Home » Amazon, Bestsellers, PG's Thoughts (such as they are) » Bestseller Lists – Fair or Unfair?

Bestseller Lists – Fair or Unfair?

31 December 2012

A spirited discussion about bestseller lists is happening in the comments to New Year, New Hurdles & Opportunities.

One thing to remember is that best-seller lists, whether from Amazon or the New York Times, are marketing tools – focused on consumers – designed to help etailers or retailers sell more books. That, in turn, helps publishers and self-publishers sell more books.

Is a bestseller a book that sells the most copies, sells the most retail dollar volume, or generates the most profit for Barnes & Noble or Amazon? If you remember that bestseller lists are marketing tools, you’ll understand that the answer to this question may be different depending upon who is creating the list.

What time period is used to calculate the list? Are you looking at books sold in the last hour, since midnight, all day yesterday, during the last three days, this week, this month or since the book was first published? Do you give more weight to the number of books sold yesterday than the number of books sold two weeks ago? The answer will depend on the marketing decisions of whoever creates the list.

Do you consider the length of time a book has been published? PG remembers reading (he can’t remember where) that Amazon downplays the sales of certain classic books – Lord of the Rings, for example – to keep those books from always showing up high in the Fantasy list.

PG has no idea if this is true, but it raises an interesting question. If your bestseller list is a marketing tool, would you rather structure it to feature a new fantasy novel that sold 2,000 copies yesterday, the first day it was released, over Lord of the Rings, which sells 2,500 copies every day? From a marketing standpoint, since everybody already knows about Lord of the Rings, putting it on a bestseller list is unlikely to goose its sales much. Besides, it’s much easier to engage someone’s attention with a new product than it is with an old product, even a very good one, they already know about.

Amazon has boatloads of data, expensive analytics software and some very smart people who are watching, among many other things, the impact of best-seller status on book sales and the profitability of various types of sales.

PG suspects that, being able to combine customer purchase information across a wide range of products, Amazon has more genres or, even better, more customer segments than most of us can imagine. A romance reader who buys baby diapers is a much different sort of purchaser than a romance reader who buys adult diapers.

Amazon uses customer segmentation to recommend more products – books and non-book products. The ultimate goal of this sort of segmentation is to come as close as possible to being able to write a master shopping list for each customer and send pieces of that list when the customer is ready to buy whatever he/she needs next.

There’s also a dose of longer-term strategy in bestseller lists concerning matters like how to best deal with publishers who would like Amazon to disappear. Indie best-sellers at indie prices are nice little tools in the ongoing battle between Amazon and publishers about how much a book should cost.

I suspect Amazon is happier than the NYT with more volatility in its bestseller lists. The NYT lists only change once a week and not very much then, in part because they’re heavily based on physical bookstore sales.

Physical bookstore sales are influenced by where books are placed in the stores. If Publisher A has purchased space on a big table at the front of Barnes & Noble and directs Barnes & Noble to place 200 copies of Fifty Shades of Fly-fishing on the table, that book will sell more than if it were placed on the bottom shelf at the back of the store. There are issues with moving printed books around in the store once they’re shelved. Your employees can’t rearrange the Romance section ten times a day.

In Amazon’s online world, you like to have change happening so sci-fi junkies see new titles in the afternoon that weren’t there in the morning. That may make a lot of junkies check back in the evening as well. The more engagement any online store can generate with visitors, the more those visitors are likely to buy.

PG’s bottom line on this is that people who become upset about the perceived unfairness of bestseller lists don’t understand that there is no government standard for how a bestseller list should be constructed. New York Times, Amazon, USA Today – it’s a marketing tool, just like the sign spinners who try to persuade you to buy pizza. (If anybody uses a sign spinner to promote a book, send PG a link to the video.)

Amazon, Bestsellers, PG's Thoughts (such as they are)

11 Comments to “Bestseller Lists – Fair or Unfair?”

  1. Really excellent commentary, PG! I always like the clarity you bring to an issue.

  2. When “Fifty Shades of Fly-fishing” comes out in paperback, let me know. I have a friend who’d love it. Gives a whole new meaning to “blue ribbon trout stream.” 😉

    And happy New Year to folks on the other side of the Date Line.

