Amazon, Popularity, and a List that We Really Don’t Need

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I’ve been in Huntsville, Alabama this weekend, attending ConStellation as their Literary Guest of Honor.  It’s been a good con.  They’ve treated me well and worked me hard, which is just as it should be.  But that didn’t leave me a whole lot of time for writing my post, and so for that reason I’m going to take a one week hiatus from my various post-series that I have ongoing on MW right now (Writing and Fear; Ideas)

But I did want to comment on something that happened this past week (and was brought to my attention by our own Mindy Klasky).  Amazon.com has started ranking authors by sales numbers — or “popularity,” as they put it.  Apparently it’s no longer enough for the folks at Amazon to drive us authors to distraction with the sales rankings of our individual books.  Now they’ve decided to rank us, too, to make us into yet another category to be quantified and compared.  So, for instance, I read somewhere that William Shakespeare was ranked, like, number 89.  In “Literature,” I think, or maybe in “Dead British Playwrights.”  Or something like that. 

So what’s wrong with this?  Why does it bother me so much? 

Well, maybe because writing is not a competitive sport.  Writing sales are not a zero-sum game.  And the quality of written work cannot be judged by its sales figures or popularity.  Don’t believe me?  Well, I’m fairly confident that the authors of Hamlet and A Light In August are ranked lower than the author of Fifty Shades of Grey.

But more than that, I don’t want to think about where I rank in relation to Faith and A.J. and Misty and my other author friends.  Part of what I love so much about this career is the fact that, unlike some professions, my colleagues are not my competitors.  Their successes don’t make it harder for me to succeed.  If anything, our careers are mutually supporting.  And I love being able to share good career news with the rest of the MW crowd, just as I love hearing of their triumphs.  We root for one another; I wouldn’t want it any other way.

We also devote a great deal of times and energy to this site, a site designed to encourage and help aspiring writers, a site founded on the principle that writers who are developing their skills and building their careers are not our competitors, but rather our future colleagues.

No, there is nothing in these new Amazon rankings that will keep us from continuing this site or continuing to support one another.  And for the record, no, I have not checked to see where I rank (either as D.B. Jackson or as David B. Coe).  Amazon is free to post these rankings, and I am free to ignore them, to refuse to let them make me crazy (or crazier than I already am).

But the numbers are out there.  And like the sales rankings of individual books, these author standings encourage consumers to equate “popularity” with quality, to compare books numerically (which makes about as much sense as comparing baseball players based on the spelling of their names).  I live in a small college town that hosts one of the most famous writers’ conferences in the country.  I’m never invited to work the conference because the people who run the conference view genre fiction as inferior to mainstream “literary” fiction.  In a sense, they denigrate what I do because it is popular, because it is purchased widely by an undiscriminating public.  Many in our genre face similar prejudices, and we complain about them all the time.  It seems to me that Amazon’s author rankings encourage similar biases from the other side.  Just as we should not judge fiction as inferior because it sells well, we should also not assume that the best books are those written by the top-selling authors.

Some of the greatest works of art our culture has produced were incredibly unpopular when they first were created; others were dismissed as not worthy of serious critical attention because they were popular with the masses.  Popularity is a double-edged sword.  Yes, I would love to be on bestseller lists, but I would not want to have people dismissing my work because of its popularity.  And until I make one of those lists, I don’t want people ignoring my work because it has yet to be deemed popular.

The biggest problem I have with the Amazon author rankings is that they conflate sales numbers with creative merit — an equation we all know is faulty to say the least.  And more, they bring more attention to those works that least need the publicity.  Sure, those authors whose work is popular deserve attention and congratulations.  Selling books is not easy; those who do it well have my admiration.  But wouldn’t it be great if Amazon used its considerable reach and influence to shine the light of its commercial attention on works that maybe did not sell as well as their critical success would seem to warrant?  There are plenty of such books out there (and they’re not just mine . . .).  Do we really need another list to tell us that J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins and George R.R. Martin sell a lot of books?  I mean, yes, they do.  And good for them.  They have earned their success.  But I would love to see a different list, one that says “Here are ten authors you’ve never heard of who you really ought to be reading.”  Rowling and Collins and Martin will still sell their books. And I believe that all three of them would be more than willing to share the spotlight with their deserving but less famous colleagues.

