Is this pre-order thing bugging you? I don’t blame you — it bugs me too. That should stop me from suggesting you pre-order the agnostic manifesto (and herewith, a huge thanks to those who’ve already done so). But I’ve persisted nonetheless — partly because I’m a persistent creature in general, but mainly because I know it’s important.
The question is what makes it so important.
And it comes down to — ugh — algorithms. Particularly Amazon’s algorithms. Which are, depending on your point of view, either awesomely or horrendously powerful.
I generally delight in resisting these algorithms. The day Amazon “suggests” books I actually want to read will be the day I know they’ve finally got my number. So far, I’m glad to say, they haven’t been able to figure me out. I use their site in order to scope out books — read descriptions, reviews, and so on — and my range of interest is evidently algorithm-defiant. The program doesn’t yet exist that can predict that someone who wrote a biography of Muhammad is also interested in quantum physics. Or that someone into philosophy would currently be devouring a book on rust (yes, rust). I imagine algorithmic wheels spinning in frustration.
And yet, to the best of my very partial knowledge, the pre-order thing works. It can boost just about any book (as well as toys, games, and almost everything else), because it’s a generator. Which is to say, pre-publication sales generate post-publication sales.
How? Those algorithms are self-adapting operating instructions: the more data they chew up, the more they “learn.” So as the number of orders rises before publication, the algorithms pick up on it and pay more attention. They begin to promote the book. It’ll start appearing in those you-may-also-be-interested-in lists, or on order-together-with banners. And as pre-orders rise — at a lower price point than after publication — so too does the prediction of larger orders once the book has been published.
A chain reaction is set in motion. Booksellers order more copies from the publishers, who then print more copies and invest more in ads in order to sell those copies, which then means that the book is more visible, which leads to greater interest in it and thus to more sales in brick-and-mortar bookstores as well as online ones, which sends more algorithmic wheels spinning, and… lo and behold: a self-fulfilling prophecy is set in motion.
I am no fan of prophecies, self-fulfilling or otherwise, but I have to acknowledge that Amazon has figured out the math behind a basic marketing principle: the more an item has already sold, the more it will continue to sell, regardless of the intrinsic worth of that item.
Shudder all you like at this — I certainly do. I find it hard to get my mind around the idea of anything I write being seen as a consumer item, subject to the same kind of marketing analysis as diapers or turkeys. But that merely goes some way to explaining why Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is a multi-billionaire, and I… am not.
I have less than zero desire to shill for Amazon or for Barnes and Noble or for any other online store offering pre-order discounts (I even pay to keep ads off this blog), so I would ignore the whole business if it weren’t that I want to give Agnostic the best possible chance in a world newly dominated by metrics and by hard-nosed marketing decisions.
Call it the pre-order paradox, if you like: I don’t mean to bug you, but I do. The hell of it is that I then have to acknowledge that the algorithms have gotten to me after all….