The Difference Between The Best Seller List and The Best

Last week I posted about Fifty Shades of Grey being art…then, a few days later, posted about Cause and Effect and how it figured into my next novel.

For some reason I began thinking about the two posts and how they could be tied into a single question…


Do people buy a book because it is popular—or—Does a book become popular because people buy it?


Sticking with the Fifty Shades example…

The series passed the 100-million copies sold mark in February 2014, and I would assume that the popularity of the movie caused another spike in sales.

Now let’s look a little bit of historical info.

50SoG was originally written as fan-fiction based on the Twilight series (another series that could have served as an example for this question). Twilight has also eclipsed the 100-million mark in sales – a very impressive number.

But is it impressive simply because of the sheer volume? Or is it a true barometer of the level of quality inherent in the work?

Let’s face another fact…America is The Land of the Fad.

Don’t believe me?

Then explain to me if you will…

  • The Pet Rock
  • Cabbage Patch Kids
  • Oxygen Bars
  • Racquetball

pet rock

Yes, here in The Land of the Free…we will stand in line for days to purchase the latest hot-ticket item and even throw a few punches to get the last one off the shelf. We’ll pay top dollar for something we could get for next-to-nothing (water) and we’ll replace a perfectly good product with the latest version (iPhones) for no other reason than it’s this year’s model.

So is it a stretch to think that we will buy a book based solely on the fact that “everybody is reading it”?

I think the numbers speak for themselves.

While I still stand by my post about 50SoG being art…I also believe that you can’t judge a book by its sales numbers – especially a number like 100-million.

That’s a mind boggling number.

To put it into perspective let’s look at Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Huck Finn

Arguably one of the best books ever written (in this country), it was published in 1885 and sells about 200,000 copies per year. That means it will sell 1 million copies every five years. So how many years will it take to sell 100-million?





According to my math – that’s 500 years.

Let that sink in for a minute…

It would take 500 years for one of the best pieces of American literature to match the sales numbers Fifty Shades has hit in less than 5 years.

Surely this doesn’t mean that 50SoG is a better book than Huck Finn? Not just better…better by a factor of 100?

I refuse to even entertain that thought.

I think the only thing we can accurately discern from this is that Fifty Shades is benefitting from being the most current fad, and like all fads it will fade into the annals of pop culture history before the next President is elected. It will be nothing more than a question in Trivial Pursuit (talk about fads) where the answer is perpetually on the tips of people’s tongues.


You might say that it won’t be long before we turn the page on it and move on to the next chapter.

Naturally this topic deserves a much deeper conversation than I am offering here, but I think it is safe to say that, when it comes to the book buying public in America, we can invoke a thought from one of my other recent blog posts…If you build it, they will come.

Face it America…if Madison Avenue says you want it, you’ll sell your sister into slavery to get it.


As always – thank you for reading


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8 responses to “The Difference Between The Best Seller List and The Best

  1. And this is why I have been proposing judging books by the number of people who actually read them rather than the number of copies that are bought … It’s just more difficult to actually gauge those numbers of readers. Plus we are a consumer society that has been created to satisfy the “manufacturing” sectors (which includes creators – like us, Tim! – and service providers as well as product production) and they need to sell what they produce.

  2. Even reader numbers are skewed if you look at reviews. In my post today, there was a sentence taken from a book: “’All right, you handsome devils, if y’all are here for this evening’s Liar’s Tour of Savannah, then you are at the right place,’ I said, surveying the group of men who had found their way to the Waving Girl Statue.” This book had nearly four thousand reviews. The vast majority of them positive, and it is sitting on a Top Ten Best Seller’s list with two of its sister books in the series. Three of these books on one genre Best Seller list. I read the Look Inside because it was set in my home state of GA and was about witches. I thought it might interest me. It is supposed to be a serious book about witches, not a funny book.

    The dialect was way off. No southern woman is going to say y’all in the same sentence she says you are, she’d say you’re. I went on to read the Look Inside…What a mess. How three of these books in this series are listed as best sellers in paranormal suspense is beyond me. The writing is juvenile, terribly sophomoric, there are long passages of stilted dialogue by one southern character with absolutely no contractions and long passages by THE SAME character filled with misused southern slang and contractions. It was written by a gay man in first person from a female main character’s point of view. He fails miserably and doesn’t have a clue. He’s created a bimbo who is supposed to inherit the most powerful witch forces in the South. How this book has nearly 4000 reviews and the whole series is sitting in the Top Ten is beyond me. He must have one hellofa street team supporting him.

  3. society has too much disposable income. If making that spur of the moment purchace caused a little more pain there wouldn’t be any 50 SOG’s selling those kind of numbers. The book’s content does not equal that amount of money being spent on it.

  4. Author Rebecca Heishman

    Did you know that the press is referring to 50 Shades of Grey as a ‘franchise’ now? One book, people! One freakin’ book! Financially, this author won the book-writing lottery. While we are scratching our heads and pondering the significance (or, insignificance) of her work, she is out there somewhere selecting her yacht. The true intellectuals will bash me for applauding the astonishing wealth that the author is experiencing right now. But, from where I sit, wondering how I’m going to pay for the publishing of my next book, I’ve got to say to her, ‘You go, Girl!’ I only wish I’d thought of it first.

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