What Nobody Tells You About Being a Best-selling Author

“What does your daddy do?” the teacher asked. “He makes books,” my son replied. Well, not exactly, but that was the best my wife could coach our three-year-old to say at the time.

What Nobody Tells You About Being a Best-selling Author

I wonder, though, if in a few years when Aiden finds out that all I do is write books, and I don’t actually make them, that he’ll be disappointed. I know there are days when I am.

The job of a writer is a weird one. There is all this pressure to do all kinds of things that have nothing to do with writing or with the readers you want to reach.

Last week, a friend emailed me, asking if I could promote her very first book. She offered to pay me to send an email to my newsletter list. Her publisher said she had a shot at “hitting the list.” What list, I asked? “Oh, I dunno,” she texted me. I sighed, picked up the phone, and gave her a call.

Book launches do weird things to you. They can cloud your judgment, even make you a little selfish (I’m talking about myself here). So I chatted with my well-meaning friend a bit and convinced her that in the long run, it’d be better to sell more books and help a lot of people than to chase some best seller list. She has a lot more control over one than the other.

The next day, I had a chat with another author who was about to launch his first book. Same kind of deal. Lots of pressure on the book launch. Lots of stress about becoming a “best seller.” But for what?

Redefining the best seller

Here’s the truth: being a best seller doesn’t mean what you think it does. What do I mean? Well, here. Let’s take a look at three hard truths about bestsellers:

  1. Most “bestsellers” are never heard from again. They hit the New York Times, USA Today, or Wall Street Journal best sellers list once and never sell more than a few books after that. Why? See stories above. Authors and publishers put too much pressure on the launch itself instead of the longevity of the book.
  2. It is not a means to an end. The title “best-selling author” does NOT necessarily mean higher speaking fees, more consulting gigs, or more publicity around your brand, as many think it does. I have spoken with many best-selling authors about this, and they all seem to agree that this is a false assumption. I personally know someone who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to become a NYT best-seller. “I thought the media would come knocking on my door,” he told me. They didn’t.
  3. There is no magic number. This surprises people, but there is no certain number of sales that it takes to become a best seller. One author I know became a New York Times best-selling author selling 3000 books. Another sold 20,000 in the first week and didn’t make that same list. Both were first-time authors, and this was the first week their books had been out.

So does this mean we just shouldn’t care about becoming a “best seller”? Not at all. Rather, we should redefine the term, or instead recapture it for what it should mean: a book that sells better than most books.

And what that means for you and me is that instead of trying to chase arbitrary titles like “New York Times best seller” we should instead seek better ways of reaching and serving an audience and getting a book (or whatever it is you have to offer) in their hands. And if the New York Times notices, fine. If not, all the better.

The point is, stop chasing things that aren’t real measurements of success. Focus on what you can control (like how many books you sell or how many people you reach). And do the best work you can when the world isn’t watching.

Do the best work you can when the world isn’t watching.

Jeff Goins

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In the end, it’ll feel a lot better than spending $100,000 to hit a list and never be heard from again. Trust me.

For more on this, check out Tim Grahl’s free video series on what it really means to be a best seller. Click here to check it out.

More about best sellers lists

Have you ever chased the wrong measurement of success? What does a best-selling book mean to you? Share in the comments.

71 thoughts on “What Nobody Tells You About Being a Best-selling Author

  1. I have not yet written a book – though it’s certainly something I have considered. But I love this advice anyway. As I’ve begun to pursue writing on my blog more consistently, I’ve noticed that I’ve started to focus on how many followers I have, how many readers, etc. And like you said – while some of that is valid, and it is not wrong to set goals – I want to stay focused on the important stuff, like providing content that will actually help people in real life. Thanks for the reminder this morning to do my best work while no one is watching.

