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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


I'm Number One! And You Are Too.

Or ... why everyone, including students, can use a little recognition of their efforts.

August 23, 2018

It’s not that I obsessively check the Amazon ranking for my books or anything, but I just happened to need to grab a link to the page the other day when I noticed something:

That’s right, I’m a #1 best seller on Amazon months before my book’s release. The buzz for the book is deafening. I’m surprised I can even concentrate to write.

Thanks to Amazon’s ability to gather and categorize data, they’ve created a kind of “Every author gets a trophy” system, as they slice and dice their wares into innumerable different groupings like Books > Reference > Words, Language & Grammar > Rhetoric, for example, in which my book was for a brief amount of time, the #1 new release.

I just lit off a barrage of fireworks in my home office/spare bedroom to celebrate. I’m also now wondering how someone with the #1 New Release in Books > Reference > Words, Language & Grammar > Rhetoric has to work out of a spare bedroom, rather than having a dedicated office filled with fancy ass furniture and an array of monitors on which I can track my book sales in real time while still writing my future best sellers.

In reality, as we all know, this honor does not mean much in practical terms like book sales. They peak overall ranking for the book since its addition to the Amazon database was 38,209, back in mid-July.[1] Somehow “We’re number one!” sounds better than “We’re number thirty-eight thousand, two-hundred and nine!”

Looking at the available data for the book reveals there’s been fewer than 20 pre-orders. Each of the spikes in the graph below is likely caused by a single purchase.



On the one hand, selling twenty books isn’t going to go far when it comes to achieving my dream of owning a yacht that I can dock next to one of Betsy DeVos’s.

On the other hand, it feels kind of great that somewhere between 15 and 18 people are interested enough in the book to pull the trigger on a purchase months before the book will be available. I’m pretty sure that’s never happened to me before. By comparison, my novel and collection of short stories have sold (on Amazon) fewer than 10 copies combined in the last 12 months.

And honestly, despite knowing how hollow that #1 New Release designation is, I will admit to a moment of what? Pride? Excitement?

I’m not sure what I’d call it, other than it’s nice to be reminded that something you’ve done actually exists in the world. So much of what we do seems to shoot into a void without anything coming back in return, that to be reminded we can make a mark (however small), can be a real balm to the spirit.

As the semester starts, signaling a second year where I will not be teaching, it is the chance to leave an impression on others, and have them impress upon me in return that I may be missing most. Once I let loose my grip on my own authority, I recognized the deep pleasures of allowing students to direct me and my work as much as I was directing them.

In a way, not being able to leave a mark through teaching has significantly goosed my ambition for these books and my own future. If I cannot get my fix in the classroom, I will have to try my hand at the wider world. It is not really a path I wished for myself – I would much prefer a sustainable career teaching – but it’s the one I have.

That students are capable of being in charge of their own learning is a central theme of both Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities, and the also forthcoming (though not until February), The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

Every bit of responsibility I have given over to students they have proven capable of handling – with support, with guidance, and not without bumps in the road – but capable.

If I have any advice based on my twenty years of teaching experience and my one year away writing these books, which has allowed for significant reflection it is to trust students.

And considering the little jolt of excitement I had over a very small accomplishment signaled to me by an impersonal algorithm, the second bit of advice is to remember to remind students that they are capable, that they do leave an impression.

There is a very simple method for doing this when responding to student writing, tell them what’s good.

Lord knows, this is easy to forget. For years and years and years, I violated this dictum, believing my job was solely to correct, rather than also to guide or inspire, or maybe that corrections were the way to inspire. I don’t know why I thought this. It had never worked on me when I was a student.

I wish I could recall which former colleague I stole this from, but some years back on every assignment, at a minimum I made sure that I identified the piece’s “best moment.” It might be an idea or a sentence or even a specific word choice, but whatever it was, I would let the student know that they left an impression.

It’s easy, it feels good, and like Amazon’s maximizing the number of  best sellers program, it doesn’t cost a thing.

Not everyone needs a trophy, but who couldn’t use a pat on the back?


In order to mitigate my not-teaching blues, I’ve scheduled a week away from home to coincide with the start of the semester, so next week will be two guest bloggers: Denise Krane, Lecturer in English and Director of The HUB Writing Center at Santa Clara University, who has some interesting insights based on a research project on the use of rubrics, and Jack Baker, an associate professor of English at Spring Arbor University who co-wrote a really fascinating book, Wendell Berry and Higher Education: Cultivating Virtues of Place, and will be offering reflections on how to think about gen ed curriculum.


[1] Amazon has an Author Central feature that allows you to track your rankings and Bookscan sales (once the book is released) over time. 


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