For Writers

The Best-Seller Myth

Mary Wiley

Oct 31st


noun: best-seller

  1. a book or other product that sells in very large numbers.

If you are going to invest the time, transparency, and discipline to write a book you should want people to read it. This is especially true for books that point people to God. Christian books can be a means of making disciples, so it is praiseworthy when a God-honoring, biblically solid book finds a large audience. That’s what best-seller lists tell us, right? Well, after ten years in the publishing industry, I can unequivocally tell you that the “best-seller list” is a myth. In fact, best-seller lists do not necessarily or consistently reflect the books that are selling best. It is ironic that it is within the publishing industry—an industry of words and meaning—that the word “best-seller” is most often used with an imprecise meaning. So, let’s move beyond folklore and talk about what it actually connotes when the status is attributed to a book.

The consistent challenges with all best-seller lists are based in what sales are actually quantified and compared:

First, all best-seller lists evaluate sales within a particular timeframe. Some

best-seller lists are weekly, so quantify a single week of sales. Other best-seller

lists are monthly, thus quantifying a month of sales.

Second, all best-seller lists evaluate only those sales that have been submitted as transactions from reporting retailers. Not all retailers report their sales and those who do report their sales don’t necessarily report to all agencies from which lists are generated. Additionally, purchases from ministries or directly from authors are not reported or counted.

Third, each of the best-seller lists maintains specific, and generally secret, criteria by which they count some sales, ignore other sales, and elevate sales to particular retailers or channels over other retailers. Ultimately, there is an editorialized nature to all best-seller lists as those creating the lists maintain the right to emphasize genres, retailers, or types of sales over others.

It is certainly the right of any organization publishing a best-seller list to determine the criteria the organization will recognize. Yet, over time publishers (including me!) and authors have fallen to the temptation to try to hit best-seller lists by targeting strategies that will concentrate sales in a week to a particular mix of retailers so that recognition by the most prominent lists will be achieved. Those who manage those lists have responded by scrutinizing sales even further, which has distanced us more from lists that simply compare one book sold to another book sold. This escalation of pressure to control sales in a particular timeframe increases the pressure on authors to harness their audience to very specific action and pressures the publisher to concentrate marketing to a narrow window of time, risking the long-term influence of the book.

Are you confused and disheartened yet? Don’t worry; I’m getting to the encouraging part.

I can say with authority (and with access to years of sales data for all books in the market) that many of the books that have sold the most copies over time have never appeared on some of the best-seller lists. Take, for instance, one of B&H’s best-sellers, I Am a Church Member. It has received the ECPA Platinum Award for achieving more than one million copies in verified sales, yet it has never appeared on the New York Times Best-Seller List. There have been dozens of weeks when the lead sales reporting agency showed it as in the top three best-selling faith or advice books, yet it has never appeared on the NYT list and books that reported fewer units in sales did appear on the list on those weeks. That’s an example of a book that did not make the most prominent of best-seller lists because the list disqualified portions of the sales since they were purchased in bulk by churches. Other books sell consistently week after week but never have a single week when the sales spike to the level that qualifies the title for a best-seller list. Over time these books sell more copies than many of the books that have a strong week or two of sales and spend a brief time on one of the best-seller lists. A book we published that fits this description is Experiencing Grief. This small book has been a resource that hundreds of thousands of people have found in times of need, but it’s never been a “best-seller.” These two books are representative of dozens and dozens of books that have been immensely successful and yet have not been celebrated by some or all of the best-seller lists.

You do not need recognition from a best-seller list to be a best-seller and you definitely do not need recognition from a best-seller list to have a thriving, fruitful publishing ministry.

At its most pure expression, Christian publishing is about spreading a ministry message further than you can take it alone. It’s generally about utilizing the particular partnership, production, marketing, and distribution disciplines available from a publisher to take your message to people who you do not know. Bursting the bubble on the myth of the best-seller list is helpful because it takes our eyes off the golden calf the world has to offer and forces us to trust in the fruit that only God can bring. We must recognize that it’s possible that the deepest fruit may come from a book that few people read, but those who do are deeply transformed and live lives quietly marked by that message resulting in fruitful, faithful ministry that could impact a generation.

Do we want to sell a lot of books? Absolutely! We want to be good stewards of the resources we invest (time, money, relationships) and we believe that sales generally reflect individuals being conformed to the image of Christ through trustworthy content. We do not, however, want to be driven by selling lots of books. Authors and publishers must be compelled by obedience to God and the desire to glorify Him in what and how we publish.

Authors and publishers alike can fall to the temptation of striving after the praise of man. And hitting a best-seller list is often seen as a big, gigantic gold star that will satisfy the striving. We must fight against this temptation and pray for God to purify our hearts. Best-seller lists are a relatively new temptation in the life of the church, but the praise of man is not. The Apostle Paul had much of which he could be proud and certainly could have made the case that being popular would have made the spread of the Gospel easier. Yet, consider what he told the church in Thessalonica after he had suffered persecution and the heights of unpopularity:

“ . . . just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please men, but rather God, who examines our hearts. For we never used flattering speech, as you know, or had greedy motives—God is our witness—and we didn’t seek glory from people, either from you or from others. Although we could have been a burden as Christ’s apostles, instead we were gentle among you, as a nursing mother nurtures her own children. We cared so much for you that we were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us.” (I Thess. 2:4-8)

Our authors are dear to us as individuals and as an organization. Your words are offerings that we are honored to help steward. No one will celebrate with you more if your book hits a best-seller list. And no one will work harder to keep your focus off the best-seller lists and on the God who examines our hearts and brings fruit from them. We invite you to the do the same for us and let’s together work to bring glory to God through how we publish as well as what we publish.

“My heart is confident, God, my heart is confident.
I will sing; I will sing praises.
Wake up, my soul!
Wake up, harp and lyre!
I will wake up the dawn.
I will praise You, Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to You among the nations.
For Your faithful love is as high as the heavens;
Your faithfulness reaches the clouds.
God, be exalted above the heavens;
let Your glory be over the whole earth.”
(Psalm 57:7-11)

Jennifer Lyell serves as Director of Trade Publishing at Lifeway Christian Resources where she leads the Trade Book business. The hundreds of titles that the Trade Books business has acquired, developed, or managed under Jennifer’s leadership include New York Times bestsellers FerventThe Vow, The Wisdom of Faith, The Resolution for Women, Reshaping It All, Balancing It All, and key brands such as She Reads Truth. She also serves on the board of directors for Reaching & Teaching International Ministries and the Evangelical Christian Publishing Association.