Why Amazon Book Rankings Make You Nervous — And Why You Can Stop Caring

by | Jun 15, 2016 | Marketing, Get Published, Publishing, Self-Publishing | 17 comments

I’m three months into selling my first novel, and I’m sorry to say, I have absolutely nothing I can report regarding my sales numbers.

My publisher delivers sales reports by quarter: January to March; April to June; July to September; and October to December. But those sales reports are delivered about two months following the end of the quarter.

So as I write this column in mid-May, all I know is that as of December — two-and-a-half months prior to my launch — I had sold seven books.

Womp.

I’m doing my best not to stress over it. From everything I’ve heard from other authors, sluggish sales reporting is pretty par for the course.

In the meantime, I’ve become unreasonably attached with the only metric for my success that I have access to: my Amazon rank.

Life by the rankings

Watching your book’s Amazon rank rise and fall — which happens several times over the course of even a single day — quickly becomes addictive. During my book’s launch, I kept it open in a browser tab and refreshed it frequently.

An Amazon ranking bump of even a place or two, up or down, drastically affected my mood.

This is no way to live, writers. And yet, it’s somewhat inescapable.

After a few weeks of living by the rankings, I realized that I could at least put this nervous energy toward something productive.

If Amazon rankings were going to affect my mental state, I could at least understand how they were determined, and hopefully do something to get more control over mine.

I embarked on a quest to learn all I could about them.

Deep, dark algorithmic secrets

Turns out, Amazon doesn’t like to share its algorithm secrets any more than Google does. The exact math behind how the rankings are determined is largely a mystery.

All the same, let’s break down what Amazon says about its ranking process:

Rankings are based on sales

This may seem obvious. But the interesting thing is what rankings are not based on. Most notable, reviews and ratings are not mentioned as factors in the algorithm, implying they don’t matter for rankings. Other sources back this up.

Both recent and historical sales count

If you generally sell well, even if you’re having a bad sales month, your ranking won’t drop as much as a book without a good sales history. On the other hand, it also means previously top-selling books have an edge over your new release, even if you sold more books today.

Your rank is updated hourly

This is one of the most addictive aspects of Amazon rankings. It just keeps changing all day long.

Ranking rumors

For a process with concrete information available, there is a lot to study on the topic of Amazon rankings for books.

Take these points with a grain of salt, because they’re from various writers’ observations, not official Amazon information. All the same, I found them helpful.

Only some rankings are updated hourly

According to some authors who watch their rank carefully, only about the top 10,000 books appear to be re-ranked hourly.

Books ranked from 10,000 to 100,000 are said to be ranked daily, and books below that threshold, some sources say, are ranked weekly. But this last is not true to my experience, so far.

The algorithm values recent sales the most

It makes a ton of sense, so it’s easy to believe. And it’s great news for authors early in their careers, because it means your new release has a fighting chance to compete with the genre’s top sellers.

Each day, the value of sales from previous days are halved

By this theory, today’s sales count full value. So if you sold five books today, those count as five points. But if you sold 10 books yesterday, those sales earn you five points today. The 12 books you sold two days ago get you three points today. And so forth.

Preorders count the day they’re ordered

Some authors hope that a prolonged preorder period will accumulate and give them an explosive launch day in the rankings.

Not so.

Those pre-orders appear to tally for the same day they are placed, counting the same as any normal sale. This means it benefits you to have a shorter pre-order phase if you can mobilize readers to take action in that period.

The ranking also has a predictive aspect

This means Amazon uses past sales trends to guess how books will sell in the near future. In light of this, it’s more advantageous to spread a book’s launch out over a week than it is to have one explosive day. Even if you hit #1, you’ll sink as rapidly as you rose.

A week of steady sales may not get you to #1, but it will keep you higher in the rankings for a longer period.

There is a delay between sale and corresponding rank boost

Even if you know your best friend’s cousin purchased your book at 10 a.m., it doesn’t mean your ranking will soar at 11 a.m. Many authors have observed a lag between when a purchase takes place and when is reflected in your rankings — typically, it’s a delay of a few hours.

Amazon rankings are relative

Don’t forget: Like any ranking system, your place on the list is relative to the others on it. So even if your sales increase, if other books’ sales increase proportionally (as they might over the holiday season, for example), your ranking won’t change significantly.

Amazon rankings: Let it go

Amazon rankings will be somewhat mysterious as long as Amazon remains tight-lipped about them — so, for the foreseeable future. And while Amazon rankings can be a helpful way to gauge sales in the absence of better information, it’s hardly quality information.

I’m training myself to stop staring at the rankings. Instead of worrying about the next hour, I’m focusing on a broader strategy for long-tail sales success.

Not only is this a good approach for stable improvement my novel’s Amazon rankings over the long-term; it’s also a more-strategic approach to a career as an author in general.

To do this, I’m putting my marketing energy toward creating a killer sales funnel that focuses on building my author email list. We’ll look into my sales funnel more in future columns.

Have you been bitten by the Amazon rankings bug? How do you cope?