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.

Thoughts?

Amazon Marketing and Unintended Consequences

I feel like a real chatty Cathy this week, with posts that are literally all over the place in terms of topics, but yesterday was particularly eventful, and I have musings I must share.

So, as many of you probably know, possibly because you received it, Amazon sent out an email yesterday highlight six 99-cent romance titles that were highly rated and doing well in the Kindle store (among them Courtney Milan’s UNLOCKED and Paula Quinn’s LAIRD OF THE MIST). Immediately after that email blast, those titles started shooting up in their Amazon ranks. Courtney’s novella reached the #2 overall spot and LAIRD OF THE MIST is currently at #11 (and may have peaked higher).

But as the day wore on, I began to notice a strange phenomenon. Suddenly, THE REIVER was selling TONS more copies than it ever had before and climbing the charts rapidly. Other romances ALSO seemed to be gaining in overall ranking in the Kindle store (although not necessarily changing places all that much relative to one another). By the time I went to bed last night, my story had sold a whopping 200 copies in 24 hours (it had never before sold more than about 75 in a single day and was selling about 40-50 on an average day for the last couple of weeks). Its overall ranking in the Kindle store climbed from somewhere in the 1500s or thereabouts to as high as 323, and at its peak, it was #21 in Books | Romance | Historical.

Well, um, wow. I didn’t expect that. And it didn’t dawn on me until I hopped onto the Kindle boards this morning and read a post there on the subject that the reason for all those sales was, paradoxically, an email in which my story wasn’t mentioned at all. It seems that what happened was that people who jumped on that email and bought one or more of those titles also started scrolling through the Also Bought lists for those titles, likely searching for other well-rated romances with low prices. And, by virtue of the fact that THE REIVER was already on the Also Bought lists for several of the books Amazon highlighted, people found it and a fair number of them bought it. I suspect that my sales benefitted most from Paula Quinn’s book, which is also a Scottish historical.

Oddly enough, Courtney’s novella doesn’t appear at all on my Also Bought list. I find it hard to believe that no one who’s bought her novella (and at this point, that has to be a LOT of romance readers) has also bought mine, but for whatever reason, there’s absolutely no link between us (and that’s a shame, because I’d love to be linked to Courtney in anyway possible).

Sales have slowed considerably today as yesterday’s Amazon-induced buying frenzy seems to have slacked off to more typical historical levels (and I’m plenty happy with that!), but I learned something instructive. Amazon can pick and choose to promote certain titles, but when it does so, what it chooses to promote has unintended consequences. Those consequences can be happy for some (in this case, for authors with highly rated romance titles prices at 99 cents that already had decent sales rankings and Also Bought associations) and possibly not so happy for others (anything that wasn’t a romance and lost ground in overall rankings due to the sudden rise of romance titles).

The Anatomy of Amazon Sales

When I released THE REIVER as a digital short back in January, I had no idea what to expect in terms of sales, but I didn’t really have particularly high hopes. I’m nowhere near a household name, nothing I’ve ever published with any publisher has ever sold more than perhaps a thousand copies in digital format (and the print version of Behind the Red Door hasn’t even sold more than a few thousand copies), so it’s not like there are hordes of readers champing at the bit for the next Jackie Barbosa title. (That’s not an oh-woe-is-me observation, by the way, just the parameters around which I set my expectations.) The story had also been published in a print anthology, which meant that some people who might have been moved to buy it digitally if it had been new content had already bought a copy in print. It’s also only 8500 words long, and I know many people feel that even 99 cents is too much to pay for something that short.

So, with all those factors in mind, I figured if I made back what I’d invested in the cover art within a a year or so, I’d be happy. (That meant I had to sell about 150 copies.) As I’ve mentioned before, things have gone much better than that, and I wound up earning back my investment within the first two months it was out. This isn’t to say that I’m selling all that many copies compared to many folks I know, but I’ve been really surprised by the trends and I also find them very instructive when it comes to the relative value of various marketing strategies (which is, after all, what all writers want to know–how to market our books so readers can find them).

So, without further ado, below is an Excel chart of my sales since I released THE REIVER on January 17th through 4:00 PDT today:

All told, 1,235 copies have sold. In other words, a LOT more than the 150 I’d hoped to maybe sell in a year. It’s not particularly large number of digital books to sell in four and a half months (some folks are probably selling that many in a day), but based on the historical norms of books by Jackie Barbosa, it’s pretty fricken’ fantastic :).

But what’s particularly interesting to me in the data isn’t that I’ve sold a lot more books than I expected. It’s the way the curves for Barnes & Noble and Amazon go in completely different directions. When I first made THE REIVER available for sale, I sold about 10 copies on B&N to every 1 I sold on Amazon. Now, I’m selling about 2 copies on B&N to every 100 I sell on Amazon. To what to attribute this?

