How An Unpublished XKCD Book Became an Amazon Best-Seller

XKCD cartoonist publishes a What If book

It’ll be six months before it’s even released. Yet it’s already become Amazon’s
#2 best-selling book!
It’s by the cartoonist who draws the popular online comic strip XKCD. And ironically, this book is titled “What If?”

For a shortcut to his book’s page — and an earlier collection of
the author’s comic strips — point your browser to

It’s like a surreal story from one of the author’s own comic strips. In our yet-to-happen future, his book decides to travel backwards through time, stopping off in March of 2014 to inform Amazon’s best-seller list that yes, in our coming timeline this book will be widely read. Ironically, the book’s complete title is “What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.” (Like what would happen if you threw a baseball at 90% the speed of light? )

“…the air molecules in front of this ball don’t have time to be jostled out of the way. The ball smacks into them so hard that the atoms in the air molecules actually fuse with the atoms in the ball’s surface. Each collision releases a burst of gamma rays and scattered particles… They start to tear apart the molecules in the air, ripping the electrons from the nuclei and turning the air in the stadium into an expanding bubble of incandescent plasma…

“A careful reading of official Major League Baseball Rule 6.08(b) suggests that in this situation, the batter would be considered ‘hit by pitch’, and would be eligible to advance to first base.”

For years the cartoonist — Randall Munroe — has been fielding these wild questions on a special “sub domain” of his comic strip’s web page ( at ) The answers are illustrated with some of his endearing stick figures and simple diagrams – but there’s always been real science in the paragraphs of text that accompany them. What’s really amazing is he only announced his plans to publish this book yesterday — in a blog post entitled “What if I wrote a book?” His fan base was so thrilled, a huge number apparently rushed over to Amazon to pre-order their copies!

To encourage them to buy, the author even created a special cartoon just to answer one more question.

XCKD author publishes What If

They may also have been intrigued by the fact that this book will contain new material in addition to some of the author’s favorite questions from his web site. “As I’ve sifted through the letters submitted to What If every week, I’ve occasionally set aside particularly neat questions that I wanted to spend a little more time on,” Munroe wrote in his blog post. “This book features my answers to those questions, along with revised and updated versions of some of my favorite articles from the site….)

But there’s one more fascinating data point. Right now, the unpublished book doesn’t even appear on Amazon’s list of the top 100 best-selling Kindle ebooks. It’s got me wondering if most of Amazon’s customers are just buying Kindle ebooks now. So it’s much easier to get to the top of Amazon’s list of print best-sellers — because Amazon’s selling so few printed books!

4 thoughts to “How An Unpublished XKCD Book Became an Amazon Best-Seller”

  1. Alternate hypothesis: as there is no scarcity of them on day one, there’s no advantage in pre-ordering ebooks, do most ebook buyers simply wait and buy them once released?

    Do pre-order books *ever* show up on the best-selling ebook list?

  2. I don’t buy Kindle ebooks, due to Amazon’s history of un-publishing them when THEY think it’s convenient. Hard-copy only for me.

  3. To “a different phil” — I prefer to buy DRM-free ebooks (e.g. directly from Baen) but when I can’t, I buy Kindle ones. Why? Because the DRM is trivially easy to break (there’s a Calibre plug-in.) As long as the book has a “delivery to my PC” option, I’ve never had one not be breakable, and once I have it as an unencrypted MOBI file, I can convert it to epub with Calibre and read it in a reader of my choice… and Amazon can do nothing to later take it away. A few books don’t have the “deliver to my PC” option, and are only readable on a real Kindle or an Android device (presumably iOS too but I don’t have an iOS device for it to offer to deliver to) and I haven’t bought those as presumably they cannot have the DRM removed.

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