Have you ever suffered from a bout of Amazon fever? It’s a strange condition that can take over an author’s brain and compel him or her to peek at the Amazon sales ranking for their book 10 – 20 times per day. Each time you look, you pray that the ranking will improve before you check it again in another hour. Authors who catch this fever might even get up in the middle of the night to see how their rankings fared after the sun went down. Going cold turkey and avoiding the rankings altogether is an option. But, freedom from the fever sometimes requires an intervention, which is why I wrote this article.
I’ve battled the fever myself, and many of my consulting clients struggle with the problem as well. It can be addictive to see how your books are performing on Amazon, where the vast majority of books are purchased. Besides, it’s easy to reason that authors need a quick way to gauge sales without having to call the publisher, check BookScan, or wait for a royalty check.
However, most people know that Amazon sales rankings must be taken with a grain of salt. The company guards their algorithm like gold in Fort Knox. No one knows how accurate the numbers really are. In fact, even the staff at Amazon has admitted their system isn’t completely precise. Thus, why even bother?
Actually, Amazon sales rankings can provide helpful clues about the performance of a book during a campaign. Plus, the rankings can help compare how similar titles are faring against each other. Since Amazon practically owns the book retail market, it’s easier for authors to judge immediate response to specific marketing activities by checking one website. In addition, the rankings give self-published authors a way to prove that their sales can be every bit as good as an established writer.
Yet, what do Amazon sales rankings really mean for a book and should you care? My answer is yes and no. I don’t mean to sound hypocritical, but the reality is that the rankings can only provide a ballpark idea on actual sales. Amazon updates the rankings every 60 – 90 minutes, so the numbers constantly fluctuate throughout the day. A book could have a good ranking in the morning and a worse ranking that same evening. Therefore, you never get numbers that are solid enough to make big decisions on its own. At best, the rankings can show real-time sales momentum or a lack of consumer interest. If you want to draw any real conclusions, it’s always best to include actual sales data from more reliable sources, such as BookScan. But, is it possible for Amazon rankings to give any reasonable insights? Here’s an example.
Earlier this year, I helped a New York Times bestselling author launch a new book. During the pre-order campaign, we found that the Amazon sales rankings provided a decent indication of sales momentum. That’s because my author client offered a series of special gifts to encourage pre-orders. In order for people to receive the pre-order gifts, they had to go to the author’s website, provide their retailer receipt number, and tell how many copies they purchased. I captured this customer information each day in a database, and then compared the data to the book’s daily Amazon ranking over time.
Before I discuss the results, let me emphasize that everything you see is purely a guess. There are no hard and fast rules. Do NOT quote these numbers or assume they will directly match your specific book sales. I simply conducted this exercise to prove a series of other important points, which I’ll mention in a minute. Here’s how the Amazon sales rankings translated into customer purchases according to one book that I tracked:
Amazon Sales Ranking = Copies Sold on Amazon:
2,500 = 30 – 75 per day
5,000 = 15 – 30 per day
7,500 = 5 – 15 per day
10,000 = 25 – 40 per week
100,000 = 5 – 10 per week
150,000 = 1 – 5 per week
300,000 = 5 per month
500,000 = 1 per month or less
Note: Numbers ONLY reflect book sales at Amazon. Other retailers are not included.
Why would I show you this information when it’s just a guess that cannot be trusted? For several important reasons:
1. As you can see, a good sales ranking of 7,500 or less doesn’t mean you’re actually selling that many books. Those numbers mean anywhere from 5 – 75 copies per day. That’s quite a wide range and doesn’t mean you’ll get rich anytime soon. Even if you maintained sales of 75 copies per day for a really long period of 30 consecutive days, you would only sell 2,250 total units.
Therefore, there is NO reason to brag to anyone about your Amazon sales ranking. In contrast, there is no reason to get depressed if your sales ranking is worse than other authors or books you see. The only authors selling a ton of books on Amazon are those with rankings less than 500 who maintain that level for multiple months. Those are the icons of the industry with major publishers and massive resources behind their campaigns.
As another example, I consulted on a backlist book that consistently maintained an Amazon sales ranking of less than 500, which is amazingly rare. But, it typically sold only 2,500 – 3,500 copies per week. Yes, that’s way above average, but no one is retiring to a private island on those numbers.
