being pretty safe when I throw out that number fifteen million.  But as I say, I’m just guessing. 

The truth, however, often gets lost in an industry where everyone’s trying to look more golden than they really are.  Some authors claim gazillions of sales, but those of us who watch the numbers know those claims are certainly bogus.  Some authors pump up the numbers by instead citing how many of their books are “in print”, which is more a reflection of how foolhardy their publishers were, rather than how many books actually sold.

So the next time you hear an author refer to himself or herself as the “number one bestselling author,” take it with a huge grain of salt.  Unless her name is Rowling.


21 replies
  1. Abe
    Abe says:

    Hi Tess,

    According to Wikipedia, the top 12 best selling fiction authors are: William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Barbara Cartland, Harold Robbins, Georges Simenon, Danielle Steele, Dr. Seuss, Gilbert Patten, Enid Blyton, Leo Tolstoy, JK Rowling, and Jackie Collins. If anyone out there can truly say that their work belongs with the distinguished authors on the list above, I’d like to meet them.

  2. john lovell
    john lovell says:

    Well, for sure, you and Richard Russo are Camden’s bestsellers! And there’s a guy in Bangor who can make a similar claim there.

  3. Kenny Overman
    Kenny Overman says:

    How many sales you have doesn’t always indicate if it is a good book or not in my opinion. Rowling’s 7th Potter book could have been attrocious but Millions of people around the world would have still queued ’til 1 second past midnight to buy it to see what the ending was. (I was one of those i must say. LOL) So she would have sold millions of that one book but that doesn’t make it a good one does it?

  4. Tess
    Tess says:

    you’re right, of course. Bestsellerdom doesn’t equate with quality — just popularity.

    But I do love Harry Potter!

    that’s fascinating, seeing the list of bestselling fiction authors. I confess, I don’t know the name Gilbert Patten. I’m startled that Jackie Collins is on the list, because I would think that Nora Roberts or Danielle Steele would have outsold her. And where is J.D. Salinger?!!

  5. codymc
    codymc says:

    ‘The Number One International Bestselling Author’? As in ‘THE’? Wow. Not sure I’d ever have the cajones to say that, whatever level of success. I think it’s best to leave that kind of talk to Muhammad Ali (meaning no disrespect to ‘The Greatest’)

  6. NewMexicanAnn
    NewMexicanAnn says:

    Well, Tess, you know what Mark Twain said, right? He said, “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.” I love Harry Potter books, but if I had a new one of yours and a new Potter book, I’d honestly read yours first.

  7. NewMexicanAnn
    NewMexicanAnn says:

    Oh, yeah. Hey, Abe! I have only two things at hand with which to beat up a burglar: 1.) a baseball bat, and 2.) my copy of Anna Karenina I’m reading until The Keepsake comes out. Heheheheheheheee!!!!!!

  8. tuttle
    tuttle says:

    I agree with Kenny. I have known people who only buy “number one bestellers” at the grocery store racks “just because” they are “number one.”– and they truly feel they are reading the literary cream of the crop. I feel that that is so limited. It doesnt mean the books are all “that great” just because a grocery store (or Kmart or WalMart) has a contract with a distributor to stuff those racks with whatever happens to make the list each month.

    Doesnt mean those particular books are bad either.

    But there are hundreds and hundreds of less popular authors who’s books are out there for a few months at a time who deserve a chance who’s books cost just as much as (or less!) than those “number one’s”

    One big part of the problem is that people rarely have the time to go to the bookstore on a weeekend afternoon and really do the research to see what else is out there.
    And it’s as simple as taking an hour and strolling around the Borders table (where the widest variety can be found) and looking at the covers and picking something of interest and reading the back cover blurb. Those two things (cover and back cover blurbs)are the biggest selling points.

    These people could look that cover up and read about a young woman who returns home to help an ailing parent and meets a man who runs the local fish bait shop (or whatever the plot may be)

    If people would just take time to explore a little bit they would find a wider variety of choices (and in many cases, much more interesting fare) than the latest Steele or Patterson novel “just because” it’s in that rack on the way to the check out counter at the store.

    They are obviously taking time to read but their stuck in the “best selling” habit simply because its more conveniant to get something at the grocery store than to go out of their way and spend an extra hour at Borders seeking out something different.

