Decoding Amazon Best Seller Rankings

It has been interesting over the past few months to try to decode how Amazon calculates sales ranking by watching the relationship between sales of Newton’s Ark and its best seller ranking. Amazon guards its algorithm closely, saying very little about what the best seller ranking actually means or how it is calculated.

My key conclusion is that the ranking measures the rate of sales rather than total sales. That means it tells you what is popular recently, but not necessarily what has been most popular over time. That runs counter to what I always thought a best seller ranking meant – that the best selling book had sold the most copies total. But perhaps this has always been standard practice?

A sales rate based measure necessarily favors more recent works rather than classics. It also means for items with small sales volumes the ranking jumps around all over the place. I’ve noticed that two sales in a week can raise the ranking of the Kindle edition of Newton’s Ark by more than 300,000 places (it’s even worse with the paperback – once recent sale raised the ranking more than two million places!) To me that suggests the best seller ranking has a fairly low signal to noise ratio. Sure it’s still useful to distinguish between #1 and #100,000 but probably not between #75,000 and #175,000.

My other criticism is that Amazon ranks different editions of the same book separately. For example, a book that sells 100,000 copies on Kindle only would have a much higher best seller ranking than a book that sells 50,000 Kindle copies and 50,000 paperbacks. I think everyone will agree that both books are equally popular. If someone is trying to identify popular books they may wish to read, do they care what format other people are reading the books in, or just that they are reading them?

What’s my solution? Not that Amazon throw away it’s current best seller ranking but that it makes it clear what it means and also add additional measures. So for example, instead of just having one best seller ranking for a Kindle book you would have something like:

Best Seller Rankings

Kindle books – fastest selling: #102

Kindle books – most sold ever: #33,452

All formats – fastest selling: #245

All formats – most sold ever: #456,765

Sex Ratios

One of the themes I am exploring in the sequel to Newton’s Ark is the impact that our environment has on society.

When the survivors in Faraday’s Mine find their environment radically changed from the comfortable existence they knew before, they are confronted with making some social and political and economic changes that make sense in their new context but which nevertheless seem at best repugnant and at worst downright immoral.

The relationships between the sexes are fundamental to the organisation of society as demonstrated by the growing social problems China is experiencing due to increasingly distorted sex ratios. Imagine then that a group of a few hundred survivors find themselves in a position where a) they believe they are all that is left of humanity and b) there are two men for every woman. What would they do to encourage procreation? How might the roles of men and women change? To what extent would changes be imposed by the group rather than chosen freely by individuals?

Price Drop

How much? You can’t be serious!

For a short while the ebook version of Newton’s Ark will be available for the ridiculously low price of 99 cents (£0.99 plus VAT in the UK, EUR0.99 plus VAT in Europe, ¥100 in Japan).

The new price is already in effect on Amazon and should flow through to iTunes and Barnes and Noble in the next few days.

Front Range Retail Outlet

From Monday November 5, the paperback edition of Newton’s Ark will be available from the Brainfood Bookstore in Longmont just north of Denver (332 Main Street #C2). If you are in the area check it out and if not, take a minute to like their Facebook page.

They were quite excited to carry my book since a large part of it is set in Colorado and are really looking forward to Faraday’s Mine since much of it is set quite close to Longmont.

Serialized Novels

Releasing novels in serial form seems to be making a bit of a comeback. Amazon for one is pushing the concept hard including re-releasing various works by Charles Dickens like Oliver Twist in their original serial form.

I picked that example because it highlights the issue I can’t get my head around. Why would you want to receive a novel that has been completed for over one hundred and fifty years piecemeal?

But what about a work in progress? Wouldn’t it be nice to receive each chapter as it is completed? Sure, but that assumes the writing process is linear. That has definitely not been my experience so far. I’ve written one hundred and sixty pages of Faraday’s Mine, but they are not even close to consecutive. It would be more like pages 1 – 50, 75-100, 130 – 140, 200 – 275. And there is lots of going back and reworking the story as I go along.

Which leads me to my question. I know many people who have read Newton’s Ark are waiting impatiently to see what happens next. Is there any interest in seeing Faraday’s Mine released as each chapter is completed, even knowing that they may change (radically) before it is done?

