Richard Bernstein

I spent an inordinate amount of time yesterday feeding a newborn obsession, though an obsession that I imagine afflicts a lot of book writers in this, our Age of the Internet. After you’ve sweated out the reviews, you determine what the effect of the reviews has been. You do this by looking your book up on the online bookstores, Amazon.com in particular, and checking its sales ranking. In the case of Ultimate Journey, this ranking has spun through just about all the rational and irrational numbers.

Actually, Amazon is not insignificant in the life of a critic, even when he doesn’t have a new book on the market. I use it as a research tool, for example, to get a quick list of an author’s previous works, or of, say, the biographies of George Orwell written in the past century. It’s a quick, electronic books-in-print and books-out-of-print. I hasten to add, lest I feel guiltily exploitative, that I’m also an Amazon customer. Sometimes, when in urgent literary need, I run across Broadway from where I live on the Upper West Side to Barnes & Noble. Otherwise I one-click on Amazon and wait a couple of days.

The sales rank number for Ultimate Journey has changed so radically and so quickly that it seems to justify a melancholy conclusion about book publishing in general: that the overall numbers are small enough so that modest sales can make a huge difference in the ranking. I started about three weeks ago at roughly 84,000; this was before the book was actually published, though it would seem that a few people bought it for later shipment. I don’t know how Amazon ranks books that haven’t yet sold a single copy, though I did, in researching this topic, find one book that ranked 720,000, which made me feel OK about 84,000 as an opening position. I checked once a day for the first couple of weeks, at the end of which I went up to about 42,000—the lower the number, obviously, the higher your ranking.

Then my friend, the writer Edward Jay Epstein, listed the book as the No. 1 nonfiction recommendation on his Web site, which is far and away the most interesting and creative individual’s Web site I’ve ever seen. (I say this independently of his recommendation; it’s really true.) Overnight, Ultimate Journey rose to about 4,000. I wondered how many copies had to be sold to produce a 10-fold rank increase in a single day. Dozens? Hundreds? Who knows?

The review in the daily Times appeared Wednesday, and my rank went up to 165 by midday that day and to 83 on Thursday, then slipped by Friday to more than 300. The review in Sunday’s New York Times made a big difference and caused me to check Amazon so often I wondered what percentage of that day’s hits were due to me. At the best moment yesterday, I was at No. 16 and behaving a bit like Julia Roberts did at the Oscars the night before, happy and greedy. Like anybody else, I have longed for best-sellerdom. I have never achieved it, though I’ve written four books before my current one. I didn’t even know this, but my publicist at Alfred A. Knopf informed me that Amazon has a best seller list, and that, with a ranking of 16, I was on it!  Ahead of me were Stephen King, Harry Potter, and Who Moved My Cheese? I called my mother.

I also called Jonathan Segal, my esteemed and saintly editor at Knopf. “You’ll probably be 4,000 by tomorrow,” he said cheerfully. He was joking, but he’s been around. He wasn’t entirely joking because, like I say, I suspect that only a few sales, or the absence of a few sales, can whack your decimal point around like a golf ball. By the end of yesterday, last I looked, I was hanging on at No. 24, which is only one number from the bottom of this particular best seller list. I haven’t checked this morning, fearing that, while Julia still has her Oscar, my best-sellerdom is probably, though perhaps only temporarily, over.