Mind Games, the first in my Disillusionists trilogy, came out in 2010. OMG, I was obsessed with my Amazon rankings! You can tell from this old post, below.
The Oddshots blog, where this originally appeared, is sadly now gone. So I'm reprising it here.
The sad state of Carolyn Crane in 2010...
The Amazon sales ranking: An expose!
Before my book came out, I noticed that many other authors talk about the Amazon ranking, and how on release weeks, they would check it a lot to see where their book was. I was sure I would be different because:
1. I don’t tend to buy books from Amazon, and naturally, I assume most people behave as I do.
2. I’ve always heard those ranking don’t mean all that much.
3. I’m interested in whether people actually enjoy the book—not sales, or a silly number.
So! Mind Games was released last week, and what did debut author Carolyn Crane do? Check the Amazon rankings!
I started off not doing it much, but since other authors talk about it, I figured if they check it, there must be something to it. Because Carolyn Crane is all about the peer pressure. So I started checking it more and more. Also, maybe nobody knows what it means, but the little number kept changing! Something was happening. Somebody needed to monitor it.
What is the number all about? I did some high level research.
I typed “how do Amazon rankings work” into Google and quickly discovered that the rumors are true: nobody outside Amazon really understands it. (Though some say it becomes more meaningful when you get around 1000, or into the best-seller territory of 100 or lower.) But nobody really knows what it’s based on. Sales are part of it, but there are other factors. What are these other factors you ask?
Nobody knows. Many people work hard to try to figure these other factors out. They write articles with phrases like: “the sales ranking has to be dissected dynamically” and “figures are applied to the algorithm during the calculation.”
Essentially, these people are reverse engineering the rankings, just the way scientists tried to reverse engineer Arnold Schwarzenegger in the time between Terminators #1 & #2. And we know how that ended.
But, back to me. The thing is, these little numbers would change, and it became weirdly entrancing. Once, my number hit the 3,000s! I felt happy! Like the book was doing well! Other times, my number would backslide and I would be a sad bear.
In their FAQs, Amazon is suspiciously vague
Amazon says “the lower the number, the higher the sales” and that the rank “reflects recent and historical sales.” Which, if you sort of think about it, are somewhat contradictory. And why not just put a number that grows every time somebody buys a book? Like a fun little meter that says, hey! Another book was bought! No. Instead, they rank your book against ALL other books on the planet in the most mysterious way possible. As if authors aren’t insecure enough.
Clearly something is going on. It has all the hallmarks of an experiment— something akin to the Dharma Initiative on the TV show LOST! What is the purpose of Amazon’s Dharma Initiative-type ranking? How does it work? I have theories.
Theory #1: It is a sinister ego-crushing experiment
In this scenario, the number is based only vaguely on sales, but mostly on how many times an author checks the number.
As you may or may not know, one of the classic techniques of breaking down a person’s self esteem is to praise them lavishly (You’re 3,200!) and then withdraw that praise (248,560. Loser!) And then, when the author goes crawling back: (Hey! You’re okay! 11,350!). And the more you check it, the more it messes with your head.
Theory #2: The ranking is simply a carrot and stick trick to drive author traffic
Maybe Amazon is simply interested in driving traffic. I mean, isn’t that what big websites ultimately want? Think about it: authors are huge purchasers of books; maybe the ranking number is calibrated to get authors to visit more. In this theory, Amazon creates a believable range upon your release, that is, they “seed” your book the way a sports team might be seeded, and then Amazon’s artificially intelligent system goes to work, learning what sort of fluctuation brings you back, and what sort of fluctuation disheartens you so much, you stop checking for a day, and it modulates until it has you checking at an optimal frequency.
Theory #3: A funny joke for Amazon insiders
What if the number is way more random than anybody imagines? What if, inside Amazon’s headquarters, there is this giant monkey cage, and computer keyboards are positioned around the cage. And the monkeys are like, eeee eee ee! punching the keyboards, and everybody who walks by laughs, because they know that people write articles about the number, and authors check it incessantly, and it’s just monkeys playing! And it’s this thing that boosts employee morale. A joke they are all in on that creates togetherness.
UPDATE, November 5, 2012:
Oh, how sad to look back at those days when I was so hung up on a number to the point of weaving paranoid theories about Amazon.
This kind of behavior appalls me now. It not what being a true writer, a true artist, is all about! I'm glad I'm over it.
For example, my cross-genre PNR/spy/suspense romance, MR. REAL, just released this last week, and do I have it as an item on the toolbar? Actually, I don't have it on my toolbar!
I'll admit to checking the Mr. Real Amazon page now and then, but it's simple curiosity. A few years has put everything in perspective.
My other pen name, Annika Martin, writer of torrid bank robber erotica, recently got on a bestseller list as part of this 99-cent erotica bestsellers sale.
Did I freak out? No. A rank is just a number. It means nothing! Artistic quality is what should count.
Not to boast, but I think these past two years have allowed me to grow as a person, and truly put things in perspective.
Hey! Thanks for visiting. If this post helps even one other writer see what a waste of time these obsessions with Amazon rank are, or gives them hope they they can change and get over their fixation on a number, I will rest easy tonight. Have a great week, people.
Images: Terminator album cover; Monkey public domain, Wikimedia Commons.