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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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