The View From the Top of Amazon’s Heap

Yesterday nine of my novels were on sale for $2.99 in ebook format, across a bunch of different retailers, but most prominently on Amazon, because, well, Amazon. Amazon has a number of different ways to make authors feel competitive and neurotic, one of which is its “Amazon Author Rank,” which tells you where you fit in the grand hierarchy of authors on Amazon, based (to some extent) on sales and/or downloads via Amazon’s subscription reading service. And yesterday, I got to the top of it — #1 in the category of science fiction and fantasy, and was #4 overall, behind JK Rowling and two dudes who co-write business books. Yes, I was (and am still! At this writing!) among the elite of the elite in the Amazon Author Ranks, surveying my realm as unto a god.

And now, thoughts!

1. To begin, it won’t last. The thing that got me into the upper echelons of the Amazon rankings was an unusual sale of a large number of my books for what is (for me) a very low price point, and that sale is meant to be of a short duration, i.e., one day. When that price point goes away, my Amazon sales will go back to their usual level, and my Amazon Author Rank will decline to its usual ranking, which is — well, it kind of bounces around a bit, because honestly that’s what most Amazon Author Rankings do. I’m often somewhere in the top 100 for science fiction, but I’m often somewhere not in the top 100, either.

2. Why? Got me, and this is the point I often make to people about Amazon Author Rankings (and other various rankings on the site): They’re super opaque. I mean, in this case, there’s a direct correlation between my $2.99 sale and the boost in my author ranking. But it’s also the case that sales are not the only criterion — a large number of top Amazon authors are ones who sign their books up for Amazon’s subscription service, for which they don’t make sales, but make money based on however Amazon decides to track engagement with the book via Kindle. How much is that criterion weighted versus sales? I don’t know, nor, I suspect, does anyone outside Amazon, nor do we know what other criteria go into the rankings.

3. This opacity works for Amazon because it keeps authors engaged, watching their Amazon Author Rankings go up and down, and getting little spikes or little stabs as their rankings bounce around. I mean, hell, I think it’s neat to have a high ranking, and I know it’s basically nonsense! But I do think it’s important for authors to remember not to get too invested in the rankings because a) if you don’t know how it works, you don’t know why you rank as you do, at any particular time, b) it’s foolish to be invested in a ranking whose mechanism is unknown to you, c) outside of Amazon, the ranking has no relevance.

4. Which is also a point I think people forget about: Amazon, despite its dominant position in the bookselling industry (particularly in eBook), is not the entire market. Regardless of my day-to-day Amazon ranking, I generally sell pretty well and pretty steadily in book stores and other eBook retailers, and in audio and in translation, none of which is tracked by Amazon for its rankings. Most authors who are not wholly committed to Amazon via its subscription service¬†likewise have outside sales and attention channels. It’s in Amazon’s interest to keep authors’ gaze on it, and especially to have authors sign on to its subscription service, with a bump in Amazon Author ranking a potential and implicit part of that deal.

5. This doesn’t make Amazon malign, incidentally. Amazon’s gonna Amazon. And in a mild defense of Amazon, one reason that Amazon’s rankings, of authors and books, weighs so heavily on the psyches (and neuroses) of authors is that author-related data in publishing is often either equally opaque (in the case of publishers) or effectively non-existent (in the case of self-publishing, which would rely on thousands of authors accurately self-reporting data to some informational clearinghouse). I mean, here’s Amazon saying “Look! We have rankings! Tons of rankings! Rankings for every possible subdivision of writing! And your book is probably a top ten bestseller in one of those!” Amazon gets authors.¬†Authors love validation, even if that validation comes in the form of a “bestseller” label in a genre subdivision so finely chopped that the ranking is effectively a participation ribbon. As I write this, Old Man’s War is #1 in the following Amazon subdivision: “Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Military > Space Fleet” That’s pretty finely chopped, and I might argue not especially useful (there’s not really a “space fleet” subgenre in SF). But if I were a newer author, I’d be thrilled! Even as an established author, it doesn’t suck! Hell yeah, space fleets!

6. The flip side of all of this is that it’s very easy, if you’re the sort of personality inclined to do so, to transmorgify your Amazon ranking into a dick-waving contest. Every now and again I see authors who don’t like me much crow about beating me or one of my books in an Amazon ranking, as if this were a sort of personal victory against me. My responses to this tend to be, a) congrats, b) you know it’s not actually a contest, right, c) and if you want to assert that it is anyway, well, then, bless your heart. If you believe the world is truly a zero-sum contest in which evanescent book/author rankings promulgated by a corporation for its own interests represent the final word on your self-worth, which apparently must be assessed in relation to me (or any other author you might have a bug up your ass about), then please, take this victory. I want you to have it. Everyone else should maybe not do that.

7. Which is not to say one shouldn’t have fun with rankings, when the opportunity presents itself:

8. And that’s really the point of Amazon Author Rankings (and other rankings Amazon might offer): Enjoy them when they’re up but don’t stress about them when they’re down. One’s writing career will have many moving parts, and Amazon’s rankings are only about Amazon’s part in that, and then only opaquely. I’m having fun being at the top of Amazon’s heap. It won’t last, and when it doesn’t, I’ll still be fine. And I’ll still be writing.