As many of you know I recently published my book, The Sun Zebra. One day after publication I checked my book's Amazon Ranking and was stunned to find out that my book was ranked 36,519 in the Kindle store. This amazed me because the Kindle store has more than 1 million books. This meant that my book had climbed to the top 4% in less than a day! So I logged in to my Amazon account to check how many hundreds of books I had sold. I found out that I had sold a womping three books (and one was a copy I bought to make sure the book was OK)! How could this be? How could selling 3 books propel me to the top 4%?
Amazon uses a secret algorithm to rank books based on sales (and presumably other parameters), and compares them to other books. We don't know how this algorithm works but there is enough evidence out there that points to one simple truth. The vast majority of books do not sell much. As a result of that, if you plot books sold against number of authors, what you get is what is called a "power curve" (see figure).
The sharp spike to the left represent the few authors that sell many books. In this small area you will find people like Amanda Hocking, John Locke, Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath. There is then a small transition zone that has authors that have decent but not spectacular sales. And then comes the very long tail that extends to the right. This is where you find the thousands of other writers that have almost no sales on their books. When you are in this tail it is common to find that even the sale of one copy can improve your book's Amazon ranking by hundreds of thousands of points.
Despite realizing this I was tempted to tweet something like "My book reached the top 4% of the Amazon Kindle store!" However, this, although not a false claim, would have been dishonest because it would not tell the whole story. I, and many others, are in that long tail to the right struggling to sell our books and make our way to the left. How will we make it? I don't know yet, but that is the challenge!