What is the point of the best-seller list? Depends who you are. If you're a reader, it's a guide to what's popular — what's new, what your neighbors are buying, and what you might like to read next. If you're a publisher, it's a source of feedback and a sales tool: It tells you how your books compete, and gives you triumphs to crow about on paperback covers.
If you're an author, however, the best-seller list can feel awfully personal. It tells you how much the world values your work. It may be a sign of your economic future — say, whether you're going to be able to buy an apartment. It speaks to your professional future as well: whether your career is working out, and whether you're going to be able to sell your next book. And, unlike the private sales data reported to publishers or tracked by Nielsen through their BookScan service, the best-seller list lives in public. Your mom will see it; so will your high school nemesis. If your book makes the list, you can forever after be accurately described as a "best-selling author."
It used to be that a writer knew the stats only if her book was doing well. But Amazon changed that by introducing the nearly infinite Amazon Best Sellers Rank, a public ranking of the "long tail" of available books from fat No. 1 all the way down to its anemic, bitter end. You (and everyone) could now learn that your book was the 2,222,483rd most popular item in Books.
Amazon doesn't reveal exactly what algorithmic blend creates its book rankings — sales with a dash of page views, maybe? But you could surmise that deep seven digits meant nothing doing, while a spike into the top 100 meant hundreds of copies out the door. It was nerve-wracking, and some writers checked their book's score compulsively. There was just one comfort: At the end of the day, the rankings were about the book, not you.
Until last week. Realizing the worst fears of self-conscious authors everywhere, Amazon unveiled a new pecking order to go alongside the top-ranked books list: Amazon.com's Most Popular Authors. The top 100, updated hourly (as Amazon proudly states at the top of the page), are displayed in a public list, complete with author photos. From No. 101 onward, perhaps mercifully, only authors are privy to their own popularity rank.
Most Popular Authors? What is this, the high school yearbook? America's Next Top Person Who Sits in a House Writing? The natural endpoint of a publishing system that increasingly rewards celebrities (see, e.g., TV writer and star Lena Dunham's estimated $3.5 million contract earlier this month) and ignores regular folks? It's definitely slightly ridiculous, arraying photos of artfully blown-dry, leather-jacketed, middle-aged authors like so many pinups. But as it's shaken out over a few days, the Most Popular Author feature turns out to have some appealing qualities — and to say a lot about Amazon's long game.
It's true that the Most Popular list is the logical outgrowth of a world where the author is the "brand" — but that's not necessarily bad. For years, publishing companies have mourned the fact that it is impossible to get readers to buy whatever's new from Random House or Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Aside from the glorious old Penguin Classics paperbacks (not to mention the lovely new hardback line), or the beautiful matched volumes from NYRB Classics, readers barely notice publishers — why should they, when each company's output is so varied? If they love one book by Patrick O'Brian or Barbara Kingsolver, on the other hand, they can guess they'll love others by the same writer as well, and will loyally read them all.
Goofy name aside, then — we will probably wait in vain for the Amazon.com Most Flirtatious or Most Congenial Authors — the Most Popular list is telling readers something useful: which writers command the most loyalty. Less than a week after its launch, the few celebrities I initially spotted in the Top 100 are gone, which makes sense, since they rarely have a whole set of books to hook you with.
Sure, everyone at the top of the list is rich and famous — E.L. James, James Patterson, Nora Roberts, Suzanne Collins, J.K. Rowling — but they've made their names and their millions precisely by writing slews of books. (Well, just three in James' case, but apparently you get extra loyalty points for handcuffs on the cover).
The rest of the Top 100 contains a sprinkling of literary writers, including new Nobel winner Mo Yan (hardly popular in the U.S. until last week; welcome, sir!) and children's authors (Dr. Seuss, Lois Lowry) amid a stream of prolific romance novelists, mystery writers and inspirational nonfiction authors. At the center of the proceedings sits Ayn Rand, No. 44 when I checked, looking pleased and stern in a black-and-white photo. She, of all people, would have had faith in her own ability to surf the tides of popularity.
So far, then, the Most Popular list is functioning a lot like the old mass-market paperback rack at the drugstore, and that seems like a perfectly fine thing. Why shouldn't readers see these crowd-pleasers in one place? Even better, unlike the drugstore, Amazon also offers you approximately every other book that exists as well. (This is, of course, also the menace of Amazon, which is now publishing its own exclusive books as well as the hardware to read them electronically. In the face of this soup-to-nuts monopoly, how will any other force in publishing survive?)
For authors, in the end, this conception of popularity turns out not to be that hard to shrug off. A few may feel flashes of envy, but at least their status isn't broadcast to the masses unless it's impressive — and most will be able to console themselves that they're not writing drugstore novels, anyway.
Besides, Amazon is now offering writers other information so useful that any private injury may be forgiven. One author allowed me to peek at the private pages Amazon reserves for individual writers, revealing not only the author's (quite respectable) popularity ranking, but information about the author's total sales from BookScan, a map of cities where sales are strongest, and more. That's a big deal; until recently, writers could only get these numbers from their publishers.
Amazon may be acting like the editor of the high school yearbook, but it's also offering readers the books they want and giving authors privileged knowledge about their own sales. If it seems like the website is making itself indispensable, that's no accident. Like all arbiters of popularity, Amazon derives power from playing the judge. In the end, these new features are all steppingstones to the company's true goal: to be most popular itself.
Amanda Katz is a commentator for NPR Books and the deputy editor of the Boston Globe Ideas section. You can follow her on Twitter: @katzish