Historical and Contemporary Romance Author

The Dilemma of Digital Discoverability

By now, I don’t suppose anyone is terribly surprised by the news that some authors (notably self-published “sensation” John Locke) have paid to have reviews posted on Amazon in the hopes of boosting their books’ visibility. (NYT article here.) The fact that it isn’t surprising doesn’t make it any less unethical, but it does make me look at my own practices as a publisher trying to gain visibility for my books and wonder where, exactly, the line between ethical and unethical really falls.

The thing is, for authors whose books are available only at online retailers (i.e., no print copies distributed to bookstores), the whole discoverability game comes down to convincing those retailers’ algorithms to display your book instead of other people’s books. The goal is to push your book up the charts in a way that makes them more visible to potential buyers than other similar books. Moreover, all of the ways you can accomplish this have relatively little to do with the actual merits of your book. Whatever you’re doing, you are, on some level, trying to trick the retailer into putting your book in front of a reader and, by extension, to trick the reader into clicking it and then into buying it.

Here are some tried and true methods of gaining visibility, particularly on Amazon:

1) Make the book free for a short period of time. When the book comes off free, Amazon’s Also Bought and other recommendation engines will tend to propel the book back up the charts. The higher the book was on the free charts when it went “unfree,” the better the results when it comes off free are likely to be. This is entirely because Amazon’s engines are “rigged” to see a book with a lot of free downloads as more popular and more relevant than similar books with about the same number of actual sales. The more readers “see” your book in the Also Bought lists as a result of it having been free, the more likely they are to be convinced it’s a good book, because (obviously) lots of people must be buying it. Except they haven’t been buying it; they’ve been downloading it for free.

2) Get the book into any top 100 list for any category. Some categories are much harder to get “into” than others. For example, if your book is shelved only in “contemporary romance,” you are going to have to sell many more copies to break into the top 100 than if you are shelved in a more obscure category, like “Anthologies/Short Stories”. Although getting into a more popular top 100 list like contemporary romance will lead to more sales than being in one of the lesser known top 100 lists, there is still no doubt that hitting any list will make your book more discoverable and will also lead Amazon to display it more often to readers of other books in that category. For this reason, it’s not unusual for authors/publishers to shelve their books in categories they barely belong in for the sake of making it “easier” to hit a top 100.

3) Drop the price of the book to 99 cents to get it to climb the charts, then boost the price back to $2.99+. This is an incredibly common practice. I’ve seen authors set their whole list of books to 99 cents, then selectively set the ones that are selling well back to higher prices…in some cases, much higher. Again, this is an attempt to “trick” readers on some level; what the author is hoping is that readers buying the book today at its higher price will assume it reached the top of the charts at this, higher price rather than realizing most of its purchasers only paid 99 cents.

4) Sell a lot of books. This one seems kind of obvious, but what I mean is the practice of the author buying his or her own books as a means to boost its ranking. Now, unless you have a lot of money on hand, it’s hard to do this at a scale which, by itself, will be enough to launch the book into the top 100 overall on Amazon, but it’s certainly not inordinately expensive to buy enough books in a span of a few days to materially and significantly affect the book’s placement. This is a simple mathematical equation. An author can pay a few hundred dollars for advertising on a blog or other website or pay a few hundred dollars to buy a few hundred copies of his or her own books. Which is going to be more effective? I’ve never done it, but I have to tell you, hands-down, I suspect that buying your own book is more likely to boost sales and be an effective use of promotional dollars than buying an ad.

Okay, so I freely admit to having done #1 (I’m doing it right now, although Amazon stubbornly refuses to make the book free and is instead setting its price at 99 cents) and, to a lesser extent, #3. I don’t tend to move prices around based on when I think a book has reached its current zenith in rankings, but rather based on when I feel the lower price has stopped being a “draw” for readers to buy the book. But I’m still engaged in a form of manipulation and I definitely am trying to get Amazon et al to give my books more visibility by making it seem as though they are going to sell well, given that visibility.

