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What Does It Take to Be a ‘Best-Selling Author’? $3 and 5 Minutes (observer.com)
454 points by hullo on Feb 25, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 91 comments

Aww, just like every person I call at an 800 number is a Customer Executive, every product I buy is Award Winning, every slice of pizza I eat is World Famous, every company I work with is an Industry Leader, etc. This is also how I am the founder, president, CEO, and owner of my company, which is basically just me and my laptop doing contract work every once in a while.

Look, this is a stupid bug in their algorithm, and will probably be fixed at some point. Or perhaps the label falls off during hour number 2 when nobody is buying it. There are other ways to hack the Amazon publishing system, like Tim Ferris did when he sent free copies of his book out to people so that they would leave reviews when it went on sale. Does it really matter?

> Look, this is a stupid bug in their algorithm, and will probably be fixed at some point.

How is it a bug in their algorithm? If anything it's a bug in their process. OP found a niche category with so little competition that it was simple to legitimately become the best-selling author by virtue of having the best-selling book (over some time period) in that category?

I agree with him that the title is meaningless, but it's not necessarily inaccurate. What Amazon needs to do - that is, if they care about the 'validity' of the best-seller title - is better vet submissions and purchases. One person purchasing multiple copies should probably only count as one purchase for the sake of this distinction, although that might hurt small retailers that buy from Amazon directly.

I see this as not much different than claiming you're a World Record Holder because you stacked the most pennies on your big toe (it was 21, for the record).

Best Seller implies loads of people bought the book. Put a absolute floor of a few hundred copies sold, in addition to comparing the relative sales.

You don't want people to start questioning your brand (Amazon Best Seller in this case). We all know that World Record Holder doesn't mean much on its own. You have to specify whether it was most pennies stacked on a toe, biggest soap bubble, etc. What TFA points out is pretty much that the title Amazon Best Seller is useless without specifying a category, or possibly not at all.

The author is a little deceptive, it wasn't a "Best Seller", it was a best seller in its category. Each category has its own best seller, and apparently the category he chose (Transpersonal Psychology Movements) doesn't have a lot of sales.

The deception is him telling people he's a "Best Seller" when really he's "Best Seller in Category." And frankly, Amazon's styling encourages the deception.

Hardly, he isn't being deceptive at all, it's that Amazon's categories are so easy to game.

Categories are normal in modern bestseller lists. Take a look at NY Times' Bestseller Page:


There is the Fiction and Non-Fiction list, but besides that are dozens and dozens of categories. And each of the authors in each category is a NY Times Bestselling Author.

Now, the NY Times at least has some gatekeeping done by human beings, Amazon has been easy to game for about as long as they've had bestseller lists. It's the same for all their "best selling" categories, some are just easier than others.

Um, all Amazon has to do is match the time frame of the NYT, such as a week instead of an hour.

The NY Times is being deceptive, too.

That's exactly the point no?

It makes a ton of sense.

By owning one small, niche category with good timing and an easy push, if it drives enough sales, you can basically trade up in your other categories. If you get the right combination and self-sustaining beyond your local allies, you could get traction across the board and build a legitimate best seller in an ever widening space which just furthers the cycle. It's the same as Hacker News.

And it reminds me of another book I read last year.. ;)

In my experience, getting the "Best Seller" label isn't self-sustaining. It doesn't seem to generate a huge number of sales on its own (but it does let you call yourself a best-seller, which is kind of cool)

Playing devil's advocate, could this also be a means by which Amazon increases their influence in the book selling world by decreasing the value of the title of "best selling" author? In the traditional sense, we think of best selling authors as achieving certain sales numbers in a given time period (NYT Best Seller's List for instance) where access to the club is limited by the amount of space on the list. In terms of a writing career, it used to be an illustrious achievement to make one of the major newspapers' best seller lists and became an advertising perk for later writing and speaking endeavors.

Now, with the advent of Amazon, anyone can be a best seller based on very fine grained categories (as shown here) but claim the same accolades based on the title of Best Selling Author. A lot of people accept the title at face value. Over time, this shifts the power from the traditional lists to Amazon since Amazon has most of the power in determining who gets a "best seller" label and at what granularity.

