More New Rules from Amazon
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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

More New Rules from Amazon

This is the continuation of yesterday's article on Amazon Algorithms:


Yes, in a recent Kindleboards post, you mentioned that Amazon’s changes would effect those using KDP Select. Can you summarize what’s been going on and what the changes may mean for authors?

Amazon has made significant changes to their popularity list algorithms twice this year. Around March 19, they started using three lists at once. Around May 3, they condensed that to a single list. The new list works as I’ve detailed above.
If you’re in Select and have been doing book giveaways, you may have noticed that you started selling fewer copies after a free run starting March 19. You’ve probably done even worse since May 3. That’s because free copies used to be weighted equally with paid sales on the popularity lists–which also looked at most recent sales most heavily.

But now that free downloads only count for about 10% of a paid sale, and the lists look at the last 30 days of sales rather than the last week or so, it can be really hard to land high on the popularity lists unless you give away a colossal amount of books. (Though if you can make it there, you’ll stick for longer.) Without the visibility of the popularity lists to drive your sales, you probably won’t see the “post-free bump” we grew used to in the first few months of Select. Select can still be an effective program, but for the moment, it’s far less useful for generating sales than it once was.

For instance, back in February, I gave away 9000 copies of my fantasy novel The White Tree. That was enough to put me at #1 on the Epic Fantasy popularity list for several days. I sold a lot of books! In March, I gave away another 4700 copies. On a similar version of the list we’re currently seeing, that was only enough to boost me to #65. I didn’t sell nearly as many books!

For a more in-depth look at these changes, check out my series of posts here, here, and here.

In that last post, you talked about how the new changes may make it harder for authors with 99-cent ebooks to rank as well. What exactly are you seeing and what price points seem to be favored?

Yes. Price now seems to be a factor as well. Collecting data on this is really hard–in fact, I can’t even say with total certainty this theory is correct–but there’s a strong correlation between price and relative position on the popularity lists. In short, the higher your price, the better you’ll place relative to your overall sales.

The favored price point in this new system is “as much as you can get away with charging.” It looks like $0.99 books have been pretty well massacred. $2.99 books can still place well (particularly when they’re boosted by giveaways), but they’re at a noticeable disadvantage. Something like $5.99 – $12.99 looks to be the ideal range at the moment. Affordable enough for people to buy in droves (if the quality is there), but with a high enough price to hang with all the high-priced traditionally published books.

This is not a call to jack up your prices. If you raise your book to $7.99 and only sell 20% of what you were doing at $2.99, you’ll be worse off on the popularity lists. And remember, the popularity lists are just one way to generate sales (although it is a significant one). But since price appears to be directly relevant now, it’s something to be aware of when positioning your book.

Any thoughts on why Amazon might be making these changes? To push people into their ideal $2.99 – $9.99 pricing bracket?

I don’t know. Could be, but it’s not like Amazon made any announcements about this. I don’t think Amazon builds these algorithms with overly specific goals in mind. Like, nobody in Seattle woke up one morning and said, “And now I ruin John Locke’s life! Ah ha ha ha!” As far as I can see, all they care about is what will make them the most money now and continue to do so ten years from now.

Do you have any parting thoughts on what these changes might mean for authors who hope to do well in the second half of 2012 and beyond? It seems like some of the “tricks” indies have used to outperform mainstream books (99-cent price tags, KDP Select free days, etc.) might not work as well in the future. Will this force us all (Big 6, small press, and self-published authors) to sell and promote our books in the same way?

This is just one more step in the ongoing and absurdly fast-paced evolution of the ebook market. The algorithms could change again tomorrow or six months from now. Amazon makes changes all that time.

That said, in the meantime, Select isn’t the money-printing machine it once was. To sell many books, you’ll have to do more with it than “set book free, sit on couch, drink fruity drink.” You need to have a secondary strategy to make your book visible after your free run’s over, or use your free run to specifically generate visibility for your other books. So maybe the strategy is to make the first book in a series free on a regular basis, or taking out an ad to run the day after your book reverts to paid to try to cluster as many sales into one day and climb the bestseller lists, etc. Indies are still in the process of working this out.

If these changes stick around long-term, we might see a convergence of prices, tactics, etc. between indie and trad publishers. But I think that, for better or worse, we’ll see yet another change before the year is up. Maybe several of them. While the current changes don’t look good for Amazon’s indie crew, we still have the advantage of being able to adapt faster to them–and to whatever comes next.

Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, Ed!