  2. Well said, Jeff. The idea of being a NY Times Bestselling Author drives so many writers. But the point is exactly as you said–finding and building your audience, and getting books in their hands. That’s the key to the whole kingdom 🙂 And to do that it’s always about “Do the best work you can when the world isn’t watching.”
    In that little (hopefully) well-lit room all alone . . .

  3. Excellent words, Jeff. Still just in the very beginning stages myself. But in my life and career up until now I’ve learned that the value is in the personal connections and relationships we create. These are the real game-changers and are what will remain long after we’re gone (and beyond!). It’s easy to get discouraged “when the world isn’t watching” if that’s what we’re focusing on. Rather, quality, value, relationships and heart impact are what matter most. I think you get that. That’s why I follow you :-)!

  4. Great advice, Jeff. My book has been finished and waiting for launch for months. I literally am staring at a box of 100 books in front of me that people could be reading but I have been put on hold by the marketers who tell you- you have to launch it correctly to have the bestseller. I never cared about it being best-selling but was convinced by the information that is out there that it can make the difference between your book ever being really seen by anyone or not. I have been so held back trying to do all of the things the book marketers tell you to do to be ready to have a successful launch. Finally, after spending so much money and time and doing tons of courses, including Tim Grahl’s I realized that the emphasis to be on a “best-seller” list is just misplaced. Like you said, just do the best work you can without worrying about who is watching. Thanks.

    1. It’s a tough place to be sometimes. You certainly want to be as smart as you can marketing your book so it reaches more people but at the same time, you don’t want to get too caught up in the “process” that it causes you to stall. The life of an author is often a marathon, not a sprint. A lot of people forget that. Most authors have many books inside them, even if they don’t know it yet. So, the best thing to do is to start, launch, go. Try to be smart about it but DOING is most important. Take what you learn from this book and apply it to your next book. Slowly (or rapidly) build your influence from book to book. Compound your audience growth and sooner your later you’ll wake up one day and realize you have a solid platform. The funny thing is that a lot of legit bestselling authors aren’t bestsellers with their first book but they are with their 3rd or 4th book. And when that happens, it increases the sales of their backlist (earlier books). It’s all relevant. : )

  5. Thanks for this, Jeff. I’m working on launching a fiction title this summer and this type of thing is exactly the thing I needed to hear. Books should have lasting value. It’s about maximizing sales over a few years, not a few days. If people are reading my work, enjoying and sharing it, that’s a best seller to me. I don’t want a bunch of people to buy it just so some corporate list can validate my work. My readers already do that.

  6. Tim Grahl was the one who convinced me that the best approach is the long approach – doing two or more things per week to promote your book. I remember him saying once that one author he knew spent a minimum of three years promoting a book before doing the next one. After all, no one has to know that your book came out 6 months ago, a year ago–it’s still new to them! It makes sense considering how long it can take to write the book – why spend only one week trying to make some list? In the end it makes sense to go that long approach. And it’s a LOT less stressful! I’m sorry your experience was not what you hoped it would be but thank you for speaking out about it. I am lucky – I have had people tell me how much my book has meant to them and changed their lives. What more could you want, really?

  7. A ‘best selling book,’ to me, is that which has satisfied two criterion.

    1. The author behind the book has done considerable justice to create a palpable change among the readership (both before and after the release).

    2. The ‘others’ behind the book (by which I mean the publishers, editorial team, marketing staff etc.) have put in a considerable effort to make it visible, as well as available to the readership.

    What I have consciously left out of this definition is the impact of viral sharing (from both word-to-mouth & social media) of the book.

    1. I think we should have a category for long tail best selling books. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield sold hundreds of thousands of copies and never hit a best seller list. Then, 10 years after it first published, Steve was interviewed by Oprah, and the next week it hit the NYT list. Good for Steve, but which is better? 100K books total? Or 10K in one week? I argue the former.

      1. Agreed, Jeff. I have a question here. What kind of impact a ‘NYT Best seller’ tag (on the book’s cover) do to a book that has already sold hundreds and thousands of copies. Of course, the tag would make it more visible. But again, does an average book-buyer attach that much importance to the tag on the book cover, considering the fact that, literally every other book is having that tag on the cover?