I think this is what the author is really concerned about. In the article he mentions his job consists of working with authors to promote their books and their metric of success is aiming for the NYT best seller's list. If that list loses its value and the cache of being a NYT Best Selling Author decreases, then the author's value add to an individual author is diminished thereby threatening his underlying business model as it stands now.

Depending on the category, roughly 3,000 to 9,000 sales in a week will get you near the top of one of the NYT lists.

It's basically the same deal as Amazon, but on a bigger scale. Unfortunately it's not that much harder to game if you have spare cash and/or plenty of friends and/or followers and/or a significant marketing budget.

Not many people understand that sales can peak and dwindle rapidly. Unless you're J.K Rowling or George R.R. Martin, many books typically get a week of marketing effort at most.

So it's not unusual to hit the lists for the first week with - say - 10,000 copies, but only sell another 5,000 - 10,000 copies in the next 12 months.

This may be enough of a reason for a publisher to drop an author. Even after a book gets the coveted NYT best-seller tag, total royalties may still not cover a modest initial advance.

Staying on the lists for a long time is a whole other game, and much more of an accolade than getting on the lists in the first place.

> If anything it's a bug in their process

It's not a bug at all, it behooves both parties that this occurs. The seller will sell more books appearing to be reputable, and amazon makes more money because they are selling more product. It's really a buyer beware tale if anything, online retailers are becoming 'used car salesmen' of the 21st century.

> online retailers are becoming 'salesmen'

Let me fix that for you.

> behooves

I see what you did there.

Amazon has this problem with their "Top 500 Reviewer" category as well. I recently stumbled upon one of these whose reviews were all 5 stars, and all began with the same sentence. A quick look through that list also shows a few Top 500 Reviewers with zero reviews.

"Amazon Bestseller" and "Top 500 Reviewer" are concepts that form a large part of Amazon's brand and value proposition. Regardless of whether this is a bug that can be quickly patched, they should pay more attention to things like this IMHO.

I consider "Top 500 Reviewer" to be sign of someone who has made a hobby (if not a career) of receiving free stuff in exchange for writing reviews of said stuff. Makes it much easier to identify which reviews to ignore due to the reviewer having a definite conflict of interest.

I actually agree, and when I'm considering an Amazon purchase I find myself browsing all of the reviews for a particular reviewer, just to see how thoughtful they are.

Even so, Amazon's flavor of content curation has been a major part of their success story, and they mark their top 500 reviewers with a special tag for a reason - customers derive value from it (it's a badge of trust, in a way).

A local wine shop near me had hand written notes on their wines. The owner noticed that when the note said "delicious!" it was more likely to be purchased. So now all of the wines are labeled as such. No word on overall sales since then.

There are statistical methods to fix the algorithm. How Not To Sort By Average Rating[0] reviews a couple of the typical ranking 'algorithms' and presents a much better option. There was a thread[1] about this article last year.

[0]: http://www.evanmiller.org/how-not-to-sort-by-average-rating.... [1]: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9855784

How does that apply here? The best-seller tag is applied to books that have the most sales.

>Look, this is a stupid bug in their algorithm, and will probably be fixed at some point.

I don't think its actually a bug, it's just the way Amazon sales rank works.


"I can define Amazon sales rank in one sentence:

“The period of time since an item last sold.”

That’s it

What does that mean? It means that starting from one hour after an item sells, its rank will start to rise until it sells again. The longer the gap between sales, the higher its sales rank grows. When the product sells again, it will drop significantly and then begin to rise again an hour later."


"2. Current Sales Rank CAN’T Tell You How Well an Item is Selling

Because of the huge swings that sales rank can undergo (see the previous graph), looking at a single data point can’t tell you how well an item is selling. A low sales rank (one that is close to 1), can trick you into thinking an item is a longtime popular seller, when actually, that item was just sold.

To make accurate guesses about how fast an item is selling, you need to look at multiple data points and see how an item’s sales rank trends over time."

All products on Amazon have a sales rank, not just books. I'm not really sure of the reason for publishing it but it isn't supposed to be scientific or anything (the exact algorithm is not disclosed). All categories have a sales rank and a best seller list, no matter how obscure and the sales rank has worked this way forever. Why? I don't know.

