Amazon sales rankings are somewhat like Fermat's Last Theorem - what they're saying makes apparent sense, but discerning how they work is seemingly impossible. Nevertheless, the fact is that they are routinely (obsessively?) scrutinised by writers - and that includes me. At least, I tell myself, the relative movements of the ranking are indicative of something, even if they contain no absolute information. Earlier this year, Sand attained a heady rank in the 5000s of total book sales, an achievement that gave me some pleasure since I felt I could visualise a wall of shelves with 5000 books on them and, on the bottom shelf on the right, Sand. But most of the time the book inhabits the five-figure ranks, periodically wallowing in the quicksand of six figures.
And then, on August 2, I was startled by a strangled cry from my wife on the computer downstairs - I rushed down, desperately trying to focus poorly formed recollections of how to perform the Heimlich Maneuver (or Manoeuvre - I couldn't even remember how to spell it), to find her transfixed, pointing with a shaking finger at the monitor. My Amazon ranking was 572! No, that's not a typo, I was rubbing spines with the stars - well, not, of course, the Harry Potters, but a shelf of five hundred or so books is simply a small section in a chain bookstore. The book was number one in various "natural resources" and geology categories.
This was a complete mystery - what could it mean? Had Amazon been attacked, had their famous software finally gone haywire? Or (my fondest aspiration) had some far-sighted educational institution seen the value of Sand as a text for a "rocks for jocks" or "Environmental Studies 101" course? The publishers at the University of California Press were equally bemused - pleased but bemused.
Now I know what happened. Some time ago, I'd been contacted by Josh Landis. Together with Mitch Butler, he is co-creator of CBS News’ "The Fast Draw," an animated news series appearing on a number of CBS News broadcasts, including CBS Evening News with Katie Couric and CBS News Sunday Morning. He had told me that they were preparing a short segment (all of their pieces are just a few minutes in length) on sand - he wasn't sure when it would be broadcast. Having heard no more, I had forgotten about it, but we've now discovered that it went out on yes, August 2, and included a reference to the book. Wow. Of course, I have no idea whatsoever how many actual books were sold as a result, but it must have been this that caused the uplift, the orogeny, in the Amazon numbers. The Fast Draw segment, titled "Lessons of Sand" can be viewed online here - it's entertaining and only three minutes long.
The Amazon ranking as I write this? 21,239. The UK Oxford University Press edition is officially published on Thursday. It has a slightly different title - but that's another story. Amazon UK ranking? 109,085 - but my fingers are crossed.