Monday, July 14, 2008

Amazon Rankings and Ice Fishing

OK, it's time to get something out in the open.

I've noticed that all the pod-caster novelists and POD-ers have this obsession with Amazon rankings, which I can understand. That's why they all encourage people to buy the book on opening day, so it skyrockets the rankings to the top 10, if even for 1/10 of a second, but still, from then on in the promo materials you can say, "the top 10 Amazon hit..."

But does this really work? Do publishers care about gimmicky marketing tactics like this? Can you show me a case where it backfired?

I have to admit that this approach looks more respectable than begging for some 'agent' who may or may not even respond to you to take 15% of whatever you may or may not make. Seems like the new breed of action adventure authors (and it does seems to be mostly in those genres), are eschewing agents altogether, or at least until the asgents solicit them.

First I will point out that mainstream authors can be as obsessed with their Amazon rankings as POD authors. I know I am, checking it whenever I can while my book is in preorder because I know a spike equals a sale and I get all excited. POD people have even more reason to be obsessed because they are, for the most part, not in stores and rely on Amazon to sell their book.

People used to be more dismissive of Amazon. As of 2007, someone told me all internet sales were only 7% of the book market, not that big. Then in early 2008 I heard 17% from someone else, then 23%. The point is, the internet sales are climbing in proportion to stores going down, and while they won't replace stores, they can no longer be dismissed. So if your book is selling well on Amazon, good for you. Be happy about it. It's no small thing anymore.

As for the rankings system, I've been messing with it a bit myself as of late so I can talk about it a little. There have been waves of people trying to analyze the ranking system and figure out Amazon's algorithm, which is a closely-guarded secret. The reason for the waves is that Amazon occasionally changes the algorithm based on people trying to manipulate it or for it to more efficiently reflect sales. In 2005, someone wrote that she got her book into the Top 25 list by buying a book an hour (it is recalculated every hour for high-ranked books, and mostly once a day for above 100,000 numbered books). I tried that, and it didn't work. She wrote that she only bought one copy because she read somewhere else that for an individual buyer, multiple copies are reduced to one for the purposes of ranking to prevent the manipulation of rank by authors. Come to think of it, I don't know why Amazon would care - they just want to sell books, and they're selling books to you, and they're ranking the books by what's sold, so who buys them shouldn't be a huge issue, be it one person buying 100 or 100 people buying one. On the other hand, 100 people buying one indicates popularity over numbers, so again, it's complicated.

I experimented a little (and got flagged by Amazon, who called me and asked me if I wanted a corporate account, as I seemed to be buying so many books that if I had any intention of actually buying them and not canceling my pre-orders, it would be financially cost-efficient to have a corporate account and not just an Amazon credit card like I do) and here's what I found:

(1) Numbers do matter. Buying 100 copies over buying 1 multiple times over a long period of time will artificially raise your rank faster and higher.

(2) Amazon does calculate the ranks about once an hour, but it puts the calculations in effect on about the 40 minute part of the hour. I don't know when it actually does the calculations, but all I know is that the spike would always be around :35 or :40. Otherwise, my book would just slowly depreciate.

(3) Massive canceling of massive orders will result in the rank going back down (meaning, the ranking system takes cancellations into account and doesn't just track orders. It tracks sales)

(4) It is ridiculously, stupidly hard to get your book above 2000. There are 4 million books listed on Amazon, so that shouldn't be a surprise, but it seems to cap at 2000 for some reason. Despite massive orders in a short span of a few hours, I could not get my rank to reflect that.

(5) Manipulating your rank is probably a little unethical, though it's a victim-less crime.

To answer your questions specifically, I have seen ads for marketing, but and I gave them some thought but decided against them. If you have a ton of friends, you can get them to buy the book all at the same time, but it won't do as much to your rank as the ads promise. Also some people are big on "email blasts" where you email people you barely know or random people you got from a list you paid for to buy your book. Having never bought a book from an email blast (and I get a few of them every couple months at my Rejector email), I cannot say this is an effective measure except if you've written a specific book for a specific community, in which case I would just call that marketing and be done with it.

I confess I have paid a service $3/month to track my sales based on my rank, because I am curious, and also because I think it has access to Bookscan and can actually look up sales once the book goes on sale and tell me how many sold. The rank itself does not totally reflect sales - it reflects your rank relative to the other 4 million books on Amazon, so if other books aren't doing as well, your rank will not depreciate as slowly.