David B. Coe
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://www.dbjackson-author.com
http://magicalwords.net

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15 comments to Amazon, Popularity, and a List that We Really Don’t Need

  • Susan

    Honestly, I dislike the lists also. As a voracious reader, those lists seem to be composed of the same group that is on every other list from ever other media outlet and are worthless to me. If I wanted to read them, I long ago read them. (Let me guess: Patterson, King, Straub, Brown, Danielle Steele, etc.) I’m looking for fresh new writers and I hear this all the time from avid readers. I just responded to that very question – recommendations for up and coming new writers – this morning on the horror discussion list I have belonged to for 20+ years. (David, this is the list I met Mildred on way back when.)

    Then again, when something gets hyped a lot, I learned long ago that I will usually hate it. Last time I had that lesson refreshed was when someone gave me a copy of one of Dan Brown’s books. Only thing satisfying about it was the resounding whomp it made as it bounced off the wall. I think that books also made a personal record for me in speed of tossing it. I don’t think I was much more than 20-30 pages in. Oh yeah, finally remembered the name, it was The DaVinci Code.

    Hmmmm… maybe those lists do serve a purpose – what NOT to read.

  • Thanks for the comment, Susan. It would probably be hypocritical of me to say that yes, this is the list of authors you should avoid (based on sales numbers), but I do agree that there is a lack of new information here. These authors are going to be the ones people know already.

  • David, I too, haven’t looked. I am too busy to look at any more numbers — except the numbers on checks that come my way. I’ll look at them of course. :) To give this some context, I sold 5X the numbers of Death’s Rival in the first week of release, than I did of Raven Cursed. Yet, I went up only 2 points on NYT. It just doesn’t seem to make sense. And I refuse to let it bother me or add to my stress level. Not Gonna.

  • Not much to say except that I largely agree with what you (and John Scalzi before you) have written on this subject.

    I will add that while I agree that the world of authors is not a purely zero-sum game, neither is it purely additive. By which I mean that I, as a reader, have a choice at any given moment* whether to read Book A or Book B. I cannot simultaneously read both. My choice to read Book A is a net gain for the author of Book A but not for the author of Book B. I may at a later time return and read Book B, but this is likely to be at the expense of Book C. And so on. Over the course of my life, there are a limited number of books I can possibly read – limited by my available free time, my reading speed, and the length of my life and so on. Within a certain arbitrary span of time – say, a year – I can only read so many books based on similar limitations.

    *(On the condition that the moment in question is actually free time in which I’ve decided to read a book.)

    My point is that while I agree with the sentiment that authors aren’t in direct competition, there is an element of competition at a certain level, and it works like this: if a person has time only for 1 book they’ll choose whatever the most awesome-sounding book to them is. If they have time for 2, they’ll choose the two most awesome sounding titles, and so on. If financial success (i.e. doing this for a living) is important to a given author then he/she will want to be as highly ranked on this mental list of as many people reading books as possible. That’s a business reality that commercially-minded authors should at least consider.

    All that said, again, I agree with the sentiment, and my own caveat has its own caveats (inasmuch as each reader will approach this differently based on their own personal tastes and their own capacities to read however many books in whatever span of time). And as both an artist and a business-person the idea of cut-throat competition in the book world does not appeal to me. Suffice to say I’m unlikely to put much stock in this number, for many reasons…

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Hmmm. That does sound like a strange, mostly-not-useful sort of list. Possibly a little more useful if you narrow it down into sub-genres, but then one would still want to compare sales to things like how long they’ve been publishing and how prolific they are to give it better context (so, for example, someone like Stephen King would actually look very different from someone like Stephanie Meyer…)

    But sales by themselves are such an empty, fickle sort of thing. How many of those books were thrown across the room and taken straight to the thrift store to be traded for an out-of-print well-loved book? So far, I think I’m doing about as well as I can with Amazon using their “you-may-also-like-this” feature. Too many of the books and authors I adore are simply not main-stream and so don’t get the kind of “popularity” recognition they deserve.

  • I read what I read and at times what others suggest, so that’s where I’m more likely to check. I don’t really follow the top 25 somethingorother, or some best seller list. Quite frequently, most popular isn’t always what I’m into. There have been many times I’ve passed up books based on rave reviews, or I’ve looked at sample pages and found they weren’t what I like to read, or that they were dry, or they were just, frankly, drek. Heck, I’ve actually picked up books based on negative reviews (The Faded Sun Trilogy from CJ Cherryh, as example). Yeah, popularity doesn’t have much bearing on my reading. A well written intro coupled with those things I like in my fantasy or sci-fi will draw me much faster. Which is why Amazon really kinda fails me as a reader in many respects. Maybe they should have author recommendations. Like, this author recommends these authors. I might be willing to give them a shot if my favorite authors like them too.

  • Faith, that is wonderful news about your sales!! Never mind the ranking — sales mean $$$ in your pocket, and that is fantastic. Yay you!

