by Cassie, Associate Publicist
Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A BETTER PENCIL: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. In this post, originally from Baron’s personal blog The Web of Language, he looks at the Amazon sales rank numbers to see if he can figure out where he stacks up–and what those numbers mean, anyway.
My book “A Better Pencil” came out this month from Oxford University Press. It’s not my first book, but it’s the first one I’ve published since the internet went viral. Because my book is about the impact of computers and the ‘Net on how we read and write, I checked the World Wide Web to see how the book was doing.
Last week I was interviewed about “A Better Pencil” on Salon, and that interview, provocatively titled “Is the internet melting our brains?”, triggered 95 comments on the Salon.com site. The comments were both positive and negative, though many had nothing to do with the book or the interview but instead consisted of commenters attacking one another. This seems to be fairly normal for online comments, but while I really wanted to feel good about stimulating so much passionate discussion, those sidebar conversations only managed to make me feel irrelevant.
Googling told me that the Salon interview had also been reposted and retweeted on 100 or more websites. Some of them, like boingboing and techdirt, are fairly influential. Hoping that the interview would stimulate sales, I decided to track my Amazon Sales Rank, the number that the world’s largest bookseller assigns to every book to indicate how much it’s selling relative to all the other books on Amazon.
On Wednesday night my Amazon Sales Rank was 4,913 (that’s supposed to be pretty good — low ASR numbers mean higher sales, and only 4,912 books were outselling mine). In one subcategory, culture, my book was even a “bestseller” in 9th place. I faced stiff competition: number 6 in the “culture” list was The Cannabis Grow Bible, but in another subcategory I was outselling Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens.
By the next morning, my overall Amazon Sales Rank had jumped to 2,981 (remember, low numbers are good), and “A Better Pencil” had climbed from 9 to 4 in “culture,” just below Stuff White People Like, a book I’d actually heard of. Figuring this meant that my book was going off the charts, I googled “Amazon sales rank” only to find that a rank of 3,000 means Amazon is selling about 20 copies a week. At that rate, it will take more than three years to exhaust the publisher’s inventory.
Two hours later, my ASR had dipped to 3,356, and I began to feel like I was watching the Dow. Readers had clearly lost confidence in me, and all of a sudden my book was being eclipsed in “culture” by The Mammoth Book of Tattoos. Really, if tattoos are more important than computers to readers — I’m talking about readers, not bikers — then maybe I got the whole internet thing wrong anyway.
Checking with my publisher lifted my spirits: the numbers on Amazon do suggest that people are buying my book, and that there may have been a Salon bump in sales. But it also confirmed my feeling that the Amazon Sales Rank, which is computed hourly using a top-secret proprietary algorithm, doesn’t reveal anything useful about the actual numbers of books sold.
Even so, I’m happy that in the past hour I’ve sold more than Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage (subcategory: communication), which I read when it was first published in 1967, though in “history of technology” I’m being soundly trounced by Sun Tzu’s Art of War. To be fair, that book had a significant head start — it was written in the 6th century BCE. Also, I’m not quite sure what Sun Tzu has to do with the history of technology, though I see that in addition to hard copy, a digital version of The Art of War is available for the Kindle, Amazon’s e-book reader.
Fifteen years ago, in the fairy-tale age before Amazon and its author-mesmerizing Sales Rank, I was attending a conference where another book I had just published was on display in the book exhibits. I watched from a few tables away while browsers approached the display, fingered a copy of the book, looked inside, then put it down and moved on. I think a few copies of the book did sell at the conference, and I still get a royalty check in the low single figures for it. But I’m not sure whether that “analog” experience of watching my book being studiously ignored by readers who were clearly not bikers was better or worse than digitally tracking my Amazon Sales Rank. Maybe authors should avoid both ways of monitoring sales and wait patiently for their annual publisher’s statements. But my experience with Amazon is that, like watching a traffic accident, it’s just impossible for any writer to turn away.