I’m not really sure I have a grand point in this post. I simply think that, given all the other ways I see of “gaming” the system, purchased reviews seem like just one cog in a much greater wheel. If that is wrong, why isn’t #1 or #3 wrong? Aren’t those just as “manipulative” as fake reviews or mis-shelving? Why is buying your own books as a promotional tactic wrong when big publishers can pay to get front page placement and you can’t? I can see both sides of this, I guess, and while I draw the line at tactics I consider to be out and out deceitful and dishonest (like buying reviews, misshelving my books, or buying large numbers of copies), I can’t say I’m completely sanguine about the ethicality of some of the other tactics I have used.



  • Nadia Lee August 27, 2012 at 7:13 pm

    I think #4 is actually really smart. You can set your book to $0.99, and gift it to 404 people for less than $400 ($399.96 to be more precise). That’s how much banner ads on popular blogs cost for a month or so. That’s 404 people who may read your book, and hopefully post a review or talk about your book. I’ve never bought a book because of an ad, but I’ve bought a book because I liked the author’s writing.

  • Nadia Lee August 27, 2012 at 7:15 pm

    Wait, I take that back, Jackie. It costs far less than $400 because you get royalties on those gifted books. Gifting 404 copies actually costs you $258.56, far cheaper than most ads.

  • Grace Burrowes August 27, 2012 at 7:23 pm

    Very thoughtful post, and thanks for being honest about your own ambivalence. I fall back on the old, old adage that effective advertising–ethical, unethical, whatever–will only bury a bad product faster.

    Those paid for reviews can back fire. Bad enough when we’re disappointed in a book with mixed reviews, but most of us howl loudly when a book with great reviews turns out to be a crashing disappointment.

  • Jackie Barbosa August 27, 2012 at 7:24 pm

    Yeah, I was just about to point out that you get .35 cents a copy back, so it’s less than $400.

    Honestly, it’s nearly as cost effective if your book is priced at $2.99, assuming you have a little more upfront cash to spend. 400 copies will cost you $1,196, but you’ll get $830 or so back, meaning your actual expense is about $366. Still pretty darned cheap.

  • Will Entrekin August 27, 2012 at 7:30 pm

    Would buying one’s own books actually work? Doesn’t Amazon issue refunds if books are returned within 7 days? Like, I don’t think you can just keep buying multiple copies one on top of the other, can you?

    What do you mean “Amazon stubbornly refuses to make the book free”? Are you using a free KDP Select promotion, or hoping they price-match another available price? If the latter, it’s at their discretion whether they do so or not–not their responsibility or obligation. I know a lot of authors try the free-at-Smashwords-pricematched-at-Amazon strategy, and I did myself, but after Amazon didn’t match that price, I simply went KDP Select, and I’ve been much better off.

  • Jackie Barbosa August 27, 2012 at 7:31 pm

    Hi Grace,

    I agree (in theory, at least) that dishonesty will bury a bad product faster than doing nothing, BUT…most of us believe we have a good product. Whatever methods we’re engaging in to promote our books–whether it’s the more standard types of advertising or some of the methods I mentioned above–none of us thinks our books suck.

    So, if the product being promoted by “dishonest” means is good, does that make the dishonest means any less unethical? When books like John Locke’s take off and sell millions of copies, what are we to take from that? If the tactics that propel a book to bestseller status are unethical, does that mean the book never deserved that status and is bad? Or if it sells well, is that proof that it had merit?

    These are all interesting questions. None of which I have answers to, lol.

  • Jackie Barbosa August 27, 2012 at 7:37 pm

    Hey Will,

    Would buying one’s own books actually work? Doesn’t Amazon issue refunds if books are returned within 7 days? Like, I don’t think you can just keep buying multiple copies one on top of the other, can you?

    I don’t think Amazon will STOP you from buying multiple copies of your own books, though it will warn you that you already own it. (Since they don’t stop you from buying one copy, it’s hard to imagine why they’d stop you from buying 400).

    Also, as Nadia says, you could definitely buy your own books as gifts for others. The book only gets “counted” toward your sales when someone at the other end accepts it, but I think if you have the chutzpah, it’s not hard to find a few hundred people who’ll download a free book.

    What do you mean “Amazon stubbornly refuses to make the book free”? Are you using a free KDP Select promotion, or hoping they price-match another available price? If the latter, it’s at their discretion whether they do so or not–not their responsibility or obligation. I know a lot of authors try the free-at-Smashwords-pricematched-at-Amazon strategy, and I did myself, but after Amazon didn’t match that price, I simply went KDP Select, and I’ve been much better off.