Anytime I see "world famous", I like to imagine the shop's owner mother is from some other country overseas - bam, world famous baby.

> There are other ways to hack the Amazon publishing system, like Tim Ferris did when he sent free copies of his book out to people so that they would leave reviews when it went on sale.

That's not a hack, that's a value-add. https://www.amazon.com/gp/vine/help

The author is right...it doesn't take a high level of talent, or any at all in his example, to become a "best seller"...

I pay no attention to "best seller" labels...

I realized quite some time back that my reading time is far more limited than I would like for it to be...I intend to spend the time I do have reading the best I can get my hands on...

When looking for a good read I most certainly do not start at Amazon...

Rather, I look through lists of the major literary prize winners and select something from them...

Pulitzer Prize Winners, National Book Award winners, Pen Faulkner Award for Fiction winners, Man Booker Prize winners...just to name a few...

I've yet to be disappointed, even when the topics are somewhat outside my everyday interests and hobbies...

A list of the major awards:


There's something there for every taste...and you'll benefit from knowing that someone took a great deal of time and care with their efforts...someone writing seriously...

Great recommendation - go to the experts when looking for new material.


I enjoy your very zen use of ellipses.

Softens everything you say...and makes things flow together nicely...also gives space for people to think their own thoughts...


Talking about Pulitzer. I read an article about how many people were putting Pulitzer Nominee in their titles when anybody can be a nominee. Winning it's a different story.

> I realized quite some time back that my reading time is far more limited than I would like for it to be...I intend to spend the time I do have reading the best I can get my hands on...

As readers we have to come to terms with the fact that we will miss out on many good books, there just isn't enough time to read them all in a lifetime. I decided stop reading the ones that aren't that interesting to me after reading (roughly) 30%-40%[1] of the book. If after this it hasn't grabbed my interest then it just isn't my kind of book, at least in my experience. Will I miss out on the rare book that gets its act together after the 60% mark? Sure, but in my experience those are very rare and I'd rather miss out on them than spend the remaining time chasing the elusive "it gets really good after the 60% mark" books.

> I've yet to be disappointed, even when the topics are somewhat outside my everyday interests and hobbies...

My experience has been the opposite of this. I have found a lot of duds in those lists (I'm talking about fiction books specifically)...

[1] All percentages are approximations.

You make good points...most of them seem to hinge on your awareness that your time is limited, or that the topic is not one you're intensely interested in...

I'm forced to make choices like that, myself...sadly...a chance to grow as a person--who knows what knocks at our door at any given time?

That's fair...we all get to choose what we read...

Some great works are "insiders"...the writers received the award because other writers understood the difficulty of what was being attempted...and appreciated the effort...

Some works are deeply steeped in, and influenced by, literary theory...they're highly technical, even obtuse to the layman, but other writers "get it"...they're often not "popular" for that reason...

And often they have the most to offer...

Somewhat tangential, but I absolutely pay attention to the "Best Seller" tag - just not for books. It's relevant for many other products, like electronics or kitchen appliances, for example.

Confession: I am guilty of this. Well, sort of. I actually did write a book, and it did sell more than 3 copies, and now I put "best selling author" on my resume, on account of my book being #1 in its category (sometimes) and #1 on oreilly.com (sometimes).

So far no one has gotten bent out of shape about it (or maybe no one has looked at my resume), I assume because they're smart enough to know that a "best selling" data science book is not on the NYT list outselling Stephen King and 50 Shades of Gray and Hunger Games, it's bestselling among "Books / Computers / Data & Data Analytics" or whatever.

Having put my bias on the table, I have a hard time getting worked up about what this guy did, for the following reason:

"Whoa, you're a bestselling author? What did you write?" "It's not a book, it's a picture of my foot." "Oh. That's kind of strange. How many copies did it sell?" "Three." "..."

I mean, it's not like there's some kind of special club where "best selling author" allows you to cut in line or anything. Is there? If there is, please let me know.

Slightly off topic, but your book is awesome. I'd highly recommend it to anyone who knows Python (or programming in general) but for whom math-notation-heavy stats/ML books are daunting.

