Friday, September 07, 2007

Understanding Bestseller Lists

If you’re published it’s guaranteed that at least once each week you check Amazon and B& for your rankings and Bookscan for your title. Right? But do you really know what you’re looking at or how these numbers relate to one another or your sales?

They don’t. At least not really. Every list from the New York Times to Publishers Weekly to Bookscan to whatever other list you’re looking at uses its own system to generate rankings, and keeps its own list of reporting bookstores a closely guarded secret, for obvious reasons. If you knew, for example, that the New York Times list was based on the Barnes & Noble in Union Square, Beatrice’s Books on the Upper West Side, and Joe’s All American Books in SoHo, your method of publicity would be to have all of your friends and family go to those three bookstores on the day your book releases and not only buy them out but also order 50 copies each to be shipped when they arrive. Imagine. Voila! Instant list. How great would that be?!

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Rankings aren’t generally based on how many copies sold (although that can be a factor), but on rate of sale. Meaning how many copies your book is selling each day. For example, selling 50 books on Monday but none the rest of the week isn’t going to rank you as high on the list as selling 8 copies a day every day for the rest of the week. For obvious reasons your rating helps these list makers to determine your future success as well as current successes. This is why you so often hear publishers talk about how a book is rating versus how many copies a book has sold. I would much rather have a book rating steadily than a book that once sold 75,000 copies. Remember that tortoise? Slow and steady wins the race.

In addition to ratings the list will also look at predictive algorithms that I can’t even begin to understand. These algorithms will not only take into account your rating, but also previous successes. For example, an author who has been consistently selling well for many years will likely get a higher ranking than one who jumped on the scene just last week. Based on previous performance, list makers can make some prediction of how Longtime Author might do. How exactly these numbers are finally determined is something that’s endlessly speculated over, and I’m sure you can do a Google search to find a vast number of theories.

So how can you judge how your book is doing based on rankings? I’ve found that Bookscan numbers and online Barnes and Noble can give you a pretty good idea. If you’re ranking below 1000 on B& you’re selling very well. Amazon, however, is an entirely different story. No one gets how they determine their numbers, but it seems that it’s based on immediate sales and not necessarily ratings. Therefore one purchase of 50 copies could easily give your book a jump from a 100,000 ranking to 10,000. It’s unlikely that 40,000 other people bought your book at that exact moment.

In the end, how does all of this affect your career? In other words, do publishers even care? Yes and no. Publishers do care about the official Barnes and Noble lists, and major lists like USA Today or the New York Times (because you have to sell a lot of books to hit those), but when it comes to your ranking on B& or Amazon they really don’t pay any attention at all. In the end the only thing a publisher cares about is your overall rating and sell-through. In other words, how much of your print runs have you been able to sell through.

This information came from my own experiences as well as conversations I’ve had over the years with other publishing professionals. I’m sure you have your own information and/or theories and I’d love to hear more about what you might know about these mysterious rankings.



Anonymous said...

Thanks. Interesting post. I've heard stories of authors trying to "buy" their way onto the lists, by literally buying their books via Amazon or B&N.

For rating purposes, is it theoretically possible to do this, keeping up a slow and steady buy of your own books to push that number up, or is the overall picture reflected on Bookscan or whatever other measures going to moot that attempt?

Jean M Fogle said...

Timely info for me! A few weeks ago Salty Dogs on amazon went from 3,000,000 to 40,000 in one day. I was shocked and delighted but then about three hours later it dropped to 200,000 still a far cry from the orginal 3 million ranking.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. Some published friends check their amazon rankings every day. Then they check their friends. I was shocked by this behavior, finding it self-defeating and crazy-making. Now I know for sure that obsessively checking your amazon rankings is not going to help you.

Joe Moore said...

Amazon numbers seem to be a decent barometer for overall sales (or lack of). It's certainly not the bible of rankings, but if your numbers stay in a consistent, steady range without maddening spikes and dips, it can give you a good sense of how you're doing in the total market. Of course, a gradual decrease in the number is even better. It's also comforting to see the numbers improve on your previous books as your latest gets into the marketplace.

Kate Douglas said...

I will admit to clicking on B& every morning and going directly to the EROTICA section to see where my books are. I don't look at at all, but for some reason my first Wolf Tales has stayed in the top ten at B&N since January 2006. Occasionally it slips to #11 or 12, but usually it's right there on the front page. Once I make sure it's where it belongs, I can go on with my day...neurotic? Who? Me?