Chip MacGregor

August 19, 2013

What is a "best-selling" author?


Recently I got behind on a bunch of questions readers sent in, so I’m going to try and catch up by offering shorter answers to a host of questions…

Someone wrote to say, “I’ve seen a number of writers call themselves ‘best-selling’ authors. Quite a few are self-published. What exactly does it take for a book to be considered a bestseller?”

That’s easy — if an author has hit a bestseller list, they can legitimately call themselves a bestselling author. So if your book hit the New York Times list, the LA Times list, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Denver Post, CBA, ECPA, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or any other bestseller lists, you can promote yourself as a “bestselling” author. The problem that’s come up recently is that authors will rise up the Amazon sales ranking, notice they’re in the top five or ten in their sub-category, and suddenly start telling everyone they’ve become a superstar. Um… Let’s just say that rising up the Amazon rankings are great, but they segment things so much it’s considerably easier to make their list than, say, the New York Times Bestseller list. And editors and agents aren’t stupid (no matter what you’ve heard). If your book spent an hour in the top ten of Amazon’s “inspirational historical fiction” category, that won’t really impress editors. Stick to the major lists, and you’ll figure out who is a legitimate bestseller.

Another writer wants to know, “How many words are in a standard romance novel? A thriller? A literary novel? What about a novella?”

At Harlequin, a contemporary category romance is 55,000 words, and a historical romance is 75,000 words. At other houses (those that aren’t selling to a subscriber list) those numbers are larger. Most contemporary stand-alone novels are in the 70 to 80,000 word range, and some publishing houses prefer they stretch to 90,000 words. Thrillers tend to go long — 90,000 words. Spec fiction goes longer — often closer to 100,000 words. And while literary fiction can be as short as 60,000 words or as long as 105,000 words, I’d say a novel in the 80’s is relatively common. Family sagas go longer; women’s fiction shorter. Your word count is going to depend on  your publisher and the expectations of your readers. Novellas are almost always less than 35,000 words.

On a related note, someone asked, “Are short stories making a comeback in today’s market?”

Absolutely. In fact, short form fiction is one of the fastest growing categories in digital publishing (far less so in print publishing). Many houses are asking authors to produce a short story that can be sold very cheaply, or even given away for free as a means to identify new readers. Short stories are my favorite form of fiction, so I’m delighted to see an interest in a genre that’s been dead to most publishers for more than a decade.

Another reader asked, “What royalty percentage is an industry norm?”

Stay with me as I answer this… I work in both the general publishing market as well as the CBA market, and they differ. In the general market, most authors will receive 10% of the sale price of the hardcover book on the first 5000 copies sold, 12.5% on the next 5000 copies, and 15% thereafter. For paperback, it’s often a flat 7.5% royalty, based on the sale price of the book. BUT most CBA houses don’t pay on the retail price — they pay on net (which, if you think about it, makes much more sense — the publisher simply pays a percentage of what they are paid by retailers). So royalty rates on CBA contracts are nearly always negotiable — sometimes starting at 14% or 15%, rising to somewhere between 18% and 22% at various thresholds, depending on the publisher. (This is one of the places a good agent will help you — negotiating advance, royalty rates, and thresholds.) For gift books and children’s books, the royalties are much smaller, since the production costs are higher for each book. And mass market books will range between 4% and 8%, depending on which publisher is doing the deal. Does that help?

Finally, someone wrote to ask me, “Am I better off self-publishing or going with a traditional publisher?”

That’s like asking a realtor, “Am I better off selling through a real estate company, or on my own?” The fact is, the answer will depend on a number of factors… Is there a clear audience for your book? What’s the best way to reach them? Who can best reach that audience? Does the publisher have a plan for reaching them? Will they commit the resources to it? If you self pub, do YOU have a plan? Are you willing to put in the hours to make it work?

Again, a print publisher is going to pay you a royalty of about 15% of the cover price for each book sold. They’ll pay you 25% of the net for each ebook sold. But one of the new, up-and-coming micro publishers may very well offer you a 50% royalty on ebooks — a better deal financially, but only if they can move copies of your book. If you choose to self-publish, you’ll take home roughly 70% of each digital book that sells — but selling each book is totally on your shoulders. There’s no one backing you up or helping get the word out, so if you don’t promote it yourself, you’ll join the ranks of the million other authors who have posted a book on Amazon and watched it sell a couple dozen copies.

Back to your question… Are you better off self-publishing or going with a traditional publisher? The answer depends on your book, your expertise, and your expectations. Best to talk through all of those things with an experienced person before making the decision. Both can work; both can fail. But you’ll feel better about the entire experience if you’ve thought through what you want, defined what “success” is, and given yourself wholeheartedly to making that plan work.

Got a question about writing and publishing? Send it along — we’re starting to catch up on the questions!


