Going by the book

Internet - Andrew Brown on what the world is reading

Voyeurism is one of the great pleasures of the net. I don't mean by this the Jennicam style of pornography, where you can watch a young woman live her normal life with and without clothes on, but the genuinely strange insights into other people's behaviour that are available nowhere else. Most of this stuff is gathered for marketing purposes, but that need not mean it is entirely false.

The latest example is Amazon.com's "Affinity circles", which allow you to see what has been bought from particular areas of the web. Sometimes these are geographical and sometimes organisational. It seems to be running only on the American site, which gives some slightly strange results: the most popular book ordered from England, for example, was The Committee, a book on political assassinations in Northern Ireland which David Trimble is suing for libel and which has not been published in this country at all. I doubt, though, that this represents huge sales of a banned book, and here's why: the second most popular book in the list was a work called Lebanon: from Israel to Damascus, which seems from the readers' reviews to have been a continuation of the civil war by other means. The author calls himself COBRA and was a bodyguard to one of the Christian warlords. Even sympathetic reviewers comment on the ghastliness of the translated prose, but for most of them it's the thought that counts: one of them concludes, "More grease to your elbows".

Most of the remaining books are nerdy, though there are two Harry Potter books in ninth and tenth place. Doorstop computer books sell everywhere, even in Serbia, where the top-five list is all computers except for third place, which is taken by The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in a single- volume edition.

Since all these purchases are sorted by where on the net you come from, it is also possible to slice them up by company. So in Microsoft, for instance, the best-selling book is not a hagiographical biography of Bill Gates but the latest book by the man himself, Business at the Speed of Light. Most of the remaining books are guides to the company's own products - it's nice to know they need the manuals, too - but in eighth place is a deeply hostile biography of Gates by a woman whose mother runs Microsoft's PR firm.

At Oracle, another giant software company, the most popular book is a biography of the boss, Larry Ellison, which makes him out to be an obnoxious zillionaire in the style of Steve Jobs, whose overwhelming talent lay in selling, rather than delivering. This spirit seems to permeate his company: most of the other books on the list are manuals on selling.

At Tucows, a company that runs some very useful sites collecting shareware and freeware for all sorts of problems, the concerns of the staff are homelier. The top three slots on their best-seller list are all taken by diet books. Otherwise everyone seems to be buying Patricia Cornwell, even in Sweden and Estonia.

It is rather misleading to study the Amazon.com sales figures for this country when it is generally quicker and no more expensive to order from Amazon.co.uk. But looking at these figures reinforces my general scepticism about Amazon's best-seller lists. Are there really more students of Lebanese politics in England than there are Harry Potter fans? When my own book, The Darwin Wars, came out in March, I wrote a little script that automatically checked the sales figures at Amazon.co.uk every few hours and stored the results for later analysis. I rose to 38 in the list, which was pleasant, but when I checked a couple of months' figures, what was astonishing was the violence of the hour-to-hour fluctuations. On 4 March, for example, I started the day at 242 on the list, sank, in a matter of hours, to 843, but by 2pm was number 75. This trampolining preceded every spike in the graph: a sharp fall came before every moment of pride.

There are two possible explanations for these statistics. Either the volume of books being sold through Amazon is immense and highly turbulent, or else it is so small that even the sale of five or ten copies will affect the statistics violently. This seems far more likely. Oh - since you ask, today's ranking is 3,826. There's little ambiguity about that, I'm afraid.

This article first appeared in the 06 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Whatever happened to liberty?