I’ve learned to be wary of books labelled as bestsellers. Firstly, it’s well-known that some publishers pay, or have paid in the past, for places in the book charts of certain retailers. Pretending that the book has sold enough already to be a bestseller then persuades consumers to buy it, therefore making it a bestseller for real. I don’t think this is an honest way of marketing books but I suppose it’s no worse than describing a certain popular author’s latest book as ‘her new bestseller’ on the cover as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Secondly, I’ve discovered that what the general reading population enjoys is not usually what I enjoy. I’m not saying this to be snobbish, I’m merely pointing out that my reading tastes tend not to match the current zeitgeist in the market for traditionally published books. Very rarely have I concluded that a recently published ‘bestseller’ has justified the hype.
Thirdly, there is the notion that a book having shifted so many millions of copies is an indicator of merit, while in reality a snowball effect has resulted, when people who aren’t big readers buy the book because everyone else has. No matter if it’s a good book or not. I call these ‘bandwagon books’ and can think of several in recent years which sold so well that every man and his dog seemed to have acquired them, if not actually read them, and pristine copies can now be found in every charity shop.
So, to answer my own question, a bestseller is a book which has sold many copies or is at least a leading product in its category. But if we look into the topic more closely, it’s not as straightforward as we might expect. Again, it’s a problem of differing expectations and definitions… see also, classics, literary fiction and thrillers.