Have you ever been curious about the sales ranks at Amazon.com
Before I wrote a book, I gave thought to things such as how many books there are in the universe, where they store them all, and why an Amazon books-only search for Elvis Presley would offer me 808 "most relevant results" -- and, of course, the obvious follow-up question of who buys those 808 books on The King.
I didn't pause to consider how the online bookseller comes up with its statistics on which literary careers are made and destroyed, calculations that I've since learned are closely guarded secrets. I just glanced at the sales rank, nodded my head in complete, blithe acceptance, and scrolled down to the completely objective reviews that could well have been written by the author's friends.
Now I'm definitely a touch more interested in the Amazon.com process. OK, I'm obsessed.
In the days and weeks after I published my book, I clicked over every couple of hours to monitor my sales rank, a far more addictive pastime than watching my portfolio or following the progress of my fantasy sports team. I started in the 350,000 range, peaked at 9,444 after an initial announcement to friends and family, and then dwindled back down to 299,478. After all, I only have so many friends I could guilt-trip into buying a copy.
But then, in an exciting experiment in capitalism and the inner workings of the book world -- OK, and to sell a few books -- I sent out a request to pretty much everyone I knew that if they were planning to buy a copy of my book, they should do it on Monday. I even promised I would stop bothering them after the one-day push. For the sake of scientific research, I asked them to send me an email if they made a purchase so I could see what it takes to budge the Amazon needle.
And we're off...
The book, what the marketers describe as "an entertainingly candid account of new fatherhood," started the day at 299,478 in the Amazon.com sales rank. Shortly after I sent out the email announcing the experiment, I received our first reported sale, as my friend John Smith kindly wrote that he had made a purchase. A few minutes later, I watched as the sales rank moved... to 300,172. Clearly, John did something wrong.
After our second reported sale of the day, the book dropped to 301,795. Were these people lying to me? Were they accidentally buying the Bill Cosby book about fatherhood -- understandable, because Bill and I get mistaken for one another all the time.
But then things started clicking. Three more sales before 1 p.m. and the Amazon.com update at 1:20 p.m. jumped us to 43,278. Clearly, there's quite a bit of dead wood on the pages of Amazon.com, books selling a couple copies a week. Minutes later, two more people told me they'd bought the book, and by 2:30, we had jumped to 19,359. Despite no reported purchases over the next hour, we continued to rise, vaulting to 12,497.
In the afternoon, two more people reported purchases, and our 4:30 sales rank placed us at a personal-best of 9,329. Three more purchases before 5 p.m. brought us to No. 5,222. I'm not sure I've ever been 5,222nd best in the world at anything before, so this was pretty heady stuff.
But then it got better. The after-work crowd kicked in -- three of my conscientious colleagues who didn't want to waste work time on personal shopping (freaks!) told me they made purchases, and by 9:40 p.m., I had peaked at 3,457.
So, to recap, we had reports of 15 sales (others could have bought the book but not told me; conversely, those who said they bought the book could have lied) and a jump of 296,021 spots in the sales rank in one day.
Incidentally, my book is also for sale at the online sites of Barnes & Noble
There's much I'm still learning about the workings at Amazon: For example, you know that "Better Together" feature where they recommend another book you might like? That spot's for sale. And any thought of my getting rich and famous with this book? Yeah, it's probably not going to happen, considering I just exhausted my email list and brought in a whopping 15 sales. But if nothing else, I'll be a better Amazon consumer because I understand how it works, and I can one day tell my daughter that her book once was the 3,457th best-selling book at Amazon.
Roger Friedman is managing editor of The Motley Fool newsletters. He owns no shares of the companies mentioned here. In case you want to follow along with the sales rank game, Roger's book is titled Nipple Confusion, Uncoordinated Pooping and Spittle: The Life of a Newborn's Father, and you can monitor the ranking here).