Amazon sales rank: What the heck does it mean?

Amazon sales rank: What the heck does it mean?

Our guest blogger today is my friend Randi Minetor, an author I’ve known for years. We meet regularly for lunch with other central and western New York members of the American Society of Journalists and Author’s Renegade Upstate New York Chapter. Those laugh-filled gatherings let us share information and horror stories and make those important in-person connections that lead to helpful articles like this one! Randi is the author of books on national parks, travel, American history, birds and birding, trees and wildflowers, psychology and sociology, and a wide range of general interest topics. See the whole list on her Amazon Author page.

Amazon sales rank: What the heck does it mean?

Amazon sales rank 2By Randi Minetor

Are you obsessed with your Amazon sales rank?

If you’re like most authors, you may find yourself checking the book’s page daily—or several times a day—to see if the number has changed, and to speculate on what it means.

If it changes by 1 million or more in a day, is your book a runaway bestseller?

If it zigzags up and down across the 100,000 line, does that mean sales are especially brisk?

If you’re not watching this mysterious ranking on a daily basis, let me introduce you so you, too, can join the fun.

Where to find your ranking

On any book’s sales page on Amazon, there’s a block of type toward the bottom of the page with the heading, “Product details.” Under this, you’ll find a line titled Amazon Best Seller Rank, and a number.

Amazon sales rank 3

This number tells you how the book’s sales compare with all of the books for sale on Amazon. On the day I’m writing this, there are more than 22,920,000 book titles listed for sale on the world’s largest bookseller’s site, so this figure can tell you a lot about your book’s relative popularity.

I have 49 books currently for sale on Amazon, and for the past 15 years I’ve watched their rankings rise and fall with the rapt fascination of a raccoon studying a morsel of food in a trap. I’ve had the opportunity to interpret the rank’s meaning, and I’ve researched what others have observed as well.

Amazon doesn’t reveal information about its algorithm or how it works, so what we can discern falls under the heading of “educated guess”—but marketing experts share my conclusions.

The basics

The ranking works like a golf score: The lower it is, the better your book is selling. So the #1 book at any given time is the bestselling book on Amazon at that moment. A book can become a #1 Amazon bestseller for days or weeks or minutes.

Amazon updates its rankings of the top 10,000 bestselling books in real time.

Books ranked between 10,000 and 99,999 are updated hourly, and those at 100,000 or more are updated daily. (That’s the official word, but during the busy Christmas season and occasionally at other times during the year, I have seen the rankings above 100,000 change several times a day. Extremely high volume sales throughout the Amazon site will move the needle more frequently.)

Books don’t have any ranking number at all until the first copy sells.

If your book is ranked 4,984,306, for example, don’t despair—at least one copy has sold at some point in its lifetime. So you’re off and running once the number appears.

Here’s the part that seems crazy: Sales over the life of the book are not computed as part of the ranking. For example, on the day I wrote this, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was ranked #276 in books. This is one of the top-selling books of all time, but if this fact were part of Amazon’s ranking process, the Harry Potter books might occupy the top spots for eternity.

The Amazon rankings indicate sales that are happening (or not) right now, giving any book the opportunity to strive for the #1 ranking, no matter how fleeting its presence there might be.

How sales activity affects your ranking

Here are some general rules of thumb for interpreting the number as it fluctuates over time:

1. Numbers higher than 1 million generally indicate that the book has not sold in some time.

The time since its last sale may be as short as a week or as long as its entire lifetime on Amazon. The more millions accumulate in your book’s ranking, the longer it has been since anyone bought a copy.

So, books that have sunk into the 8 million area or more may have had exactly one sale on Amazon, while those in the 2- to 3-million range have had numerous sales, but their last sale might have been months or even years ago.

2. On the day someone buys your book, it will immediately shoot up to a ranking in the 100,000 to 200,000 range.

If just one copy sells that day and none the next day, the book may slide back into the 300,000 to 500,000 area by the following day, and return to the 1 million or more ranking within four or five days. If someone else buys it, it will remain in the 100,000 range for longer—so you can surmise that you’re selling one book a day as long as your ranking stays between 100,000 and 200,000.

3. A second sale on the same day can catapult your book into five-figure numbers.

So, for example, the first sale sent you to 153,922, and the second one—later the same day—pushed your ranking to 85,635. Now the ranking will start to update hourly, so you can watch to see if it remains at this height throughout the day and into the following day. If it does, you’ve sold several more books.

Now, perhaps you’ve organized a posse to buy your new book on the same day. Maybe around 70 of your relatives, coworkers, pals, and classmates converge on Amazon and purchase your book within a 12-hour period.

What happens to your ranking? Your number gets lower and lower with the volume of sales, until you’re looking at a four-figure number (say, 6,532).

Now your ranking will update in real time. You can watch as it climbs with each new sale, perhaps rising to 3,285, and then 1,961. As long as sales continue at a rate of several an hour, the book maintains this significant ranking.

