The Implications of Amazon’s Author Rank Page

Amazon has a beta program for ranking book sales by author that is somewhat controversial, at least with some writers, according to the LA Times.

Amazon says the rankings are based on all books sold by an author updated hourly .  I assume it’s total sales for the previous hour, and not total cumulative sales.  This is a new, never before seen, way to look at book sales I think.

Before the Internet,  the premier best seller list for books was the New York Times Best Sellers list.  If a you got on it, you were made as a writer.  Now there are zillions of best seller lists, but probably the most important one is Amazon.com sales ranking for all books.  Amazon is such a powerhouse at selling books that their sales rankings are a national poll showing the reading interests of the American public.

Amazon is now taking the book buying pulse of Americans based on an author’s sales hourly.  That’s kind of cool.

amazon-author-ranking

However, Amazon isn’t the be-all-end-all of bookselling, as John Scalzi so carefully points out.

Among my online book club friends, they commonly complain that Amazon’s new Author Rank list doesn’t reflect 1) quality of writing, 2) their favorite writers or 3) the best authors according to whoever.   But was that ever the point of best seller lists?

I think we need to take the Amazon Author Rank pages with several grains of salt.  Let’s assume they don’t reflect true U.S. sales, writing quality or best of anything.  Let’s just assume it’s a Gallup Poll for what readers are buying every hour of the day, what do the various Author Rankings tell us?  In polling, the quality of the poll depends on the sample size, and Amazon’s sale figures are a huge sample size.

The fact the E. L. James is the #1 best selling author at Amazon (her books 4, 5, 6 on the current NY Times combined list), and Sylvia Day is #2 (#1 on NY Times) is very revealing.  It bugs me that people criticizes Amazon’s Author Ranking system as a huge failure because they hate E. L. James for whatever reason, but usually because they think she’s a bad writer.  Big fucking not the deal.  Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees.  Americans are gobbling up James’ erotic novels like there’s no tomorrow, so what does that mean?

We’ve long heard the truism – sex sells – and boy is this proof.  I just finished a book Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace, about sexual repressed Victorian English society of 1858, but the success of E. J. James makes me wonder if we’re not just as repressed 154 years later?  I know I’m going to be shot down for being sexist, but are the huge sales of erotic and romance novels bought by women telling us something about women in general that’s not being reported in the news and literature.  In another 154 years will future writers explain all the clues were there in our times about some huge gender issue we’re not recognizing now?

Romance, mystery, fantasy writers dominate the main Amazon Author Ranking.  Men read these genres, but I think the general impression is these kinds of books mostly appeal to women.  I’m not saying writers on the list don’t appeal to men (how many women read Andrew Peterson) but one impression from studying the list over the past couple days is books women readers love dominate book sales.  I know this is unscientific, but study the list and tell me what you think.  And I think I’ve read more than once that women really do buy more books than men.

My favorite genres writers are pretty much a no-show on the overall author rank list.  I love science and science fiction.  And please don’t point to all the fantasy books and say science fiction is well represented.  The Amazon Author Rankings change hourly, so it’s hard to generalize about what it reveals.  Philip K. Dick started out at #18 when the LA Times wrote it’s piece.  He was #50 yesterday and #84 this morning, and #93 right now as I write this.  Two days ago Amazon had a ebook sale on several PKD’s ebooks for $1.99 each.  I’m pretty sure that got him on the list.

See, the rankings aren’t about writing quality but so many other factors.  It’s very revealing about how to sell books.  Here are some other factors I see contributing from watching the Author Rankings.

  • Movies sell books (Argo, Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Cloud Atlas authors are on this list because of them)
  • Writing a popular book series that stay in print (many example)
  • Being a very popular writer with many books in print (Stephen King and Nora Roberts)
  • Writing a current bestseller (Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s Killing Kennedy)
  • Writing something sexy (E. L. James, Sylvia Day, Gillian Flynn)
  • Being a mega best selling writer with a new book (J. K. Rowling)
  • Winning the Nobel Prize in Literature (Mo Yan)
  • Having a TV series on HBO (George R. R. Martin, Charlaine Harris)
  • Being a fictional writer on TV (Richard Castle)
  • Writing about heaven (M. D. Eben Alexander III, Todd & Colton Burpo, Mary C. Neal)
  • Amazon puts your books on sale (Philip K. Dick)
  • You’re an innovative self-publisher (Hugh Howey)

But that doesn’t explain all.  How come Octavia Butler, who died several years ago, come in at #20 on the Author Rankings at this moment?  And she is #1 on the Science Fiction author rankings.  Butler was a ground breaking African-American science fiction writer whose reputation is still growing.  Are enough kids being assigned to read her books in school a possible consideration for her being on the list at the moment?  I don’t know, but I would like to know.

