Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.
As she looked at her book’s product page on Amazon, a new, traditionally published author asked me what the Amazon Best Sellers Rank means. Did it tell her anything about how many sales were being made? Why are sales rankings always changing?
When it says “only 2 books left,” what does that mean? Though this author was traditionally published, many self-published authors struggle with figuring out what it all means, too.
So let me explain what all these confusing numbers and terms mean for authors.
Whether you’re traditionally or self-published, you can claim your author profile on Amazon through Author Central. After your identity and claim to book titles are verified, you’ll be able to do the following:
- Establish an author profile page on Amazon where you can post your bio, videos, and links to your blog or podcast RSS feed.
- Access reports for Amazon Best Sellers Rank and NPD Bookscan rankings.
- See the most recent customer reviews for your book without having to constantly visit your book product pages on Amazon.
Amazon Best Sellers Rank
The author who contacted me said she was checking “the numbers,” which I presumed was Amazon Best Sellers Rank, “a million times a day.” Dear authors, please don’t do this! Let me explain why.
For the Amazon Best Sellers Rank, sometimes referred to as “BSR,” the lower the BSR number, the higher you rank. Note that for your Kindle editions, your BSR shown on Author Central is for “Paid” books, meaning it doesn’t include Free Kindle Book Promotions. Also, note that this number tells you nothing about the number of books sold.
Your book’s BSR is a constantly moving target. The Amazon Customer Service documentation as of this post date had this to say about Best Sellers Rank:
The Amazon Best Sellers calculation is based on Amazon sales, and is updated hourly to reflect recent and historical sales of every item sold on Amazon. [Emphasis added for hourly.]
With hourly updates, your BSR could vary widely and wildly within the span of just one day. So unless you have the iron emotional stamina of a stock market day trader, basing the evaluation of your book’s success on Amazon’s BSR doesn’t help your physical and mental health.
Here’s something that freaks out authors. Your BSR can improve, sometimes dramatically, without you selling even one book. Or it can decline dramatically, even if you make sales, because there may be a flood of sales for other competing titles. This is because BSR is a calculation based on both recent and historical sales in comparison to other books, though KDP Support documentation says that recent activity is weighted more heavily.
I could not confirm on Amazon documentation if Kindle Unlimited KENP page reads impact BSR. What’s confusing is that KDP says sales ranking is based on “activity.” So are Kindle Unlimited reads considered “activity?” Logically, it seems like it might. But only Amazon knows.
In case you’re wondering, no—we don’t know the exact formula Amazon uses to calculate BSR. Like Google, they are not going to share that to prevent gaming of the system. Since BSR is a metric over which you have zero control, you should have zero worries over it.
Let’s look at reports on Author Central for my book, SWAG: How to Choose and Use Promotional Products for Marketing Your Business, to demonstrate. On this particular day, it shows that my Kindle edition was down 59,507 spots from yesterday. In checking that same title on another day, the Kindle Store sales rank had worsened from the high 600K range into the 800K range.
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The overall Amazon BSR really tells you nothing.
Different Format, Different Sales Rank
Something to also note is that your book title will have a separate BSR for Books, Kindle Store, and Audible, depending on which formats you’re offering. On the “Formats and editions” dropdown box next to your title on Author Central, you can choose which format’s BSR you’d like to view.
Sales rank can vary dramatically from edition to edition. Looking at mine for one particular day, I had a rank in the high 600K range for Kindle, 2.5 million for the paperback print edition, and in the 300K range for the audiobook.
Again, this tells you nothing valuable.
Historical Sales Rank
You can also click the “View historical Sales Rank” link for each of your titles on Author Central to see changes in your BSR over time for that title and each format. Let’s take a look at my first book, which I first published in 2011, then moved to KDP in 2014.
Looking at the graph of the BSR of the Kindle edition of my book, SWAG, for the period of 2014 to 2022, my highest BSR was in 2017 at 2,844. That’s pretty high! And that was three years after I published it on KDP. But it swings wildly from that high point, plummeting to rankings down in the millions.
On your books’ listings on Author Central, you’ll see a link that says, “See category rankings on Amazon.” This will send you to your book’s product page on Amazon. You’ll need to scroll down to Product Details to see your book’s ranking in topic categories and subcategories for each format.
This is where you’ll see how your book ranks in comparison to other books in your genre or topic. This is a more valuable ranking report than the placement in the overall BSR. Amazon shows where your book ranks highly within a few of the most popular categories.
Again, looking at my book title, SWAG, my rankings within categories are pretty good for Kindle. It currently ranks in the top 1K to 3K range for two topic categories. That’s not too bad, considering when I searched for these categories on Amazon, I noted there are 20K+ Kindle titles on Advertising and 50K+ titles on Marketing, my chosen categories—and for a book I published in 2014. Again, this is a more useful metric to watch since it relates to books like yours.
Though category rankings provide more insight, they are also updated hourly, are calculated by some mystery formula, and can swing wildly. So while you might want to monitor where you rank in your category or genre, don’t obsess about it.
How Could Your Book Rank in a Category You Didn’t Choose?
Something else that freaks authors out is when they see that their book ranks in a category they (or their publisher) didn’t choose for their book. Amazon and its algorithm robots are constantly matching up buyer interests with products and putting products in front of buyers with high potential for a sale.