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  • Meghan Carver says:

    Does the term “best-selling” really have meaning any more, Chip? It wasn’t too long ago that I noticed a blogger calling herself a best-selling author. Turned out that she had several e-books self-published that had hit a certain ranking in a rather particular category on Amazon. I felt deceived.

    • Vlad Vaslyn says:


      You bring up a great point, and it makes me wonder if they EVER had any meaning. Best-seller lists, even the coveted NY Times Bestseller List, should be taken with a grain of salt, in my opinion, at least from a reader’s perspective. Their algorithms and the methods they employ are far from perfect.

      Earlier this year, Forbes ran an interesting article called “Here’s How You Buy Your Way Onto The New York Times Bestsellers List” -

      The Wall Street Journal did as well: “The Mystery of the Book Sales Spike – How Are Some Authors Landing On Best-Seller Lists? They’re Buying Their Way:”

      The WSJ article is especially interesting, but basically the algorithms most of these lists employ can be “gamed” and have a variety of holes in them, as Seth Godin over at The Domino Project noted awhile back in this post:

      For instance, in the comments section of the Forbes article, Forbes contributor Kenneth Rapoza noted that “I’ve interviewed “best sellers” and they and their agents told me that they had no idea how they got there, because total sales were 20k. Admit it, we all thought that a best seller sold millions of copies, or at least a few hundred thousand. 20k?”

      Of course, it’s not a perfect world. 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks for this, Vlad — particularly the links to the two articles. I’m often surprised at books that hit the various bestseller lists. We’ve sometimes had a book hit a list even though it’s not selling well at all; while another will sell great and NOT hit the lists. So… nope. It’s really not a perfect world. :o)

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Well, I think you’re asking a fair question, Meghan. But technically, an author can call himself or herself a “bestselling” author when they hit a bestseller list.

  • JeanneTakenaka says:

    It’s always good to read a knowledgeable agent’s answers to questions like these. Thanks for that, Chip.

    I do have a question I’ve been curious about. Is Women’s Fiction as a genre, fading? I don’t see it mentioned as much as I used to.

    • Robin Patchen says:

      I was surprised to see there was no category for Women’s Fiction in the 2013 Carol Awards finalists. In fact, it seems a lot of categories have been done away with. It looks like the “Contemporary Fiction” titles could be Women’s Fiction. Personally, I don’t like the term Women’s Fiction any more than I would like, “Men’s Fiction,” so it’s not a complaint so much as an observation. So piggybacking on Jeanne, is this category fading, or just the name of it?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Just the name, Robin. You raise a good point about “men’s fiction,” by the way — a term that is the kiss of death to a book.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Women’s fiction isn’t fading, but it’s changing names. I see publishers turning toward other terms to describe the category, Jeanne.

    • JeanneTakenaka says:

      It may be too late to ask this, but what are some of the other terms being used to describe the category?

  • Rick Barry says:

    I had no idea short fiction is making a comeback in today’s marketplace. Glad to hear it! Many classic writers of the past crafted marvelous short fiction, but for some time short fiction didn’t seem to win much respect.

    Concerning royalty rates, I have only a couple YA books that have been published, but I will mention the publisher offers higher royalties on the ebooks sales. So, even though I enjoy real paper and ink for my own pleasure reading, special blessings to all readers who buy the digital versions!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      BUT, be aware, Rick, that authors aren’t benefitting from a higher digital royalty the way they should be. Sure, they’re getting 25% on ebooks, but the publisher’s profit is actually higher on ebooks because there is no ink, paper, binding, transportation, or storage costs. That’s why Amazon is willing to pay authors 70% of the take. I’d like to see ebook royalties rise with major publishers, to even out the playing field a bit.

  • Thanks for another helpful post, Chip. I, too, am delighted that short stories are making a comeback. 🙂

  • Iola Goulton says:

    The word counts you have quoted are lower than what I have seen quoted on others sites – is the standard book getting shorter (perhaps to reflect our reducing attention spans)?
    On the other hand, I’ve seen quite a few new books in the CBA coming in at 450 pages, whereas those authors used to write 300-page novels. If the 300-page novel was 80,000 words, the 450-page version must be closer to 120,000 – or are they just using a bigger font?
    And if the stories are longer, is this a good thing? The last 450-page novel I read really would have been better if it was around 30% shorter. There was a lot of filler that, in my opinion, detracted from the core story.

    • 97point6 says:

      I agree on the lower quoted word count. I understood 70,000 to be the base level with 90-100,000 the norm.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Depends on publisher and project, Iola. Harlequin is doing 55,000-word contemporary romances, and 75,000-word historical novels. Both of those would be too low for a general lines publisher. And the advent of ebooks has pushed publishers in two directions — with some doing longer books (in order to compensate for the lack of paper and ink), while others are doing shorter books (since readers enjoy getting through a story quickly). All that said, 97point6, 90-to-100k isn’t really the “norm.” We see a lot of novels in that area, but not every genre runs that long.

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