anghara (anghara) wrote,

Please welcome... Kat Richardson

The lovely and talented Kat Richardson, whose "Greywalker" books have exploded on the scene to much critical and fan acclaim, weighs in on the vexing subject of the Amazon sales ranks to which most of us poor writers are hopelessly addicted, which we watch closely, which we celebrate or mourn as the case may be, and swing from champagne moods to suicidal tendencies four times in any given day especially straight after the release of a new offering over which we are biting out nails.

You can find out more about Kat at at her website, or follow her own blog - and please, do help with her Amazon numbers if you can... (all you have to do is buy a book... come on... Christmas is coming... you KNOW you know someone who would just love something spectacular to read...)

Without further ado, I give you... Kat Richardson.

The Numbers Game (or: Amazon is not the arbiter of success)

Let's talk Amazon sales rank. It's a numbers game and I think many of
us take it far too seriously. I'm only on my third book, but I've known
for sometime that numbers are magical in the book biz, but perhaps this
one is a little less magical than we give it credit for.

There are a lot of magic numbers in publishing. Your advance, your
payments, elevators, net sales, sell-through percentages, print runs,
bestseller ranking, and Bookscan action, among others. For most of us,
most of the time, these numbers boil down to "how am I doing?" (and is
it good enough to get my contract renewed/pay the bills/make the
bestseller list?)

One of the most frequently mentioned sources of magic "how'm I doing"
numbers is and its various national affiliates. As a new
author--or even a more experienced one--you may get the impression that
the Amazon ranking of your book is a barometer of its wider success.
Many people think that Amazon is the largest book retailer in the world
and therefor that sales through Amazon are a huge percentage and vital
to a healthy writing career.

Neither of these is true.

Amazon is the third largest book retailer in North America behind
Borders ($4.1 billion in earnings in 2006) and a far distance behind the
National and North American champion, Barnes & Noble ($5.2 billion.)
Amazon turned $3.5 billion in media sales in North America in 2006
according to their annual report, but that includes third party vendor
sales so it's hard to know what their real, direct impact on book sales
was. Additionally, Amazon carries a lot of media items that its bigger
competitors don't, such as self-published books, specialty books for
niche markets, used books, textbooks, Amazon shorts, e-books, POD books,
and limited distribution items that aren't available in large enough
quantity to interest Borders or B&N. So measuring against Amazon rank
seems like comparing apples to a bag full of mixed fruit. While success
at Amazon and a low-digit ranking may be a direct reflection of success
for a self-published writer, or the author of a small press or specialty
book for whom the virtual store is a major sales outlet, it's not a very
accurate barometer for a fiction author being published by a major
imprint and distributed to a lot of brick-and-mortar stores as well. In
my own case, as the author of two books in print from a major publisher,
Amazon represents between 5 and 10% of my total unit sales. This seems
to be pretty typical for most authors whose books have distribution to
the big chains. While that percentage is not to be sneezed at, it's
really too small and too volatile a sample to be representative of the

Book sales graphs tend--we hope--to show a curve that is steeply pointed
in front (at the release date) and ages into a gentle curve and
eventually flattens into a graceful plateau over the first year, or
until we do something to give it a kick in the pants--like releasing a
new book or being interviewed on Oprah (not too likely if you write SF.)
But most of the authors I've talked to have Amazon graphs that show
the sharp initial sales jump and then a short curving tail leading to
what looks like a seismograph in the midst of a 4.0 earthquake. As
often as the initial curve mirrors the overall sales curve of the book,
it may also be completely at odds with it. My personal experience and
discussion with other authors leads me to believe you simply can't
assume the rank or curve are reflective of net sales. There's that
volatility thing again.

So why is Amazon volatile? Simply put, it's a community, not just a
store. Not only does it typically represent a small percentage of total
sales, but Amazon has striven to be more than just a retail point. It
has forums for discussion and offers subscribers the chance to voice
their opinions as product reviews. As with any community, it has eddies
of fad, entrenched cliques, and influxes of tourists and it's all online
with all the baggage that goes along with online communities. Whenever
one of these community factors gets interested in your book--positively
or negatively--the chance for the book's ranking to go into earthquake
mode increases and it may have nothing to do with what the book is doing
in the wider world. For instance: my own second book has a horrible
Amazon rank that is as unsteady as a three-legged cat on stilts and has
looked this way since before its release date, but it's actually
selling quite well--a little better than the first book whose Amazon
rank was impressive. Other retail channels are taking a bigger
percentage of the sales and making the Amazon percentage even less
indicative than usual.

Amazon sales rank, averaged over time, does not reflect actual success
or sales curves and certainly not actual sales numbers. As a barometer,
it's useless. What it does show you is if your book is still alive at
all. Every time someone buys a copy, the rank has a chance to go up. If
they don't buy, your rank drops. If lots of people are buying it, the
average is higher, but it doesn't reflect an absolute number of
sales--only a relative position at that time. If you don't have access
to Bookscan and it's going to be a while before you see your sales
report, Amazon rank may be the only indicator you have that your book is
selling, but to rely on it as an indicator of how well is foolish.

I'm not saying "ignore this sales channel," but I am suggesting that all
authors should take their Amazon performance with a big grain of salt
and possibly an even larger glass of liquor. The two high-volatility
factors of community trend and small sample size make for an indicator
that will cause you more heartburn than happiness. If you must have a
touchstone for your book's online performance, I suggest comparing the
rank average curves of Amazon with those at Barnes &
there are fewer community factors and a larger sample size so the rank
average tends to age more gracefully over time. But wherever you look,
bear in mind that online retail ranks are reflective only of online
sales and not of your over all performance. Don't obsess about your
rank--especially if your book gets good support from independent, small,
or specialist booksellers in the brick-and-mortar world--which is about
90% of your sales and far more worthy of your attention.

So the next time you sit down to examine your Amazon numbers, have a
margarita and make it has plenty of salt.
Tags: guest blogger

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