Going Undercovers Amazon.com Now Lists Books Selling Unusually Well in Each Community. That Must Reveal Something about Ourselves and Our Neighbors ... but What?

By Reese, Joel | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), February 24, 2000 | Go to article overview

Going Undercovers Amazon.com Now Lists Books Selling Unusually Well in Each Community. That Must Reveal Something about Ourselves and Our Neighbors ... but What?


Reese, Joel, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


By day, DuPage County residents are generally considered conservative, traditional law-abiders. They mow their lawns, they wave to their neighbors, they attend PTA meetings.

At night, however, things apparently heat up quite a bit in the Western suburbs.

Recently, the Web site Amazon.com found the top-selling book unique to Naperville is "Seven Weeks to Better Sex" by Dr. Domeena Renshaw.

Likewise in neighboring Lisle: There, the top unique book is "52 Invitations to Grrreat Sex" by Laura Corn, a Texas-bred "intimacy expert" whose toll-free phone number is (800) 611-BONK. No. 2? Corn's "101 Nights of Grrreat Sex: Secret Sealed Seductions for Fun Loving Couples."

The reaction to this from the director of the Lisle Library District?

"I won't touch that one with a 10-foot pole," says Dennis Huslig. "But this is the heart of Republican country, and ... well, I'd better not say anything else. I'm already grinning from ear to ear. I have no comment on that one."

We discovered the hot books in DuPage by checking out the popular Web site Amazon.com, which boasts a feature called "purchase circles."

This relatively new innovation, which began in August, tells a visitor what books, music and videos are popular in cities (as well as countries, companies, universities, and nonprofit groups) across the world.

Want to know what's popular in at PaineWebber Inc.? What's hot in Hungary? What's most-liked in Missoula, Mont.? Check out the site.

We did, and we don't quite know what to make of local book selections.

Four of the top five books in Addison, for example, are diet books.

Does that indicate people in Addison are particularly vain and worried about their self-image? Or are they especially overweight and need to shed some pounds?

"I haven't the slightest idea what that means," says Joe Block, Addison's village manager. "My assumption is, we are into health in Addison. But aren't we all into diets these days?"

Surely the popularity of a book in a city says something about that town, but what, exactly, does it say?

What's the deal?

An important distinction here is that these books aren't the highest-selling books in these communities. In other words, "Seven Weeks" isn't selling the most copies in Naperville, according to Amazon.com. (That honor belongs to "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.")

The "most unique" list takes into account two criteria: "What are they buying most, and what are they buying more of as compared to the rest of the Amazon.com population," says the site's spokesman Paul Capelli from Seattle.

Amazon.com takes these two factors, applies an algorithm, runs a computer program on the numbers, and there you go.

And don't think three people in Lisle bought "52 Invitations to Grrreat Sex" and that's throwing off the equation.

"The algorithm is designed to weed out small numbers," Capelli notes, adding that Amazon.com draws some 17 million customers worldwide. "Because so much weight is put on volume, small numbers just won't make the cut."

OK, but what can we infer from a town's book purchases?

"These lists are designed to provide some insight into what groups of people are finding of interest," Capelli says.

Blah, blah, blah. We know that. But what does it mean?

"The beauty of the purchase circles is, it allows people to draw their own conclusions," Capelli says.

Arrgh!

The old standby

Wait, we know where to go: Northwestern University. When you want analysis like this, a good place to start is Bernard Beck, associate professor of sociology at Northwestern and renowned observer of pop-culture phenomena. Surely he'll be able to give us the big picture.

Sure enough, when he learns about the sex books' popularity in Naperville and Lisle, Beck is ready with a retort. …

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