Sometimes I see other authors post about their Amazon Sales Rank, and their comments consistently frustrate me – because they do not, in any way, match my experience. I saw someone post on G+ recently about how they saw their sales rank “plateau” after a 1-star review, and go on to speculate that Amazon must have frozen their sales rank, because their sales seemed to be continuing at the same pace. I’ve seen other people talk about building spreadsheets or even screen-scraping apps to pull and correlate their sales rank as it changes over time, where by “over time” they mean hour-by-hour and day-by-day. Now, certainly there are those whose books make it into the various “Top 100” lists at Amazon, and I can see the value of paying close attention when it gets to (or near) that level – anything you can do to stay in the top 100 will have a major impact on sales; those are the books people find by browsing, everything else is found at random or by name.
In case you aren’t familiar with Amazon Sales Rank, I’ll give a brief description: It’s like those Top 100 lists, in that a Sales Rank of 1 means the title is the most popular, a Sales Rank of 2 means the title is slightly less popular, and so on. Amazon has close to (or possibly now over) ten million titles available, so a title’s Sales Rank can be anywhere from 1 to 10,000,000. The lower the Sales Rank, the better the title is selling – and once a title breaks into the Top 100, visibility (and thus sales) skyrockets.
Now, in addition to Sales Rank, there’s also a per-category ranking done by Amazon, but it only even appears on a title’s page when that title is in the top 100 for that category. The per-category rankings (once you reach the top 100) can have nearly as big an impact on sales as being in the general Top 100, especially if those categories are well-matched to the content of your book. None of my books has ever really been in the Top 100 of anything (barring my one KDP Select title, which, during its promotionally-free days was in the top 100 free books for its category – a fleeting thing, seeing as that “sales rank” was reset as soon as the promotion ended), or really even close. In fact, most of my books don’t make it to Sales Ranks of lower than the tens of thousands – and then only for a matter of hours. Here’s a chart of the Sales Rank, over time, for one of my latest releases, Sophia (Never Let the Right One Go):
What you’re seeing there is that when a copy sells, the Sales Rank jumps. In the case of its first sale, it jumped (down to) under 100,000. For less than a day. If a second sale had been made that day, or within a couple of days, it would have gone even closer to that elusive “#1” on the chart. (Peak Sales Rank for Sophia, so far: 83,547) Except it didn’t get another sale. For over a month. So its Sales Rank dropped: 300,000 places in the first week, and another ~250,000 places over subsequent weeks until… Another sale! Jump up 500,000 sales ranks! Passing, presumably, 500,000 books which didn’t make a sale that day, most not that week or that month. But again you can see the immediate drop-off. The same 300,000 places down in a week without sales.
One could speculate that books which stay in Sales Ranks between 100,000 and 400,000 are probably making about a sale a week, and those that stay above about 700,000 are probably making a sale a month. Conversely one could speculate that Amazon has over half a million (of its ~ten million) titles which sell at least one copy a month or more. That’s the long tail.
My work lives in the long tail… Just a little further out.
Here’s another chart, from my best-selling novel (across all formats) ever, Cheating, Death:
That’s a lot more time compressed into the same chart, but you can see the same thing at work. It makes a sale, the Sales Rank jumps up for a day, drops rapidly, then gradually settles. The highest peak there, the first one, is a Sales Rank of 37,490 – just 37,390 places away from reaching the Top 100, right? The other peaks under 100k are in the 75k-95k range, but you can see its unpopularity has driven even single-sale-bumps to the 150k-range, near Spring 2012. (The fact that, across all countries, Cheating, Death has sold 18 kindle copies… simply tells us they calculate Sales Rank on a per-region basis.)
This is all somewhat to say that, while the unbounded “shelf space” of the online marketplace allows the long tail of products to exist, and to make sales, it doesn’t seem to do anything to make the products in the long tail more discoverable. Discoverability still rests on the shoulders of marketing. Amazon (et al) are not interested in selling more copies of the roughly ten million titles which sell one copy a week or less – they’re only putting their efforts into selling those books which are already selling a lot. They feature “Bestsellers” and “Top Sellers” and by default sort a lot of search results by “Popularity” rather than relevance. i.e.: If you do a lot of your own marketing, enough to build a big audience of your own, Amazon’s algorithms will bolster your marketing, adding their strengths to yours, turning your success into a runaway success. If your marketing doesn’t work, Amazon doesn’t help. It’s like tax breaks for the rich.
A few of my titles are like the ones pictured here, spending most of their time drifting in Sales Rank from 400,000 to 1,000,000. Several of my titles actually linger in the mid-millions; things which sold once, but never again. Most of my titles actually have no Sales Rank; they have never sold a single copy via Amazon, and thus aren’t even branded a failure in the same way as those which have – on the product page for something which has never sold a single copy, Amazon doesn’t even include a line for Sales Rank in the product data.
I just can’t identify with authors who claim to get sales of 2-3 copies a day, right out of the gate, and who worry when it slows down to 1-2 copies a day. Or with authors whose Sales Rank plateaus. If my Sales Rank plateaued, it would mean I was having record sales. Sales like I’ve never seen before, on any title. It would mean sustained sales, rather than one sale here and one sale there. Right now selling 2-3 copies a month, across all my kindle titles, isn’t a terrible month.