The Truth About Digital Best Sellers


If you know anything about the online publishing industry, you know that the term “best seller” often means “best seller in a single particular category,” such as “Novel>Romance>Regency>Public Domain>Men Who Jump In Lakes In The Movie Version.”

In Tony Horwitz’ case, his nonfiction book Boom became the #1 Best Seller for Amazon>Kindle>Kindle Singles>Page Turning Narratives. (Yes, that’s a category.)

How many copies did Boom sell? Here’s how Horwitz explained it in The New York Times:

Eager to know how many copies this represented, I asked Byliner for sales figures. It took them a while to respond — because, I imagined, they needed the time to tally the dizzying numbers pouring in from Amazon, iTunes and other retailers. In fact, the total was such that Byliner could offer only a “guesstimate.” In its first month “Boom” had sold “somewhere between 700 and 800 copies,” the email read, adding, “these things can take time to build, and this is the kind of story with a potentially very long tail.”

It was also the kind of story that could bankrupt a writer. I’d now devoted five months to writing and peddling “Boom” and wasn’t even halfway to earning out my $2,000 advance (less than the overrun on my travel). The cruelest joke, though, was that 700 to 800 copies made “Boom” a top-rated seller. What did that mean for all the titles lower down the list? Were they selling at all?

Horwitz’ full NYT article, “I Was A Digital Best Seller!” is well worth the read, especially if you are curious about the inner workings of Amazon, small publishing houses, and how many — or how few — sales it takes to get to the top of the list.

Photo: Zhao !


4 Comments / Post A Comment

Trilby (#191)

Here’s a little-known fact about physical books– Did you know that bookstores can return books to publishers at any time for a full refund? What this means to the writer is, say 5000 copies of your book get placed in bookstores– no money has changed hands yet unless a few copies happen to get sold. After a month goes by, the publisher send its bills to the bookstores. The bookstores are like, Ooh, instead of paying up, lets put together a shipment of return! So they gather up and send back a bunch of your books instead of paying what they owe. This requires the publisher to revise its bill downward instead of getting payment. This game goes on all the time. It’s why there are no or darn few small/independent publishers left. It’s a rough business. Very hard for anyone to make money. Even Amazon, I think!

pissy elliott (#844)

@Trilby This is factually correct, but Amazon (as reported in the news!) negotiates VERY VERY HARD on the amount of time they’re allowed between bills, and the discount off list that they get wholesale. Also, many publishers negotiate caps on returns. My old job did with Amazon until 2014, and they’re currently getting Hachette’d. (I did not work for Hachette then, do not work for Hachette currently, etc.)

I have often been “a top 40 musician” and occasionally been “a top 20 musician” on reverbnation, where what’s being measured is my position on a list of “/Folk/ musicians /in Brooklyn/”, sorted by an arcane function that measures the trend on likes/listens/downloads/subscribers.

This does not translate into actual money. :-)

Tripleoxer (#5,676)

Tony Horwitz is awesome, though. “Confederates in the Attic” is one of my all-time favorite books. It’s disheartening to hear that even he struggles!

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