Are Amazon Rankings Killing Your Book Sales?

Cover of "Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudi...
Cover of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice
There are nearly one million and a half titles on Kindle: if you're beyond the 100,000th rank, could that fact alone discourage would-be readers? I think so, though I can't prove it. But one thing can be done: investigate what the concept of rankings really mean, starting on well-known books of proven quality, whether literary or genre, classic or contemporary. Took me a whole day, and I only looked at some 25 writers - a sample too small to go beyond anything but impressionistic preliminary conclusions * - and all my numbers hark back to 28 July when I did my research in the Kindle Store (rankings change on a daily basis of course). I'm sure some of you have done it too and you could contribute to my investigation, please be sure to include your observations in the comments, I'm looking forward to them!

Thus my conclusions need to be taken with a grain of salt, but they're interesting all the same and some of the results were truly surprising. 
In a nutshell:

1. Amazon rankings do NOT reflect book quality. Classic authors are easily outranked by nobodies. A few examples will suffice: do you know where Tolstoy's celebrated Anna Karenina is ranked in "paid-in" Kindle Store ("paid in" as opposed to books available"free")? It's sitting at #2,746! Of course, the fact that it's also available free doesn't help...Hopefully this abysmal ranking will be improved by the coming Joe Wright movie (look at the trailer below, amazing! And Tom Stoppard did the screenplay too, wow!). But Tolstoy is not an isolated case. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is even worse off, at #3,665, even though the Kindle world is reputed to be the province of Romance books, and Regency Romance at that. Yeah. And take a look at Gore Vidal's ranking - he passed away today, probably one of the major American authors of the 20th century -. His historical novel, Lincoln, surely one of his masterpieces that has made him the top American historical novelist, comes in at #61,058 as I write (August 1) the day his death was announced (presumably people are downloading him today). His other books all range upwards of #300,000.  But of course you knew that only the first one hundred titles in the Kindle Store are best-sellers, right...

Alexandre Dumas, photo by Nadar.
Alexandre Dumas, photo by Nadar. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2. Among the classics, "action and adventure" is a best-selling genre. Surprise, surprise. Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Montecristo ranked at 450! Incidentally, on the e-book offered on the Amazon site, the author's name is spelled "Duma" without the "s"! Incidentally duma is a word that exists, it is a Russian term for a representative assembly. I haven't read that particular e-book, but I suspect the text is awash with typos if they can't even get the author's name right... Lest you think that murder mysteries by a classic author can outstrip Dumas, here's Agatha Christie's ranking for her most "popular" novel (Amazon has a "popularity" ranking too), And Then They Were None: #23,540. Surprised?  You thought Agatha Christie's books also (at least notionally) had action and adventure? Well, no. Not in Amazon's ranking world, that "special rankings" labyrinth...

3. Special rankings: a jungle to navigate! In addition to overall ranking in the "paid-in" Kindle Store, achieving ranking in a special category can suddenly make you look good: you may be well out in the ether in overall ranking, but a special category can bring you into the first one hundred! There's a hitch, though. Those categories seem to be as numerous as the keywords or "tags" used to described books on the Amazon site. Some are duplicates (what's the difference between "drama" and "tragedy"?) and many are simply not remotely relevant. Just a couple of examples to show you how crazy it can get: Carlos Ruiz Zafòn's The Shadow of the Wind is ranked #51 for the following category: "Education and Reference". Really, for a novel? And an atmospheric, unique novel such as this one?? And if you think I've dug up a glitch in the system just to be annoying, here's another one: Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist turns up as #78 for..."English as a foreign language"! Ok, the novel's protagonist is a guidebook author, but this is a novel, for Goodness' sake! And I'm sure you've come across some weird ones yourself, please share your findings in the comments!
What's the real use of ranking beyond the first one hundred? Bottom line, they are a mere reflection of current sales, but presumably they help readers find what other readers buy the most. The trouble is: the system feeds on itself - it's a vicious circle. The more you sell, well, the more you sell...The snowballing effect means people are used to buying stuff in the first one hundred, whether overall ranking or special ranking. And if your book is listed in neither, then it's tough, baby, but no matter how many good reviews you have, you won't cut it. No way. Which is why some people will use any means - including using all their friends and crowdsourcing techniques (see article below) - to kick their book into the hallowed hall of the top 100.

A fair way to do it? No. Will it work? Maybe. There's that snowballing effect...But here quality kicks in: if the product is no good, no one will buy it. Or they won't buy your next book. Yes, because you can always download a sample and that's what most people do to make sure they want to read it. And if the sample stinks, well, it's curtains!

That brings me to the other two marketing instruments that help "book discovery" on Amazon: customer reviews and "likes". 

