publishing trends

How many copies must a book sell to be a bestseller in India (and why are there so many lists?)

The truth is that there is no one accurate estimate of the sales of a book.

If you’re a reader, you’ll have noticed that in India, there isn’t a clear definition of what a bestselling book means. Sure, there are some clear leaders: the Chetan Bhagats, the Amish Tripathis, the Devdutt Pattnaiks, the Dan Browns. But why does The Asian Age carry one set of books as its weekly bestseller, while The Hindustan Times has a different set of books, and features yet another bestseller list? And what makes a book a bestseller in India?

The answer to the first query is clear: each bestseller list is collated on the basis of different datasets.

At the bottom of the Asian Age Fiction bestseller list is a small notice that reads: Bahrisons, New Delhi. This implies the list of books has been supplied by the venerable bookshop that is almost an institution in Delhi.

In Hindustan Times, the data is provided by Nielsen-Bookscan, the only quantitative dataset we have on the entire Indian book industry:

Then there’s Amazon, whose bestseller list is based on its own algorithms, and constantly checks for actual book sales, combined with historical data analysis, to come up with a bestseller chart:

Between these three, which one should you trust?

Like with most things about books, there’s no simple answer.

If you’re looking at sheer numbers alone, the most quantitatively accurate data will come from Nielsen-Bookscan, which covers online sellers like Amazon and Flipkart and physical booksellers like Crossword. Even so, industry estimates suggest that Bookscan covers about 60 to 70% of the trade book market. So it’s not a comprehensive figure, but it should give you a fair idea of how many copies a book has sold in a year. Bookscan doesn’t release numbers here in India unless you subscribe to its services, but get your hands on Bookseller magazine, which prints fortnightly numbers from Bookscan from across the world, for some benchmarks.

Amazon rankings are based on their own site sales. Considering that it accounts for as much as 40% to 50% of sales for most books, and sometimes even more (unlike mass market books that are available even in the smallest of stores)  – it can be a reasonably accurate measure of how well a book has done in India. Remember, reviews are not taken into consideration in the rankings – it’s pure sales.

The third, that of individual booksellers, is a more limited dataset, for obvious reasons. But it’s also a reflection of the customers that frequent the bookseller. For example, Bahrison’s fiction list quoted above suggests a overwhelming preference for literary titles, with six of the top ten books in that category.

Of course, the most famous bestseller list in the world does not follow any of these rules. The New York Times Bestseller List “rankings reflect unit sales reported on a confidential basis by vendors offering a wide range of general interest titles”, but the exact details about the methodology, or the number of stores, remain a trade secret. The list has often been criticised as being misleading, inaccurate and manipulated, and has also been sued by William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, for his book Legion not being included in the bestselling charts. (The California Supreme Court ruled against the author in the $3-million suit in 1989.)

Now we come to the second question: How many copies must a book sell to qualify as a bestseller in India?

As someone who has worked in Indian publishing previously, I’d say this is a difficult question. It depends on the goalposts. Say your sales target was 100,000 copies, and you end up selling 70,000 copies  – fewer than what you wanted, but a significant number nonetheless. Would you consider the book a bestseller? And what about the book that you thought would sell only 5,000 copies, but ends up selling 30,000 copies?

As a commissioning editor, I’d look out for the latter. That’s the breakout hit, an unexpected bonus. A Dan Brown, if it sells less than 100,000 copies, has disappointed. But an Ajay K. Pandey, which sells more than 50,000 copies, is a definite bestseller.

But at the end of the day, it’s all about perception. If you’re a debut author, consider 10,000 copies your first barrier. If you can breach it, you’re on your way to bestseller kingdom.

It’s just that even this number is a tough ask now, especially at a time when most novels barely sell 5,000 copies!

This article first appeared on Medium.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Tracing the formation of Al Qaeda and its path to 9/11

A new show looks at some of the crucial moments leading up to the attack.

“The end of the world war had bought America victory but not security” - this quote from Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, ‘The Looming Tower’, gives a sense of the growing threat to America from Al Qaeda and the series of events that led to 9/11. Based on extensive interviews, including with Bin Laden’s best friend in college and the former White House counterterrorism chief, ‘The Looming Tower’ provides an intimate perspective of the 9/11 attack.

Lawrence Wright chronicles the formative years of Al Qaeda, giving an insight in to Bin Laden’s war against America. The book covers in detail, the radicalisation of Osama Bin Laden and his association with Ayman Al Zawahri, an Egyptian doctor who preached that only violence could change history. In an interview with Amazon, Wright shared, “I talked to 600-something people, but many of those people I talked to again and again for a period of five years, some of them dozens of times.” Wright’s book was selected by TIME as one of the all-time 100 best nonfiction books for its “thoroughly researched and incisively written” account of the road to 9/11 and is considered an essential read for understanding Islam’s war on the West as it developed in the Middle East.

‘The Looming Tower’ also dwells on the response of key US officials to the rising Al Qaeda threat, particularly exploring the turf wars between the FBI and the CIA. This has now been dramatized in a 10-part mini-series of the same name. Adapted by Dan Futterman (of Foxcatcher fame), the series mainly focuses on the hostilities between the FBI and the CIA. Some major characters are based on real people - such as John O’ Neill (FBI’s foul-mouthed counterterrorism chief played by Jeff Daniels) and Ali Soufan (O’ Neill’s Arabic-speaking mentee who successfully interrogated captured Islamic terrorists after 9/11, played by Tahar Rahim). Some are composite characters, such as Martin Schmidt (O’Neill’s CIA counterpart, played by Peter Sarsgaard).

The series, most crucially, captures just how close US intelligence agencies had come to foiling Al Qaeda’s plans, just to come up short due to internal turf wars. It follows the FBI and the CIA as they independently follow intelligence leads in the crises leading up to 9/11 – the US Embassy bombings in East Africa and the attack on US warship USS Cole in Yemen – but fail to update each other. The most glaring example is of how the CIA withheld critical information – Al Qaeda operatives being hunted by the FBI had entered the United States - under the misguided notion that the CIA was the only government agency authorised to deal with terrorism threats.

The depth of information in the book has translated into a realistic recreation of the pre-9/11 years on screen. The drama is even interspersed with actual footage from the 9/11 conspiracy, attack and the 2004 Commission Hearing, linking together the myriad developments leading up to 9/11 with chilling hindsight. Watch the trailer of this gripping show below.


The Looming Tower is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video, along with a host of Amazon originals and popular movies and TV shows. To enjoy unlimited ad free streaming anytime, anywhere, subscribe to Amazon Prime Video.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Amazon Prime Video and not by the Scroll editorial team.