The world of invisible bestsellers

"I'm a bestselling author!" That's a statement bound to elicit cheers . . . but what does that mean, exactly? Well, it means that your book sold better than a lot of other books. But in what category? Tracked by whom? Backed by what data?

I am a bestselling author in the usual, traditional sense — on the New York Times bestseller list, Publishers Weekly, Wall Street Journal, USA Today. But there are a lot of other bestseller lists… and they keep proliferating. Amazon in particular has launched so many esoteric bestseller categories it's hard to keep track of them. (Like the Steampunk Short Story Collections Featuring Vampires bestseller list. That's not a real one… at least I don't think so.)

I am also a publisher, and my mid-sized house, WordFire Press, has released over 300 titles from 73 authors… and as such, I get to look at the actual numbers. One of our WordFire books was a #1 bestseller on the Amazon "holiday anthologies" bestseller list — a #1 bestseller! Wow! In actual numbers, that translated to about 80 copies sold. (But, hey, it's still a "#1 Bestseller!" if I wanted to call it that.)

But I am also the author, and publisher, of a lot of "invisible bestsellers" — books that actually sell more than many titles on even the major lists, but are released through non-traditional channels and thus are never tracked. Right now, in fact, we have eighteen titles this week alone that have sold enough copies to hit the New York Times and Publishers Weekly bestseller lists… but they are tracked by neither.

An innovative way for indie authors and publishers to distribute their titles is via "book bundles," the big daddy of which is Humble Bundle. Each bundle is a grab bag of titles – for instance, the current WordFire Press Sci-Fi Specials Humble Bundle has eighteen books. Readers choose the amount they want to pay (as little as $15 for the whole batch), and a portion of the proceeds goes directly to the designated charities — in this case the Challenger Learning Centers for Space Science Education and the Emergency Medical Fund for the Science Fiction Writers of America. All the authors in the bundle help to promote, in a grassroots effort, and the money gets divided up in the end.

Last week, the WordFire Press bundle sold 5,000 copies. By contrast, in order to hit the current Publishers Weekly hardcover fiction bestseller list (which, unlike most lists, posts actual numbers), a book needs to sell only 2571 copies (as did The Other Side of Silence by Philip Kerr, landing on the PW list at slot #15). That means every single one of the books in the WordFire Sci-Fi Specials Humble Bundle sold nearly twice as many copies needed to hit the bestseller list. In fact, at those numbers, all eighteen titles in the bundle would have qualified to land between spot #8 and #9.

But nobody tracks the sales of books via Humble Bundle or Storybundle or any of the other competitors, because the price is variable and because it goes through non-traditional distribution channels. (In my heart, as proud publisher, I still think they're all bestsellers.)

We don't do it to hit the bestseller lists though – we do it to know that many thousands of people are reading the titles. And because we get the warm fuzzy feeling to know we've raised a significant amount of money for the Challenger Learning Centers and for the Emergency Medical Fund. (Since the company's launch in 2010, Humble Bundle has raised more than $71 million through the support of its community for a wide range of charities, providing aid for people across the world.)

The WordFire Sci-Fi Specials bundle runs only for five more days, through April 20, 2016 at 11 a.m. Pacific time, after which it will no longer be available. And then we'll find some other way to support our authors… whether or not the besteller lists notice us.