An Amazon Confession

My first book of poetry, Famous, came out last September at the same time as a friend’s second book. Her first had been a success, a winner of multiple prizes and fine reviews. In those first few weeks, she admitted that she was checking her rankings on Amazon regularly. As in daily.

"Don’t do that! It doesn’t mean anything," I cautioned her, and I believed it. I had just reread my marketing manual provided by University of Nebraska Press. The staff recommend that you invest little psychic stock in the Internet book-sellers’ rankings. This sounded sensible to me, especially since my book’s ranking lingered around 300,000th place.

I don’t know the figures at UNP, but I’ve heard that first poetry books often sell around 500 copies, a book by a midlist established poet might expect to sell 1500, and a book by a first rank poet is considered successful when it sells 3000 copies. The idea of ranking poetry along with Stephen King and even literary authors like Philip Roth seems almost ludicrous.

Two weeks ago I heard from the press that Famous is going into a second printing. I am delighted. ItFamous_8means the book is soon to sell more than 1000 copies and the press believes it will continue to sell "well" by poetry standards. This prompted my semi-usual self-conscious vanity-induced internet search for mentions of the book, capped by a visit to the Amazon sales page. I noticed the ranking had skyrocketed to the low 100,000’s. Wow.

I checked my book’s ranking the next day; it was at 88,000th place (plus a few hundred).

Famous had
broken into the high five figures a full six months after its
publication. I checked the Poetry Foundation’s best-sellers page (

) to see if my book was on it. Well, no.
(But fellow Washington poet Terry Martin’s book was there, and I had
just seen her read and bought her book a couple of weeks ago, which
made me feel, briefly, like a trend setter.) Then I returned to Amazon,
started checking out books by my peers—by friends, and other first
books I’d bought or heard things about. I was ahead of everybody, even
various "real" books by poets I admired and didn’t know. I was in the
nosebleed category.

Then something, I don’t know what, prompted me to check Kevin
Young’s new book. I have tickets to see him read next month, and I must
have had that in mind. For the Confederate Dead: Poems, in
hardback, was ranked 67,000 something. I was duly impressed. I signed
off, chastened but optimistic. We were both in the five figures after
all. The next day I checked my ranking early in the day. And late in
the day. I’d backtracked to 120,000 plus. Still not half bad. Kevin
Young’s book? 36,000ish. My god. With a bullet.

The rest isn’t pretty, though predictable. Amazon was low on copies of Famous,
so I could watch it happening. Only 4 left in stock–order soon (more
on the way). Days like that, without rescue. Then 3 left. Then 2 left
but then it went back to 3 (somebody returned the gd thing?) I was
checking it three times a day. Rankings below 500,000. I’d put it on my
"favorites" page for easy access, overcoming my fear that someone out
there with internet hacking/detective skills could detect me checking
my own book page over and over. Those same two books are still
available, in case you want to put me out of my misery. Meanwhile I’m
trying to break the Amazon habit.

Kevin Young’s new book, by the way, is 22nd this week on the Poetry Foundation best seller’s site. It’s 105,000th on Amazon. Go Kevin. Never look down.