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.

31 thoughts on “The View From the Top of Amazon’s Heap

  1. One question I was asked privately was, “If you kept the price at $2.99 permanently, do you think you’d sell more?” My answer is I suspect not; the point of a sale is to arouse interest and get people motivated to buy. Over time, regardless of price point, people would stop being as excited.

    Also, before I forget, the usual disclosure: Amazon is one of my publishers, via Audible, its audio book arm (and I’m very happy with my relationship with Audible). If you think I’m down on Amazon reflexively, you’d be wrong. Amazon has done very well for me indeed.

  2. I would like to think that it was my purchase of the entire “Old Man’s War” series for my kindle that pushed you over the top into being the Emperor of Space Fleets!!!! Gratz!!

  3. Congratulations, John.

    Once upon a time I worked in the marketing division of a very popular television series. We used direct mail campaigns, each configured with different pricing points and marketing language, to learn which approach would generate the highest response rate (i.e. sales).

    Does the publishing industry use something similar, but in digital form? Or do you guys just wing it and hope for the best?

  4. “c) outside of Amazon, the ranking has no relevance.”

    Honestly, I wonder how much relevance it has for readers inside of Amazon. I’ve never bought or not bought based on author ranking. Heck I don’t even know where to look for, say, the top 50 SF authors on Amazon. I suspect the ranking stuff is almost entirely targeted at authors vs readers if I’m typical. On the other hand, I don’t want to be typical… hmm.

  5. The last book proposal I was invited to submit (for a non fiction book) very specifically asked for the Amazon rankings for all the comparable titles and my Amazon rankings as well. This was a major commercial publisher. So when my last book had a deep discount price for 24 hours last week, I was busy taking screenshots of my rankings until I realized I was driving myself crazy.,

  6. I had a nonfiction book that was at the bottom of the heap (10,000 or something like that) and then went on Oprah. For about 3 hours I soared to around 200. My royalty check that year was as unimpressive as always.

  7. Btw I just want to say as of 12:36pm (here in California) all those books are still 2.99 except for OMW 6: TEOAT. And of course this deal happened when I was completely broke! Thanks Amazon! (I still love you Amazon)

  8. Rick Gregory, I agree with you. I buy a lot of books from Amazon, and I have never bothered to look at an author’s ranking. It would surprise me if author rankings figured largely in many Amazon buyers’ purchase decisions. I think the rankings are aimed at authors, not readers/buyers.

  9. OMG Amazon is in on the conspiracy to pretend you sell books too !1!!@!!!!!eleventy!!! It goes all the way to the top!!

    More seriously, do you/Tor take a cut too, or does Amazon just absorb the effect of the lower price.

  10. Is there a 12-step program? Kindle Press published my first novel ten days ago, and I think I’ve checked my author central page 100 times a day since then. This article couldn’t be better timed.

  11. The definition of heap a a noun is: “an untidy collection of things piled up haphazardly.”
    That’s as a noun.
    As an adverb though” “a great deal.”
    As a verb it’s interesting: “put (objects or a loose substance) in a pile or mound.”
    or
    “direct a great deal of praise, abuse, criticism, etc., at (someone or something).”
    Here I believe it’s used as a noun which is interesting since the post seems to go through all the possibilities of usage.
    Congratulations. It’s a good thing.

  12. 5.: …and if the Space Fleet subgenre one day gets too competitive there’s always “Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Military > Space Fleet > Green Skin”

  13. I actually love these kinds of blog posts.

    Mainly because, to me, just being allowed to play is a win. If I just sold a story, that would be the greatest. All else, money included, is a sideshow. Sometimes entertaining, usually distracting. Just let me write and give me an extra few pennies at the end of the month. A simpleton.

    You write great stuff, but I never gave a rat’s patootie what your “rating” is. The first thing I read of yours was OMW. Good enough to send me scurrying, looking for more. I NEVER care about other’s ratings.

    I love these blog posts because I see you keeping it real. Thanks!

  14. Dear John,

    You think you’re so hot with your “8” in the authors rating, huh?

    Well, MY rating is “9,011” which makes me **1,126** times bigger than you. So there!

    (That is how it works, right?)

    pax / Ctein

  15. I often see authors mention that their ebooks are on sale that day on Amazon. Some seem delighted “Grab it while you can folks!” and some seem pissed “I make next to nothing on this! Grr!”

    Why the difference in attitude?

  16. Well, I went in and bought 6 titles. I’ve already read them all but got them from the library, I figured at this price I’d put them in my own library. I only owned two of the ones on sale already.

