Amazon Author Rankings and Who They Actually Benefit

Amazon has started ranking authors by total sales via Amazon, updated hourly. This is certain to make a whole bunch of authors begin to freak out as they constantly refresh their Amazon author pages to see where they stand in the rankings, and, independently, give a whole bunch of people who have their own hobby horses about the state of the industry a bunch of ammunition to make proclamations about how the industry is changing in exactly the way they want it to change, so there, ha ha!

So, on this subject, some thoughts for people to consider when they look at these rankings.

One: They don’t capture the whole bookselling story, which is to say that Amazon is not all of the bookselling world. An author who sells well on Amazon doesn’t necessarily sell well off of Amazon (especially if they’re eBook only and tied into the Amazon ecosystem), and lots of authors sell books outside of Amazon, and those sales won’t be reflected in these rankings. I mean, Hell, yesterday I sold tens of thousands of copies of Old Man’s War through the Humble eBook Bundle. How will those be reflected in those Amazon rankings? Simple: They won’t. This is not a flaw in Amazon’s rankings, since Amazon makes it clear it’s only tracking its own sales. But if people make the inference that Amazon would be totally happy for them to make, i.e., that there is a strong correlation between these Amazon rankings and an author’s overall success as a commercial writer, then those people have a flaw in their own thinking.

This dovetails nicely with the next point:

Two: Amazon isn’t doing this for anyone but Amazon. How does this serve Amazon’s purposes? Among many other things, it helps to promote Kindle-only (or Kindle-majority) writers, many of whom move large numbers of books for free or for reduced cost relative to authors with publisher ties. It offers another reason for authors to use Amazon’s Author Central service, which will allow authors to quickly see their rankings. It motivates authors and publishers to lower prices on their eBooks to goose their sales (and thus their author) rankings, which serves Amazon’s purpose of motivating consumers to make their book purchases through Amazon, and through Amazon’s eBook ecosystem. The value proposition for authors is somewhat more nebulous outside of the ego boost of having one’s name sufficiently high up on the author rankings, but for some authors that may be enough.

Three: An author’s Amazon rank doesn’t necessarily correspond to financial success. One may make as much money or more selling fewer objects for higher prices than one may make selling a lot of objects for a lesser cost. It wouldn’t be entirely surprising to find some authors further down on Amazon’s rankings making more money than some of those higher up, because they gross more in the aggregate from their sales. It’s nice to move lots of books, but it’s also, you know, nice to eat. An author might find it perfectly acceptable to decide to sell fewer copies of books to consumers who are less price-sensitive than to sell a lot to consumers who are buying fiction primarily as a value proposition. Bear in mind it’s possible to make a lot of money selling a lot of things cheaply, of course. But it’s not the only way to do things.

Four: The rankings rank disparate objects. Amazon says it counts all sales. But it also by all indications seems to count free books as sales (Update: In the comments, an reader notes Amazon is not counting free material), also appears to count any published work of any length or price as a single sale. Nothing wrong with that, if that’s the way you want to go with it, and Amazon appears to want to go with it that way. But it does mean for the purposes of a “sale” in one’s author rankings, a free or cheap short story is the equivalent of a newly published hardcover novel with a $24.95 list price (which will sell on Amazon for $16). This leads directly to the next point:

Five: The rankings are highly gameable. If you want to climb up the Amazon rankings as an author, the solution seems pretty obvious: release a whole bunch of shorter works available at low cost. Now, mind you, this is going to work out great for me, since starting in December we release The Human Division electronically, one episode at a time, once a week, and each episode will be available for a low cost. Someone who buys THD in this serialized form will make 13 separate (but individually low-cost) purchases; someone who waits until May to buy it in hardcover form will make only one purchase. It’ll be the same content. But one potentially has 13 times the potential to fiddle with my Amazon author rankings. Now, as it happens, we planned to do The Human Division in episodic form before I knew about Amazon’s author rankings, so I can’t be accused of intentionally planning to game my Amazon author ranking. However, if you don’t think authors won’t start trying to game their rankings, well. You don’t know how important it is for some folks to be highly ranked.

These are just five points to make about the rankings. There are other points to make (for example, how an author with an extensive backlist is at a ranking advantage to a newer author with fewer works) but I’ve made enough points that you can get my gist: Amazon’s author rankings should be taken with the appropriate grain of salt and with the appropriate perspective — just like any sort of ranking.

Authors who start to worry about their Amazon ranking should likewise be aware that by doing so they’re allowing Amazon to define their success to a greater or lesser extent… and they should really ask who ultimately benefits the most from that: Amazon or them. Amazon isn’t (necessarily) evil, but Amazon is interested in its own goals, many of which may ultimately be at cross purposes to an authors’ own. Amazon will be happy to frame your career to suit its own purposes. All you have to do is let them.

Keep it in mind as you’re refreshing your Amazon author page to see where your ranking is right now.

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