My first pass through was a while back, but I still find myself going back to the example code for quick refreshers about key concepts.

Well isn't that the point of the article. Showing how absurd this is and shaming the "I'll make you a bestselling author" snake oil sales people? I love that he explicitly names some of the offenders.

Wonderful author credits at the end:

> Brent Underwood is the No. 1 best-selling author of Putting My Foot Down and a ...

Another bonus is the author's update footnote:

>> "Author’s update: Since writing this piece and making my debut, my book has inexplicably been removed from the Amazon catalogue. I have yet to hear from an Amazon representative on the matter, but it is clear that something is afoot."

Footnote? Man the jokes just write themselves.

Corny but he nailed it....

It was a nice touch.

This. Is. Hysterical.

I literally cried from laughing several times as I was reading.

Can you start a companion series titled, "On the Other Hand: An Exploration of Misplaced Gloves"?

Toe the Line: Investigating the Lost Sock Conspiracy

It makes me want to buy his book.

Same here. It was no longer available though.

I need friends like Aaron

Okay I completely understand the concept of the post and get the sadness and humor all at the same time. In an era where attentiveness and long-form reading seems to be in distinct decline, distinctions within the marketplace losing meaning hurts. I'm sure customers will eventually adapt though...but this quote:

>I wrote this post because I’m tired of vanity titles and success without quality.

...just makes me laugh, because we're talking about an industry that most recently is probably the most guilty of "success without quality" by way of the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise and all the buckets and buckets of money it made. Self-help being a juggernaut of sales year after year. Obvious derivative slop like Pride and Prejudice & Zombies and the wish-fulfillment nostalgia collage of Ready Player One aren't bringing a new enlightenment to society, practically speaking.

>I hope my story illustrates that the best marketing tactic you can use for a book is to write a great book that actually sells over the long term.

Actually, it kind of illustrates the opposite, in that "a book uploaded every five minutes" isn't a signal-to-noise ratio that really makes much of any sense. The only reason to write a quality book is vanity at this point.

The day that an entity - a startup, a publisher, a legacy firm - can figure out how to intelligently and profitably cull 'good quality' new artists from the loads and loads of self-publishing writers, musicians, or cinema/visual creators out there on their own and bring viewers is the day artists and audiences probably start meeting the monetization in the middle.

>>The only reason to write a quality book is vanity at this point.<<

No, not always...the reason some strive to write a "quality" book, is not money, though for some that would be nice...a bit of fame, as well...

Money is not a god...it's a fungible thing that people can use to buy almost whatever they wish...things to play with, time to pursue interests, security for those they love...

Some are "driven" to write, and for such people writing well is the goal...this is because they see what can happen when a writer writes well...a great work can define a time, change minds for the better, illuminate otherwise overlooked aspects of life...and lives...

Writing is a passion, for some, just like coding or problem solving is to some of us in this community...or, like hitting a "home run" financially is for entrepreneurs...

They didn't choose this passion, it chose them...

I admire them...let's not sell them short...they're much like us...passions differ...

The signal-to-noise ratio for Kindle books is out of hand.

Self publishing can be fantastic as it lowers the bar to entry, enabling authors to be heard who wouldn't normally get past the traditional gatekeepers. Andy Weir's 'The Martian' is a great example of this.

Conversely, finding anything decent on the Kindle store by browsing - especially Kindle Unlimited - is difficult due to the avalanche of crap which clogs up every category.

And I guess it's not really in Amazon's interest to improve this - money is money after all, and they want people to buy these 'books' otherwise 'authors' may stop publishing to the platform.

However, even if the books are unreadable, there's a lot of entertainment to be had from the covers: http://kindlecoverdisasters.tumblr.com

> These days, over one million books are published each year, with at least half of these self-published.

The biggest thing I got out of that article is that the Internet has truly killed the prospect of making a living as an author if you're competing with half a million other self-published books every year.

I'd say that no one should go into any of the following professions with any expectation of making any money at all:

1) Writing of any kind (fiction, non-fiction, technical articles, journalism -- forget about it!)

