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updated 8/10/2009 7:11:52 AM ET 2009-08-10T11:11:52

It's almost a philosophical riddle: Do sales drive the best-seller list, or do best-sellers get all the sales because buyers see them on the list? As much as we'd like to believe that the crowd picks the best books, a strong presence in retail locations — front-of-store positioning and tempting discounts — still counts a great deal in determining how well a title sells.

Nonetheless, authors are in it for the glory, and the visibility and bragging rights of being a "best-seller" retains the glamour of years past.

In the old days, the New York Times best-seller list meant everything. But it doesn't come out until weeks after the sales take place, and it only updates on Sunday. Today's author needs a better, faster sounding board. And she's found it in Amazon's unblinking sales rank, the 24-hour barometer of book sales. Indeed, it's a rare author with self-control who, as soon as the book is published, doesn't obsessively check the list these days, which is updated every hour.

Yet for all that, few people understand how the Amazon list works or its relative importance in the publishing industry. Amazon's method of ranking books remains something of a black box with the fancy word algorithm used to describe it.

Let's look at an extreme version of what a writer can be today. The best writers take an active, entrepreneurial role in their book sales. Publishing is filled with success stories that began as self-publishing miracles. Many of those are novels, but let me introduce you to a friend of mine, Andy Kessler, who did it in nonfiction.

Andy's a bit of an annoying guy. He's got that gene that just won't let him take anything at face value. So when he's presented with a challenge like publishing a book, he just keeps picking it apart until he feels he can do it better.

That worked to his advantage in the 1990s when he moved to the Bay Area and opened a hedge fund that invested in early stage technology companies: real engineering-geek stuff like chipsets and drivers. Andy did well as an investor. He did so well during the tech boom from 1998 to 2000 that he found himself with plenty of free time for writing afterward. In 2002, when Wall Street was getting pilloried in the press, he realized he had worked with some of the most notorious names from the dot-com bubble, like Mary Meeker, Frank Quattrone, Henry Blodget, and Jack Grubman (remember him?).

So Andy sat down and wrote up his experiences in a book called Wall Street Meat. He published it himself because traditional publishers were too slow and kept him too far from the action. His experience outlines just about everything we know about the Amazon list.

Authors' obsession
Like dozens of other writers, the Amazon sales rank became his daily, even hourly thermometer of success.

"The Amazon rankings are a blessing for authors because you can really figure out how your marketing is working," Andy says. "Just do Fox News? No change. Maybe that wasn't a good use of my time. A positive Wall Street Journal review? Wow, look at it spike. I went up 150 today. Woohoo!

"Radio interviews feel like echo chambers, ‘Hello Cleveland.' " he recalls. "I wonder if anyone is even listening to WZIP—they sure haven't budged the rankings."

Smart authors try to goose the list
"After countless hours watching the timing and delivery of PR for my books—radio, NPR, cable TV, broadcast TV, newspapers, magazines, blogs, newsletters—I have picked up on the rhythm of Amazon rankings," Kessler says. "I've done the best after a week or two of decent PR followed by an e-mail newsletter (from a third party with a big, big following) with a link to click. The former sets up a base, and the latter spikes the sales within a few short hours or over the course of the day."

"My best?" Andy asks rhetorically.

"I once hit No. 4 and stayed there almost all day. It was a Sunday. An e-mail newsletter had dropped on Friday night with a direct link, and I could almost hear mouses clicking all weekend. By Monday morning, I was back in the 20s and 30s; by Wednesday I was back to around 100.

“It was exhilarating."

The list seems to be a series of weighted averages
"I'm not sure the exact number," Kessler says of the weightings, "but my guess is 40 percent hour, 30 percent day, 20 percent week, and 10 percent month. So if you have a huge spike in sales, you don't completely dislodge books that have been in the top 10 or top 100 for months and months. Though you might pass them for a very fun hour."

An Amazon spokeswoman essentially confirms his hunch when she says, "We base rankings on all-time sales, as well as recent sales that are weighted more heavily than older sales, so that our lists are timely and aren't always dominated by all-time best-sellers like Harry Potter."

Gaming the system is not worth it
The desire to manipulate one's Amazon ranking has given birth to a cottage industry of fixers and fudgers who will help you increase your sales through multitiered marketing schemes or rentable e-mail lists.

The simplest way to game the Amazon list is to gather credit card numbers directly at speaking engagements or through an e-mail offer, then turn around and plug the names and addresses into Amazon by hand.

It's raw data entry, but the applied effort can shoot a title to the top. Amazon is a "long tail" retailer. At the very top — rankings No. 1 to No. 10 — a book could be selling 3,000 to 10,000 copies a week through the Internet retailer. So all it takes is, say, 500 to 1,000 copies manhandled through the system on a single day to get your book into the top ranks.

What the gamers get from all of this is never clear. Manipulated sales rarely generate genuine sales momentum.

Smart manipulators don't try to return the books they've ordered back to Amazon, like former Washington Post reporter David Vise, the author of a book about a turncoat FBI agent. Amazon is smart enough to recognize bulk orders, so suspicions that Vise was goosing his rankings back in 2002 were probably off the mark. That, or the transaction costs were their own punishment for such a failed attempt.

Besides, there's no point in manipulating Amazon's sales. Getting on the New York Times best-seller list used to trigger all sorts of author benefits from additional discounts at superstores — a practice that was discontinued a decade ago — to author bonuses based on best-seller position and number of weeks — another practice that rarely happens anymore.

What effect does the Kindle have on all of this? Too soon to tell. Outside Amazon, USA Today has recently begun to include Kindle sales in its best-seller list. With two weeks of data, the Kindle effect remains inconclusive. It does appear that Kindle favors books that are already best-sellers—which may be because Kindle owners are what the fast food business would call "heavy users" or may be a function of the $9.99 price point for best-sellers on the Kindle.

Amazon says that its own top-100 list will represent Kindle editions as it does other editions — like when an audiobook appears near the print version in the top 100 — of a book. That means separately. And if a Kindle edition moves as many units as any of the other top titles, it will earn its own place in the top 100. But that hasn't really happened yet.

Copyright Washington Post.Newsweek Interactive

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