Publishing A-Z

Amazon Rank Obsession

Admit it. You’ve checked your sales ranking at least once since your book was published. You feel the need to have some outside confirmation of the sales of your book. And Amazon’s ranking are free to look at. It is one of the only public rankings available which adds to the need to look.

I’ve even seen book  proposals where the author has gone to great lengths to include the Amazon ranking for each title that is competitive with the one the author is proposing. A prodigious amount of wasted effort.

I’ve known published authors who have gone into deep depression because their Amazon numbers aren’t very good. Others will mention that their rank jumped “by 10,000 this week!” suggesting they are tracking the numbers rather closely.

Consider for a moment how those rankings are calculated. Amazon is very secretive as to the exact formula (and some have gone to great lengths to figure it out) but consider looking at it as “the number of sales in a given period of time.” Much like the bestseller lists with USA Today and the New York Times, a book has to sell x number of copies to somehow “hit the list.”

TCK Publishing has created a site to help guess what the numbers mean. (Click here for the calculator.) In the screen shot example pictured at the top of this post (The Christian Writers Market Guide – 2018 Edition. Click on the picture to enlarge it.) the paperback (not ebook) sales rank of 50,491 equals 91 sales per month or 6 in one day. That is sort of close for the month of June, but I don’t think we sold six copies on Amazon yesterday…

I know of an author who thought that they could make the number jump by asking fans to wait until a specific day and have everyone buy the book from Amazon on that day. Over 100 fans participated. The result was a nice jump but it did not come close to cracking the top 100 sales ranking that day.

It is so fluid that it is hardly worth the obsession. Amazon is only one sales outlet out of hundreds. (Albeit it is a really big one.) It doesn’t reflect sales at the local grocery store, the airport, the independent retailer in your town, Barnes & Noble and other “big box” outlets like Walmart, Mardels, Costco, or even Hobby Lobby. In that light, consider Amazon as a single snapshot of a single moment from a single sales source.

In 2016 Brent Underwood wanted to see what it would take to become a #1 bestselling author on Amazon. He took a picture of his foot. He then converted that photo into a one page ebook with, you guessed it, a photo of his foot. He titled it Putting My Foot Down. He chose the two subject categories as “Transpersonal” under Psychology and “Freemasonry” under Social Sciences. Uploaded the ebook on Amazon. Then  had three friends buy the book for 99 cents. Within hours he was a number one bestselling author. (Read the entire story here.)

The moral of that Brent Underwood story? Please avoid obsessing over your sales ranking!

To bring levity to the conversation, a husband and wife team created the following  short video that is a hilarious send up on Amazon rank obsession. Make sure you watch past the credits:


[An earlier version of this article, now significantly revised and updated, was posted in January 2011.]

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Our Rapidly Changing Culture

Every year Beloit College creates a “Mindset List” which reflects the culture that the incoming Freshman class have grown up experiencing. It helps their faculty know how to relate to these incoming students. Click here for this year’s Mindset List.

I download this list every year and read it with increasing wonder at the speed of our cultural changes.

The college graduating class of 2014 was born in 1992. Think about that for a second. If you are a writer, you can no longer assume that your audience will understand your cultural references. In a mere six years, today’s 18-year-olds will be adults…possibly with families and jobs and children…they will be reading your books and articles.

And you will only be six years older than you are now.

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P is for Preemptive Offer

It can be exciting if more than one publisher is interested in your book. The publishers gather their calculators and prepare to make their offers on the book. Depending on how many publishers are involved in the bidding process (we’ve had as many as nine at once for a property) …

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A is for Auction

When an agent has a client who is wanting to shop for the best deal available from publishers or if there is a particular project that is bound to garner significant interest from more than one publisher, the agent can hold what it called an auction. Or if a project …

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I is for ISBN

by Steve Laube 978-0-310-32533-8 978-0-7814-1042-7 978-1-61626-639-4 No, these are not the plays being called by a quarterback during a football game. They are the ISBN numbers on the back of three different books by three different clients. Kudos to the first person to identify the three titles in the comments …

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L is for Libel

by Steve Laube

 To libel someone is to injure a person’s reputation via the written word (slander is for the spoken word). I wrote recently about Indemnification but only touched on this topic. Let’s try to unpack it a little further today.

