Amazon Sales Rank—Why Does It Matter to Customers?

Rank

Obviously, sales rank is important to Amazon. It makes sense to showcase products that are more likely to sell, and those that have been selling frequently have a proven track record. Sales rank factors into bestseller lists, ordering of search results (to some extent), visibility with special features, etc.

Sales rank is also important to authors and publishers. It helps to show how the book is selling.

Perhaps the strange thing is how important sales rank is to customers.

Popularity

Do people like to buy what’s popular? Aren’t there people with their own sense of style, who want something nice of their own that few other people are enjoying? Some clothes are highly popular, yet you still see a large percentage of people who are uniquely attired.

A few times in the past five years Amazon’s sales rank has been down for several hours to a few days. Sales tend to drop off during this period. Usually, no sales rank means that book has never sold. Suddenly, books that usually sell a few copies per day stop selling while the sales rank feature is temporarily disabled. Why? Because having no sales rank versus a rank of 30,000 can have a significant impact on a buying decision.

It’s like many customers are thinking, “If it’s not good enough for everyone else, it’s not good enough for me, either.” This seems to be a prevalent opinion in the well-educated, well-read world, at least as it applies to book-buying decisions.

There are a few customers who will take a chance on a book with a sales rank in the millions, but not many, and certainly not enough to go around for the millions of books that have received this fate.

Not a Constant

It’s funny when a book that spends most of its time with a sales rank in the millions suddenly sells, and sometimes sells a few more copies that same day. The only thing that has changed recently is the sales rank.

However, while a sale does drop the sales rank considerably—it can drop down to 100,000 from the millions—very often it doesn’t spark more sales. That’s because sales rank combines sales from the past day, week, and month. When a book that rarely sells suddenly sells, its sales rank drops down near 100,000, but rises very quickly. There is a narrow window of opportunity for customers to discover the book with that low sales rank before it returns to its home country.

In contrast, when a book that normally sells every day stops selling for a while, its sales rank climbs much more slowly.

In this way, the deck has been stacked. Hot sellers have a distinct advantage; slow sellers are inherently disadvantaged.

Fairness

This does make sense in many ways. If a book truly is lousy, its sales rank should skyrocket and that book should become less visible.

In other ways, it can seem unfair. There are tens of millions of books on Amazon. It’s absurd to think that only 100,000 are good and 30,000,000 are lousy.

What about books with a very tiny audience? Even if the book is excellent, sales are limited.

How about books that don’t fall into any standard categories? Even if the book is wonderful, it’s hard to find.

There are a number of reasons that a book can be very good, yet not sell well.

Unfortunately, there are also many books that don’t provide a good customer experience: ridiculously short (just a few pages), very poorly written, major formatting issues, etc.

For many customers, the simple solution is to buy books with a track record of selling well—i.e. look for a low sales rank.

Indeed, many customers only shop bestseller lists.

This gives big publishers and popular authors a distinct advantage. A large preexisting fan base gives rise to many early sales. At the same time, these books have a history of providing customers with good reading experiences, so this advantage has been earned.

The new author who throws a book out there has a distinct disadvantage. It takes time to get discovered and by the time a few readers have tried it and found it to be very good, the history of slow sales makes it a challenge for the sales rank to rebound.

Premarketing

Many publishers and authors do premarketing—sending out review copies, creating buzz, going on blog tours—hoping to stimulate early sales, knowing how much this can impact the fate of a book.

Abuse

A few people may try to abuse the sales rank factor, but probably in many cases to no avail. For example, Amazon could easily track authors who buy several copies of their own books and factor this into sales rank (if it’s not already done, it could change). If a lousy book does manage to acquire a low sales rank number, the Look Inside and reviews are likely to expose it for what it really is.

Opportunity

You can look at sales rank as a hurdle, in the sense that it takes sales to get sales.

Or you can look at sales rank as an opportunity.

Self-published books aren’t penalized compared to traditionally published books and popular authors. Any book that sells well improves its visibility. A self-published book that sells 20 copies today will compete in visibility with a traditionally published book that sells 20 copies per day.

Daily sales matter much more than weekly or monthly sales. Monthly sales determines how slowly or rapidly sales rank climbs when a book isn’t selling. When a book is selling, it is daily sales that matters.

This means that a traditionally published book that’s sold thousands of copies in the past still needs to sell copies today to compete with a newly released self-published book. In this way, the playing field is surprisingly level.

Sales rank tends to reward books that help themselves. If you write a highly marketable book, have a cover that attracts your target audience, write an effective blurb, have an engaging Look Inside, and the book generally pleases an audience, all this is on your side: It will help your book get discovered and sell when it gets discovered. Every sale helps your sales rank.

If you also do effective marketing, every sale helps even more. The more sales you stimulate through good content and effective marketing, the more sales rank helps you rather than hurts you.

This is why there are many indie authors achieving some measure of success. The opportunity is yours, too.

Reviews

Another way that sales rank matters to customers has to do with reviews.

Many customers look at the number of reviews and the sales rank.

If a book has several reviews, but a large number in the sales rank, the customer may be suspicious. How did the book get so many reviews without selling?

