Beyonce Adichie Americanah

In Amazon’s top 10,000 best selling books list, Americanah ranked #861 the day before Beyonce sampled her TED talk on feminism in the song titled, “Flawless.” Eleven days later and after a 600 jump through the ranks, Americanah was the 179th best selling book on Amazon.

The jump from the 800s to the 100s is nothing short of miraculous. Here is how Robinson Meyer of the Atlantic puts it:

At 5 p.m. on December 12, 2013—the day before the album came out—Amazon ranked Americanah #861 of all hardcover books. Five days later, the book was ranked #632. Today, the book is ranked #179. It’s a staggering rise up the rankings. Moving with such speed through the top 1,000 books on Amazon is a slog, because books in the top couple hundred slots sell much more than books in the low thousands. It’s much harder to advance from #200 to #199 than it is from #2,000 to #1,999. — The Atlantic

Does this mean that Americanah was languishing in poor sales before the sample? Not really. What we know is that sales skyrocketed after the Beyonce sample. But Amazon sales ranking is unstable and dependent on a set of ever-changing variables. As a result, it is not meant to be informative in the sense that there’s so much that it doesn’t tell us. Here is why:

Only the top 10,000 books are updated every hour and the ranking does not depend upon the actual number of books sold, but rather, on a comparison against the sales figures of the other 9,999 books within that same hour. Simultaneously, a trending calculation is applied to arrive at a computerized sales trajectory. So, hypothetically, a book that held a ranking of 2,000 at 2pm and 3,000 at 3pm, might hold a 4,000 ranking at 4pm, even if it actually sold MORE books between 3-4 than it did between 2-3. — askville.amazon.com

In other words, going from #861 to #179 means exponentially higher sales but being at #861 cannot so easily be translated into poor sales. Since we don’t know exact sales figures, we can’t really make conclusions about how well the novel was doing. Amazon sales ranking just isn’t enough.

Besides, thanks to the New York Times, Americanah started its climb up the sales ranks a few days before Beyonce’s album release. Robinson Meyer points this out:

But if you look at the chart of historical sales rank data, you’ll see Americanah had already shot through the rankings before the release of Beyoncé. On December 1, the book was ranked #3,873; On December 6, it was ranked #1,811. It fell another thousand before the release of Beyoncé. What happened? This: On December 4th, the New York Times called Americanah one of the top 10 books of 2013. — The Atlantic

While it is doubtful that Americanah would’ve done much better without the publicity accrued from Adichie’s collaboration with Beyonce, it is safe to say that there is no conclusive evidence to prove that Americanah was redeemed from the abyss of poor sales by Beyonce’s song.

If anything, what I am worried about is the fact that Adichie’s novel needed the NYT Best Book of 2013 list and Beyonce’s sampling to move it up from #3,873. Whatever the actual sales of the novel were, why did it rank so low in the first place?  Americanah—one of the top African novels of 2013—ranked #3873 out of 10, 000. What should that tell us about the financial viability of African novels? As Meyer mentions, the Harry Porter books often held the #1 position on Amazon sales rank for up to one month before they were published. How is that after months of promotion, high-profile reviews, and numerous blog features Adichie’s novel was still that low in the ranks? Is this telling us something about the novel itself or about African novels in general?

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

7 Responses to “Did Beyonce Rescue Adichie’s Americanah From Being a Sales Flop?” Subscribe

  1. Theresa Doghor 2013/12/30 at 12:54 #

    wonder
    i don’t know what to think
    This is a review of a sort.

  2. obinna Udenwe 2014/01/12 at 19:42 #

    I think Nigerians are reading the book but we are not ordering from bookshops, we are buying from bookstores here – so those sales are not added up by Amazon or NYT – so I think a book might be selling even more than they think it is doing. Africans are beginning to read their books, especially as more Africans are writing better books, even if the west is not reading us. Again, I think the book is selling plus it is creating controversies and making marks, which is more important than sales and at the end aids in sales too.

  3. Brad Barnes 2014/07/05 at 12:53 #

    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie sold the film rights to AMERICANAH to Lupita Nyong’o, which will be the second film made of her fiction after HALF OF A YELLOW SUN, which starred Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Adichie is proving herself to be a savvy promoter of her works in other media. In a saturated literary marketplace, Adichie might be navigating those rough waters as successfully as any author, at the moment.

  4. Jaja 2015/07/03 at 10:08 #

    What it says is neither concretely about the novel nor the African novel but about The Literary Novel. Thousands read literary fiction, millions read genre. In 2008, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth debuted at No 1 on NYT list, holding off genre novels that otherwise take up the top ten. Oddity. Americanah, as at Feb. 2014, had shifted 500,000 (See its France publication profile) and is selling much quicker than HOAYS (which in 2010, four years after publication, stood around 523,000) ONLY because it’s about the West. So they buy and promote it. Adichie’s a leading bestselling literary novelist in this century so far, bettered only by Americans like Jonathan Franzen or Brits like Hilary Mantel because of her Bookers. A 2010 report comparing Booker-winner vs Orange-winner sales in this century has this: only Yann Martel’s Life of Pi has passed 1 million official sales, followed by Andrea Levy’s Small Island around 820k+, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin around 600k+, and, yes, HOAYS around that 523k+, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger around 400k+, Mantel’s Wolf Hall around 300k+.

  5. Jaja 2015/07/03 at 10:11 #

    What it says is neither concretely about the novel nor the African novel but about The Literary Novel. Thousands read literary fiction, millions read genre. In 2008, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth debuted at No 1 on NYT list, holding off genre novels that otherwise take up the top ten. Oddity. Americanah, as at Feb. 2014, had shifted 500,000 (See its France publication profile) and is selling much quicker than HOAYS (which in 2010, four years after publication, stood around 523,000) ONLY because it’s about the West. So they buy and promote it. Adichie’s a leading bestselling literary novelist in this century so far, bettered only by Americans like Jonathan Franzen or Brits like Hilary Mantel because of her Bookers. A 2010 report comparing Booker-winner vs Orange-winner sales in this century has this: only Yann Martel’s Life of Pi has passed 1 million official sales, followed by Andrea Levy’s Small Island around 820k+, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin around 600k+, and, yes, HOAYS around that 523k+, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger around 400k+, Mantel’s Wolf Hall around 300k+. And these are Western figures – just like their estimation of ThingsFallApart at 11m: laughable. In Naija here, Purple Hibiscus has surely passed the 500k mark. Yes. Plus it’s on WAEC syllabus.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Beyonce’s “Back-that-*ss-Up” Feminism | NigeriansTalk - 2014/01/02

    […] that’s why Chimamanda has been curiously silent about all this, even after the song spiked a sales bump on Americanah. (If you’re reading, Ms. Adichie, the comments section is wide […]

  2. How Beyonce “Saved” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Latest Novel, Americanah | Books LIVE - 2014/01/16

    […] Complete article: Brittlepaper […]

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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