        Then again, financial spot-light aside, The War of Art, for that matter any book, would do better to think about its long tail than a short spike…

  8. A best-selling book should be just that: a book that sells the best. It baffles me that someone who’s only sold 3000 books is on the NYT bestseller list. Weird. Good post, Jeff.

    1. The NYT Best Sellers lists really should be called “The Books We Like That Also Sell Pretty Well.” Look, I’m not saying the whole thing is a sham or anything. There’s a lot of thought that goes into that mechanism to keep people from buying their way on the list or from gaming the system. But it’s not working. People still game it, still con their way into best seller status, and the average person doesn’t know how this works. I think more transparency on the NYT’s part would be nice, but not necessary. Better than that would be if authors stopped supporting a broken system by chasing after something that’s ephemeral. Just serve your readers. Help lots of people. Sell lots of books over time instead of trying to sell a ton in one week. It may be hurting you more than it helps. Oh, and I hope this helps educate readers so that when they heard “best-selling author,” they are at least a little more skeptical about what that means.

  9. Jeff – great post. I don’t know of any term more overused, abused, misused, or exaggerated than “best-selling author.” It’s totally lost its intended meaning and impact. Being introduced as a “best-selling author” is about on the same par as saying “Here’s one more guy who breathes air.”

    1. This was my favorite comment, Dan. And coming from an actual best-selling author, no less! Thanks for your honesty and transparency. I still love your post, “Forget the Royalties—Give Your Book Away!” Thanks for leading the way…

  10. I can’t even think about being a “best selling author”. I’m just focusing on honing my craft and getting to the point where I can publish something of value.

  11. Jeff, you’ve done it again. Your honesty and dedication to service is why I follow you. Each post or email you send me is worth gold, and I trust you. That’s what matters, and not an ephemeral title. Thanks for being honest, being in service and being you.

  12. So timely! My fifth book comes out this month and I’m in the swirl of emails from my publicist, interviews, and tour planning. It does mess with your ability to remain truly present, and yours is a welcome reminder to pull back and stay focused on the bigger picture. Of course, hitting the lists is still a nice dream, but it can’t be the reason for doing what we do.

      1. Subjective criteria. : ) Sad part too is that not all sales are even tracked. A lot of bookstores (Indie stores, some well known Christian stores, etc) don’t report to Bookscan so those sales aren’t even considered.

  13. Amazing post Jeff! I love your honesty. “Have [I] ever chased the wrong measurement of success? What does a best-selling book mean to you?” YES…yes I have!
    The best selling book is the book of life (family, relationships etc.)–climbing to the top of that book’s list is worth more than landing on any other best-sellers list 🙂

  14. Jeff, thank you for this. You have helped me to open my eyes and be able to deal with much of the pressure pushed on me. I agree with Dan Miller here!! Thank you!!!

  15. Takes so much pressure off trying to figure out the best way to promote my book! Thanks, Jeff.

  16. I chased success for a long time before I finally realized I was putting off today’s happiness in the hopes of “someday” success. I wasn’t allowing myself to be happy in the now, always believing things would be better in the future, when I was a “success”. The problem is, if you don’t start the habit of finding happiness in the today, you’ll never be happy tomorrow, because tomorrow never comes. It’s always today. Now I focus on success building habits that I can conquer today (like committing to write every day for at least an hour) and then celebrate each daily achievement. In time the habit will build up to something bigger, but in the meantime I’m not putting off living a joy-filled, meaningful life.

    1. So well said. Everyone should read your comment Susan. I’ve been in the publishing biz for 14 years and have launched many “bestsellers.” I can personally attest to the fact that 75% of the authors who became a bestseller were no more happier 2 months after their launch than before. It’s like they hit the list and… now what? It’s only those who were fueled by purpose (vs just hitting a list) that stayed happy (because their happiness wasn’t circumstantial).