Of course, there may be a simple explanation:

  • Sales rank isn’t a constant. Perhaps the book was a hot seller when it first came out, but has now saturated the market.
  • Maybe the author has done some effective, temporary promotions in the past. A freebie can give out thousands of copies of the book without directly improving sales rank.
  • Advance review copies may have helped to get some early reviews.
  • The book may have been out for several years and sold thousands of copies, but just doesn’t have a great sales rank presently. Checking the publication date can help with this point.

But many customers will wonder if there is another simple explanation:

  • Were the reviews posted by close friends and family members?

Regardless of the actual reason, this perception can limit the sales of a book that has good reviews, but not a sales rank to match.

A Problem for Amazon?

There is one way that Amazon may be shooting itself in the foot with sales rank: It may be limiting growth to some extent. Five years ago, if a paperback book sold, its sales rank dropped down to about 50,000. Now, this number can be closer to 200,000, depending on the season. Why? Because there are more books, and more books that are selling about one copy per day on average or better. The change is even more extreme with Kindle.

The more books that sell well, the more books there are with higher sales rank numbers that are selling better than they seem.

In previous years, a Kindle book with a sales rank of 350,000 wasn’t selling at all. Now, it’s selling occasionally, and 1,000,000 is not selling at all.

The numbers are changing, but the perception doesn’t change with it. People still look at that Kindle book with a sales rank of 350,000 and think, “That book never sells.”

If there are now 200,000 books selling about one book per day on average, it will be hard for the number of books selling about one book per day on average to climb up to 1,000,000 because of this perception. If Amazon wants to have more books selling at least once a day, sales rank is working against this. Amazon wants to sell more books overall. It may be hard to increase the frequency of top sellers. It might not be as hard to “double the tail,” i.e. double the sales frequency of books at the bottom, without disturbing sales at the top.

The Good Old Days

When you stand in a bookstore, you have no idea which books are selling well.

(Okay, the bestseller lists and books that indicate bestseller status on the cover are a couple of exceptions.)

For the most part, when you stand in an aisle looking at a shelf, you have no idea which books have sold recently and which haven’t.

(Okay, if you’re a frequent customer, maybe you can remember the contents of the shelf well.)

You do see several copies of a few books, and only one copy of most books. If there are several copies, is that because it’s a hot seller? Or are there so many copies left because it hasn’t been selling?

Imagine if you saw the sales rank on every book. You pick up a book, see the number 462,165 on it. You drop it like a hot potato. You better go wash your hands with soap and warm water.

Gosh, ten years ago I used to pick a book based on the cover, spine, back cover blurb, and especially how the first chapter began. There was no sales rank. There were no customer reviews (unless you want to count glowing quotes on the first page and back cover).

You

How do you shop for books? Is sales rank important to you?

If you feel that sales rank should be important to customers, you can market this perception to others.

If you feel that sales rank shouldn’t be so important, you can market this perception.

You have the chance to discuss sales rank with others and to debate (professionally and tactfully) the pros and cons of factoring this into a purchase decision.

Publishing Resources

I started this blog to provide free help with writing, publishing, and marketing. You can find many free articles on publishing and marketing by clicking one of the following links:

Chris McMullen, Author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

Follow me at WordPress, find my author page on Facebook, or connect with me through Twitter.

Meeting the Challenges of Self-Publishing

Half Full

Half Empty

When the cup is half full, it’s a challenge to view it as half full instead of half empty.

So what about a cup that seems like it’s 90% empty? Can you stay positive and view it as 10% full?

Because that’s the way it seems sometimes to the indie author.

There are so many challenges to face. Charles Yallowitz recently listed dozens in his recent post, “Paranoia in Self-Publishing?”

Indie authors ride a roller coaster of hills and valleys. When several bad cards fall in place in a valley, it can really challenge you.

Writing should be the hard part, right? After all, that’s the main job. You’re a writer.

But writing comes easily. You’ve been bitten by the writing bug. Muse, rather. She’s sitting on your shoulder. You have no choice but to write. Sure, you might have to deal with writer’s block, but that’s the least of your problems.

And there are serious writing challenges, like choosing the right tense and person, balancing the show and tell act, finding the best way to present dialog, figuring out what effect your book really has on your target audience and how to pull it off as best you can, and any number of intricacies of the craft. You love writing, though, so these are the kinds of problems you live for.

It’s the publishing industry that makes you feel like you need to be connected or sell out, the editing and formatting that never seems to end, the holy-cow-how-could-I-do-that typo that shows up after you order a dozen review copies, the sales that don’t come, the false need you feel to stimulate reviews, the sales that don’t come after you get reviews, the bad review with just the right words to sting you where it counts, the in-laws and exes who point out the exaggerated disadvantages of self-publishing, and especially when a few of these issues slap you in the face while sales fall off a cliff all in the same never-ending week. So you decided to self-publish, eh?

Half Full

There are positives and there are negatives. There are times when many things are going your way. You don’t realize how much it’s going your way because you see how much better it could be. No matter how good it gets, it could always be better. But when the negatives come by, you don’t miss them.

