It was April 6, 2010—just an ordinary Tuesday morning for the rest of the world—when The Great Brain Race became a bestseller. The Princeton University Press title would not be formally released for another month, but my new book had already made it to the top. Time to shout from the virtual rooftops. "I know Amazon is bound to break my heart," I wrote to my Facebook friends at 1:40 p.m., attaching the Web link, "but today I'm in love."
Number one! Say it loud and there's music playing. Say it soft and it's almost like praying. Number one.
Here's the backstory. When I first checked out my book's Amazon ranking, many months before publication, it was somewhere in the 450,000 range. By April 1, thanks to two well-placed op-eds and other bits of early buzz, the book had vaulted to 18,759.
Not too shabby. But not good enough. A new approach was surely in order. How fair was it, I thought, to be ranked with the Dan Browns and Robert Atkinses of the world? Wouldn't an apples-to-apples comparison make more sense? Soon, I discovered Amazon's Education category, together with a plethora of subcategories, from Preschool to Homeschooling. There was a Globalization list, too. (A good bet, because as I've told everybody, The Great Brain Race is about much more than just education.) And because it would be unjust to stack me up against backlist stalwarts like the Fiske Guide to Colleges and The World Is Flat, did I mention that within each subcategory there is a "Hot New Releases" list as well? Not just new, but hot. I liked the sound of that.
And so it came to pass that on April 5, I discovered that in the "hot new releases" segment I was number 17 in Globalization and number four in College. Now I was cooking with gas. The next day, following two more media hits, I reached number one in both categories, hence the euphoric Facebook post.
All this was vaguely familiar. Memories came back to me of my old job as editor of the U.S. News & World Report college guides. Beyond the contentious national rankings, U.S. News creates separate lists for small liberal arts colleges, nonselective comprehensive universities, and so forth. In a little-recognized bit of genius, all are sliced and diced by geography as well. So an unremarkable institution ranked in the bottom quartile overall could boast that it was the top liberal arts college in the Upper Michigan Peninsula. Carve the data thin enough and everyone's a winner.
As I had predicted, however, my foothold on the rankings ladder turned out to be precarious. Hour by hour I bobbed up and down, first ahead, then behind such titles as Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Graduate School. So quickly did the Amazon links I sent to my wife become obsolete that I began e-mailing her screen shots to capture my fleeting moments of glory.
Having secured a pretty regular berth at number two in new education releases, why not be top banana? Maybe some trash talk would help. "Watch your back!" I wrote to the perennial frontrunner, Anya Kamenetz, a recent conference buddy and author of DIY U, a university reform manifesto. No reply. I guess at least one of us is a class act. I e-mailed later to ask how often she checks her ranking. "Amazon, what Amazon? :)" she replied—before noting that a blog shout-out had given her a big boost that day.
As my wife likes to say, you're never the only one. Confirmation came from my friend Gabriel Schoenfeld, author of Necessary Secrets, when I e-mailed him to report on my latest stats, with a sheepish apology for my obsession. Six minutes later, Gabe replied with a lovingly crafted graph, a blue line showing his weekly rankings going back to October and a red line highlighting the 90-day moving average. His book was not due out for another month.
With luck I'll keep leading those awesome subcategories. But all good things must come to an end. Then it will be time to focus less on crass sales numbers and more on sheer media influence. Have I mentioned my Google alerts?
Ben Wildavsky is a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation and author of The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World, which Princeton University Press published in May.