Numbers, numbers, everywhere, nor any figures to cite.
In my last post, I talked about Amazon buy buttons and the inner workings of a book’s availability. In my experience, availability is usually the number one concern for authors and publishers. Once the book is available and being sold, authors tend to track their sales rankings, sometimes obsessively.
The algorithms behind Amazon’s best-seller rank have confounded authors and publishers for years. Before I delve into what I have gleaned, it is good perspective to remember that everything on an Amazon book detail page is marketing – from the description to the reviews to the rankings. The whole goal of the page is to get you to buy the book. Publishers put forth the best marketing copy, cover design, endorsements and reviews with the hope of driving sales. Amazon then layers in additional marketing with the use of algorithms, keywords, special offers, and rankings.
There are around 14-15 million books on Amazon. I have been unable to find a credible source for an accurate count, but Bowker reports 38 million books in its database. At least 700,000 new books are published each year, but there are likely many more than that because not all the books on Amazon have ISBNs and thus aren’t tracked by the official Bowker numbers. Additionally, many of the books on Amazon are only available as used copies, having gone out of print decades ago. Why does this matter? Because Amazon calculates rank based on the relative sales of other titles – 14-15 million other titles.
There are many articles about Amazon’s sales rankings with each author claiming to have cracked the algorithm. The comments are then filled with people disputing the author’s claims. What I can tell you is that the rankings will drive you insane if you attempt to follow them too closely. An author can see sales rankings climb not because they have sold more books, but because another book has had fewer sales. There are too many variables and sales of even a handful of copies can boost a book by 10,000. Rank is also influenced by used copy sales, so even though new copy sales seem static, used copies could be having an effect.
The rankings also offer a double-edged sword. Used copy sales can increase the sales rank, but that also increases the demand in the used copy market. Used-book dealers will sometimes use that sales velocity to decide whether to buy a copy for resale.
If Amazon notices a book has strong, consistent sales, as well as copious positive reviews, available inventory, and robust metadata, it may help push the book in search results, but the sales rank is still determined by sales.
I used the The 36-Hour Day in my last post and will use it here again for consistency. As you can see, it is ranking quite high. This title was helped by pre-orders, which count towards the rank. There is overall ranking (Amazon Best Seller Rank) – against all books on Amazon – and category rankings. In some cases, the overall sales ranking might seem low, but the book could be the bestseller in its category (which is why accurate BISAC codes are so critical, but that is another post for another time).
To be 3,188 among 14-15 million titles is excellent. Even a ranking of 150,000 puts you in the top 1%.
It is worth noting that if a book falls completely off Amazon’s sales radar it will not have a rank:
I know a lot of authors use their sales ranking as a barometer of sales. However, it isn’t a clear-cut tool. Book sales are cyclical, with academic and trade books having their own distinctive peaks and valleys. A book could be having its best week ever but fall in rankings if other books debuted that week. On the other hand, selling just one copy can bump the numbers considerably if sales are otherwise slow.
It is easy to get caught up in the numbers and forget publishing isn’t a contest to be won or lost. We don’t publish for numbers, we publish to advance knowledge. Selling books just helps us advance it with a roof over our heads.
Davida G. Breier, Manager of HFS, worked at two book distributors prior to joining JHUP in 2010. She also sits on the board of No Voice Unheard, a non-profit publisher, and was a contributing writer and photographer for the book Ninety-Five: Meeting America’s Farmed Animals.