Marching Masters: The Agony and Ecstasy of the Amazon Ranking

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By Colin Woodward

Last week, the Central Arkansas Library System put out an annual report in which it noted the top ten authors in terms of people who had borrowed his/her book in the past year. Five of the top ten spots were held by James Patterson. Others in the top ten included Steven Baldacci, Dan Brown, Janet Evanovitch, and John Grisham, if memory serves.

James Patterson has sold an astonishing 300 million books. Yes, 300 million. As things stand, I’m only about 299, 999, 600 copies away from Patterson.

Look out, Jim. I’m coming for you. Soon, every 60 year old on the beach will be carrying my book.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there actually was no James Patterson, that in fact he is the creation of some supercomputer run by a team of twelve snarky graduate students at Berkeley, who are working on a study about how to get artificial intelligence to write popular fiction. The professor in charge of the project (real name: Klaus Schreiber) is the one who does the public appearances.

James Patterson, aka Klaus Schreiber

All props to Patterson’s sales figures. But I can’t even name one book he has written. I’m no fan of Stephen King, but I could name a lot of his books. And his movies. Same for Grisham. Nevertheless, we need a James Patterson. We need people who write paper books that “average” humans will read.

I’d love to have Patterson’s time and resource to write full time. But, even if I did, I wouldn’t write beach books. I’d want to be Hemingway or Graham Greene or Bukowski-lite.

I’ve been to Hemingway’s house in Key West. Patterson lives in Palm Beach. I’ve been to West Palm Beach. I prefer Key West.

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Hemingway’s house: sunny and lush, just like Papa.

The writing of a university press book is not a lucrative business. My first royalty check was so small that my publisher declined to write me one (and would only do so after I had cleared $50, thank you).

The only good way to check the progress of a book on a daily or weekly basis is by way of the amazon ranking. Now, amazon, of course, is not the only book seller. There’s Barnes and Noble and countless small retailers. But amazon at least gives you a good idea of whether or not  your book is selling well.

For academics, you will be lucky to crack the top 200,000 in books on any given day. Once, I was in the top 100,000. That might not sound great, but there are millions of books available on amazon. Getting into the top 200,000 assures you will be in the top 100 for books in a Civil War category–in my case, the Confederacy.

Apparently, though, there isn’t much separation between authors on amazon. The selling of one or two books can send you rocketing toward the top of the charts. Conversely, your rank can plummet in a few hours. Yesterday, I was ranked at around 1.3 million in amazon books. Today, I’m back in the top quarter-million.

The head swells. The head shrinks. For me, the goal is to get to the paperback. By then, I might even get a royalty check.


Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.