On My Mind: Hitting The Lists

‘Hitting the lists’ is something I hear a lot in authorland. It’s the specific goal to enter one of the bestseller lists so you can share the awesome achievement in your author bio. There are several of these lists, some with more prestige than others. What the rules are for each list is different too, and sometimes these rules change on a whim. You can plan for them, especially as an indie author, but it’s always a game of chance.

What I know is that the book needs to be available in more than one store (all Kindle Unlimited books are excluded), and you have a minimum amount of books to sell. I don’t know the minimum, mostly because hitting the list isn’t one of my goals. My success doesn’t depend on awards or titles. But I know many authors do care about it. They want the accolades, and that’s fine. To each their own. But to me, as a reader, knowing this system is rigged, I stopped caring for the ‘bestseller’ status of a book or author.

The game

Sell enough books, and you’ll enter the top ten of a bestselling list. It doesn’t have to be in a launch week of the book, but having all those preorders go out at once is a significant boost. There are tricks to getting those sales though. Being a household name already sells a book. Self-published authors might price their books at 99 cents during a period and throw all their efforts into advertising the deal so people buy their book. Handing out free books doesn’t count as sales. Money has to exchange hands, and preferably through channels (retailers like Amazon or Barnes and Noble) that the big boys can track.

And that’s all it is. You have to sell books. How you do it, that’s up to you. Some authors have learned how to play this game perfectly. Others learned how to cheat. But here’s one thing I know for sure. These games are skewed from the start.

The players

A traditional published book with a huge advance has more chance to hit the bestseller list because the publisher needs to sell a lot of books to get that advance back. They’re incentivised to sell it and thus advertise it. The big five (or four) and their imprints have bigger marketing budgets and connections to get their books in front of the right people who will sell their book. They could be influencers, but also traditional media. Having your book mentioned in a big newspaper might get usual non-readers to buy your book, even if it’s a gift. Just having more exposure will sell more books. And then there’s the shelf space in book stores. Some highly visible spaces in stores can be bought if you know the right people. Pre-covid times, having your book on display with the cover facing the customer was valuable. Now that we’re going back to open stores, browsing customers have power again. You have to be where people can see you. And for now, the big five, the large advance authors, the household names, have an advantage over the smaller authors and publishers.

Then there are the people who know exactly how the game works, and play to the loopholes. There was one author who bought a few hundred of his own books through several small stores to send out to fans. Normally, bulk orders aren’t counted in the sales for bestseller lists, but because he bought small amounts from several stores, he triggered the system, all of the sales registering, and making it in the top ten. Once other authors found out, they shamed him. He defended himself saying he was buying books for fans who wouldn’t be able to get the book otherwise. But that’s where author copies come in, or bulk orders. He knew what he was doing.

Opting out

This might just be an anomaly, and I absolutely don’t believe that everyone who ever hit a list used shady practices. But I do believe that it’s a skewed game. And that’s why I’m opting out.

I don’t care for it as an author, nor as a reader. Having a ‘bestselling author’ tag on the cover doesn’t sell me the book. I’ve read more than enough great books that never hit the lists, by authors I never see recommended in my reading groups because I only ever see the same names popping up when someone asks for recommendations. I’m all for hidden gems, show me the books by small authors, mid-list authors, the ones who’re always standing outside of the spotlight.

Drop your underrated fantasy recommendations below and give these authors and books some of the attention they deserve.

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