I didn’t like math in elementary school. My brain isn’t terribly logical, and after a traumatic encounter with long division, I decided that numbers were not my friend.

I was right.

As writers, we all want to make the bestseller list, but as you work your way up to that point, you become obsessed with all sorts of numbers. The most dangerous one is your Amazon Sales Rank. According to my publisher, this number is practically meaningless–especially for debut authors. Readers who shop online are usually looking for something specific; it’s not a strong platform for new writers.

Still, for about three weeks after Cowboy Troublewas released, it was the only sales indicator I had, and I was determined to wring some significance out of it. I developed a system of checking my book’s rank against similar books and against books released at the same time, figuring its relative position would be significant. But this was ridiculously time-consuming and angst-inducing, and when the ranking fluctuates 200,000 points in a single day, it’s pretty obvious that my sales manager is right: it means nothing. (The best explanation of how to extrapolate information from this number is at WebProNews, http://www.webpronews.com/expertarticles/2006/06/15/navigating-the-amazon-sales-ranking)

Then there’s Google Analytics, a weekly report on your website’s traffic. It’s filled with numbers that show you how many people visited your site, how long the average visitor stayed, what pages attracted the most readers, and even where your blog followers are located. In contrast to the Amazon sales number, your Analytics numbers offer a lot of useful information that helps you tailor your online activities to your readers’ interests. It also shows how your audience grows from week to week, and it’s been exciting to see the numbers go up as more and more readers discover Cowboy Trouble.

My latest numerical obsession is my Facebook Page Update. This is a weekly email about my Facebook Fan Page (Joanne Kennedy Books, http://www.facebook.com/pages/Joanne-Kennedy-Books/114277591920110?ref=ts). It offers a weekly count of how many “fans” I have and how many comments and “likes” my posts earned. It even grades my posts with a number grade, which is apparently based on reader interactions. This number grade is followed by stars, and let me tell you, the urge to earn gold stars doesn’t go away when you leave elementary school!

As far as bestseller lists go, I’m not up to that point yet–but Cowboy Trouble did make the Nielsen Bookscan list of the Top 100 Romance Novels two weeks in a row. Nielsen polls various sales outlets–primarily bookstores–and their numbers are supposed to be fairly accurate. A subscription to Nielsen that takes you beyond their bestseller list is fabulously expensive; fortunately, my agent has access to some of their reports and sent me the happy news.

For the most part, chasing after numbers is a fruitless distraction from a writer’s most important work–writing the next book. But writing is all about communication, and these numbers indicate how many readers you’re communicating with and how successful those efforts are, so as long as the feedback is used constructively, it’s a good thing. It’s when you start chasing the numbers, rather than the readers, that the obsession gets destructive.

There’s also a vicious circle involved. Writers these days spend a lot of time on the internet, and some of these numbers show where they can most effectively focus their online efforts. But finding the numbers involves spending more time online–so it’s difficult to achieve a balance.

Still, if you want to hop on over to http://www.facebook.com/pages/Joanne-Kennedy-Books/114277591920110?ref=ts, and become a fan or interact with a couple of my posts so I can earn some more stars, I wouldn’t mind a bit! I’ve actually become quite a fan of Facebook; it lets me keep in touch with readers with brief posts, and I’ve gotten to know a lot of new readers through the fan page.