    Stephen, yes, I suppose you can make the case that the world has a limited number of reading hours, and so reading choices are somewhat competitive. And I suppose you can also make the case that if a publisher is buying my book to produce it, they’re not buying someone else’s. By similar logic EVERYTHING is competitive. But I think you get what I mean. I do not see Faith’s success as a threat to my career, because, quite simply, it’s not. There is no causal relationship there. And again, that’s as it should be.

    Hep, I do agree that the “you-may-also-like” feature can be useful — far more so than a stark number ranking. And as you say, if we choose to read outside of the big-name author list, we aren’t helped by the new feature at all.

    Daniel, I like the idea of author recs, although the problem is we’ll all seek to help our friends. It’s what we tend to do . . .

  • Preach it! Especially the point that what is highly popular today will not necessarily last into the next generation or the next. Mind you, it may. Tolkien’s work was recognized pretty quickly, but it stands up to multiple readings and the concerns of the following generations. On the other hand a survey of gothic fiction would probably show that very, very few of the texts that sold like hotcakes in the 18th century are remembered or enjoyed today.

    Just on the personal side, numbers like that will probably make me insane once I have a book published because I am competitive and insecure. Ah well. I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.

  • Forget that this is just for Amazon sales. As if there is no other.

    I get a lot of gift cards to Chapters (the big Canadian bookstore) for my birthday because they are so easy to purchase. So this time around I wound up pre-ordering Mindy’s and Faith’s books at Chapters because of that. A little tiny part of me thought about how this wasn’t going to contribute to their Amazon rankings. And then a part part of me thought, well, why should Amazon own my soul? It’s all going to contribute to the total sales and preorder nubers, right?

    One thing Chapters has done that I like: because I order most of my books online, it sends me an e-mail. “If you like the book you just purchased, why don’t you check out these books?” And suggests similar books regardless of their rankings. I have to laugh when it suggests a MW whose books I already own. ;)

  • Razziecat

    I’m still groaning over a letter I saw once in a magazine, in which a reader asked, “Which bestseller should I buy?” There are so many things wrong with that question…

    I just don’t choose my books that way. Never have, never will. I only read Harry Potter because I wanted to prove to myself that the hysteria over “kids learning witchcraft!!” was a load of nonsense (and it was, of course). I usually run the other way when something is touted as being the most popular…I hate being told what to love. It saddens me to think that some of the most beautifully-written, most exciting books I’ve ever read might remain undiscovered by many readers because of a low ranking on a list like this.

  • quillet

    For whatever it’s worth, lists and rankings of books/authors —by amazon or anyone else— has absolutely zero effect on what I choose to read. Or rather, it might have a negative effect. I’m with Susan on not generally liking those overly hyped books. 20-30 pages into The DaVinci Code? Yep, that’s about where I hurled it, too.

    And I emphatically agree that writing is not a competitive sport. Readers are always on the look-out for new authors to like, and finding them doesn’t stop them from reading new books by already-favourite authors…or at least buying stuff and putting it on that leaning, teetering to-be-read pile.

  • Sarah, thanks. I am trying to avoid the crazy by avoiding the listing entirely. As to your point about what remains popular, I think that argument can go either way. On the one hand, what you say is true: tastes change. On the flip side, it’s often the popular stuff that proves to have staying power, as opposed to the more critically acclaimed stuff. Not sure what that means; just thought I’s put it out there.

    Laura, good point. This is just Amazon’s slice of the pie. But Amazon does tend to be a trend setter. The “if you like this you’ll also like this” feature seems to be something a lot of online sellers are adopting.

    Razz, yeah, that. I have friends who have written outstanding books but have only so-so sales numbers. People should be reading their books, and lists like this make that just a bit less likely. And that’s a tragedy.

    Quillet, right. I don’t look at the lists to decide what to read either. Which is not to say that great books don’t find their way onto the lists — Faith and A.J. and Kalayna are living proof that they do. But I don’t think that’s a great way to choose one’s TBR list.

  • @David: yes, as I said, I don’t disagree with that. I’m not fond of the idea of competing against other authors, and in general I think you’re right because there’s plenty of room (and demand) for a large number of authors to be successful. But I also have an MBA… and once you start thinking about things in terms of “opportunity cost” (which is basically what I was talking about) it’s hard to stop. All of which is neither here nor there about this particular list, which is so flawed for so many reasons that even if a given author does think in those terms, this list is stil basically useless.

  • Thanks for this, David. I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what it is I don’t like about this list since I was informed of it, and you stated all my points eloquently. Well said.

  • John, thanks for the comment.