It’s like Chutes and Ladders. When you’re going along, you think how you could be going up a staircase. When you’re going up a staircase, you think how you could be going up the super long staircase. And there are so many players in this game, some are going up that staircase. When you slide down a chute, you feel like you’re losing the game. But you could be glad that you’re making progress, on average. You could be grateful you didn’t fall down the really long chute and have to start over from the beginning. You could be happy just to be playing the game.

The negatives will test you. When several come together, they will really test you. They beckon you to react emotionally, instinctively. They challenge you to do what you know you should refrain from. They tempt you to put your reputation on the line. They may even make you question your scruples.

But it’s just a long, deep valley on this roller coaster. Statistically, there will be periods where many negatives come together.

It’s also an opportunity. To show what you’re made of. To demonstrate your patience. To be professional. To show your character. To draw motivation. To meet this challenge. To survive. So that the next time you come to a valley, you will have a positive experience to draw from, remembering how you’ve been through this before. So the next time you reach a peak it will taste that much sweeter.

You can do this.

  • Count the good things. You’re a published author, you get to enjoy writing, you’ve sold X books, you’ve had Y good reviews. Make a list of 20 positives. Get your book out, look at the cover, see your name on the cover, browse through the book. You’re a published author. Enjoy the feeling. Remember when you first saw your book?
  • Exercise. Get some of that frustration out while also doing something that feels healthy. You spend too much time sitting at a desk. In stressful situations, you need to exercise and eat healthy foods.
  • Work on a writing project. Outline your next book, write a poem or short story, write a blog post (but don’t publicize problems that may cast you in a negative light), start a new book, edit a book, do something that will make you feel productive and help get your mind off the negativity. Or get away from it all and spend time with family.
  • Do a search online and read about other authors who’ve gone through tough times. Don’t let yourself get talked into making mistakes. Find mistakes that authors have made and learn from them. See that others have gone through worse. Discover what others have done that was unprofessional, and force yourself to go the professional, patient route.
  • Seek support and advice from your connections, but don’t do it publicly in a way that may make you seem unprofessional. Find someone who will give you comfort when you need it. Find someone who will tell it like it is and offer valuable advice when you can handle it.
  • Ask yourself if there is anything helpful that you can draw from the experience. Sometimes the bad provides an opportunity for improvement. Sometimes the bad is just bad and doesn’t offer anything positive. If there is something that may be useful, try to use it to improve. If there is nothing useful, try to put it in the past and move on.
  • Try something new that you’ve been considering that’s free or low-cost and doesn’t involve a large time commitment, like maybe a new marketing strategy that just requires a couple of hours to learn something new. This is not a good time to spend much money or devote considerable time; think low-cost and not much time long-term. It will help get your mind on something else, and it will give you a new source of hope.
  • Make a dartboard with your bad reviews, bad comments, lousy sales rank, or whatever other problems are on your mind. Throw darts at your problems, shred your problems, stomp on your problems. Get it out of your system.
  • Don’t make any quick decisions during these times. Think them through carefully. Get a good night’s sleep before deciding. Patience can be your best ally against stupidity and embarrassment during times like these.
  • Feel creative. Find your passion. Refuel your motivation. If you’ve been working hard, take a break and come back rejuvenated.
  • Do some small good deeds. Help others in some way. Especially, help others anonymously. The gift of giving not only helps others, it might make you feel a little better, too. It takes a special kind of someone to spread goodness during tough times. You could be that someone. You could be a super hero. A disguised super hero. It may give you the inner strength of a super hero.
  • Read a book. Go to another world, live the life of a hero, find a better reality, overcome tougher hardships. Rediscover that writing is about the reading.
  • When you get knocked down, when you get kicked while you’re down, don’t give in to the circumstances. Rise above them. Laugh hysterically. Ask, “Is that all you’ve got?” Tell ’em, “’cause I’m a writer and I could do a whole lot worse than this.”

Publishing Resources

I started this blog to provide free help with writing, publishing, and marketing. You can find many free articles on publishing and marketing by clicking one of the following links:

Chris McMullen, Author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

Follow me at WordPress, find my author page on Facebook, or connect with me through Twitter.

Paranoia in Self-Publishing?

See if you can relate to this comprehensive list of indie publishing challenges. Toward the end of Charles’ post (and perhaps in the comments), you’ll find some suggestions for dealing with these issues.

Legends of Windemere

I had a thought yesterday that birthed a panic attack that my dear friend Ionia had to smack me out of.  I think she rather enjoyed it a bit too much and I’m still looking for my missing contact lens, which is weird since I wear glasses.  There’s also been a phone ringing for the last 24 hours.

Seriously though, take a look at what an Indie Author has to face:

  • Negative Reviews
  • Abusive Reviews
  • Abusive e-mails, FB comments, & Tweets
  • Pressure of writing another book
  • Writer’s Block
  • Marketing failures
  • Finding marketing sites
  • Bad sales days
  • No sales days
  • Amazon rankings
  • People reacting to your rankings falling as if it’s time to pack in the dreams and head for the nearest cubicle.
  • Finding time to write
  • Editing
  • Hate sites if you get that far
  • Haters if you make a wrong move
  • Illegal downloads of your book
  • Returns of your book

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