  17. FWIW, I have never once looked at relative ratings of authors or books on any site for any reason. IMO it’s as relevant to me as how long the author’s left big toenail is. If it’s an author I’m not familiar with, I talk to friends (or more likely, they recommended them to me in the first place), or I check Goodreads for individual book reviews.

  18. I see a lot of folks talking about how it doesn’t affect their purchasing decision personally, and I fall into that camp, but it got me to wondering if it affects readers indirectly via, for example, choices for a book club. I am not in a book club but would be interested to hear from people who are. Otherwise, it seems to me that, again, from personal experience, the rankings have a higher probability to make me less confident about a purchase. I tend to follow up on recommendations from places like this one here but I still have to admit that what runs through my head when I see that a title is at number -insert really, really high number here- is not always a whole bunch of warm fuzzies. All of which speaks to the idea that it is not the reader that’s being targeted with those statistics.

  19. I believe Amazon has increased or at least sustained overall book sales both in number and value. But one of its downsides is that it tempts us to worship statistics, a temptation already widespread these days. In that religion we may learn the price of nearly everything but the value of almost nothing.

    But congratulations anyway!

  20. There was some internet ranking system a few years ago, getting folks to worry about their ‘grot’ score (or something like that). Most folks I know that played around with it followed things for a week or two and then moved on. Tumblr had a similar ranking thing that they ditched after a couple of years.

  21. Dear Amazon
    How many space ships are needed to qualify for the >Space Fleet category?
    Just asking because I’ll use less space ships so’s I qualify for the >Space Ship category and not get defeated by the one, the only JS.

  22. Count me among the confused. I’m also a reader and never have deliberately paid attention to Amazon’s rankings…not sure what their actual purpose is? Do they figure into the recommendations that Amazon presents to readers? Just a way to foster author competition/neuroses as you’ve said? Do authors use them as a very rough metric of sales (I am assuming you don’t have access to this actual data on a minute-to-minute basis)?

  23. I need to correct you on #5, John. Amazon doesn’t get authors, they get people. They know how to market. Everybody, especially in this day and age, wants their 15 minutes of fame. It’s what gives so much power to YouTube and streaming and facebook and social media around the world. Amazon gets that and uses it to their advantage. Just saying how it is. Oh, and Amazon are malign. I know, spank me.

  24. Dear Library_Jim,

    Well, there are a lot of parts to the answer to your question.

    For a start, both of those things can be true at the same time. A book sale can be a great promotion for bringing in new customers and make you no money at the time. It depends on how well it works and the terms of your contract.

    In addition, your reaction will be affected by your financial state. If you’re feeling flush, you’re going to be inclined towards promotions that might pay off in the longer run. If you’re fretting about whether your royalty check will be large enough to cover your auto insurance, you will be thinking more about the immediate bottom line.

    Further complications: there are (at least) three majorly different ways royalty payments are structured:

    1) You get a percentage of the cover price, regardless of the selling price.
    2) You get a percentage of the retail price, regardless of the cover price.
    3) You get a percentage of what the publisher gets paid, regardless of the cover or selling price.

    Further complicating the matter, you may get a flat percentage regardless of the number of copies that are sold or the percentage you get may increase with increasing sales.

    All six possible combinations exist in real authors’ contracts.

    For example, our contract for Saturn Run is of the first type, with a flat percentage. Amazon can sell it for a penny and we will still get paid a fixed $X per copy sold.

    (That doesn’t necessarily mean the publisher is losing money — it could be a loss leader on Amazon’s part to pump up sales and create buzz. Much the same way a publisher may pre-release a book as a free download to get folks to write advance reviews for sites like Amazon and Good Reads.)

    On the other hand, my contract for my first photography book, Post Exposure, was of the third type, with a percentage that increased with greater numbers of books sold.

    There can be modifications to these basic categories. For example, Focal Press (the publisher of Post Exposure) offered deep discounts to educational institutions and camera or book club volume purchases. On those, my contract specified that I got a lower percentage than for a normal sale. Consequently there was even less money for me in those sales of Post Exposure.

    And finally… keep in mind that many authors don’t know (or don’t care) about the exact royalty terms in their contract. I can tell you what mine is for Saturn Run, but I can’t tell you what it is for the latest edition of Digital Restoration without looking that up, because that book is going to provide oh, maybe, 1% of my income. Yeah, I read it before I signed the contract but I didn’t retain the information.

    In fact, educational photographic books are now such a small part of my business that when the rights to Post Exposure reverted to me several years back, I put the entire book up on my website for free download. I figured the reputation points were worth a lot more to me than the very meager income I’d get from selling it.

    – Pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    ======================================
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. http://ctein.com 
    — Digital Restorations. http://photo-repair.com 
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