As I’ve said before, selling your self-published book has never been easier, or more difficult, than it is today. In my previous post on the subject, I made some broad and sweeping statements regarding the pricing of novels for sale on Amazon. Admittedly, I had little more than a ‘gut feeling’ to back up my assertions…that is, until I met Ed Robertson.
Ed is one of those rare and precious people who are not only incredibly creative with the written word, but also obsessed with numbers and data. He, along with a few other authors, is a pioneer in cracking Amazon’s algorithm and I’m thrilled to bring you this interview with him. There’s a TON of valuable advice here, so put your paying-attention-panties on!
You made some interesting observations late one night regarding a shift in how well $0.99 books were faring against higher priced books in the same categories. Can you explain what you saw and your conclusions of those data?
Well, around mid-March, Amazon changed how they rank books on the popularity lists. (In brief, the popularity lists are a totally different set of lists than the bestseller lists–the bestsellers only show the top 100 books of a category, while the popularity lists show all of them. Furthermore, while the bestseller lists are calculated by pure sales over the last few days, the popularity list algorithms can be much more complicated. The popularity lists are displayed on the left side of the main Kindle Store page here: Kindle eBooks.)
It took us until the end of April to really understand what had changed; in early May, they changed yet again. At that point, Phoenix Sullivan made a startling discovery: $0.99 books appeared to be doing far, far worse on the pop lists than they had before. She theorized Amazon was giving a lower weight to $0.99 books than before.
I thought that was crazy. So I spent that night trying to disprove it. I looked at hundreds of books, comparing their bestseller rank to their popularity rank. And I soon discovered that not only was Phoenix right, but she was more right than she knew: not only were $0.99 books placed worse on the pop lists than their bestseller rank indicated, but high-priced books were placed better than expected. By the time I went to bed, I was convinced that price is now a major factor in how the pop lists are calculated.
In short, lower-priced books will have to sell significantly more copies to keep pace on the pop lists with their higher-priced competition.
You also seem to have your finger on the pulse of the KDP Select Program with regards to Amazon’s algorithm(s). What have been the biggest changes you’ve seen here recently?
Select outcomes have seen huge changes in the last few months. Before, free book downloads were weighted equally with paid sales, and the pop lists only factored in the last week or so. Now, free downloads are only worth roughly 10% of a sale, and the pop lists look at the last 30 days of total sales.
What does this mean? Before, if you gave away 1000 or more copies, you were all but guaranteed to see at least a few dozen sales after your book returned to paid. It wasn’t at all uncommon to sell a few hundred books over the next week until things returned to normal. Some people did even better, but the lists weren’t very “sticky”; those at the top were quickly bumped off by books fresh off their free runs.
Now, you have to give away a colossal number of copies to see significant sales afterwards. For most people, the post-free returns are much lower–very roughly 10-20% of what they used to be, and some people see no extra sales at all. The flip side of this is that if you hit it big with a free run, you can see very nice sales sustained for 30 days (or longer). In short, the odds are now much longer, but if you get lucky, the jackpot can be much, much bigger.
In your opinion, what is the most important strategic difference in selling books on Amazon for literary writers (one book every 2-3 years) versus genre series writes (2-3 book every year)?
Oh wow, that’s a tough one. Frankly, genre writers have a huge advantage here. Fewer books means fewer chances to reach new fans and fewer titles to sell them once you’ve got them. And if a genre writer is writing five times as many books as a literary writer, each one of the literary author’s books needs to average five times as many sales to keep up.
I suppose one way to bridge this gap is to charge more. With literary fiction, there is an expectation and appreciation of quality–and, I think, a willingness to pay more for that quality. While most indie genre authors charge $2.99-4.95, I think indie lit fic authors should experiment higher–$3.99-7.99, say. Maybe more. There’s no rule of the universe that a great indie book can’t sell at $9.99.
The other main consideration is niche. A genre author who puts out four books a year may be able to make a living selling each book to just 2000 fans. A literary author with one book every two years is going to need to do better. Fortunately for its authors, good literary fiction tends to have a broader reach than many genre subgenres, but it’s something to keep in mind.
Can you offer any advice for writers on selecting their categories in Amazon?
Be as specific and appropriate as possible. If you’ve written a planet-hopping sci-fi novel, don’t just categorize it in Science Fiction, put it in Science Fiction > Adventure (and probably Science Fiction > High Tech). It will show up in the broader Sci-Fi category as well as your more specific choices. If you’ve got a lot of appropriate categories available to you, take a look at how competitive your options are. Do you expect to sell strong right off the bat? Then put it in the more popular categories. Are you just starting out with no fanbase? Try a quiet category. You can always switch later. Be flexible.
But make sure your categories are a good fit. Readers are browsing those categories looking for specific types of books. Don’t stick a book that has some romance in it in Romantic Suspense just because it’s a popular category. Readers of romantic suspense expect some very specific things. If your book doesn’t fit the conventions (a happy-ever-after ending or whatever), you’re going to get negative reviews no matter how great your book may be.
For first time authors, do you have a basic strategy you can share to help them get started on the right foot (or left, as it were)?
This is so tough, because it varies so much. You really do need the same basics everyone is going to tell you are critical–a great cover, a great blurb, clean formatting, good proofreading. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you hire a professional, get a friend to help, or do it yourself. But no matter which route you go, it needs to be great. (Well, at least good.) If you can’t make it great, and you don’t know someone who will make it great for you, pay for a professional. It’s hard to sell a great-looking book. If your book doesn’t look great, a tough business will be that much tougher.
Let’s assume you’ve done that. Your book is attractive. If people see it, it will sell. Then how do you get people to see it? Well, you might want to make it free for a while. Even if Select is less effective for instant sales, using it early on is a good way to pick up some reviews, get yourself some also-boughts, and maybe pick up a few fans and word of mouth on Goodreads and other reader hangouts. Giving your book away, on Amazon or elsewhere, is a good way to get your foot in the door at that storefront. It can get the ball rolling.
If you don’t like the idea of giving your book away, don’t. That’s just the fastest and cheapest way to reach new readers. There are plenty of more traditional methods to build a platform–blogging, social media, message boards, whatever. I hated that stuff, because I’m very bad at it, and so I assumed I was bad at marketing. But it turned out I could promote my book through looking at and understanding numbers, which I like. I do it for fun. If you can find a promotional method that’s fun for you, you’re probably going to sell some books.
In the bigger picture, it comes down to this: write more books. I’m only the millionth person to say this, I’m sure. The thing is, some books sell on their own, leaping out of the gates like a racehorse. With others, it’s like pushing a boulder uphill. You can’t ever know whether you’ve written a boulder or a racehorse (this is a crummy metaphor) until your book is out there in front of readers. You don’t want to push boulders. Pushing boulders sucks. You want to leap on the back of a racehorse. Because some racehorses are magical unicorns strong enough to pull all your boulders along behind them, too.
But you may not find your racehorse until your third book. Or your fifth or your tenth. Maybe you never find it, but discover that you’ve formed a team of little ponies instead, and together they’re strong enough to pull you through the Land of Writing for a Living. Maybe it turns out you’ve built a cannon, and it fires you into the stratosphere for a few months before you splat back to earth. Then you need to figure out how to repack the cannon, or build a new one.
This metaphor is mixed because the avenues to success are so varied. Develop a strategy. If it doesn’t work, drop it and try something else. Fail and fail and fail until you find something that does work. Then keep doing that.
But the more books you write, the better your chances of finding what does work for you. With few exceptions, the only thing every successful writer has in common is they kept writing more.
Feature photo by Michael Porter