2. More importantly, if you tell people that your book is a #1 bestseller on Amazon, it means absolutely nothing. Any author who makes such a claim smacks of desperation and a lack of ethics. Here’s why:
a. First, any author can mount a marketing campaign that spikes their book to #1 for a brief period of time – maybe one day or two. But, that spike is a fleeting moment, which quickly drops off. If a book gets to #1, you could use my chart above and guess that it sold 100, 250, or even 1,000 copies in one day. That’s good, but it’s still not that many copies.
Then, what about the next day when the ranking quickly falls off to 500, 2,500, or 5,000? Sales are back to modest amounts of 50 – 100 per day. Therefore, a brief spike to #1 doesn’t mean a lot of books were actually sold. In order to hit the legitimate bestseller lists, such as the New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, or Publishers Weekly, you’ve got to sell around 5,000 copies or more in a week. (Amazon now has their own official bestseller list called Amazon Charts.)
Telling people your book made it to #1 on Amazon is like telling someone you’re the fastest runner in your neighborhood. It’s doesn’t mean you actually sold many books, and it doesn’t mean you’re actually a fast runner. Your neighborhood could be full of slow people. Or, a faster neighbor might have been out of town the day you decided to race. You get my point. No one really knows if it’s true, and no one really cares. Authors who make ridiculous claims about being #1 on Amazon look foolish, because they take an unverifiable number and make a big deal out of it. However, the public doesn’t look very smart either when no one challenges these preposterous claims.
b. Second, there is an even more bizarre issue. Some authors now claim to be #1 on Amazon in a specific category, such as women’s issues, advertising books, or even “children’s pig books” (yes, that category actually exists). These arbitrary categories are a distant cousin of the main Amazon sales ranking list. And, if you know anything about distant cousins in real life, they’re usually out of touch with the main family.
I’m shocked by how many authors and publishers will go out of their way to display “#1 Amazon bestseller” on their websites, press releases, blogs, Facebook pages, and even back cover copy. Are we so desperate for accolades that we resort to making up random awards with no basis in fact or actual sales data?!
Just because a book is temporarily #1 in an arbitrary category on Amazon means nothing. For instance, at the time of writing this article, below are rankings for three book categories that I randomly selected:
- The #1 book in “Mortgages and Real Estate” is #3,353 overall on Amazon.
- The #1 book in “Advertising Graphic Design” is #13,771 overall on Amazon.
- The #1 book in “Mice, Hamsters & Guinea Pigs” is #34,444 overall on Amazon.
As you can see, being #1 in a specific category is a far cry from being #1 on Amazon overall. Not many books are actually being sold. Plus, the rankings fluctuate by the hour. So, claiming to be top dog in a random Amazon category is like claiming to be the biggest Chihuahua at a dog park. It doesn’t make sense.
Here’s the real issue. When authors make unsubstantiated claims about their Amazon rankings, they tend to ignore solid principles that could actually help sell more books. If you want to be considered a real bestseller, earn it through legitimate marketing efforts that create results:
- Learn to master the pre-order sales process
- Build a large email list
- Create joint partnerships with other successful authors
- Secure more speaking engagements and media interviews
- Spend more money on advertising
For instance, what if I touted myself as the “#1 Book Marketing Consultant in the World”? Who sets the standard and how would anyone know the difference? I could display that title on my website, but you’d probably think I was a little over the top and question your ability to trust me.
Writing and marketing a book requires hard work that can already make an author seem a little crazy. Why make things worse by creating silly claims about a book’s Amazon ranking? Being an author with a book on Amazon is a rare achievement by itself. We get the unique opportunity to educate, inspire, and entertain the world. There’s no need to work ourselves into a frenzy and manufacture false accolades. Take this article and use it as my prescription to forever avoid getting Amazon fever.
Rob Eagar is one of the most accomplished book marketing experts in America and a leading specialist in the field of direct-to-consumer sales. Rob’s consulting firm, Wildfire Marketing, has attracted numerous bestselling authors, including Dr. Gary Chapman, DeVon Franklin, Lysa TerKeurst, Wanda Brunstetter, and Dr. John Townsend. As an expert in direct-to-consumer marketing, Rob also helps companies and non-profits build Million Dollar Email Lists that create seven-figure revenue and donations. Rob is the author of Sell Your Book Like Wildfire (published by Writers Digest), which is considered the bible of book marketing.
“Fever” image courtesy of David Dominici Castillo via FreeDigitalPhotos.net