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The Amazon Ranking Game: Competing with Harry Potter

Sharing a story from the world of publishing–because sometimes it’s a crazy place.

Refreshing your Amazon ranking… every author knows the addiction.

Your book hits release week, your marketing initiatives are in full effect, and your adrenaline is pumping. With media hits rolling and influencers tweeting and purchase incentives at their peak, surely sales are happening, right?

But there in the moment, you seemingly only have one easily-accessed metric of success: your Amazon ranking.

I have laughed at myself–and laughed with many an author–at the addiction this one little Amazon ranking number can create. When books sell on Amazon, the number decreases. And it’s the most satisfying game in the world to watch it drop… proof that your marketing is successful and consumers are eating up your message.

The sales ranking is a number at the bottom of the Amazon product page that ranks your book against all other books on Amazon, as well as within individual genres. It updates every hour, and the ranking is based on rolling 24-hour sales.

Checking that number can become an obsession. Truthfully, it’s brilliant marketing on Amazon’s part because the ranking system glues the eyes of marketers and authors to its screen. It plays into the psychological game of wanting to know how you compare, where you are, whether you’re moving the needle.

A friend even made the point yesterday that this obsession with Amazon ranking can easily blind an author to what might actually be best for the book’s overall performance in other retailers, as well. This is certainly true, and so it must be considered as only one metric of success–and a pseudo-subjective, temporary one at that.

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I’ve been thinking about Amazon rankings a lot this week because of Harry Potter. That’s right… the beloved ‘Arry Potta (You have to say it with a British accent, c’mon!).

The newest release from J.K. Rowling came out on July 31. As you can imagine, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child made the kind of splash that only a worldwide bestselling series can make. It rumbled the book world, racking up over 2 million sales in North America within the first two days of release. By the end of the first week, it was close to 3 million.

For those without context for these kind of book sales numbers, that’s insane. The average book would be lucky to see 0.01% of those kind of sales over its entire life.

Wondering why I’ve been thinking about Harry? Because last week, that book was neck-and-neck with a new book dear to my heart, Uninvited by Lysa TerKeurst. It’s a book that my team and I have had the privilege to help market over the past few months.

Uninvited released on August 9, and–as is customary for Lysa’s past few books–it has sold gangbusters already, making its way to #2 on Amazon! Its only reason for not hitting that #1 spot? Harry Potter.

We’ve joked about this quite a bit because, of course, Uninvited will never see the sales that Harry Potter has seen. It’s not even a real competition. Harry is like an Olympic athlete racing toddlers (or, like Katie Ledecky in the 800m freestyle). The difference between #1 and #2 is extreme, a disparity in the millions.

What’s so interesting, though, is that the difference between the #2 and #3 spots was probably practically negligible last week–a disparity as small as perhaps only a few books a day. These two books were released by the same publisher, and we were monitoring their sales closely.

Amazon ranking is truly a metric of success for authors, and a real-time one, at that–the type of quick metric which we crave and rarely get in publishing–yet it’s highly dependent on the marketplace. Namely, highly dependent on the other books floating at the top of the pool that day or week.

Had Harry Potter not released so recently, perhaps Uninvited would have hit #1 on Amazon. Who’s to say? I throw that out there not to bash Amazon nor to criticize an author’s obsession with that ranking, but more to offer some food for thought.

The Amazon number, by definition, is a comparison. It holds your book up beside everyone else’s and tells you where you stand. In some ways, that’s friendly competition–but in some ways, it fuels the very thing that authors are encouraged to fight against: the author comparison game.

As one of my team members said the other day, “Well, it’s always something. If it weren’t Harry Potter, it would be that ‘tidying up’ book or some other fly-away bestseller.” And it’s true. It seems there’s always another surprise phenomenon in the book world for us to navigate and learn from.

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