    2. Yes, well said, Susan. “Pursuit of happiness” is how’s its phrased, and “chasing success” is often how it’s characterized, but both of these make happiness and success seem like elusive quarry in a snipe hunt. The truth is that success and happiness are *practiced.* Set a goal for today, achieve that goal today, be successful today. Rinse and repeat tomorrow, and every other day. What seems like the “big success” of others is usually the consequence of little, everyday, stepping-stone successes. Why should anyone else’s “big success” be any different?

  17. This was a very insightful post, Jeff. Even in other areas of life, I think we often find ourselves chasing after the things that will give us the glory, rather than focusing on the things in life that are more valuable and will benefit others. I think writers from an early age often dream of writing a book to appear on a best-sellers list, but as you said, we need to do “the best work we can” and then we’ll be successful since we’re shooting for the right goal. Have you always wanted to be a writer?

    1. Well said, Erin. I have always written, but no, I didn’t always think I would be a writer or even know that’s what I wanted. I share this in The Art of Work. Sometimes, your calling surprises you.

  18. Some people were born to write. They’ll write a book, it will become a best seller, the book will be turned into a play or movie. Perhaps even a television series. Why? Because it was destined to happen. What spirit wants. Spirit will get.

  19. I’ve read unknown authors whose work eclipsed “best sellers.” It’s unfortunate that sometimes “who you know” opens doors more than the quality of your work. Yet I believe in consistency and quality. Sometimes the cream does rise to the surface. I wonder how many remarkable authors quit, just shy of being discovered? Thanks for an insightful post, Jeff!

  20. “Authors: Your goal shouldn’t be to just have a bestselling book. Your goal should be to build a bestselling platform.”

    That’s the phrase I’ve adopted that I think sums up my stance on it. Becoming a bestseller is nice, but it shouldn’t be the primary goal. The primary goal should be to build a platform that enables you to be a bestselling author. There is a difference.

    I’d much rather sell 100,000 copies over 5 years and never hit a “bestseller” list than to hit a list by selling 15,000 units in a month and not much more. Because basically, at 100K you’ve reached 100K people, impacted 100K lives, built a significant TRIBE that follows to the next book (compounding the impact for the next book), and so on it grows.

    This shouldn’t discourage any author out there to avoid pushing for a BIG launch. A big launch creates momentum. Every author should do whatever they can to increase their visibility and impact at launch. Just like a pebble tossed into a pond makes a ripple, a rock makes a wave. Your goal should be to create a launch that is big enough to make a wave. You don’t need to hit a list. If that happens then BONUS. You just need to reach as many people as you possibly can.

    Most lists are built on subjective criteria anyways. At the end of the day, having “bestseller” in the bio only enhances what’s around it. It doesn’t open some magic box of fame and fortune on its own. Hard work, consistency and providing value does that.

  21. I’ve read unknown authors whose work eclipsed “best sellers.” It’s unfortunate that sometimes “who you know” opens doors more than the quality of your work. Yet I believe in consistency and quality. Sometimes the cream does rise to the surface. I wonder how many remarkable authors quit, just shy of being discovered? Thanks for an insightful post, Jeff! super bowl 2016 live streaming

        1. It looks as if they put a super bowl live streaming link in to try to get clicks. But for spammers, it was a pretty well-thought-out and seemingly relevant post.

  22. Thanks for the solid advice, Jeff.

    “The point is, stop chasing things that aren’t real measurements of success. Focus on what you can control (like how many books you sell or how many people you reach). And do the best work you can when the world isn’t watching.”

    I’m in the process of writing and I felt a lot of unnecessary pressure. It’s not so much as being the first person to cross the finish line, but it’s getting across the finish line and preparing for the next marathon so you do even better. There is so much pressure to be apart of ‘the list’ and not to reach a wider range of readers. Very insightful and just what I needed to hear.

