Why rank-chasing leads to madness

Let’s do a little exercise.

Find 10 random readers, and ask them why they buy their books.

I bet that nine times out of ten they will say that the book was recommended to them by a friend or a place that they trusted.

Ask those ten people why they bought the book they last bought. I also bet that in the majority of the cases, they bought that book because they read and liked a previous book by that same author. They are repeat customers.

Ask them if they remember how much that book was ranked in the store where they bought it. I bet that none of them will remember.

I bet that very very few of them will randomly go to a retail website and buy the book that is best ranked in the category.

They will know that either that book had a publicity push or it is a new release, but if they have never heard of the author or the premise does not appeal to them, they won’t buy that book.
People buy books because they know the author, have read something by the author before, or because a friend recommended the author.

So why then, are authors so terribly obsessed with the rankings of their books, and worse, their author rankings? Clearly, no one cares.

Well, a higher ranking increases visibility in most retailer stores. A higher ranked book is going to come up higher in some searches and may be more likely to be recommended to buyers of related books.

But this would be most important for books that come up on the first page of important and popular categories. Anywhere below that, rankings are simply a measure of the number of sales. Now if someone were to look at it in detail, they would understand that a book that’s ranked at 1000 would sell better than one ranked at 10,000, but the rankings on Amazon hide quite a long way down the page and and even an informed reader would have to look for them. As far as I know any ranking outisde the immediate top 10 has not ever influenced someone to buy a book. Does a book that is ranked at 10,000 get less visibility than one at say 5000?

Even so, since ranking reflects sales, what can you do about it?

If you are in a really popular category, your book maybe higher up in the ranking of that particular category, but as I already said if the category is really popular that’s not going to make much of a difference, because people who shop by ranking, uncommon as they are, are not going to scroll through pages and pages of books. Those people will buy something off the first page.

When your book has sold more copies, it will be recommended to more people. In that way, ranking has a latent influence, because it takes a while for all this information to filter through and be reflected in the site.

So yes, ranking has some influence, but mostly it simply reflects prior sales.
But, and here is a big but, many authors are so fixated on ranking that they forget many other things.

One of them is what I have said many times before: you can make a perfectly good living by selling one copy a day of each of your books on each of the retailer sites. Ranking on Amazon US—the factor that invokes all this ranking anxiety—does not reflect sales in the UK or other parts of Amazon, which can all add up to a substantial amount. It doesn’t tell the story about print sales and audio sales, which are also on Amazon, but are not reflected in the ranking. It does not reflect sales on any of the other platforms.

Most of all, it does not take into consideration the subscription program Kindle Unlimited. When your book is in Kindle Unlimited, and exclusive to Amazon, your ranking will jump when someone borrows the book. It will do nothing when someone reads the book, even though that is when you get paid. It is perfectly possible that people borrow the book and never get around to reading it, or look at a few pages, decide it’s not their thing and then return it in favour of another book. It is entirely possible for a book to be ranked at 5000 in the US Amazon store but generate less income than a book ranked 50,000 that is not in Kindle Unlimited, which does not get boosted through borrows that are never read, but which gets sales from other platforms.

Ranking, especially ranking in a single part of a single retailer store, and a single country, is it very poor metric for either writer success or income. Worry about your total income, not the rank of your books.

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