For years now, one of my favorite blogs has been the Thrillionth Page, written by debut author Carolyn Crane. From wonderful posts like her “Great Moments in Last Night’s Reading” to awesomely funny entries like her “Holiday Gift Exchange in Romancelandia” cartoon series, and the adventures of Little CJ, Carolyn’s freaky, the-eyes-follow-you childhood portrait, her blog is simply not to be missed. So to say that I’m glad that she could guest today is a bit of an understatement.
So please join me in welcoming Carolyn to Odd Shots!
The Amazon sales ranking: A Dharma Initiative-type experiment on authors?
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.
#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.
#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.
#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.
What do you think? Leave a comment with your preferred theory from above, or your own suspicions. A randomly chosen commenter will win a signed copy of MIND GAMES! Which will be sent to you if I manage to tear myself away from the computer.
Meljean here again: Carolyn wanted me to add that the contest is open to international entries. And I wanted to add a little bit about MIND GAMES, which is the opening book in a trilogy of fun, comic-book-with-an-edge urban fantasies about hypochondriac Justine Jones and a team of disillusionists: It’s awesome. And unlike anything I’ve read before, but I know I’m in it for the ride. Here’s the blurb:
Mind Games heroine Justine Jones isn’t your typical kick-ass type – she’s a hopeless hypochondriac whose life is run by fear.
She’s lured into a restaurant, Mongolian Delites, by tortured mastermind Sterling Packard, who promises he can teach her to channel her fears. In exchange, she must join his team of disillusionists – vigilantes hired by crime victims to zing their anxieties into criminals, resulting in collapse and transformation.
Justine isn’t interested in Packard’s troupe until she gets a taste of the peace he can promise. Soon she enters the thrilling world of neurotic crime fighters who battle Midcity’s depraved and paranormal criminals.
Eventually, though, she starts wondering why Packard hasn’t set foot outside the Mongolian Delites restaurant for eight years. And about the true nature of the disillusionists.
Thank you, Carolyn!