That’s the thing about studying the Author Rankings.  I want to know why these authors are popular at given given moment.  Some writers are just perennial best sellers with a huge backlist of books that are constantly selling.  I have never heard of Debbie Macomber (#28) in my life, but I’ve discovered from the Author Ranking list she’s sold more than a 100 million books and been on the New York Times Best Seller list 55 times.  I have to ask myself if I’m missing out by never having read one of her books.

I love the idea of sub-cultures, and I think every genre and sub-genre, appeal to different sub-cultures of American readers.  Reading the Amazon Author Rankings makes me want to try new authors and genres out just to see what I’m missing.

The main page for Amazon Author Rank Beta is for all books.  But you can drill down into Kindle and Books, and then pick a one of these sub-headings:

  • Biographies & Memoirs
  • Business & Investing
  • Health, Fitness & Dieting
  • History
  • Literature & Fiction
  • Mystery, Thriller & Suspense
  • Religion & Spirituality
  • Romance
  • Science Fiction & Fantasy
  • Self-Help
  • Teens

Where’s Science, Math & Technology?  Or Non-fiction?  Some categories have sub-categories, like Science Fiction & Fantasy are broken into two separate categories.  But they aren’t accurate.  I don’t consider The Game of Thrones series by George R. R. Martin to be science fiction.  But the advantages of having sub-groups, and even sub-sub-groups is to reveal the popularity of more authors.  The Science Fiction category under Science Fiction & Fantasy shows the continual success of such classic SF writers as Asimov #23, Heinlein #29, Niven #41, Herbert #45, Clarke #83.  It’s great these old writers still appeal to new readers – but it also shows a long list of emerging new writers.  Because of playing with the author rankings, I bought The Complete Atopia Chronicles by Matthew Mather, a writer I’ve never heard of before.  And I shall return to try out more new writers when I finish reading it.

If I was a budding young author I’d be sorely tempted to start writing a genre series based on a continuing character, even though I strongly dislike reading such books.  If your goal is to make money, this technique seems to boost your chances for success.  It must also mean that bookworms love series and continuing characters.

I wish Amazon would expand the lists beyond 100 slots.  I’d love to see the Top 1,000 authors or titles in Amazon’s listings, but for most people that would be too many.  However, if they just expanded it to the Top 200 so many more writers would get noticed.  Adding 100 more slots would make a tremendous difference.

To see what I mean, look at Sci-Fi Lists Top Sci-Fi Books.  Then look at the Next 100 List.    If you are familiar with the classic books of science fiction, you’ll see why expanding the list to 200 entries is so important.

The more I play with Amazon’s Author Rank page, the more fun I have with it.  But then I’ve always been fond of lists.

JWH – 10/14/12

5 Responses

  1. Octavia Butler’s “Dawn” was a Kindle Daily Deal, I think on Saturday, so that might explain why she was momentarily high on the list. Off topic, I’ve only read “Parable of the Talents” by her, but it was a great book.

    • I thought it might be something like that. Obviously then the Amazon Author Rank is designed to sell more books. If putting a book on sale puts the author in the top 100 authors, then people see that and they buy more books. I need to keep a more constant eye on the Kindle sale page and see if the next day if the sale of the day author shows up in the author rank list.

      I wonder how many full price books Amazon sells after putting a book on sale for $1.99 or $2.99 or $3.99, or even free?

  2. My problem with best seller lists is that it encourages people to read what everyone else is reading. It discourages people from looking beyond the top 10 books at any given time.

    Basically what use do i, a reader, have or should have for these rankings?

  3. I think the idea is a fascinating one and I personally am not one who gets all bent out of shape about what Amazon does or why they do it as long as they remain an option where I can get cheap books. I don’t like that their presence has meant the demise of several brick and mortar stores, but the internet was going to make that happen anyway and at least we, as consumers, aren’t having to pay through the nose to get books shipped to our homes if we can’t find them at a local store or don’t have a local store.

    I do think it is telling that James is on top and part of it is that sex sells and part of it is that we are a ‘follower’ society (and I’m not meaning it as a big criticism) and when things get wildly popular there are a bunch of people who will curiously go find out why. I certainly don’t begrudge an author making money even when I wonder why someone would bother with a book like Fifty Shades.

    I don’t think the Amazon list is purporting to be showing quality, it is as you say a list of what is selling any given hour and that to me is quite fascinating. Is there any reason to complain about it? Not that I see.

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