So your book may rank in categories you might never, ever have considered. For example, I was surprised one day to see that my book on promotional products had ranked in Accounting, even though I chose Advertising and Marketing as categories.
I’ve encountered authors in online author forums who are absolutely devastated or incensed when their books don’t rank in a category or subcategory they’ve chosen and have ranked in categories they didn’t choose. The crying and whining and hand wringing go, “Amazon put my book in the wrong category!” They’re ready to do battle with Amazon and KDP!
So they contact Amazon/KDP to put their book in the “correct” categories or even additional book categories. What hubris! Remember that Amazon has an unimaginable amount of data on their customers. If Amazon and their robot minions think they can make a sale, they will show your book to customers with high potential, regardless of what categories you have told them to use.
Side and related note, this is why I’ve found that my Amazon auto-target ads, which let Amazon’s algorithms choose the placement, have done better for me in multiple ad campaigns. In fact, I now have over half of my Amazon ads on auto-target.
If, indeed, your book is showing up in some totally—I mean, totally—wrong categories, such as true crime novels for your children’s picture books, yes, it does warrant contacting Amazon to get that corrected. Self-published authors using KDP would contact KDP Support.
Authors who self-publish on non-Amazon platforms, such as IngramSpark, should contact that platform’s customer support to resolve. Traditionally published authors need to contact their publisher or agent about the problem and let them get that handled with Amazon. Non-Amazon self-published authors and traditionally published authors shouldn’t even bother trying to contact Amazon about these category problems since they are not working with Amazon directly.
Top 100 Rankings
Next to your Amazon BSR on your book product page on Amazon, you’ll likely see a link for Top 100, which shows you the top 100 selling books. This list is also constantly being updated. To place in this category of paid titles is an accomplishment, even though it might be fleeting. There are actually multiple Top 100 lists: Top 100 paid, Top 100 free, and Top 100 for each category.
Your chances as a new or niche author in the Top 100 overall would be miraculous. But you may end up in the Top 100 for your niche. But realize that this will last maybe for an hour or a day. I’d feel like a phony if I told people I was a best seller, even though technically I was for an hour.
This is also where many self-published authors start playing best-seller games. They may rank in the Top 100 free in some obscure niche subcategory and then tell their fans they’re a “best seller.” I’ll call shenanigans on that. Giving away your book on a Free Kindle eBook Promotion is not a sale. It’s a promotion. It’s like saying you have the top-selling ad.
NPD Bookscan Reports
In addition to reports of Amazon BSR on Author Central, you can also see sales reports for NPD Bookscan.
NPD is a marketing research company that collects extensive survey data of retail, including the retail book industry. As noted on Author Central, "NPD BookScan estimates they report 85% of all retail print book sales."
NPD Bookscan reports print book unit sales from book retailers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, Walmart, Costco, independent bookstores, and more. Unlike sales rank, this is an actual sales number. It also backs out returns that retailers send back to the publisher or distributor.
What's not included in the NPD Bookscan report are sales to libraries, pre-orders, wholesale sales to distributors such as Ingram, and Amazon FBA (Fulfillment By Amazon) sales. Also not included in NPD Bookscan are eBook sales, Kindle eBook or otherwise. This is strictly a print book report.
For both traditional and self-published authors, the NPD Bookscan reports give you a picture of print book sales across retail channels. However, more detailed sales data is usually available through the self-publishing platform you use or your publisher if you're traditionally published.
What Does "Only 2 Books Left" Mean?
I have not been able to determine a definitive answer on whether Amazon genuinely has only two books in stock when an “only 2 left” type notice appears on a book product page on Amazon. Though it could be a tactic to encourage quick sales due to scarcity, I think it’s a much more complex issue than that.
Print books that are self-published on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) are technically never out of stock since they can be printed on demand (POD) at an Amazon facility.
For authors using non-Amazon self-publishing platforms or traditionally published authors, genuine warehousing of books may be done. According to non-Amazon self-publishing platform Bookbaby, Amazon’s goal is to maintain two weeks of inventory of a title in a warehouse so they can say “in stock.”
But then the question is, what warehouses and how many warehouses will that be? For wide distribution of popular traditionally published books, they could be inventoried at multiple Amazon locations. For low sales volume self-published books published on non-Amazon platforms, or even slow or low selling traditionally published books, it’s difficult to say.
I’ve had questions from non-KDP authors who are frustrated with the availability questions. Sometimes their print books will show as “not available,” which can prevent their readers from ordering.
The bottom line for non-KDP authors, whether traditionally or self-published, is that you have no real control over the availability situation. It is a problem between Amazon and your non-Amazon publishing partners.
If you or your readers are experiencing availability difficulties, your only recourse is to let your traditional publisher or non-Amazon self-publishing platform resolve the problem. Even though you’re the author, you are not a party to the distribution and warehousing arrangement. So it’s a waste of your time and energy to contact Amazon.
Do not let your traditional publisher or non-Amazon non-KDP self-publishing platform dismiss your availability concerns! Continue to contact your representatives at these companies or your agent if you have one until a solution is found. Remember, though, that a host of post-pandemic global supply chain issues have plagued the printing and retail industries. So any availability issues may not be quickly resolved.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2022 Heidi Thorne