Mein Kampf becoming a bestseller out of nowhere is the kind of thing that any reasonable person might have concerns about. It’s also the kind of headline which makes savvy sub-editors salivate over viral potential. And so it proved in 2014 when this story first went around the world.
There was just one problem: it wasn’t true.
Hitler’s pre-war memoir Mein Kampf was declared a digital bestseller, leading to a global bout of media hand-wringing and pontificating. One excitable commentator even suggested it was a sign the second Holocaust was imminent.
Hitler’s “bestselling” performance was first reported by Chris Faraone at Vocativ in January 2014 under the headline Kindle Fuhrer: Mein Kampf Tops Amazon Charts. Then it spread like wildfire.
Huge blogs and websites like Gizmodo, Huffington Post, Gawker, Slate, and Salon reported on this phenomenon. Major newspapers also covered the story: the Guardian, New York Daily News, the Daily Mail, and the Los Angeles Times. Television networks got in on the act too, like ABC News and Fox, before the story spread internationally with media outlets picking up the story in places like Portugal, India, and Russia.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg; a cursory search of Google will show pages and pages and pages of blogs, websites, and media organizations repeating the same story.
A whole spate of features followed which tried to explain the uncomfortable “fact” that Adolf Hitler was a digital bestseller. The most popular framing was that it was the 50 Shades phenomenon – i.e. that people could now read Hitler’s words without being judged for their choice of reading material.
A nice theory to go with a juicy story. But none of it is true.
Retailers like Apple are something of a black box, but it’s relatively simple to track the performance of any book on Amazon. With a tool like KND’s Tracker, you can also view the historical performance of a title, once someone has already added it to the system.
As luck would have it, we have the relevant historical data for Mein Kampf.
This particular edition of Mein Kampf wasn’t selling at all until October 2013, when the publisher dropped the price to 99c – which is hardly surprising given the number of competing editions out there, many of which are available for free as it is a public domain title.
It then settled into a range of #7,825 to #9,995 on the Amazon rankings where it stayed until this story broke.
For those not familiar with the Amazon rankings, this equates to just 10 copies being sold a day – not a bestseller by any stretch of the imagination. (Note to journalists: it took me 60 seconds to find this out.)
Let’s look at what happened once this (fake) news story went viral.
The red line is what we’re most interested in, which notes the highest (i.e. best) Sales Rank that Mein Kampf achieved for the day in question. The axis along the bottom is the date (starting from 16 December 2013, ending the day before this article was written, i,e, 15 January 2014). And the left axis is Sales Rank and the right is price.
You will notice that until this story broke, the highest Sales Rank that Mein Kampf reached was around #8,000 in the Kindle Store rankings. As I mentioned above, this equated to roughly 10 sales a day at the time of writing.
That big spike on 9 January 2014 happened after the worldwide media attention began. According to KND’s tracker, Mein Kampf peaked in the charts on 11 January 2014, at #592 in the Kindle Store – selling around 200 copies a day.
Mein Kampf wasn’t a “digital bestseller” until the media made it one. Life imitating artifice, if you like.
Indeed, now that the white hot heat of viral attention has moved onto something else, Mein Kampf is quickly heading back to where it was – selling a handful a day.
This is a classic case of journalists not doing their research, and repeating a hot story without verifying anything. I guess the hotter the story, the more likely a slip-up like this can happen, but I’m just amazed that not one of the journalists at all of these media organizations bothered to spend 60 seconds checking the key facts of the story.
It underlines how little people generally understand how Amazon works – even in the “leading” industry journals. There are all sorts of sub-sub-genre bestseller lists on Amazon, and if you choose your categories carefully, you can appear on a “bestseller” list with a handful of sales.
But that doesn’t make you a bestseller, and it didn’t make Mein Kampf a bestseller – until the media made it one.