Researching Book Locations

With the wonders of Wikipedia and Google Maps and especially Google Earth it has been possible to do a great deal of research on locations for my stories without even leaving the comfort of my own home. Even so, there’s no substitute for actually visiting a place to get the feel for it. Fortunately almost all of the locations in Newton’s Ark were places I had visited. The exception was the location in north-east Colorado. I’ve been to the general area, so I know what the rolling plains out there look and feel like, but I’ve never been inside that missile silo or any other.

A big part of Faraday’s Mine, the second book in the Emulation Trilogy, will be set in and around Colorado Springs, specifically inside the Cheyenne Mountain Complex.

Despite the fact that Colorado Springs is only four and a half hours from Steamboat, I had never been there. So this weekend I remedied that. Unfortunately there’s no way to get inside (at least if you want to live to tell the tale), but I did get quite close – housing estates now come within two hundred yards of the entrance (good thing the Cold War is over because this would have been the first place the Soviets would nuke) – and I did get a great sense of  the surrounding area, which will also be important to the story.

Writing Tools

One of the challenges I faced in writing Newton’s Ark was tracking several parallel story lines until such time as they all came together towards the end of the book. At the time the only tool I had at my disposal was Microsoft Word and its Outline view. It got the job done but it was a struggle, like driving a screw with pliers. You can do it, but why would you when there’s this thing called a screwdriver?

Soon after I began on the sequel, Faraday’s Mine, I realized I was going to have the same problem, only more so. Not only did I need to keep the story line straight, but it had to be consistent with what had already happened in the first book. And I wanted to raise the intrigue a level, making the web even more tangled.

Fortunately I discovered a wonderful program called Scrivener which allows me to organize the book into chapters and scenes using the metaphor of index cards on a cork board. Now I can easily create the structure of the story and then change it on the fly. I can attach notes to each scene to remind myself what I plan to write as well as attaching keywords for characters and locations to each of the scenes so I can see who is doing what to whom and where.

Here’s a look at one of the chapters. If you look real close you might just be able to figure out what is going to happen (warning spoilers – assuming I don’t change it or I’m not just playing with you).

It has turned out to be one of those tools I didn’t know I needed until I found it. Now I couldn’t imagine writing another novel without it.

This post brought to you by author, D.A.Hill.

Fusion Reactors

As I have mentioned previously I was very conscious in writing Newton’s Ark to keep the science as real as possible. The most speculative technology I included was probably the micro fusion reactor – a small, highly portable fusion reactor that could power a satellite for decades.

This technology requires us to find a way to build a self-sustaining fusion reaction that produces positive net energy. And then you have to miniaturize it – I’m going to ignore that challenge assuming we can solve the main problem.

This technology has been a decade away for the past sixty years. Will we ever solve this problem? Who knows. It may really be a only decade away, it may be another sixty years away or it may never happen. It’s hard to extrapolate from the experience to date. There has been some progress but not enough to be completely confident that the fundamental challenge can be overcome.

It is still an active area of research though. In fact I recently received an assignment to design a biometric security system (iris recognition) for an experimental fusion reactor facility!

This post brought to you by author of Newton’s Ark, D.A. Hill.

More Sci Fi Keeping it Real

I posted recently on keeping the sci fi real in my first novel Newton’s Ark.

I just ran across this article about stopping an asteriod specifically debunking the scenario presented in the movie Armageddon of using a nuke to split it in half.

Here’s a relevant passage from my book:

“Despite all the holo-movies you might have seen where they destroy the asteroid before it hits the Earth and everyone lives happily ever after, it isn’t possible with the technology and time we have available. To nudge the asteroid off course we have to hit it far enough out that we would need to launch now. Problem is we don’t have anything with the range and payload required….”

“Can’t we just nuke the damn thing when it gets closer to Earth?”

“Yes sir we can, but we risk turning a single very large asteroid into multiple asteroids, each still plenty big enough to wipe out a large city. Better to have only one object to track and to limit the impact to a single location.”

I think this quote from the article nicely captures my philosophy:

…fiction is all about the make-believe. But good science can make for a more plausible narrative, making it easier to suspend disbelief.

This post brought to you by author D.A. Hill.