First, be aware that the laws that define defamation vary from state to state, however there are some commonly accepted guidelines. Anyone can claim to have been “defamed,” but to prove it they usually have to show that the written statement is all four of the following: 1) published 2) false 3) injurious 4) unprivileged.

The first is obvious. Posting something on Twitter or Facebook is “published.” And yet two weeks ago a Federal judge ruled that a blogger has the same defamation protection as a journalist. (Read the article here.)

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J is for Just-in-Time

by Steve Laube

The economics of bookselling are complex and ever changing. There is a method of inventory control called “Just-in-Time” (or JIT) that has revolutionized both the retail and manufacturing industries.

When I began as a bookseller there was no such thing as computerized inventory, at least not in the Christian bookstore business. We used a method call “Stack ‘em high and watch ‘em fly.” Because “If you stack ‘em low, they won’t go.” The idea was to merchandise large amounts of inventory because there was no quick way to replenish your stock if you ran out.

We had sheets of paper with a list of “Never Out” titles in books and music. Weekly we would physically count the remaining stock and if our inventory on a title fell below a particular level we would order more. This was our attempt to time our inventory to match the consumer demand. Titles not on the list would be reordered when that publisher’s sales rep came to visit. The rep would inventory the store and together we would determine what titles to replenish and which ones to let disappear.

Technology Caused Disruption
Computerization changed everything. Using an algorithm the computer determined the speed, or rate, of sale for each title and created order quantities to match the projected demand. This was called “Just-in-Time.” The inventory would arrive just in time to meet the customer wanting that book.

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I is for Indemnification

by Steve Laube

Publishing is not without risks. Plagiarism, fraud, and libel by an author are real possibilities. Thus within a book contract is a legal clause called indemnification inserted to protect the publisher from your antics.

The indemnification clause, in essence, says that if someone sues your publisher because of your book, claiming something like libel (defamation) or plagiarism etc., your publisher can make you pay the fees to compensate for their losses. This is to “indemnify” which is defined as “to compensate (someone) for harm or loss.” Bottom line: The publisher has the right to hire its own attorneys (at the author’s expense) to defend against these claims.

Doesn’t sound like a happy clause does it? But you can understand why it is there. This clause and the Warranty clause are notoriously difficult to negotiate. (The Warranty clause is where the things the author guarantees or warrants are listed; i.e. the book is original, it is not libelous in content, etc. This clause will be more fully covered by me at another time) The language has been written by the publisher’s attorneys and are usually set in stone.

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H is for Hybrid

by Steve Laube

To state the obvious, the publishing industry has changed rather dramatically in the last few years. The possibility for a writer to inexpensively produce their own books (in e-book form) has shifted the sands. In addition the economic challenges facing the brick-and-mortar bookstore has reduced the amount of shelf-space available to launch a new book via traditional methods. It appears to be an either or choice: go Indie or go Traditional. But there is a third way, the way of the “hybrid author.”

The hybrid author is one who chooses to follow both the Traditional and the Indie routes. Thus the hybrid moniker. They are neither one nor the other, they are both. And just like the hybrid car that is a mix of both gas and electric, the circumstances dictate which form of transportation their words use to reach the public.

Our agency has a number of hybrid authors. These authors continue to have flourishing relationships with their traditional publisher and are receiving new contracts all the time. But at the same time they have certain books that they publish on their own. They are very entrepreneurial and work tirelessly self-promoting their Indie books but also work tirelessly to promote their traditional ones. Some have extremely modest Indie sales and others are quite pleased with the revenue their Indie books produce. The range of sales is rather dramatic, everything from an author who has sold less than 60 of their Indie e-books to another who is in the five figures in Indie ebooks sold. However, each of these hybrid authors continues to maintain a presence in the traditional market as well.

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G is for Great

by Steve Laube

“There are a lot of good manuscripts out there. What we want are those which are great.” I’ve said this may times but thought I should elaborate. Please note the following applies mostly to non-fiction projects.

When it comes to the non-fiction books that attract the major publishers I believe the author must have at least two of three “great” things:

Great Concept
Great Writing
Great Platform

Let’s look at the various combinations to see how this plays out.

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