    Be nice if the distributers would split the top ten rack with lesser known books.(Some grocery stores have much, much more space available and they eat up all that space with romantic fluff or other genres that they KNOW just isn’t selling)

    Darn things (including those “best sellers”) get returned and recycled anyhow so why not experiment for a six month period?

    Frustratingly yours, and with no other solutions at hand– Frank

  9. Abe
    Abe says:

    Hi Tess,

    Other authors of note that were on the all-time best-selling list were:

    #16 Steven King
    #20 Sidney Sheldon
    #24 Nora Roberts
    #25 Robert Ludlum
    #28 John Grisham
    #31 JRR Tolkien
    #32 Mickey Spillane
    #39 Arthur Haley
    #42 Michael Crichton
    #43 Richard Scarry
    #44 James Patterson
    #53 Roald Dahl
    #57 Anne Rice
    #58 Robin Cook
    #62 Lewis Carroll
    #65 Ian Fleming
    #66 Hermann Hesse
    #69 Ken Follet
    #71 Edgar Rice Boroughs
    #73 James Michener
    #76 Debbie Macomber

    JD Salinger did not make the list.

    …and as for Gilbert Patten, this is what I found…

    William George Gilbert Patten (October 25, 1866 – January 16, 1945) was a writer of dime novels and is best known as author of the Frank Merriwell stories, with the pen name Burt L. Standish.


    and to NewMexicanAnn – “War and Peace” has been known to be effective also.

  10. Kenny Overman
    Kenny Overman says:

    All of the comments prove good points/ information. But tuttle’s comment about browsing for a long time is fairly true to an extent for me. One exception was on holiday. I was looking through selection of books at the Holiday place’s HQ. It was starting to rain so i just grabbed the book with the most interesting Name and cover. I haven’t regretted that day once. Because that book was ‘The Surgeon.’ So although i agree, taking a good few hours one day to look at good books has found me alot of other authors i enjoy, but sometimes just taking a stab in the dark can provide some great choices in the end.

  11. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    What would be interesting would be to see the number of books that have to be sold in a country for it to reach the number one spot. Certain Scandinavian Countries only have to sell 5K to assure the spot.

  12. Richard S. Wheeler
    Richard S. Wheeler says:

    “Rave” has also lost meaning. Any mildly favorable review is now called a rave in the publishing world. I’ve never received a rave, and that is true of most novelists.

    A true rave will usually incorporate material such as “a work of genius,” or “brilliant,” or “stunning,” and will make a case for these encomiums.

  13. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    I doubt the authors named as number one (because of questionable parameters) ever had anything to do with the decision. Marketing ploys sell books, and publishers obviously like the #1 signage on the cover. 🙂

  14. therese
    therese says:

    How fun! Out of all the authors listed, I’ve heard of 24 of them, have read books written by 8 of them and actually would purchase new books by 4 of them except 2 are already dead.

    There’s a lot of insight and enjoyment to be gained by reading more of what was written by another dead guy named “Samuel Clemens”, who didn’t make these lists either.

  15. april
    april says:

    I know it looks impressive if a book says bestseller, but I’m more inclined to read a new author if someone recommended it to me. I actually started reading Tess Gerritsen books because I got a copy of Harvest free at the bookstore at which I worked in college. Since then, I’ve read as many as I could find except I still haven’t picked up the romance ones which always amuses me as I read mostly romance books in general.

    As pompous as it sounds marking yourself a bestseller, I suppose it’s better than NOT being a bestseller. 🙂

  16. Dan Williams
    Dan Williams says:

    I’m wondering if our “pop culture” has something to do with persons reading bestsellers because they are bestsellers. Maybe people like to keep up with “the latest thing” so they are “au courant”? And since they only have so much time, they read what’s really necessary to read, only the “must-reads”? For instance, “The Da Vinci Code” was pretty much a “must-read” as it being talked about by those “creating the culture” in the various media. Grisham is a “must-read” for the insights on law, money and morality. Danielle Steel is a “must-read” for the up-to-the-minute analysis on relationships, love and career. I guess that whatever subject people are talking a lot about is a good subject to write about, and when combined with real intelligence and insight and deep research, maybe this is what makes “number one international bestsellers.”

    Nice to be reading your blog again, Tess!

  17. Peter J
    Peter J says:

    No Hemingway on the best sellers list either, I’m quite surprised as I honestly thought he sold by the crate! The fact that Rowling could overhaul Tolstoy is very scary, as Kenny said, it’s not a quality thing necessarily, but really, it’s Tolstoy!

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