The Wall Street Journal
THE NUMBERS GUY
By CARL BIALIK
For $10,000 to $15,000, you, too, can be a best-selling author.
New York public-relations firm Ruder Finn says it can propel unknown titles to the top of rankings on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble with a mass email called the Best-Seller Blast. Popular authors such as Mark Victor Hansen of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series recommend your book in messages to fans, and offer a deal: Buy the book today and you’ll get downloadable “bonuses” supposedly valued at thousands of dollars — such as recordings of motivational speeches and contact information for important people. Orchestrating even 1,000 book purchases in a single day can drive a title from obscurity to the top of the charts.
Rick Frishman, who oversees the campaigns for Ruder Finn’s Planned Television Arts, also is a client. His 2004 book “Networking Magic” went from a sales rank of 896,000 on barnesandnoble.com the morning it was published to No. 1 at 4 p.m. He has a poster in his office showing the sales chart he briefly topped. “I’m a nobody, but I was somebody for a day,” he says.
A decade after they were introduced, online book-sales rankings remain an object of obsession for authors. Because they’re unrestrained by shelf space, the Web stores give millions of books a ranking. These are updated hourly and displayed on the book’s sales page and on best-seller lists. This “democratic” potential is celebrated by compulsive watchers of the numbers. Cindy Ratzlaff, vice president of brand marketing for Rodale Books, has noticed that Amazon seems to refresh its numbers 35 minutes after every hour and she makes it a point to check the page soon after, every hour during the workday. “It’s really pathetic and extremely addictive — and we all do it,” she says.
But if this is the democracy of bookselling, vote buying is an option. Ruder Finn’s best-seller program is one of several online aimed at new authors; entrepreneurial sorts do it themselves. Suzanne Falter-Barns sent me the eight-page journal of her own personal Amazon Day, as she calls the time an email campaign sent her book to No. 8 on the list. (“Life is good, I think, as I watch the sun rise over Lake Champlain,” she wrote of learning she was an online best-seller.)
Amazon says little about how it calculates its rankings, though scholars and publishers have attempted to reverse-engineer the system to determine how a sales ranking translates into actual sales. One major quirk: Used and new book sales are counted equally. So an author anxious about his sales ranking could put a few dozen of his books for sale for a penny apiece and ask a friend to buy them all.
This all adds up to numbers that are ubiquitous, closely watched — and of dubious value. The targeted marketing campaigns contribute volatility to sales-ranking numbers that are inherently unstable. Outside the top 1% or so of books, few sell multiple copies a day, so little separates books with rankings tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, apart. Morris Rosenthal, an author and publisher based in Springfield, Mass., who has studied the Amazon charts, says a day without a sale can send a book ranked 10,000 to as low as 50,000.
On Charteo.us, a free Web site that tracks the ebb and flow of Amazon rankings daily, dozens of the 1,500 books currently tracked rise or fall by 75% or more each day. Online sales can be throttled quickly by national media mentions. Author appearances on “Oprah,” “Larry King Live” and “60 Minutes” accounted for some of the most dramatic increases measured by Charteo.us in the past couple of months, according to the publishers.
“We think of Amazon as the instant-gratification indicator for us,” says Ms. Ratzlaff. Publishers also say they look to Amazon rankings as an indicator of future sales potential for authors — along with rankings from Nielsen BookScan, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and others that cut across retailers. Publishers can chart books’ rankings on sites such as Charteo.us and TitleZ. The Planning Shop, a publisher that developed TitleZ to track its own books, plans to start charging for the service later this year.
Hence, sales pitches such as those from Mr. Frishman to new authors eager to become best-sellers, if only for an hour and only on a single site. “Everyone wants to call themselves a best-seller if they can,” he says, even if it means doing so by luring would-be buyers with bonuses.
“It’s a made-up number,” Mr. Frishman concedes of the bonus value. There’s little incentive for Amazon and Barnes & Noble to discourage these campaigns, because they drive sales. (Representatives for both sites declined to comment on how they calculate their numbers, and how others try to juice them.)
Critics of such programs say they muck up Amazon’s recommendation system — because some people buy the promoted books just for the bonuses, not for reasons of taste — and encourage new authors to obsess over volatile numbers and pay for marketing tools to boost them.
“These campaigns aren’t really effective; they don’t lead to sustained word of mouth or sales,” says Steve Weber, a writer and seller of used books on Amazon. “But new authors have no way of knowing what a scam this is.”
Write to Carl Bialik at firstname.lastname@example.org