Note: Media observer Dan Bloom wonders, like a lot of people, just what Amazon’s popular and must-see book stats really mean. His opinion here reflects his own personal hunch about how things operate in the shop that Jeff Bezos runs. Comments welcome below, pro and con.

AmazonThe next time you read in a press release or newspaper that a certain book “has been propelled to the top 100 rankings among paid Kindle titles on Amazon.com,” think again. What does that really mean? And the next time you hear that a certain book “has been propelled to  the top 100 rankings among regular print book titles on Amazon.com,” think again, too. Do the stats  figures mean actual sales, pre-orders or what?

Nobody outside Amazon headquarters seems to know. All Amazon will say on the record is that the famous/infamous book ranking “stats” are from actual sales and they are updated every hour. So one must assume that this is the case—at least until someone who understands the code comes forward and dishes. For now, it’s a true puzzle.

When news broke worldwide a few years ago about a controversial self-published e-book titled “A Peodophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure,” triggering a ground swell of protest on social media networks from Twitter to Facebook, the vanity press title suddenly found itself being ”propelled” to the top 100 rankings among paid Kindle titles on Amazon, according to news reports. But did those short-lived ranking stats mean actual sales had taken place, or that pre-orders had been temporarily filed, or what?

People want to know. Me, too. So far, we’re all in the dark.

Ask any publisher or book editor in New York or London. Amazon’s book stats are not easy to decode, their true meaning almost zen-like in their inscrutability.

Maybe I can find someone who used to work at Amazon, or who coded for Amazon, who might be willing to talk. My email door is open. Bezos, you can email me, too. Dish. My door is always open.

In the case of the peodophile guide, some news reports were saying that “less than 24 hours before the book was taken down by Amazon, the virtually unknown digital book ranked well north of 157,000″ on the online book ordering site. Suddenly,
the news reports reported, the guide was up in the top 100.

Top 100 of what? Top 100 of sales, all paid for and delivered to happy customers? Or top 100 of pre-ordering interest with such pre-orders routinely never actually purchased?

Did the controversy actually spur sales of the guide, which was being sold sold only on the Kindle platform? Perhaps. Amazon stats don’t lie.

It’s strange, because the author of the book told an Associated Press reporter in Denver that he had only sold one copy of the book.

David Carnoy, who routinely follows the e-book industry as an editor at CNET.com and is the author of a novel titled ”Knife Music”, believes the Amazon stats are about sales. He recently told CNBC reporter Bertha Coombs: “That’s the disturbing part about [the peodophile guide media controversy], that it led to actual sales.”

Carnoy told me in a subsequent email:

“You know why [I believe] it was sales? Because the book cost something like $4. So people were buying the thing. When you have a few hundred thousand curious people looking at the book, it’s not hard to believe that a couple of hundred would buy it, is it? At that price?”

Point well taken.

A midlist novelist in New York whose books are sold on Amazon and who therefore prefers to remain anonymous for this story, told me in an email:

“Like most people, I always believed the Amazon book rankings were based on sales. I don’t think Amazon ever publicly posted its methodology, and I only get an occasional royalty statement that doesn’t reflect the daily gyrations of the statistics. However, I have noticed that when a friend or relative buys just a few copies of one of my books, the ranking jumps enormously. Most authors could be a gigantic tie for last place.”

When I recently asked an American technology beat writer what he knew about the Amazon stats, he replied: “I actually don’t know what the truth is about the sales stats. People in the publishing business here in New York tend to say they are meaningless, but I’ve never seen proof.”

He went on:

“However, the one aspect of Amazon’s book stats that could be debunked with readily available evidence is the way they claim e-book sales now exceed sales of old-fashioned books. If you look at their press releases, they do this in a way that suggests it’s an industry-wide fact. But the claim is very deceptive. It’s based on the number of Kindle sales versus hardcover sales, and only on Amazon. That leaves out paperbacks, which are still the lion’s share of book sales (on Amazon and in the world at large). And, just as important, it leaves out hardcover sales in the rest of the book industry, which, if tallied together with the Amazon hardcover sales, reduces the Kindle number to a tiny percentage of the total. It’s a real scam, and the media tend to buy into it, as part of the ‘paperless society’ trope—now over half a century old, but somehow still kicking.”

And finally, when I spoke with a veteran publisher in Manhattan, who has been in the business for more than 40 years, he told me:

“As a publisher, I know that the stats are not ‘the real thing’ and this awareness on my part is based on following the rankings of our own books and seeing how the rankings coordinated with the following weekly Amazon orders. Since Amazon orders on a regular once a week basis, it’s pretty easy to follow. Basically, the stats thing is a ploy used by many publishers and self-published authors to push their rankings up and try to get a better distribution. Like most things in life it’s all about perception, not reality. Welcome to the world of publishing.”

So now, Jeff Bezos, talk to me?

Dan Bloom is a freelance writer based in Taiwan who never checks his Amazon stats.