Amazon sales rank 4Hitting #1

How many sales does it take to hit #1?

This depends not only on your own sales, but also on how other books are selling that day.

If you’re attempting your one-day sales boost on the same day that Nora Roberts or Stephen King releases a new book, your chances of hitting #1 may be compromised.

I can say from experience that it requires hundreds or even thousands of sales on the same day to move from a four-figure ranking to a three-figure one—and to reach the single-digit rankings, you will need many more.

If it’s so difficult, how are there so many books that claim to be Amazon #1 bestsellers?

The clever folks at Amazon came up with a way to allow hundreds more books become #1 bestsellers every day by dividing the site’s millions of titles by genre and area of interest. This created niches in which books can be “category bestsellers,” like my Best Easy Day Hikes in Buffalo, NY, which became a #1 bestseller among books about Buffalo.

I was amazed recently to find that my newest book, Death in Zion National Park: Accidents and Foolhardiness in Utah’s Grand Circle, had become a #1 bestseller in the new books about Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks category. Amazon places a bright orange banner on the page of a #1 book . . .  even if, like Death in Zion, it’s actually the only book in that category.

Have you ever been obsessed with your Amazon sales rank? Tell us in a comment how often you refreshed the page!


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31 Responses to Amazon sales rank: What the heck does it mean?
  1. Kathy Steinemann
    May 3, 2017 | 9:11 am

    Thanks, Randi!

    “The clever folks at Amazon came up with a way to allow hundreds more books become #1 bestsellers every day by dividing the site’s millions of titles by genre and area of interest.”

    I enjoy seeing that bright yellow banner. It pops up at Amazon.ca as well, but not Amazon.com.au. I wonder if that will change once the Australia site starts selling print books and merchandise.

    Speaking of foreign Amazons, recently somebody from India reminded me that English is one of their official languages. Blushing as I did so, I immediately added Amazon.in to the sales links on my website.

    • Randi Minetor
      May 3, 2017 | 1:25 pm

      An excellent point, Kathy—I should do the same. I’ll bet you’re right about Amazon Australia; once they have print books for sale, they are likely to start noting #1 bestsellers more aggressively.

  2. Jenna Rose Robbins
    May 3, 2017 | 11:30 am

    I had my book hit #1 in two Amazon categories, but the yellow banner never showed up. When I sent an email asking why, I received the following response:

    Our internal system considers a number of different factors and we aren’t able to say exactly why your book, “Faithful and Devoted: Confessions of a Music Addict,” isn’t eligible at this time for the Best Seller badge.

    If it becomes eligible in the future, we will display the Best Seller badge at that time and it will appear in the search results for your book.


    Do you have any insight as to why my book didn’t earn the badge?

    • Kathy Steinemann
      May 3, 2017 | 12:24 pm

      Amazon secret.

      How long was it in the #1 position? Maybe it has to be for a certain number of hours first.

      • Jenna Rose Robbins
        May 3, 2017 | 1:04 pm

        It was in the #1 spot for at least a day. And the publisher I work with says that she’s seen the banner show up in a matter of hours.

    • Randi Minetor
      May 3, 2017 | 1:23 pm

      Jenna, that’s a very good question. I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for you, but it’s something I will try to look into. If the folks at Amazon don’t even know why, however, it may be another algorithmic mystery that they are reluctant to discuss. (I can’t help but wonder if the bots that compute all of these things at Amazon have developed minds of their own.)

      • Jenna Rose Robbins
        May 4, 2017 | 12:27 am

        Thanks! I’ve looked everywhere for an answer and can’t seem to get one. Would appreciate any insight you might find!

  3. Jim O'Brien
    May 3, 2017 | 6:28 pm

    Randi, thanks for an excellent post. Sounds like if you want to be sure to get on a bestsellers list, pick a genre that’s not loaded with a lot of writers. How many genres are there?

    • Randi Minetor
      May 4, 2017 | 8:49 am

      Jim, there are literally hundreds—maybe thousands—of genres. For example, there used to just be “mysteries,” but now there are science fiction mysteries, erotic mysteries, romantic mysteries, procedural mysteries, spy mysteries, urban mysteries, cozy mysteries, locked-room mysteries, historical mysteries, noir mysteries … you get the idea. Publishers have found that the more niches they can define, the more readers they get—but each book may sell fewer copies. My advice to any author is to write what you enjoy writing … but it will help sales if you can find a way to enjoy a genre that will sell.

      • Jim O'Brien
        May 5, 2017 | 11:30 pm

        Randi, thanks, appreciate the info. very helpful.

  4. Jen YatesNZ
    May 3, 2017 | 6:45 pm

    Very informative, thanks Randi! It’s great to have a little understanding of how the great Amazon machine works!
    Jen YatesNZ.