    I am not in KDP Select and I won’t go into KDP Select. I’m already more dependent on Amazon for sales than I’d like to be. I’m definitely not putting all my eggs in one basket.

    Beyond that, however, 5 days free per 90 day period doesn’t accomplish what I want. I have one short story (a promotional piece at this point, basically) that is free everywhere, all the time. For almost 8 months, Amazon was price-matching it to free. About two weeks ago, they stopped price-matching and reset the price to 99 cents. They won’t tell me why.

    I have another book on brief free promo at Apple and Kobo. Amazon is currently discounting that book to 99 cents (a price that exists nowhere in the universe, so I assume that is their answer to matching the free price). I don’t particularly CARE if Amazon makes that book free, although I’m sure it would be helpful to me. Notwithstanding, I am using the free placement at Apple to promote the related novella, and this seems to work really well there, so even if Amazon never makes it free, it’s worth it to me.

  • Cheryl Bolen August 27, 2012 at 7:52 pm

    I’ve never tried to drive up my sales by buying more than one copy, but I thought Amazon didn’t allow that. Where did I get that? It wouldn’t be a bad strategy since you will get a portion back in royalties!

    As to buying reviews, I was shocked to read about that practice today. Shocked and sickened. Though I have to admit on some of the poorly written self-published samples I’ve read on Amazon I wondered how in the world anyone could give those books such glowing 5 star reviews. Now I know.

  • Nadia Lee August 27, 2012 at 7:52 pm


    True re: $2.99 books, but some may not have the cash to finance the $1k cost upfront and wait 60 days before Amazon pays the royalties earned on those copies.

    I don’t think it’s that difficult to find people to give away books to. Give them away to your newsletter subscribers, Twitter followers, Facebook fans, and other reader blogs, you know? You’ll eventually hit your target in about 1 week.

  • Jackie Barbosa August 27, 2012 at 7:56 pm

    Yeah, you definitely have to have more “front” money to make it work for a $2.99 book, but for someone who has a backlist that has sold well, it would certainly not be prohibitive. I’ve spent around $1,000 on advertising at the time I launched a book before. Arguably, spending it to gift copies of my book from Amazon would be more effective and cost less.

  • Bev August 27, 2012 at 8:04 pm

    My free novella is about driving readers to the other books. It’s been free for almost a year. If and when that’s no longer effective, I’ll stick at .99 and let it ride.

    Buying reviews? Nope. Won’t ever do that.

    Brand buying is long and tireless work but to me, it’s the only thing that has any longevity and I know authors are usually in this for the long haul.

  • Will Entrekin August 27, 2012 at 8:15 pm

    For the record, just tried the buying-over-again. Amazon told me I already owned it and needed to refresh my Kindle. And wouldn’t let me buy another copy. But you’re right about gifting, I’m sure; one could do that pretty much ad infinitum.

    And your strategy makes a lot of sense. Discoverability is just such a crazy uphill battle.

  • Melissa Blue August 28, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    The D word makes my head hurt. What works, what doesn’t work? And more importantly, what are you willing to do to get it?

    I would never pay for reviews. One, I’m not rolling in dough like that. Two, it just feels wrong. And this last is why I don’t do a whole lot of promo that people swear up and down works for them. It skates a line for me. It may not be unethical, but still I’m left feeling uncomfortable and…dirty.

    Anyway, I’m about to try free soon. So we shall see how that works on the D word.

  • Anthea Lawson August 28, 2012 at 11:43 pm

    I just set the first book in my languishing YA series to .99 cents. Have a promo spot in September at both ENT and NookLovers, and will see how that does. I think that having it under a pen name (Anthea Sharp) has made a little bit of an uphill battle, too.

    That said, I know a lot of writers who are doing very well with getting their first title in a series perma-free and then selling the rest. May consider that as a strategy down the road.

    I got my twenty-one 4 & 5 star reviews the hard way – spending hours contacting indie book bloggers, following up, contacting more, etc.

  • Climbing the ladder | things magazine January 9, 2014 at 9:53 am

    […] forums are awash with people asking this sort of question, although in the dilemma of digital discoverability one author, and her readers, still agonise over the ethics (and viability) of self-driven […]


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