Friday, November 16, 2012

Amazon rankings, Goodreads and reality checks

I'm going to talk about numbers again, mostly because of something on Goodreads that made me chuckle. But first, if you haven't been paying attention read this post about my KDP Select promo for The House of Closed Doors - I was feeling pretty good about those numbers, huh? At that point I was rolling along at about 20-30 sales a day, feeling like a real pro.

And then...

My numbers fell off a cliff. Like this.

See that point about halfway along where the sales tank to zero and then bump along at a much lower level?

That actually happened on exactly the wrong day when everything was wrong with the world--you know those days. So I whined and sulked for half a day and then I found the explanation. I've been back through my tweets and can't find the post with the explanation, so obviously I was having a VERY bad day and you're going to have to put up with my inept version. Here goes.

As well as sales rankings, which are based on hourly sales (presumably compared to all other books?) Amazon has popularity rankings which determine where your book appears when people are browsing the bookstore. The better your popularity ranking, the more visible you are.

Popularity rankings are calculated (partly, I think; read on) on a 30-day rolling average. The other thing you need to know is that free downloads through the KDP Select program count as 1/10th of a paid download.

With me so far? OK. So that glorious week I had over 41,000 paid downloads, so for the sake of simplicity let's say that was about 8,000 downloads a day. That means Amazon counted them as 800 paid downloads a day, which is a LOT. So for the first 25 days after the promo, those 800/day figured into the average and kept my book nice and high in the popularity lists. More visibility = more sales.

I think the sales ranking (sales per hour, remember?) also factors into the popularity rating, so there was also some slippage there, a bit of a downward spiral. But on day 26 I lost one 800 day, on day 27 two, and so on. So there was a decline. 30 days after the promo Amazon was calculating my popularity rating on the much smaller average of actual sales, so down it went. Less visibility = fewer sales.

So the reality of my book's performance is around 3-4 sales a day rather than the 20-30 I had gotten used to! Still not at all bad for a first try by an unknown author who's a bit lazy about marketing...

And now for the funny bit.

Today I came across a review on Goodreads that I'm still laughing about. The author and reviewer shall remain nameless. Author was boasting about his great sales, so Reviewer went to Amazon to take a look and found a sales ranking of something like 780,000. To give you some perspective, here are my sales vs. Amazon ranking for the last few days:

The sales rankings are calculated hourly, so these are just what I saw when I checked the sales numbers.* But you get the idea. For Author's sales to be down at 780,000 he must be selling, what, a book a month? Even when I was practically selling nothing I was at 120,000. So Author's claims of great sales are rubbish.

To add to the fun, Reviewer read the book sample you can always see on Amazon and reviewed it, pointing out Author's dreadful grammar and clunky sentences.**

You know, in some ways there hasn't been a better time to be a writer since about, what, the 1930s? We're in the glorious window of opportunity between the democratization of self-publishing and the moment when the traditional publishing industry has bought up all of our opportunities and we're back to querying agents.***

But the flipside of all these opportunities is that we've nowhere to hide. What you see on Amazon is what we are. Unless we're John Locke, we're at the mercy of the reading public for reviews. Some of us may think we're gaming the system, but we're really not. And boasting of big sales we don't have in the hopes that it'll make people buy? Get real.

And if we do write a bad book it's going to get noticed. Granted, it may REALLY get noticed and sell like Fifty Shades of Grey... And the traditional publishing industry is learning the upside of lowering book prices by skimping on the editing, so bad may become the norm in the same way that fewer and fewer people know how to use apostrophe's. Yes, that was deliberate. But there are still readers out there who know what bad is, and I for one am grateful that they bother to point out our mistakes to the world.

So I was wondering - do you check out a book's sales ranking on Amazon before you buy? What's the deciding factor when you're choosing between book A and book B?

* I don't intend to do this every day to the end of my life, btw. I'm just tracking for a while to understand the whole sales thing better. Once I've checked out a couple more things, I'll move to monthly tracking which is much more practical.

** If you're going to start shouting "Goodreads bullies!" stop right there. If you publish your work you lay yourself open to unfavorable reviews, and Goodreads tends to attract savvy readers who know enough about good writing to critique it. I find I get a lower rating on Goodreads than on Amazon, and I have no problem with that. Goodreads is the Bracing Cold Shower of Reality that we all need as an antidote to all those sites who tell us we're all wonderful and will be as rich as JK Rowling in no time. Hooray for Goodreads!

*** You think it won't happen? Random Penguin.