2) Digital art of any kind (see DeviantArt for millions of super-talented creations that haven't earned a cent)

3) Photography of any kind (see Shutterfly for millions of photos better than anything you ever took and yet no one will ever pay for)

4) Composing music or lyrics

It kind of surprises me that software, a creative and digital medium like the above, is not futile and that you can still make a good living at it.

>It kind of surprises me that software, a creative and digital medium like the above, is not futile and that you can still make a good living at it.

Mostly by writing software for a specific business purpose. There's still money in custom content in most of the other areas you list as well--mostly at the high-end of the scale. You're right that it's increasingly hard to just throw your creations out and hope someone will pay much for them.

> It kind of surprises me that software, a creative and digital medium like the above, is not futile and that you can still make a good living at it.

The thing that differentiates software is that it often enables other people to make or save significant amounts of money. That's something you usually can't say about music or photography, and when you can say it, like with advertising, there's money to be made. If you look at software that doesn't make or save anyone money (e.g. most mobile apps) there isn't actually a ton of money in it for your average creator, just like other creative mediums.

The exception for all of these would be individual, contracted work. IE, wedding photographers will be in demand long after any mass-market commercial photography dies out.

Although, even in that case, as was discussed on another thread recently, there's a lot of hollowing out going on. Tier 1 wedding photographers with distinctive styles in big demand will continue to be able to charge big $$ for those willing and able to afford them. But the guy that used to have a local monopoly mostly by dint of having spent some dollars on gear and an office-front is being undercut by gig workers with DSLRs. Most people don't care about their wedding photos being "art." And many young couples will take the package that costs half as much.

Not really a new phenomenon. I sold 4 comics and was second only to Neil Gaiman's Sandman. https://shkspr.mobi/blog/2013/08/how-to-crack-amazons-kindle...

It's an even less useful a heuristic than "As Seem On TV!"

To be fair, I think a good number of people use "As seen on TV!" as a reasonably strong recommendation not to buy the thing, if only for social class purposes.

I would never even consider buying something "As seem on TV!" ;)

I wanted to buy this book..seems like it's down now :(

It's not there anymore!?!? -- I was going to purchase it!

For the inevitable movie version, I'd like to see Idris Elba or Jake Gyllenhaal cast as the foot.


(Not the movie of the best-seller.)

An elegant demonstration of a technique that works for most products on Amazon. Isn't it incredible how virtually every product you look at on Amazon is a #1 best seller in its category? At the very least, it'll be in the top 15. They only sell the best-possible products on there, right? Oh, it's only because the categories are so endlessly varied--er, "precise," that each one conveniently only has 8-15 products in it.

Or perhaps, miraculously, you're only looking at the best of the best products?

If he had played up his "book" as fine art, he could have made millions. Kind of like how this guy took photos of other people's photos and sold them for exorbitant amounts:


It seems like Amazon could fix this in a straightforward way without losing the "hourly updated" part of their bestseller list - just compute a longer time period for each hour, like a rolling average. That way the current bestseller still updates every hour, but they'd need to have the most sales over the last week/month instead.

I don't know which is worse: Amazon's shoddy rating system (for 'bestsellers') or someone using this 'rating' to pass themselves as a first rate author ...

Did amazon pull his book down for low content? Anyways, this is an actual business strategy as the categories is always changing. I was hired by a guy to script which categories have a higher chance than others to get the top spot. The number of views for a category bestseller is staggering.

That's an interesting project. Is this script open source by any chance? It's not of any practical use, but it'd be interesting to graph the fluctuations if there are any.

TL;DR: Choose an arbitrary small Amazon category to publish your book in. You'll be #1!

Amazon would be smart to create an official "Amazon Best Selling Author" certification and protecting it by going after anybody claiming a fake Amazon title. Unfortunately and strangely, Amazon doesn't seem to care about this kind of reputation management, for example their product reviews have become a spam quagmire, and Amazon actually encourages it with their Vine reviewer program.