  23. Such great info here, Jeff. Thank you for always reaching down, reaching out, and reaching back. I’m so grateful you haven’t forgotten where you started and I appreciate your wisdom more than I can adequately express.

  24. I teach sales skills for a living (I don’t really, I teach communication – which in my world is the core skill of selling expertise). My style of sales is totally client centric. The alignment with your very good blog is to concentrate on the process rather than the goel. In sales, concentrating on the client and his needs, rather than our own needs to produce results, will mean that the results will develop naturally because we design the product to fit the client not try to squeeze him into our product.

    The alignment with your very good blog is to concentrate on the process and the quality of writing and material rather than trying to write so that it fits it into some tunnel that is meant to match the requirements of a best seller.

  25. Thanks for this reality check. Vulnerably, I’m so caught up in the new blogger feeling. I’ve been guilty of struggling with thinking that site visits measure my success. I almost wish I couldn’t even have access to the site stats because when my work doesn’t have hits or when it’s not shared, somehow that shows my writing isn’t valuable or isn’t helping anyone. But I’m actually paid to be a writer outside of my blog! I don’t struggle with my measure of success when my work is published in magazines. But then, if we’re going to get spiritual, even monetary success matters less if we know as writers we’ve been called to write and to lift our voices. Obedience doesn’t equate to monetary success or an easy road. Let’s go sit with Noah and Abraham for a while.

  26. If you want to write a book, you need a blog to go with it. You’ll spend hours and hours designing and dreaming and writing post after post. When you think of all the loyal readers you’ll have, you’ll realize you need a platform. You’ll sign up for every social media account possible and spend hours and hours tweeting and Facebooking and Periscoping. Spending time on Facebook will remind you of all the cat memes you forgot to look at. Looking at cat memes will remind you of your old pet Fluffy and how he used to sit curled up in your lap while you read a good book. You’ll be inspired to visit the library or Barnes & Noble for a great book to read. You’ll start to browse the best seller list, and chances are, if you browse the bookstore best seller list, you’ll want to write a book.

  27. Best sellers simply reinforce the idea that if many people like it, it must be inherently valuable – if everyone else is reading it, it must be good. And often it can be. But at the same time, just because other people like it doesn’t mean it will add any sort of value for you. So while best seller lists can be a great resource for finding quality material, it is not the be-all end-all of determining value.

    In the same vein, then, we can say that NOT being a best seller does not mean you are a bad writer or aren’t valuable. It is simply one measure – look to what your readers actually think or feel about your work. Did it give just one person a new perspective? Are you proud of your work? Determine for yourself how you’ll measure success, and always strive for that. That is how you find fulfillment. That is how you know your value.

  28. My first thought about this entry was that I really don’t know about best-sellers. I used to think that the books turn into best-sellers because a lot of people wants to read them. Also, I thought that one best-seller writer would be known almost everywhere because it supposed to be a really good story. But this opened my eyes.

    This entry helps a lot, maybe not me because I’m not a writer, but to people that are in to it. This is a good motivation, not to write a best-seller, just a good book that will be remembered. The book don’t need to be loved by everyone because we don’t have the same likes, but it has to be known.

  29. I think that what writers need to focus more is in the content they do and clearly some of us, that just have started, fall in this kind of things because we spectate to get to the top with just one book, but like many other jobs, it is more complicated than that. I liked this article, it reminds you that you have to be constant with your work, there is no way to cheat around this process, if you want to succeed as a writer.

  30. If being a best-seller is not the most important thing when it comes to writing, then why writers worry so much about that? Why do they have to spend so much money to make their book be a best-seller? Honestly, I don’t read a book just because in the cover says that is a New York Times best-seller. I read a book because any of my friends or family recommend it, or because it looks interesting to me. I have seen books that say in the cover “A New York Times best-seller” that don’t call my attention. The title of best-seller is not what determines the quality of the book, the book has to look interesting, and has to talk about what the reader is looking for.

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