It happens frequently: A total stranger beside me on a plane, when he learns I’m an author, asks how many copies I’ve sold, or how much money I earn from writing per year.

Seriously, would I ask him his salary? It’s so rude!

I was raised to be polite, so instead of informing this nosy person he has no right to ask, I answer vaguely that only a small percentage of authors make a good living from their writing, or I mention that many of my books are bestsellers (which doesn’t mean high earnings).

What is a bestseller, anyway? “A book for which demand, within a short time of that book’s initial publication, vastly exceeds what is then considered to be big sales.” – S.H. Steinberg, Five Hundred Years of Printing, 1955

A more thorough answer is in a 2013 blog by Samantha Francis at booknetcanada.ca: Her points, in brief:

  • Whoever sells the most copies in a particular time period (usually a week), wins.
  • Depending on the week, it takes a different amount of sales to make it to the top.
  • When a book is in the “Top 10,” it has usually sold several thousand copies across Canada in one week. Sales numbers of category bestsellers (lists restricted to a specific genre, like cooking or mystery) can be lower.
  • Technically, a book is a bestseller when it appears on a published bestseller list.
  • But other books may sell better over time, and be more profitable.

And here’s her most important statement: “There’s so much more that defines what truly makes a book successful … Did the book’s intended audience read it and love it? … Reviews, award nominations, educational objectives, and reader satisfaction are all part of what makes a book a success.”