To everybody who saying something along lines "amazon should do X Y Z": amazon's business is clusterfuck, but profitable one. They have TONS of issues with ranking, process, UI, etc,etc,etc. Almost every single problem requires reaching through seller support to engineering team, or someone having closer DB access. Categorization, fields are all SUBcategory-depending. The way you get included into certain categories is also depends on product/subcategory. Stuff sometimes simply doesn't work. In 2015 alone they switched between three different promotion offerings.

I am selling on amazon and deal with it often :) It looks like it is constant growing pains.

Good PR, Amazon! They just made me read a tutorial of how to upload a book to their side, and convinced me it's easy enough to give it a try if I ever wanted to publish a book.

Self-Publishing on Amazon Kindle is easy. It is harder to sell and make sure you use good writing in your book to correct grammar mistakes.

To self-publish you just fill out forms and upload a Word document and JPG file for the cover. Then select copyright and were to sell it and for how much. It usually takes 24 hours to be approved.

I was going to say that this was a fun hack and neat to read about but the author seemed actually angry about this bug. It's a random thing that's kind of funny and probably will be fixed.

Though I am curious about the economics behind it. People really spending money on what they see is a "Best Seller" when it shouldn't be? Seems like most people buy books based on recommendations, not just going to Amazon and clicking on the best seller tab.

I believe the author is angry at how many people in the author/publishing world flout this "bug" as a way to fool possible customers rather than the bug itself. He mentions working with a lot of NYT best-sellers and I can imagine it would be frustrating for people to claim they are on the same level after doing something like this.

This. The sheer quantity of terrible content marketers whose sole content is selling the idea that you can become a bestselling author who wear this badge is absurd.

  > It's a random thing that's kind of funny and probably will be fixed.
I don't think it will get fixed. Amazon chose to give the "best seller" title to the top book in each category. There is some justification for this, but mostly it makes people more likely to buy a book when they see the "best seller" label. Thus Amazon is incentivized to put the best seller label on as many books as possible.

Is it actually still possible to buy the alleged book? I couldn't find it with a cursory search of Amazon.com.

Looks like it was yanked, the book is linked at the bottom of the article: http://www.amazon.com/Putting-My-Foot-Down-Featuring-ebook/d...

Me neither. Looks riveting.

Has been going on for a while. As I wrote about a couple years ago with my own experience:


How did Amazon approve this?

As someone that just published a book through that process, they don't actually care about the content or what it is that your book is about. They're just reviewing it to make sure that there aren't any glaring formatting errors that will cause it to print poorly or make their final product look bad.

They check the DPIs of images, margins, and technical things like that. Absolutely no regard is given for content, and this, IMHO, is exactly how it should be. Self-publishing empowers authors. Sometimes we get junk like 50 Shades of Grey and other times we get gems like The Martian.

A better question. What does it take to hit best seller status on a top level category?

About 5000 books sold in a day or. Thats... a lot harder (or just more expensive) to fake.

It really depends on the period they use to calculate it. My book was very briefly the #1 programming book on Amazon[1], which is, I think, a decent-sized category. I don't know the exact numbers, but I probably sold a few hundred copies that day. But, more importantly, I think I had a narrow spike of a lot of sales in a couple of hours right when the book first launched.

[1]: http://journal.stuffwithstuff.com/2014/11/20/how-my-book-lau...

It depends. They're calculated hourly. Right place right time...could be just a couple dozen. Books sell less copies than people think.

That's interesting, do you have a sense for what the incremental sales were from having the #1 designation?

Gary Vaynerchuk did an 8 hour preorder drive yesterday. From what I recall, it peaked at 211ish on Amazon in that time (giving him #1 in most of his subcategories) and they said they had about 8000 preorders in the bucket, most of which were via Amazon. TBH I was gobsmacked he wasn't at #1 given the book market.

Please register my complaint to Amazon. I want to buy your bestselling title! They have no rights to deprive me as a reader. I love feet!

Per definition of the word "best", there can be only one, so I never took that term serious

So the easy fix is to make the bestseller list look at the last week, not hour. Wow.

tldr anyone? I read 25%, it was bragging and fancy talk. How is the system actually tricked?

Amazon gave his book a "#1 Best Seller" rating even though it only sold three copies (one to the author and two to his friends). It was actually (presumably) the best selling book in a very niche category, over a very short space of time.

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