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An Earthquake Hits Amazon’s Sales Ranking

Anyone who’s ever written a book — and these days, who hasn’t? — can tell you that watching your sales rank on can be a pretty fun sport.

But something happened recently that made it a lot more fun for some people, and a lot less fun for others.

I noticed the change the other day when I checked the Amazon page for Freakonomics. For the first 12 or 18 months of the book’s release, we were generally ranked somewhere in the top 20, hanging out at No. 2 for a long time (we couldn’t get past the pre-release Harry Potter) and finally hitting No. 1 briefly after a 20/20 special on the book.

Then, for the past 6 or 8 months, we’ve floated around the 30 to 40 range. When something significant happened — a TV appearance, e.g. — there might be a bump, but it wasn’t usually drastic and it didn’t last long. We were like the guy who just hangs out at the end of the bar nursing his beer, not really hurting anyone but not leaving either.

And then, the other day, we dropped like a stone. As I write this, Freakonomics is ranked No. 194 on Amazon.

What happened? Did the steady stream of people who’d been buying one book for months suddenly stop buying it?

No: what happened is that the Amazon best-seller sales rankings suddenly got a radical overhaul. Here are the top 25 books on Amazon. As I write, Alan Greenspan‘s book (despite Levitt’s prediction) is still No. 1, and the runaway paperback hit Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is at No. 3. Those are the kind of books that have always been ranked high on Amazon. But the other eight books in the top ten are all either Curious George or Clifford the Big Red Dog books — inexpensive children’s paperbacks. This kind of book never used to rank high on Amazon, and I am not sure if this was a premeditated change, a quirk, or a mistake; but it certainly has changed the feel of the Amazon rankings.

Although Amazon is secretive about how its sales rankings are determined, I have always suspected that the list is weighted toward a certain kind of book — new hardcovers, to be precise. There could be a lot of reasons for this: a best-seller list looks more appetizing if it is full of new books instead of old ones; perhaps Amazon wants to sell more of the expensive hardcovers than it wants to sell cheaper paperbacks; etc.

I have no idea what precipitated this change, but I wonder if it has something to do with shipping costs. In the old days, customers often paid the shipping on Amazon orders. Nowadays, assuming that Amazon has been successful in converting a lot of its customers to its Prime membership (I sure signed up), which offers free shipping on most orders, the company is paying the shipping. In that case, selling a cheap and light 20-year-old Curious George paperback, even for $3.95, may be as profitable as selling the Alan Greenspan book. Does anyone out there have any insider knowledge of the Amazon change? And/or offer alternate theories?