This article, from Marion Maneker, originally appeared on Slate’s The Big Money site on 8/5/09.
It’s almost a philosophical riddle: Do sales drive the best-seller list, or do best-sellers get all the sales because buyers see them on the list? As much as we’d like to believe that the crowd picks the best books, a strong presence in retail locations—front-of-store positioning and tempting discounts—still counts a great deal in determining how well a title sells. Nonetheless, authors are in it for the glory, and the visibility and bragging rights of being a "best-seller" retains the glamour of years past.
In the old days, the New York Times best-seller list meant everything. But it doesn’t come out until weeks after the sales take place, and it only updates on Sunday. Today’s author needs a better, faster sounding board. And she’s found it in Amazon‘s (AMZN) unblinking sales rank, the 24-hour barometer of book sales. Indeed, it’s a rare author with self-control who, as soon as the book is published, doesn’t obsessively check the list these days, which is updated every hour.
Yet for all that, few people understand how the Amazon list works or its relative importance in the publishing industry. Amazon’s method of ranking books remains something of a black box with the fancy word algorithm used to describe it.
Let’s look at an extreme version of what a writer can be today. The best writers take an active, entrepreneurial role in their book sales. Publishing is filled with success stories that began as self-publishing miracles. Many of those are novels, but let me introduce you to a friend of mine, Andy Kessler, who did it in nonfiction.
Andy’s a bit of an annoying guy. He’s got that gene that just won’t let him take anything at face value. So when he’s presented with a challenge like publishing a book, he just keeps picking it apart until he feels he can do it better.
That worked to his advantage in the 1990s when he moved to the Bay Area and opened a hedge fund that invested in early stage technology companies: real engineering-geek stuff like chipsets and drivers. Andy did well as an investor. He did so well during the tech boom from 1998 to 2000 that he found himself with plenty of free time for writing afterward. In 2002, when Wall Street was getting pilloried in the press, he realized he had worked with some of the most notorious names from the dot-com bubble, like Mary Meeker, Frank Quattrone, Henry Blodget, and Jack Grubman (remember him?).
So Andy sat down and wrote up his experiences in a book called Wall Street Meat. He published it himself because traditional publishers were too slow and kept him too far from the action. His experience outlines just about everything we know about the Amazon list.
1) Authors’ obsession. Like dozens of other writers, the Amazon sales rank became his daily, even hourly thermometer of success.
"The Amazon rankings are a blessing for authors because you can really figure out how your marketing is working," Andy says. "Just do Fox News? No change. Maybe that wasn’t a good use of my time. A positive Wall Street Journal review? Wow, look at it spike. I went up 150 today. Woohoo!
"Radio interviews feel like echo chambers, ‘Hello Cleveland.’ " he recalls. "I wonder if anyone is even listening to WZIP—they sure haven’t budged the rankings."
2) Smart authors try to goose the list. "After countless hours watching the timing and delivery of PR for my books—radio, NPR, cable TV, broadcast TV, newspapers, magazines, blogs, newsletters—I have picked up on the rhythm of Amazon rankings," Kessler says. "I’ve done the best after a week or two of decent PR followed by an e-mail newsletter (from a third party with a big, big following) with a link to click. The former sets up a base, and the latter spikes the sales within a few short hours or over the course of the day."
"My best?" Andy asks rhetorically. "I once hit No. 4 and stayed there almost all day. It was a Sunday. An e-mail newsletter had dropped on Friday night with a direct link, and I could almost hear mouses clicking all weekend. By Monday morning, I was back in the 20s and 30s; by Wednesday I was back to around 100. It was exhilarating."