  3. Time.

    Amazon uses an hourly sample which will prefer a item that sells 200 in the last hour over an item that sold 3600 over the past day (150 per hour).

    This sort of system favors items that are new and have a “spikey” sales pattern over older items or “Low and Slow” sales patterns.

    • I think the algorithm includes that, but is more complicated, Christian.

      Amazon is very concerned with anyone hacking its ranking system.

      • There are a number of factors. It is likely there is a weight given to the previous ranking, day of the week, hour of the day, also bought, genre, price, prime or not, etc. The same is true for PageRank. Yet Amazon still samples on the hour and PageRank uses number and quality of links. The more high quality links you have to your site the higher your PageRank. The more money you make for Amazon in a given hour determines the Amazon sales rank.

  4. Bestseller lists eventually become self-licking ice cream cones – people buy what’s selling best, pushing the book up the list, getting more people to buy it, pushing it further up the list…

  5. best-seller lists, whether from Amazon or the New York Times, are marketing tools – focused on consumers – designed to help etailers or retailers sell more books.

    Distinguo: the NYT bestseller list is a marketing tool focused on the NYT, and designed to help the NYT sell more newspapers. It isn’t about reporting which books are selling the most copies, but which books are considered important at Manhattan cocktail parties — which books you have to skim through and put on your coffee table and pretend to have read, if you want the Right Sort of People to think you’re an edjumacated intelleckshural.

    This is why the NYT fought tooth and nail to keep Harry Potter off the list, and why religious books are automatically excluded. Dave Wolverton has pointed out, from personal knowledge, occasions when the so-called NYT #1 bestseller sold 50,000 copies in a week, while a book not on the list sold a million in the same period. The book that sold a million was not literary; it was too lowbrow for the Times.

  6. Plus, on top of the best seller ranks, there are the relevance algorithms. Those affect (among other things) the order in which the results appear when you do a search.

    I got an interesting peek into those when I had a book reach some status as a mover and shaker — even though it had sold no copies in months. Just to give you an idea, here’s what happened….

    I got in a discussion with a Queen Bee in a romance forum. I won’t even call it an argument — this person was prone to flame the heck out of authors, and our discussion hardly rose to the level of an afternoon chat. In the course of it, I mentioned (in defense of the the fact that not all authors were there to promote their books) that I was an author, but I didn’t write romance. I was there as a reader. I never mentioned the title of any book. Nor had anyone in the forum.

    A short time later I got a congratulatory notice from Amazon on being the top indie author of the week, that I was a mover and shaker, and congratulations on my fantastic success… on a book which hadn’t sold a single copy in over a month.


    They included a phone number for me to call a personal promotions flunky (don’t remember exactly what they called him, but basically a person to work with on moving up further.) I called him up and told him “Um, that book hasn’t sold a single copy in ages, what’s up?”

    Turns out what happened was this: a bunch of people from that forum had gone and looked at my books, and apparently zeroed in on the one “women’s fiction” title. They didn’t buy because it wasn’t a romance, and they were romance folks. (Also it had a sucky cover and awful blurb.)

    Now, here’s the interesting thing. A lot of authors got traffic from that forum when the Queen Bee flamed them, and some got sales bumps, but none got “top indie author of the week” notices. Why did I get such a great bump in status?

    Apparently, it’s because those other authors had included links to their books (it’s why they got flamed) and so Amazon’s data showed a whole lot of people coming in through a link. Since clicking a link is easy, it shows only moderate interest in the item.

    Since I did not include a link, nor did I mention a title, the hits were all from people who actively searched for my name, and then zeroed in on the only chick book on my list.

    Thus, though they were probably fewer, they were ranked as “high interest” interactions.

    When I asked if that was a problem for Amazon, the guy said it was the way it was supposed to work. That was real, if not lucrative, buzz. I would get some extra exposure, and they would get some variety in their lists.

  7. “That’s not FAIR!”

    “You keep saying that. I wonder what your basis for comparison is.”

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