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Julie Barrett is a freelance writer and photographer based in Plano, TX.

Digging into Amazon Rankings

Fresh (almost) daily from Julie Barrett


Today I decided to do some research into Amazon rankings. What do they mean? Why does my out of print book rank better than one by Stephen King? How come one of his has no ranking at all? And why the heck am I picking on Stephen King?

Actually, I'm not picking on King. Rather, he, along with J K Rowling and any other author whose books have sold millions of copies, are continually held up as examples to aspiring authors. King and Rowling both suffered through rejection and hard times before becoming apparent overnight success stories. And yet, they're also held up to aspiring authors as examples of why your publisher will never spend a dime on you. You're not them. Don't expect anything out of your publisher except to get your book printed. 

Let me ask you a question: why would your publisher go through the process of editing a book, designing a cover, printing, and so on, if it didn't expect to make money off of it? You may not get the big splashy treatment, but as long as your publisher is getting books into the hands of readers, that's what matters. While most of us would love for our books to sell millions of copies, it's not going to happen. We won't all get rich at this business. But we don't have to swallow the lies, either.

So, back to Amazon rankings. Amazon gives hints about their methodology here. Note this line:
Please keep in mind that our sales rank figures are simply meant to be a guide of general interest for the customer and not definitive sales information for publishers - we assume you have this information regularly from your distribution sources.
In other words, the sales rank is interesting, but it's not always a true measure of how well a book sells. There are some other interesting breakdowns here, here, here (PDF) and here

Amazon is only one outlet. Barnes and Noble and Borders sell books both in-store and online. Walmart sells a lot of books, too, as does Target. Let's not forget the grocery store, the drug store, and those wonderful independent booksellers. (Last but certainly not least!) Not a single one of those sales contributes to Amazon rankings. Unless, I suppose, if Amazon powers their online store. They did run Target's at one time, but I don't recall whether or not they still do. Oh, and let's not forget publisher direct sales and sales through independent online outlets. This is an important point if you're e-published only. 

So when someone tells you that a writer is a failure because of their Amazon sales rank on a single book, point 'em to this listing for King's Running Man and see what they say. 

Obviously, it's an exception, right? Probably so. I suspect that Amazon never had a copy in their warehouse to sell, but since it has an ISBN, it's listed. This book that currently has a rank of over 2,500,000 probably has that number because it was a limited edition from a small press that has been out of print for a very long time. The only sales on Amazon have probably been used copies through the Marketplace. And that's important to know, too. If Amazon never had a copy of a particular book in their warehouse to sell for whatever reason, the sales rank is going to be lousy. They list a lot of out of print books because of their Marketplace feature. They may not have it, but chances are someone has a used or collectible copy to sell. And if you read the Amazon link above, then you'll know that Marketplace sales do figure into sales rankings.

Yes, the whole thing is rather convoluted, I'll admit. But it's important to know what Amazon rankings say - and don't say - about sales of a particular title. I wouldn't discount them, but I'd also watch for the context when someone brags about their rankings or suggests a writer - or their publisher - is a failure because of them. 

Tags: Publishing


Filed under: Publishing            
5/12/2011 2:14:43 PM
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