Yesterday, one of the science fiction authors (who shall remain nameless) I follow on Facebook posted a mini-rant about how some (presumably "indie scum") authors claim bestseller status from Amazon sales when those numbers don't compare to the ones needed to make bestseller status in the NY Times or USA Today. I didn't post a response then because I needed to focus on my writing and not argue with someone on his own Facebook page, but I think the topic merits further discussion.
Lyon's Legacy has made Top Ten in the Time Travel category on Amazon a few times, mostly when I put it on sale and advertised it on Book Gorilla. The first weekend it was permafree it also moved a lot of units without paid ads and reached #170 on Amazon overall for free books. Granted, each time there were only a few hundred units involved, and of
course after a few days the novella slipped down the charts again. Other
works of mine, such as "Letters to Psyche," Life at Seventeen Syllables a Day, and even SF Women A-Z also made it into the best-seller list for more obscure categories briefly with only a couple of sales. So, yes, I will grant this author the fact that Amazon bestseller status for an hour or two for a subcategory does not necessarily match numbers with bookstore sales generated over a week.
Is Amazon bestseller status misleading or meaningless, though? The author who complained about this is a well-known, award-winning author who shouldn't feel threatened by indie authors like me, who only make a handful of sales each month. For me, it is exciting to see a book climb the charts, even if I know it won't last. (However, when overall sales are slow, Lyon's Legacy can still linger for a while on the free Time Travel bestseller list with few sales, albeit near the bottom.) I do list Lyon's Legacy Top Ten Time Travel bestseller status in its book description on Amazon since I think that is a significant accomplishment. Maybe it came about after an ad, but then publishers pay bookstores for prominent placement of featured books, so they also invest in that status.
As for other bestseller lists, they can be gamed by people who know which bookstores are counted when compiling those lists, and the list-makers have been known to manipulate the lists to keep eBooks and the Harry Potter series off of the lists. Barnes and Noble has been accused of deliberately suppressing the ranks of indie books in certain genres so they don't compete with traditionally published books. Amazon can be gamed too, but in my opinion, it is the most honest, transparent store when it comes to its bestseller lists.
Bestseller status is important to big publishers and their authors, since they profit most when they sell lots of copies of a single title in a short time. Indie authors with lower overheads can make money off of fewer sales sustained over a long period of time. While it looks nice to be a bestseller, in the long run, I would like to have sustainable sales supported by true fans and word-of-mouth. It may take a lot of sales to many different people to reach my target audience, however. I will only mention bestseller status for my works in the book description if it makes it to the Top Ten of its category. And while it's hard to avoid comparing yourself with others, for my own career, I'd rather focus on writing and publishing the best books that I can. As a reader, I'm too independent to read something just because it's a bestseller, but I realize others might value that popularity.
How do you feel about bestseller status for books? Does it matter to you as a reader? Do you care how the bestseller status was earned?