Amazon Rankings and Non-Fiction

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 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.

20 Comments on “Amazon Rankings and Non-Fiction”

  1. This post has left me with an idee fixe of John Scalzi as a geriatric switch hitter. Seductive Amazons…performance comparisons…an excited woman’s boyfriend’s promise to provide her with Scalzi’s guide to something rough that’s very popular in Britain…What was this post about again? Must maybe put aside the rum and coke and read it once more for comprehension. Hate it when that happens.

  2. So, Amazon knows a lot about book sales data. I wonder how much they do/would charge for it? (Presumably the publisher could figure it out based on shipment rates or something, but I get the impression supply chain management in booksales is pretty haphazard)

  3. Most sales rankings also depend on the course of sales, rather than totals (because the ranking is only for sales within a time window). A book/CD/whatever doesn’t get high rankings if it has long, steady sales. For example, CDs from long established bands rarely enter rankings; their older fans generally get around to picking them up, but most of them don’t rush out the first week.

    Rough Guides may not be the sort of thing that people rush out to get the next one, even if they sell very well in general.

  4. John, you said:

    As it happens, the Universe book sells rather better in the UK than in the US[,] probably because Rough Guides is based in London.

    Did you have a British copyeditor for those books who went through and changed “color” to “colour,” “cookie” to “biscuit,” and “dollars” to “pounds?” That is, were your books localized for the British audience? I’m just curious how that works for non-fiction books. Did they try to make your writing look more British?


  5. ideally I’d be able to switch-hit between fiction and non-fiction titles for the next, oh, 40 years or so.

    It certainly worked for Isaac Asimov; has anyone else been able to pull that off?

  6. This post has left me with an idee fixe of John Scalzi as a geriatric switch hitter.

    Throw in the hot tub and he really will be following in Heinlein’s footsteps.

  7. Kevin Q:

    “Did they try to make your writing look more British?”

    They didn’t just try, they did. Not only did they Anglicize the spellings, they also changed a couple of bits of slang and colloquial references. For example, a baseball metaphor I made in the book was changed to a cricket reference. It’s not a bad thing because the same idea was communicated, but it’s interesting to read the book and see the Britishized version of me.

  8. Writers love tracking Amazon because for those of us who aren’t King or Rowling, it’s one of the few sources of sales feedback we have. We don’t get any idea of how many books we’ve sold from our publishers until over a year after it hits the shelves I don’t, anyway . . . I’m sure other publishers have different schedules. We want something, anything to be able to tell friends and family how the latest release is doing.

    The brutal fact about Amazon, however, is that it moves precious few books, and some genres sell better on it than others. I’m talking so small a sample that the sale of one volume can vault your standing by the thousands.

    I’m generally lucky enough to see a breakdown of how my novels perform in various venues, and where they sell in the thousands in walk-in bookstores, the numbers purchased through Amazon are usually no more than the double-digits–less than one percent of the total sales. Once I learned that, I stopped watching my Amazon rankings altogether. (And I live a much more peaceful life as a result!)

  9. Richard Campbell:

    “It certainly worked for Isaac Asimov”

    Well, if I recall he sort did mostly fiction for a while, switched to mostly non-fiction, and then went back to mostly fiction again at the end of his life — which, indeed, may be the way to do these things. The man was certainly prolific in either field.

    Can you imagine what it would have been like if he could have had a blog?

  10. Ooh, now that’s a fun thought experiment… “Can you imagine what it would have been like if [INSERT GREAT MIND/TALENT HERE] could have had a blog?”

    Mozart: “Stupid thing. The harpsichord never has to ‘boot up.’ Broke another four quills today; threw the inkpot across the room. Finished three sonatas and a symphony before lunch. Total crap, but I’m sure they’ll still sell like crazy.”

  11. Ooh, now that’s a fun thought experiment… “Can you imagine what it would have been like if [INSERT GREAT MIND/TALENT HERE] could have had a blog?”

    James Joyce: “Not much blogging today, folks, because I’ve got lots to do: laundry, reading, go to pub, forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

  12. John, how many more books do you plan on doing in the OMW universe? I read both, OMW and TGB in the last week or so, and I can’t wait for the third book to come out. But, are there any plans for more?

  13. At the moment I plan on The Last Colony, and then I expect that I would at the very least take a long break from the series. The resons for this would be to allow me to let me think on that universe a bit more to find new stories in it, and then also to develop other stories and series (so that the people who get bored with the Old Man universe will still have something from me to read).

  14. Jess Nevins,

    Thanks for the link. The chart was insightful on the scanty sales which those rankings are based on, but it would have been more interesting if it begun at rankings of 1 instead of starting at 1,000.

    I did some quick research and although Amazon’s sales might only represent single digit percentage of a books total sales it’s annual revenue is growing fast. Last year’s revenue was almost $8.5 billion. It has grown by at least $1.5 billion a year for the last couple of years. Last years revenue exceeded that for either Barnes & Noble or Borders Group, Inc. So it may not be the great galactic center of the publishing business, but it’s shadow is stretching accross the universe.

    It’s a shame that they can’t take advantage of that position to centralize data regarding total copies printed, shipped, and sold accross the industry, but it probably would be an uphill battle to get all that proprietary information from the different publishers and retailers and compile it into some general format. It makes one wonder what data the New York Times uses to base it’s best seller lists on.

  15. Tim – there is already a “centralized” source for total copies shipped, etc. That would be Bookscan.

    Bookscan tracks books at most retailers via the same bar-scan technology used for pricing and inventory, and says their numbers include The problem is, one has to pay (presumably through the nose) to get any data.

  16. I must say, I can’t wait till the book on writing comes out later this year. With a title that great, how can the book itself not rock?

  17. The thing that is interesting about Amazon ratings is that they represent the first derivative of your sales, aka velocity. Ergo Ghost Brigades’ higher rank, in spite of the fact that it has almost certainly not sold as many copies of OMW — it sold most of its copies all at once.

  18. I find the idea of Isaac Asimov having a blog really freaking scarey. *just saying*

    switching between fiction and non-fiction is a great way to stay fresh.

    this excites me more than OMW or GB (which are great but i’m a junkie for books on the art of writing)

    the cat in the sink is a really sexy cat.

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