Customer reviews and "likes: that's something self-published authors work hard at: gathering as many reviews and "likes" as possible - some even try to get as many tags as they can, presumably to feed into the "special rankings". Then if they get one star reviews, they get desperate. Yet, one star reviews are meaningless: the best books get them. For example, James Patterson (yes, that one, the great Patterson) got 19 one star reviews (out of a total 90) for his best-selling I, Michael Bennett. That says it all.

Conversely, five star reviews are also (relatively) unimportant: an avalanche of compliments seems unrelated to the ranking and sales. For example, Anne Tyler for her top selling novel, The Beginner's Goodbye, got 123 reviews that averaged at 4.1 (out of 5) with only 2 one star reviews, yet her ranking is nothing to write home about: #28,280. And I can multiply the examples as I'm sure you can too.

Do reviews work as well as rankings in driving readers to a book? Who knows, but there is little doubt that a total lack of reviews is associated with a ranking way out there in the ether. Let's be clear on this: with no reviews and no "likes", your book is dead, gathering digital dust on its virtual shelf. But even here looking at how major authors fare brings some surprises. Just one comparison between two best-selling authors: Barry Unsworth who won the Booker Prize with his Sacred Hunger, got only 3 reviews for that book (average: 4.3) and 2 "likes" and ranks at a modest #18,731. Ian McEwan, with his best-selling Amsterdam got 47 reviews (average 4.2) and 2 "likes", but is relegated to a whoppingly high #111,109.

Makes no sense at all. And if you look at "likes", the story is even more surprising. Take Aaron Patterson, a writer whose books fall into the James Patterson "kindle book list". By the way, that's something self-published authors try to do again and again: get themselves listed along with a major author famous for producting blockbusters. If you look at the James Patterson list there are 483 results (yes, that much - but then James Patterson is notoriously prolific himself). Aaron Patterson clocks in at ...#1 on that list, ahead of James Patterson himself! How did he do it? Did he benefit from the similarity in his name? Maybe, but it's more likely that he worked very hard at marketing. Whatever he did, he got 74 reviews for his book Sweet Dreams, averaging 3.7 (better than James Patterson's 2.8 for the above mentioned I, Michael Bennett) and obtained a whopping 207 "likes" (as opposed to James Patterson's 4). Did all this effort put him in the top 100 in paid-in Kindle? Nope. He's at #1,289 - a lot better than the master, but still...The real reason he beat the master, I suspect, is price: his book costs $ 4,02 as against $ 12,76 for James Patterson's (prices quoted here are those on Amazon for Europe - higher than in the US). 

There is little doubt that the e-book market is a world on its own. Classics available in paperback or used editions are often cheaper than e-books and have been reviewed more often but this does not seem to translate into better Kindle ranking or more digital sales. 

You can engage in what is considered all the "right" steps: numerous reviews including professional ones in trade magazines, a smashing book trailer, many "likes" and classification in several "special rankings", but all that effort still won't get you into the hallowed top 100 in paid-in Kindle. A recent example comes to mind that perfectly illustrates what I mean. Take Adriana Trigiani's The Shoemaker's wife, just out in April 2012, published by HarperCollins. Of course, being trad-published, it's priced very high: $15.22. But it still managed to get 170 reviews (plus a few professional ones) averaging a respectable 4.3 (that includes 3 one star reviews), an excellent book trailer, 74 "likes", and good ranking in special categories (#7 in "domestic life" and #8 in "family saga"). Yet it didn't make it into the hallowed top 100: it stands at 340. Respectable given the high price, but not quite good enough.

Now, how would have Adriana Trigiani's novel fared if it hadn't been hampered by such a high price? Extemely well I should think...Because, as of now, the top 100 is populated by books that are in the low range of 99 cents to $5.99 (with a few exceptions of course). So price trumps everything else...for the time being. I do wonder what will happen once the traditional publishers realize that the e-book market is insulated from their printed book world and that they can behave just as self-published authors have: reap the benefits of pricing e-books in the low price range and watch the sales clock up!

Because conventional wisdom tells us you need everything to make it work: an attractive low price, lots of customer reviews including professional reviews, many "likes", a good book trailer, and last but not least social networking to spread the word. And then some excellent books still don't make it. Go figure...

Still, that leaves one with a doubt. Could it be that Amazon by ranking your books is killing your sales? Once you're beyond the #100,000 range, it doesn't look good. Readers who like to follow the crowd draw conclusions from such things...

Also, what's the use of "special rankings"? Some make sense, like "family saga" or "action and adventure". Others don't. Wouldn't it be better to clear up the mess (probably created by automatic computerized adding up of tags)? Because if categories were clear (even if numerous), they would surely help in book discovery. If you like "action and adventure", there's no doubt about what it is, you go look for it. A category such as "education and reference" applied to a novel surely doesn't help! 

What's your opinion? Should Amazon review its special rankings and desist from ranking books beyond the 100,000th rank?
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