  5. Abigail Neilson
    May 4, 2017 | 4:41 am

    Thank you very much for this article! It has cleared up my confusion about the ranking:-)

    Kind regards
    Abigail Neilson

  6. Mark Armstrong
    May 4, 2017 | 10:03 am

    Illuminating, and very helpful– thank you!

  7. stephen black
    May 5, 2017 | 1:22 pm

    Hello, very informative post. Thank you…However, author Hugh Howey and “Data Guy” have reverse engineered Amazon’s sales algorithms. Search HH and DG to find out more, although my recent blog post happens to include a link to a Digital Book World interview with HH, in which he explains a bit about his research.

  8. Billie Tekel Elias
    May 6, 2017 | 8:42 am

    Thanks, Randi. I used a paid promotion to catapult the ranking of my book to #1 in one of Amazon’s genres. It didn’t stay there for long, but it’s never been back to 5-digits. I, too, never had the yellow banner.

    I see your ranking for History>State & Local and for Nature & Ecology (genres). Where do you find the ranking for a category like “Buffalo?”

    • Jenna Rose Robbins
      May 6, 2017 | 11:50 am

      So curious why some people get the yellow banner and others don’t!

      • Randi Minetor
        May 6, 2017 | 4:53 pm

        Jenna, I’ve asked Amazon and have not yet received their response. I’ll post here with whatever they say.

        • Jenna Rose Robbins
          May 7, 2017 | 2:08 pm

          Thank you! I hope they give you a more concrete answer than they gave me.

          • Randi Minetor
            May 8, 2017 | 10:57 am

            Jenna and everyone: OK, I finally picked up the phone and called Amazon’s Author Central, and spoke with a human being. His name is Ragu.

            Ragu checked with his supervisor and said that for the book to get the #1 Bestseller badge on its page, there must be at least 100 books in the category. If there are only 70 books, for example, the badge will not appear.

            So when placing your book on Amazon (or working with your publisher to do so), if you choose a niche in which there are only a few books, you will not get the #1 badge when your book hits #1 in that category.

            Some of my books are in very small categories, and I have seen the badge show up briefly on the book’s page (as I mentioned about Death in Zion in the blog above), but it disappeared within a few hours, even though the book stayed at #1 on its list. Perhaps the system is a little buggy.

            Does this help?

          • Kathy Steinemann
            May 8, 2017 | 11:04 am

            Thanks for this helpful information, Randi. Who knew?

          • Jenna Rose Robbins
            May 8, 2017 | 11:04 am

            Thanks for checking, but both of the categories where I was #1 have far more than 100 books — over 2000 books in each. These are the categories:
            Humor & Entertainment > Pop Culture > Music
            Arts & Photography > Music > History & Criticism

    • Randi Minetor
      May 6, 2017 | 4:52 pm

      Hi Billie — In the area where the ranking is displayed on a book’s page, there are category rankings stacked under the main one. You can click on the last term in the category string to see what books are ahead of that one in the category. Does that answer your question? If not, let me know.

  9. Sharon Ervin
    May 6, 2017 | 8:41 pm

    Yes, I’ve long been obsessed with the fluctuating Amazon numbers re my books. Recently, a publisher that produced my book JINGO STREET had issues and I asked for and received my rights back. I sent a note to Amazon telling them of the change. Oddly enough, the sales numbers go up and down, but I don’t know where any royalty is going. Not coming here. Then, where? I love a good mystery. This one is especially baffling.

    • Sandra Beckwith
      May 7, 2017 | 5:09 pm

      Sharon, the publisher still owns the version of the book it published, so the royalties are going to that company. You would have to re-publish and re-list the book yourself to start collecting royalties directly.

      Sandy

  10. Randi Minetor
    May 8, 2017 | 11:12 am

    Jenna, I think this is a case in which the system is just not working as well as it should. I’ve been all kinds of weird issues with the ranking system over the years. Amazon is unlikely to admit to me or anyone that it’s not as good as it could be.

  11. David P Perlmutter
    May 10, 2017 | 12:33 pm

    One of my books, Wrong Place Wrong Time has been and currently is a #1 bestseller in #WhiteCollarCrime and #TimeOut in the UK. Plus has been ##1 in #TrueCrime in #Australia and #AMERICA…. Over 330 x 5* reviews.

  12. Bob Szczech
    October 25, 2017 | 6:27 am

    If the ranking and bestseller banner are so fleeting then what’s the point? How does it translate into more sales if nobody sees it?

    • Sandra Beckwith
      October 25, 2017 | 8:47 am

      Great question, Bob. The thinking is that when an author includes “best-selling author” or “best-selling book” in marketing efforts, it gives readers proof that the book is good, so they should buy it. The problem is that authors who do this don’t say that it was an Amazon category best-seller, not a NY Times best-seller, which is certainly misleading. And readers are getting wise to this.

      You might be interested in this article by my friend Marcia Layton Turner on the Association of Ghostwriters site:
      http://associationofghostwriters.org/what-does-bestseller-mean/

      Sandy

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