How am I doing on Amazon?
Most people go into Amazon to buy books: easy shopping, and it would an entirely admirable enterprise, if it wasn’t systematically killing all our local bookshops. Authors, though, sneakily visit Amazon to check how their books are selling, to plot their progress up (and down) the Amazon sales rankings – the bit that says “#47,543 in books”.
Actually there are some odd things about this calculation. I was rejoicing the other day that my new book on the Roman Triumph (soon to appear in the UK) had reached #2 in the Amazon.com (that’s the US site) rankings … but in the niche sub-category of “General Geometry”. (Quite how it got classified as “geometry” beats me, but I guess it felt nice even so.)
But what every author wants to know is how many sales does it take to get you zooming up the Amazon ranks. I’ve always suspected that we were dealing with single figures here. But proof came the other day when the husband decided to buy 4 copies of his own book on Icons, which seemed almost as cheap, and a lot easier to obtain, from Amazon than from the publishers. The result was that he zoomed more than 250,000 places up the rankings.
Then there are those innocent customer reviews. Are they all written by real punters, or by the authors paid up friends or enemies? Is it like those suspiciously frank hotel reviews on TripAdvisor (“Quite the best hotel in Beachville and far better than the awful Hotel Sunny next door”)?
Just occasionally the reviewer confesses his or her bias (“Happy declaration . . . I live with the author”). But mostly we are left to guess whether these usually pseudonymous critics are the author’s best friend, lovers or publishers or not. Frankly I suspect (though couldn’t possibly prove) that big publishers have a small team of Amazon reviewers, enthusing over their new books under the banner of “Jeremy in Cambridge”.
Yet there is a certain style to some internet book sites. I was especially tickled by a request from Marshal Zeringue to contribute to his “Page 99” test. Taking his cue from Ford Madox Ford’s quote: "Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you", Meringue asks his authors to explain why their page 99 does exactly that.
Of course, it’s a clever idea. By page 99, all the flashy stuff of the introduction is well left behind, and the author is not yet limbering up to his/her climactic finale.If there is ever a place where the author has got bogged down, it's almost certainly page 99. My first reaction on applying the test was general gloom: page 99 was about the most un-typically intricate page of argument in the whole book (I even thought of swapping to page 69, which is the test that Meringue sets his other, mostly fiction, authors).
But thanks to Meringue I came to find that I had a soft spot, after all, for page 99. One thing I had vowed NOT to do in my Triumph book was to pull the wool over the eyes of the general reader. If we couldn’t actually answer some basic questions about the ceremony, I was going to be straight and in plain language explain why.
And actually that means sharing some of the most interesting and appealing things about doing ancient history. My pledge was not to be in the business of peddling half truths, but of letting people into the marvelous game of exploring what we can, and cannot, know about the Roman world (uggh -- sorry, sounds a bit PR).
And on page 99, that’s what’s going on.