Amazon’s Top 25

I was notified by Amazon this morning that a book that I have been waiting for quite a while (The Crucible of Power: The Collected Stories of Jack Williamson, Volume Five is due to be released soon. I already have the first four volumes. Jack Williamson, for those that don’t know, is a science fiction writer. His first published story appeared in 1928 and his most recent story appeared in the January/February/March 2005 Analog. That’s right: he’s been writing for that long. He has published fiction in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s, 9 decades. He’s 96 years old and still writing.

I noticed that the book had a sales rank of 350,637, which I imagine is pretty far down the list. But it got me wondering about the type of books that make up the top 25 of Amazon’s book sales. So I clicked on the link to find out what they were and then did a little bit of analysis on them.

At the most basic level, the top 25 books currently sold on Amazon break down as follows:

  • 10 books (40%) are “self-help” books of one kind or another.
  • 6 books (24%) are novels
  • 3 books (12%) are memoirs of one kind or another
  • 2 books (8%) are books on current events
  • 2 books (8%) are books on sports (baseball)
  • 2 books (8%) are “miscellaneous” and I could not easily categorize

    Back when I was in college, I took a great class on media and film and one of the things that I got from that class was that film provides a social context of society at the time the film was made. In other words, you can tell a lot about society and culture of the 1950s by taking a look at, say, High Society. The same, I imageine, is true for the books that people are buying. I am making a big assumption here. The rankings are based on sales of books. It is not possible to tell whether people actually read what they buy, but let’s assume for our purposes that they do. What can we tell about people today?

    More than anything else, people appear to be looking for a way to improve their lives. Ten of the top 25 sold books on Amazon are self-help books with titles like Life’s Missing Instruction Manual, Inspiration: Your Ultimate Calling, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Rich Dad, Poor Dad, and so on. Clearly, there is a kind of social inadequacy that is permeating book-buyers. (I say book-buyers because one can’t say the same is true for people who don’t buy books. It may be true, but we can’t tell from what they buy.) People want to live better lives, make more money, enjoy more fulfillment, have better relationships, and in general feel inspired. What this says to me is that people who buy these books feel that their lives aren’t so great, they don’t make enough money, they don’t feel fulfilled, are disappointed with their relationships, and are rather uninspired.

    Next on the list are novels. Novels have been a staple of readers for centuries. They provided an escape from reality long before radio and television existed, and in fact, for a very long time competed only with the stage as a form of story-telling. So it is not surprising that people still read novels. But what kind of novels are people reading? Of the 6 novels in the top 25 Amazon sales, 3 fall into the mystery/suspense category, and one is a vampire book. The remaining two novels are what would normally be considered mainstream literature; that is, non-genre literature. So the novels people are reading are there to allow them to escape from the mundane world–the same oppressive world in which they feel uninspired–where they can instead read about fictional characters who enjoy more fulfillment, have interesting lives, wonderful relationships, and who feel inspired.

    I find this kind of ad hoc analysis interesting. It certainly does not mean that everyone who buys or reads these books fall into these categories. But these are the most sold books on Amazon, and people buy them for a reason. They fill some kind of niche.

    Incidentally, the book that I am currently reading, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 has a sales rank (in paperback) of 23,328. In fact, it’s very rare that I read a book in the “top 25” when the book is actually on the top 25. (For example, I read The Da Vinci Code long before it became a bestseller, attracted by the words “Da Vinci” and “Code”. I also read Good To Great long before it was on the Amazon top 25 sales list.

    I wonder what this says about me?