Nowadays, the term "Bestseller" has rather complex denotations since it is defined in different ways by certain newspapers and companies such as Amazon. A generalized definition, however, indicates that a book is extremely popular in sales or borrowed titles, such as in libraries and online sources. Although extremely popular after their publications, the number of bestsellers that last the test of time is markedly smaller than the sales figures would suggest since they are rarely of academic or literary value and quality or they are simply representative of a trend or fad current with the times.
In a sense, then, bestsellers are somewhat like fashions--the latest fashion statement of the printed page, so to speak. Indeed, people often read a bestseller, not so much because they themselves are curious or interested, but because their social circle raves about it, and they do not wish to be on the outside of the chatter about this book and appear to be socially inept or "up on" the latest cultural trends. Interestingly, then, bestsellers are not necessarily the most read books; they often are merely purchased so someone can say that he/she does have this book when asked. Or, they have it on their coffee table when friends or associates visit.
Critics have pointed out that just because a book is purchased doesn't mean it will be read. The rising length of bestsellers may mean that more of them are simply becoming bookshelf decor. In 1985 members of the staff of The New Republic placed coupons redeemable for $5 cash inside 70 books that were selling well, and none of them were redeemed.
At the other end of the spectrum, a rather new term, underground bestseller, enters in; for, this term is a rather self-defining one, apart from actual book sales. If a magazine of stature or enough people in certain circles of society are interested in a book, this book can then become spotlighted, so to speak, and rises to the financial "bestseller" levels.
In addition to considering the definition and description of the term bestseller, the student can also examine the cultural/inspirational effects that bestsellers have had. For instance, many bestsellers encourage people to improve their lives, such as the hugely popular Dale Carnegie book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Or, they provide people with existential answers; for example, Ernest Hemingway's novels often rose to the bestseller lists; they, then, tapped into the general malaise of many Americans who agreed with Hemingway's thinking that there was really nothing in which to believe, and that people must construct structure in their lives independently from their cultural surroundings.