The Amazon Epidemic: Writers Addicted to Rankings

Most writers have a lot of romantic notions about what will happen to their lives the minute they publish a book. Fame and fortune figures in, of course, and some of the most ambitious dream that soon they’ll quit their days jobs to enjoy the writerly life full-time. But the most common and immediate change upon publication is far less anticipated: From the day their book first lands in stores, most writers will start spending minutes, hours-nay, days, weeks, months and years-tracking its progress on Amazon.com.

Never mind that the online retailer accounts for only about 10 percent of a trade book’s total sales (slightly higher for business books, somewhat lower for children’s). By my count, the reviews and the ranking system on Amazon.com count for about 95 percent of writers’ hopes, anxieties and dreams.

Which is why last month’s glitch on the Canadian version of the site-which for a week revealed the reviewers’ real names-sent a shudder down the collective spine of the writing community. Even if few were as publicly honest as the author John Rechy, who cheerfully admitted to The New York Times that he had praised his own book on the site, many had their own dirty little secrets. I, for one, was suddenly panicked that the world would know that several (though, I must say, far from most) of the positive reviews of my book, So Many Books, So Little Time , were written by people I know. (A further sign of my insanity: When a negative review of the book would appear on the title’s home page, I’d suggest to friends that if someone were to write a positive one, the bad guy’s piece would slip further down-and maybe even eventually off-the home page.) The writer Katherine Russell Rich, for example, told me that when her book, The Red Devil: To Hell with Cancer-and Back , was published in 1999, she was coincidentally seated in a restaurant next to a colleague whom she knew had hated the book; after making uncomfortable pleasantries, Ms. Rich said, the two diners left the restaurant and raced home to Amazon. Ms. Rich wrote a positive review to offset the negative one she knew was coming from her colleague. (Sure enough, both reviews appeared shortly.) Even far more established authors pay attention, if not homage, to Amazon: James Marcus, author of the forthcoming Amazonia , an incisive and funny account of five years working for the Seattle-based company, says that he once came upon a review posted by Paul Theroux, defending his own book, Sir Vidia’s Shadow .

As for the rankings: Don’t get me started. At a publishing party last fall, I met up with a well-known and very successful journalist who kept making trips to the host’s bedroom to check his (and my) book’s status on Publishers Marketplace, one of several sites that allow users to track the movement of many books at once at both Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com. “Do you want to check one more time before you leave?” he asked me as I headed for the door. (It goes without saying that I did.) In the ensuing months, I’ve had dozens of friends and acquaintances comment, unsolicited, on my book’s rise and fall, and one radio interviewer told me he’d decided to invite me on the show because “your Amazon numbers have gotten good again.” It doesn’t matter how many times editors and agents tell us that “Amazon doesn’t matter”-authors are addicts, and Amazon is easily as habit-forming and even more accessible than crack. Not to mention, of course, that it’s also free.

But why has this eight-year-old upstart of a bookstore become our drug of choice? Other Web sites and blogs-dozens of them-contribute to the vox populi , and BarnesandNoble.com posts customers’ reviews and ranks book sales. Still, you rarely hear a writer obsessing over his BN.com scores. (His brick-and-mortar Barnes and Noble orders, placement and sales … well, that’s another story.) Partly, of course, Amazon was the first site of its kind, and as Mr. Marcus makes clear in his book, there was, from the beginning, something about the energy of the place that attracted even the most serious literary types. Amazon-even more than BN.com, to that site’s eternal dismay-also got a ton of news attention in the late 1990′s, thanks in part to its juggernaut of a stock price. Amazon.com is also a place to find jacket copy, publication dates and author information: “Many professionals use it as a research tool,” according to Lorraine Shanley, a principle in Market Partners International and co-publisher of the monthly newsletter Publishing Trends . It has a reach and an influence far beyond its sales figures, in other words.

But what draws authors so addictively to the site is something both simpler and more insidious: In its user-friendly way, it taps into what is apparently all writers’ need to quantify and compete and, yes, fight back. Even the few book-review outlets that still exist usually don’t give an outlet to authors. And about those rankings: Since most publishers are vague (even with their authors!) about how many books have been printed and shipped, let alone sold-and since BookScan, the closest thing the book world has to a real-numbers tally, charges six figures for access-the lowly, anxious writer has nowhere else to turn to see how he’s doing.

Besides, we’re all just following in a venerable literary tradition, albeit one with different yardsticks. The poet T.S. Eliot famously lamented that we measure out our life in coffee spoons. The 1990′s pop heroine Bridget Jones chronicled hers in cigarettes, calories and pounds on the scale. It follows that we, in the early 21st century, look to words and numbers on a Web page for our sense of self. For now, at least, it’s the best we’ve got.