A question from the Nebula Award Winners thread:
John: Congrats that the paperback version of OMW is now in the top 600 in terms of Amazon sales rank.
I have a question about your non-fiction books, though. I read Rough Guide to the Universe and thought it was great. And my boyfriend has promised me your Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies for my birthday.
My question: why do you think that your novels have taken off so well, while the sales ranks for your nonfiction books (while respectable) are still not in the top 1,000?
According to the conventional wisdom of publishing, it would have been easier for you to make the top 1,000 with a nonfiction book, because readers are supposedly more open to nonfiction books from newcomers (which you aren’t now–but were when OMW was published.)
Does this mean that you will focus on novels in the future rather than nonfiction?
This is a good time to chat a little about Amazon rankings.
First, we need to understand what Amazon rankings are: They’re simply a look at how well your book is selling relative to other books at Amazon, at this moment. Right now, for example (right now being 1:20 am on May 8th), Old Man’s War has an Amazon ranking of 395, which means (duh), 394 other books are selling better than OMW on Amazon, and few hundred thousand are selling worse (like, oh, The Rough Guide to the Universe, which is currently ranked #603,883).
Now, here’s what that ranking doesn’t tell us:
1. The actual number of copies any title is selling over any particular period of time on Amazon;
2. The total number of copies the title has sold through Amazon;
3. How well the book is selling in places that are not Amazon;
4. The total number of books that titles has sold everywhere, including Amazon.
Trust me, it’s very nice OMW is selling as well as it is at the moment on Amazon. It’s a nice psychological boost, both for me and for the people who are thinking of buying the book (since an Amazon ranking in the mid-three figures assures nervous potential buyers that they are not alone in their purchase). But alas and alack, the Amazon ranking is a ranking without much context. How many books does the 395th best-selling book on Amazon sell in a week? I don’t know. Someone at Amazon must (otherwise how would they compile the rankings), but the thing is, they’re not telling me.
Amazon rankings also don’t tell the whole story of a book. For example, take my (non-fiction) book Book of the Dumb. It has a current Amazon ranking of 133,010. It has also sold in excess of 50,000 copies since it came out, which makes it the best-selling book I’ve written to date; it seems likely OMW will catch up with it one day, but it hasn’t so far. Book of the Dumb has done all right on Amazon — its highest ranking (according to Titlez.com) was #1,613, which is certainly respectable — but I know for a fact that oodles of the book sold not online, and not at bookstores, but in places like Sam’s Club and Costco, while they put a pile out on a pallet next to the 48-roll bundle of double-quilted toilet paper, and people grab them as they go by.
As another example, the aforementioned Rough Guide to the Universe. It’s never been a particularly good seller at Amazon (I don’t think it’s ever cracked the 100,000 ranking, at least not while I’ve been paying attention to it), but I know it’s sold well, because I’ve earned out on the book and gotten royalties from it (twice!), and my advance on that book was not particularly small. As it happens, the Universe book sells rather better in the UK than in the US (probably because Rough Guides is based in London), which is a fact that won’t show up on the Amazon ranking.
Conversely, the Amazon sales of the hardcover of Old Man’s War, from what I have been told, were disproportionately large relative to the books’ overall sales. This is no doubt an artifact of the book being championed by bloggers, and of my own online footprint. The rule of thumb for Amazon sales is that they’re usually a single-digit percentage of overall sales; if one were to go by that rule of thumb, OMW should have sold substantially better in hardcover than it did (although, you know, it did pretty well).
The point to be made: Amazon rankings are fun and all, but they’re really not the whole story. The fact of the matter is that at least three of my non-fiction books which have sold pretty well (the Book of the Dumb books and the Universe book), have never had Amazon rankings anywhere as high as Old Man’s War (whose top ranking is #325) or The Ghost Brigades (which got up to number #86). It’s also a fact that at this point, my average sales in non-fiction are higher than my average sales in fiction, contrary to what my current Amazon ranking would suggest.
In all I would be foolish to base my career goals as a writer on what my Amazon rankings tell me. As would any writer. My advice to writers would be to enjoy your Amazon rankings, but not to freak out about them. There’s more going on than the rankings indicate. Most writers, of course, already know this, at least intellectually. It’s just easy to get involved in the one bookselling metric that any of us writers have at our fingertips.
Also, this is the long way around in saying that, no, I don’t plan to ditch non-fiction. Fiction is certainly going to be my focus in the near term (I’ve got that three-book contract with Tor that will keep me busy for at least another year or so), but I have non-fiction proposals I am working on, and of course I have two non-fiction books that are coming out in the next year: The writing book in August and the Whatever collection in 2007. And the other thing is I like doing non-fiction, so purely as a matter of keeping myself happy as a writer I would want to keep it on my diet. As I’ve noted before, ideally I’d be able to switch-hit between fiction and non-fiction titles for the next, oh, 40 years or so. We’ll have to see if that actually happens.