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?