Two weeks ago, if someone had asked me for my number, I would have barely resisted the urge to wink lasciviously at my own reflection and quip something super-lame to my husband Andrew about how lucky he was to have such a hot wife.
Now suddenly that question has taken on a less flattering and more complicated meaning.
See, on Monday, July 2, Andrew and I were taking refuge from the epic heat wave at his parents' Chesapeake Bay house, drinking our makeshift version of "spa" water with chunks of watermelon and mint around the kitchen table. My debut novel Semi-Charmed Life was hitting shelves the next day and, while the rest of the family was idly chatting, I was obsessively Googling myself and refreshing Goodreads on my BlackBerry. (Yes. I still have a BlackBerry.)
Abruptly, my father-in-law turned to me and asked: "So, what's your number?"
I looked back at him blankly. I was so naive in those days ... last week.
That was when I learned about the Amazon Best Sellers Rank. In case you too have been living under a rock, apparently every item sold on Amazon -- from books to glass dildos (No. 744 at the time of this article) -- is awarded a number based on the frequency with which it's selling by comparison to other Amazon items.
As documentary filmmakers who have published both DVDs and books, my in-laws have experienced Amazon ranking firsthand. They informed me that my book had likely been assigned a number though it was only currently available for pre-order, but the numbers changed all the time, so I might as well wait to look. I could arguably head upstairs to my laptop and get a preliminary sense of the book's standing immediately, but what was the point?
I ran upstairs.
My number that night was a little under 450,000, which -- even as a novice -- I had to assume wasn't quite Fifty Shades of Grey status yet. But presumably the ranking would go up -- or down, as the case may be -- when the novel actually went on sale. Either way, I did a little research into how the rating system works and learned that very little concrete information is available.
Some websites claimed that the ratings were updating monthly, weekly or daily, depending on a given item's success rate. One claimed that a ranking over 10,000 meant sales of 2.2 copies a day. Another quoted an informal study by a publishing house, who tracked 25 books, and discovered that a ranking of 10,000 or more meant sales of about one to five books a week. The information was inconsistent.
The only agreed upon fact was that Amazon's algorithm was a big fat secret. And, according to their information page, the ratings are actually updated hourly across the board, though the exact moment of update might depend on time zone. To get some perspective, I searched The Hunger Games in paperback and found that it was No. 7. Since my father-in-law kept making jokes about me passing Charles Dickens, I looked up Great Expectations in paperback too: No. 982. Just narrowly beaten out by the dildos.
I was hooked. It didn't matter the numbers could be meaningless because they accounted for only one bookseller or because I couldn't be sure in relationship to what I was being ranked. It didn't matter that the numbers were as fleeting as my recent obsession with chocolate mint gum, which ended when I tasted it.
I noticed that Amazon more specifically categorized Semi-Charmed Life as a book about blogging, which struck me as sort of funny because my novel's main character Beatrice Bernstein is a blogger, but the novel is not exactly Blogging For Dummies. But what did I care? I was No. 3 among upcoming blogging books! (I decided they should create even more specific lists like books featuring bloggers, written by Brooklyn-based journalists with cats named Mina and Waldo -- I'd have to be No. 1 in that!)
The next morning, my book was finally officially out in the world! My number had fallen (or risen in the ranks) to around 35,000 and it went down from there as the days went on, down to the teen thousands. Then it went up. Then it went down. Then it hovered. Then I discovered that the Kindle version had a separate page with an even lower rating around 9,000. Then that went up. Then it went down. And I watched it all with total awe, although I had no clue what it meant.
I guess it's not a new concept to be fascinated by things we don't understand or mysteries we can't solve; why else would we keep theorizing about what the afterlife holds or about the Kennedy assassination?
I suspected that I was not alone in my obsession. There are even sites like Sales Rank Express and Novel Rank that aim to cull tracking for authors, domestically and internationally. So, I reached out to two novelist buddies with new books out and asked about their relationship to the ranking system. Was I the only crazy one? "In one instance, I knew that 10 copies of [my book] were going to be purchased on Amazon," explains Jennifer Miller, author of debut novel The Year of The Gadfly (out since May 8). "Out of curiosity, I checked the ranking before and after the sale. To my surprise, the ranking temporarily got worse. It's a mystery!" She also reports fluctuations in one day from 100,000 to 7,000 and says that, according to her publisher, early sales information suggests that the book is selling best at independent bookstores. Wait, independent bookstores actually sell books? I thought they were a dying breed, almost as elusive as unicorns? Turns out that they still play an important role, thank goodness.
According to author Melissa Walker, whose new book Unbreak My Heart -- out since May 22 -- is her sixth young adult novel, Amazon Ranking Obsession (A.R.O) lessens with time. "With my first book, I checked Amazon NONSTOP," she admits. "Every other author kept telling me the ranking didn't matter, but it was the only number I had access to, so it had the power to make my heart soar (or drop). Now, I'll admit that I still check it, but only once or twice a month (really!)." Still, it's hard to resist even a mysterious number, if it's right there in print.
Of course, there are some mysteries that we are better off not solving. Were any of us truly happier knowing what ingredients were in Pinkberry? I feel that way a bit about Amazon's relatively new addictive tool for writers, Author Central. A much more seasoned novelist than I told me about this new service, still in beta form, which allows writers to track actual Nielsen BookScan weekly sales data (the industry standard for tracking print book sales), once the publisher has confirmed that the individual is in fact the actual author.
Constant access to this information scares me a little. Is this just another thing about which to obsess? Does this information actually serve a purpose for writers beyond freaking them out and/or offering rays of hope? And how quickly can I sign up?
Walker says she's checked it out a couple times, but will probably stop if a downward trend begins. As a veteran, she knows a thing or two about self-preservation. She and several other writers have instructed me, quite rightly, to stay sane by focusing on the next book instead of tracking this one. I plan to take their advice. Eventually.
In the meantime, I think I'll go check my number just a couple of more times.
Every Friday, HuffPost's Culture Shift newsletter helps you figure out which books you should read, art you should check out, movies you should watch and music should listen to. Learn more