As for the agent thing, that's another discussion entirely, but I think that anyone with more than one book should immediately get an agent even if they already have a book contract. That 15% is well-earned, and I say that not just because I work for an agent but also because I have my own agent for my books, and she is severely underpaid for all the work she does for me in my opinion. If you have one book and have an offer, get an agent. She'll take her 15% percent for looking over the contract, but she's not there for that. She's there to sell your second, third, and fourth books, and so on.

Lastly, some people have begun to mention in query letters that they were "an Amazon bestseller." We don't pay any attention to this. It could mean they manipulated their rank to be a bestseller, and it could mean they were a bestseller in a specific category. I imagine it's not all that hard to be a bestseller in the Books ‹Outdoors & Nature ‹Hunting & Fishing ‹Fishing ‹Ice Fishing category. Or maybe I'm just underestimating the number of books about ice fishing.


Erin Edwards said...

I too have watched Amazon rankings with wonder and bewilderment (unfortunately so far, not for one of my own books) and I enjoyed this explanation. Thank you for an excellent post!

Anonymous said...

Somewhere out there, someone must have charted the bell curve a marketing gimmick makes, from the (increasingly short) period where it's cool, fresh, and innovative, to the (increasingly high) top of the bell when it catches on and everybody and their brother does it, to the slide down to the long tail where it's considered a stupid noob trick. I predict that within another few months to a year, agents are going to start writing rants about how they're sick of hearing about POD authors' &%!$ Amazon ratings.

Anonymous said...

How to get above Amazon rank 2000:

Well, I just saw Glen bEck interview the guy who wrote THE RULES OF DECEPTION, which is released tomorrow, on CNN.

I immediatey went to Amazon and checked the ranking:

(of course, he was also a bestseller before this)

I have also been watching the rank of THE GARGOYLE which has made sub 500 well before it comes out, but does bounce around a bit.

I just wonder how many sales those numbers trnslate to. I guess if you can hit under 2000, even for a few seconds, you will have made some $$$, right?

Anonymous said...

I've written 4 books on ice fishing.

Kristi Holl said...

Thanks for a succinct summary here. It helps put several things in perspective. (I've never bought anything because of an email blast either.) I'm not sure there are enough hours in my day to worry about manipulating the Amazon rankings. 8-)

Elizabeth Byler Younts said...

very interesting...this is an area where I do not know much at all...thanks for the valuable info.

Anonymous said...

LOL! Do you know how many times I read the title of this post before I realized you'd written "Amazog" rather than Amazon?

Stacia said...

I've blogged elsewhere about how bragging on Amazon rankings feels like an amateur trick to me already. Especially since most of the time it's something like, "My book was the number one book on dealing with bunions when pregnant and holding a sheep!"--a totally small, subsubsubgenre that means nothing, and most people with any publishing experience know it means nothing.

Anonymous said...

What tracking service are you using? That sounds interesting.

The Rejecter said...

I'm using, and even though it claims for the fee I'm paying it ranks hourly, it obviously doesn't. I'm not very happy with it at the moment, but I'll stick with it for another month or so and see what happens.

Anonymous said...

You should avoid "firstly, secondly, lastly...", even in blog posts; and especially if you're a writer.

"First, second, last" is enough.

But perhaps another reason to avoid firstly, secondly and lastly is that they resemble hypercorrections--inappropriate forms substituted for perfectly good ones, out of a desire to sound especially correct.

While it's not completely wrong, it doesn't read well in an academic sense when you're trying to hand out advice regarding the craft of writing.

Rob said...

Perhaps I'm full of it, but some new authors might buy a quantity of their own books to sell at different events, especially new authors.

I'm writing sci-fi and if I got published, I'd want to market the book at sci-fi conventions

wrigleyfield said...

What's the deal with Amazon Corporate? Do you get better rates on book buying?

(I tried to figure this out from their website, but no luck so far...)

Anonymous said...

Which part of knocking books with legitimate sales down the rankings is victimless? If that isn't 'costing' those authors something then why do you consider rankings important?

Zoe Winters said...

I think you're right about "Amazon bestseller" it does get rather specific. I DO think however if one manages to reach Amazon Bestseller (and names their specific rank, and has some kind of actual proof of it), for any given major category that has SOME merit.

Even if it was just a one day book buying blitz. If someone was able to rally 1,000 people or even several hundred in 1 day to buy a specific book, clearly this person knows how to market and has at least a small fan base already.

If I were an agent, it is someone I would take a little more seriously, provided of course their book was also actually worthy. Some people have a lot of marketing savvy but no writing skills and bad word of mouth spreads faster than good.

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