eponym

contemporary, relevant, provocative novellas

Getting Amazon to Work for You

We’ve been meaning to post this for some time.

It’s no secret that Amazon is where micropresses and authors rise or fall.

And while there are certainly, undeniably, legitimate reasons to find fault with Amazon as a corporate entity, the fact remains that their egalitarian, open door policy for all authors, their lack of pretension and self-importance, and their market dominance, single-handily made the micropress revolution possible.

There are numerous articles around the web on the importance of generating customer reviews on Amazon (here are two goods ones by Author S Smith and Gwen Whiting). There are also many articles on how to go about generating those reviews (the Creative Penn has an nice one on how to get reviews from top Amazon reviewers). Additionally, there are numerous forums on Goodreads dedicated to reviews-for-books exchanges (here’s one; here’s another). There is also a for-fee service where authors and publishers can pay for access to potential Amazon reviewers called Story Cartel (you can read our review of Story Cartel in our post Publishing: Odds and Ends and Lessons Learned — see #8).

But even more important than book reviews, are Amazon sales rankings, and unfortunately, very few reviewers are willing to purchase copies of the books they review. We are actually the only one we know of who does. We won’t review a book unless we purchase it, because we feel the only real way to support our fellow micropresses and authors is by purchasing their books.

The price most reviewers pay for the books they review are the reviews they write. It’s a system that works reasonably well for everyone. But because the books are usually distributed as eBooks directly by the authors themselves, they rarely help boost a book’s sales ranking.

There is a very simple way to rectify this and make sure that the books you distribute (for whatever reason) are counted towards your Amazon sales ranking — purchase the books from Amazon yourself. This also ensures that complimentary copies to reviewers who fail to review the book still help the book’s success.

Purchasing and distributing print copies is straightforward — you simply purchase the book and have it shipped to yourself or directly to the recipient. Purchasing and distributing eBooks is a little less intuitive — you will need to use the “gift to” feature, and gift the copy to the recipient (unfortunately, we did not think of this until about a week ago and are still kicking ourselves that we didn’t do this with the twenty-two complimentary eBooks of To Thee is This World Given we gave out in June, only six of which generated reviews).

Buying the books you need from Amazon probably won’t be enough for you to break into the top 100, but if you do it consistently, it should keep your book in the 70,000 range, which is in the company of many traditionally published mid- and back list authors. And if you have chosen your Amazon genre categories well, it might even keep you under 5000 in those categories (this How to for Authors has some good advice about how to choose categories).

For small orders of print books, the financial outlay of purchasing them from Amazon, as opposed to purchasing them from your printer/distributor, is negligible (our printer/distributor is Lightning Source/Ingram Spark — we highly recommend them). The primary difference in price is your publisher profit, which is included in the Amazon price, but not in the direct sales price, so it is eventually returned to you from Amazon by your distributor. And as long as you always purchase enough copies at one time for free shipping, your shipping costs are less than they would be from your distributor. [Note: If you are purchasing in bulk — i.e. whatever quantity at which your printer’s bulk order discounts kick in — it is almost always going to be more economical to purchase directly from your distributor].

The financial outlay for gifting eBooks is even less burdensome, especially if you reduce the sales price to ninety-nine cents for the giveaway. Twenty books will only cost you thirteen dollars (ninety-nine cents less your thirty-five cent publisher profit).

Once you start purchasing your books from Amazon, Amazon starts purchasing additional copies of your book to keep on hand. Print on demand (POD) books are listed on Amazon as “in stock, but requiring additional time for delivery,” unless it has copies on hand. If it does not have copies on hand, the customer will not be able to receive the book as quickly as they normally would expect, so an additional benefit of purchasing through Amazon is that it ensures your book remains readily available.

To give you an example of how few books it takes to get Amazon to take notice, we only purchased 7 copies of the hardback of To Thee is This World Given between mid-June and the last week of September, but Amazon now keeps at least 5 copies on hand — that’s five books Amazon purchased outright. So our seven purchases not only helped our sales ranking, they were offset by Amazon’s own purchases. Additionally, the first three of those seven books took between two and three weeks from the date of order to reach us, but the last four we purchased for the IBPA Ben Franklin Awards arrived less than a week later.

With contest and giveaway season gearing up we have several purchases of both the hardback and paperback editions of To Thee is This World Given lined up between now and the first week of November. Because Amazon’s sales rankings are a rolling count, you will get the most impact by staggering your purchases — one sale a day for thirty days gives you a higher rank than thirty sales in one day. The German website Self Publisher Bible did an excellent study of how rankings work on Amazon (no worries, it’s in English). This is something to keep in mind with book launches and promotions as well — if you are gifting eBook or print copies for the launch, a promotion, or a Goodreads Giveaway you might consider staggering when and how many you purchase to get the most benefit. [To learn more about Goodreads Giveaways, see our post here  #11].

Most of the public, including micropresses and authors, have very little understanding of how traditionally published books get their initial sales rankings and end up on best seller lists. Their rankings are based on pre-orders by libraries and booksellers. They are not a function of how many books are actually purchased by individual book buyers. And the vast majority of these books are never truly purchased as they end up back at the publisher as returns. This is especially true of mega-hit best sellers.

Booksellers game the system too by buying books by the carton for displays, knowing they will return all but one or two before the net thirty or net sixty on their invoice comes due, thereby requiring the publisher to pay for the return postage. The publisher remainders the books and writes the order off as a loss. The bookseller gets a nice holiday display. The publisher gets a huge sales bump for its books. And the book buying public gets to believe that 100 million people actually read 50 Shades of Grey.

There is a service that ostensibly tracks actual retail sales of books, called Book Scan, but it’s pretty much a joke, even inside the industry. The truest indicator of actual sales is…Amazon. This is something traditional authors and publishers object to because Amazon’s numbers frequently tell a different story than the industry’s do. One of the most disappointing things we ever read was Ursala K. LeGuin accusing Amazon of intentionally “disappearing” her books out of spite.

One other thing to keep in mind about a traditionally published book’s sales ranking is that the books are almost always bought as part of pre-set packages from book jobbers like Baker & Taylor. This is especially true of the books you find in libraries. Booksellers and librarians sign up for certain types of package programs and then purchase whatever books the jobber includes in that package. So these sales aren’t truly a reflection of what books readers are buying or even interested in.

Don’t be ashamed or afraid of using the system to your advantage the way it is designed to be used. There is almost nothing a micropress or an author can do, short of hacking Amazon, that rivals what tradition publishing houses and booksellers do as a matter of course to take full advantage of the system.

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