Today’s post is about not practicing what I preach. Since Amazon (and Barnes and Noble, but mostly Amazon) began to rank books several years ago, I have spent serious amounts of time vainly trying to convince my clients that if they spent their days pressing “refresh” on their ranking every five minutes, they would a) get carpal-tunnel syndrome, b) become unproductive at their writing right when I needed them to be producing the next book, and c) quickly descend into obsessive-compulsive mania, placing ever-more meaning on the fact that they went from, say, 116,065 to 116,172 between two and three am. “It’s counterproductive to your career to concentrate on your ranking so compulsively,” I would say. “The important thing is to do your best at marketing your book, working in tandem with your publisher to make the most of the window you have to sell the majority of your books.”
And it’s not that an Amazon ranking is reflective of any absolutely quantifiable metric (if you aren’t working in Seattle). We know it’s some combination of sales, page views, reviews, and alchemy. We don’t know how many books you need to sell in order to rise (fall? It’s such a pain when getting better means having a lower number). It’s all relative. Certainly it gets harder the higher up (lower number) you are to move the dial. And forget about the top 50 or so, which are all different editions of Hunger Games and 50 Shades of Grey these days anyway. So I tell my clients that while it’s OK to check every so often, don’t make yourself crazy.
I spent today going against everything I have been saying. I was dying for the numbers to refresh (which incidentally happens once an hour, unless the book is in the top 1,000, in which case it changes more often). I cursed when a title went in the wrong direction and tweeted madly when it rose (fell). And the interesting thing to me, and the reason I played the Amazon Stalking game so rabidly today, was that I had three titles moving significantly, and all for different reasons.
The most “normal” reason to be interested on a rainy Tuesday was because one of my clients had a book published this morning. Whitney Johnson’s Dare, Dream, Do (which I misstated on Facebook at 5:30 am—in my congratulatory post to her—because in my sleepy haze I used the title with which she had submitted the book to me, rather than what we decided on with the publisher, Bibliomotion), is a marvelous, inspirational book about finding your dreams and going for them. Whitney, who works in finance and venture capital in Boston with Innovation guru Clay Christensen, has spent the last several months—really almost a year—setting herself up for this day. She’s been talking with her vast network of contacts throughout the country, very nicely and with the right balance of savvy and fervor and belief in her message of empowerment, and built an almost palpable buzz for her book. I always believed that she had a chance to do well, but it wasn’t until ten days ago, when I saw Whitney organize the TriBeCa Film Festival’s Disruptive Innovation Awards (where I became a rock star dad to my 9 year old daughter when I emailed her a photo of Justin Bieber at the awards…), that I understood just how powerful her network was. Entrepreneurs, CEO’s, techies, media folk all knew about her book—and all liked and supported her, and promised to tweet and post on May 8. I couldn’t wait to see what would happen to her book when it went on sale. And there were hints that it was going to be good—her ranking had gone from 100,000 to 50,000 to 20,000 to 11,000 over the last week.
The second reason I was so interested in Amazon rankings today had to do with a book published in February: American Cancer Society CMO Dr. Otis Brawley and journalist Paul Goldberg’s How We Do Harm, which is Otis’s discussion of the ways that cancer patients in the US today are being over- and under-treated. (I’m being facile, because the book is about much more than that, but it’ll do for this discussion.) How We Do Harm had had a nice launch, with many strong reviews and a second printing, but it had been out a while and was sitting in the 10,000 range in ranking. That’s good, but the book had pretty much stabilized there for a couple of weeks. Then Otis spoke before a large group of medical journalists around ten days ago; and then was interviewed on television; and then was quoted in a number of medical blogs; and all of a sudden the number started to improve. And then, this morning, co-author Paul Goldberg emailed me “We’re in the Times—D5.” And it was an almost half-page article taken from the NY Times Wellness blog that discussed the book and interviewed Otis (with a large photo). I wanted to see what that would do to the rankings.
The final reason I was looking was for a unique situation. Several months ago one of my first clients, Keith Raffel, had taken a thriller he’d written, Drop by Drop, and released it himself in e-book form. He’d done quite well, selling several thousand copies at prices ranging from $1.99 to $5.99. Keith’s a former Tech CEO (as well as the traditionally published author of several books), and knows a little bit about incremental analysis. He’d hit a little dip in sales a couple of weeks ago, and decided to do something he’d never done before: put Drop by Drop on free download for the weekend, then see a) how he’d do in free downloads, and b) whether that might goose sales. Turns out he had more than twenty-three thousand free downloads, hitting the top ten in the whole free Kindle store. And when he began charging for it again, he found that he was selling considerably more copies than before, and was sitting around 500 in paid Kindle sales at the start of the day.
So when I woke up in the morning, Keith was around 500, Whitney (who’d gone on sale at midnight) had dropped all the way to 3,300, and Paul and Otis were at around 3,400. It is now 10:12 PM as I type this, and I’ve had a fascinating day. Keith stayed around 500 all day—but that was a good sign, as it’s pretty easy to drop off the face of the earth from that number if you don’t sell for any length of time. Otis and Paul, through traditional publicity (the story in the Times) augmented slightly by social media (several of us—but not hundreds of us, mind you--shared and tweeted the link to the article), went all the way to 1,300. In the late afternoon I received an email from their editor informing me that they were going back to press for a third printing. And Whitney, who was filled with positive energy and whose friends were overflowing with a bounty of good will toward her (she had people—what we call “big mouth influencers” cheering her on all day), was ubiquitous on social media. It would not at all surprise me if the number of people who saw a tweet or a Facebook post about Dare, Dream, Do today numbered in the millions. This evening, after she appeared in a sold out PivotBoston conference in front of 120 women, Whitney’s debut, on its launch day, hit 645, and #12 in the personal finance chart. And with events planned all over the country over the next couple of weeks, I would not be surprised at all if it improved as time passes.
So you can see why my mouse hovered constantly over “refresh.” For disparate but incredibly exciting reasons, I needed to ignore my own philosophy and—for one day, anyway—embrace my inner Amazon Stalker.