Given that I’ve never done much to promote this short story save tweeting and/or Facebooking links to it and mentioning it on my blog and occasionally in discussion on other blogs about what I see happening in digital/self-publishing, it really CAN’T be anything I’m doing. The lovely Jessica at Read, React, Review was kind enough to buy a copy of it as well as my Spice Brief and review them both, but as far as I know, that’s the only standalone review of the story available anywhere, so it’s not like there’s this big rolling buzz behind it or anything. So it must something about the actual sites and the way they’re constructed.

I’ve concluded that the single most important thing that drives sales on Amazon is not the Top 100 category lists–although it certainly doesn’t hurt to get into them–but the “Also Bought” lists that display when you are looking at OTHER books. As sales increase, the number of people who also bought a different but related book goes up, and as that number goes up, the number of books for which your title is in an “Also Bought” title expands as well. This has a cumulative effect, because as the number of “Also Bought” lists your book appears on increases, the number of new sales you goes up as well, which in turn increases the number of “Also Bought” lists, and so on. The more copies you sell overall, the higher in the Also Bought lists your book appears, as well, so the more sales you get that way, the more readers are likely to find your book.

The thing about this observation, though, is that NOTHING I did caused it to happen. The single biggest factor was probably the fact that, back in March, Kobo discounted the book (which it got from Smashwords) to 89 cents. This is something they are not supposed to do, but I’m glad they did, because it led Amazon to price-match and that, in turn, led to people finding it on Amazon, not because they were looking for anything by me in particular or even because they were looking for Scottish historical romances, but because the price was unusual/stood out. My sales spiked when that happened in the last week of March and then everything steamrolled from there, even though the price has since gone back up to 99 cents.

So here’s what I think now regarding promotion and marketing: the best promotion/marketing is to sell a lot of books. Seriously. That’s it. Almost everything else is of limited or unsubstantiatable value.

WTF Wednesday: The Only Honest Reviews Cost the Reviewer Money

Yes, yes, I know it’s only Monday. But sometimes, WTF Wednesday comes early. Think of it as like Christmas in July :).

This week’s early WTF Wednesday is brought to you by the FTC (Federal Trade Commission). By now, you’ve probably heard about this strange new set of guidelines, which basically requires bloggers who review books they have received for free (or, apparently, even books they paid for but to which they provide an Amazon link for purchase) to disclose their “financial” relationship with the publisher/author/seller of said book. Well, at least if they say nice things about the book.

I won’t go into a lengthy explanation of the rule here, because others have already done so. Instead, I simply point you to the post that made me drop my jaw in disbelief–an overview of a discussion with Richard Cleland of the FTC, explaining why bloggers who don’t actually get paid to review books should be subject to a different standard than those who are paid to do reviews by newspapers, magazines, etc. I’ll wait for you to get back if you haven’t already read it, because it is seriously WTF-inducing.

Back? Picked your jaw up off the floor yet?

Okay, so here was the first thing that got my undies in a twist (I’m not sure what gets yours; there’s plenty of grist for the mill): Cleland believes that when a blogger receives a free copy of a book to read, there is an “expectation” on the part of the party providing the book that the review will be positive in nature. Apparently, then, the free book is “payment” for a service being rendered by the blogger–to wit, an endorsement of the product.

Except I don’t know ANY authors who believe this. Every author I’ve ever known who has sent out review copies of her book to bloggers has worried whether the resulting review would be positive or negative (or whether there would be a review at all). And in fact, in many cases, there IS no review. Sites like Dear Author and Smart Bitches can’t possibly read and review all the books they receive–the people doing the reviews can’t read that fast or live that long. And I’ve sent out plenty of copies of Behind the Red Door to reviewers who NEVER reviewed them, one way or the other. Guess what? I don’t expect them back. They aren’t payment for a service–they’re a gift, plain and simple. There’s nothing I can do TO get them back, even if I wanted to, so the notion that the book is a payment strikes me as ludicrous. It’s only payment if you don’t get it until you do the work…but that’s pretty hard to manage in the case of book reviews.

But what troubles me even more about this rule isn’t that the FTC is asking book bloggers to disclose their “sponsorship” by authors/publishers who send them free books for review. It’s that they’re exempting the folks who really DO get sponsorship (and lots of it) from publishers and authors from the rule. You see, apparently, readers of magazines like Romantic Times or other “traditional” book review media (including the booksellers themselves) are somehow aware that those publications’ endorsements of the products reviewed in them are, by definition, NOT THE REVIEWER’S HONEST OPINION.

Um, wow. Thanks for saying what I knew all along–we can’t trust the reviews of paid media because, hey, they’re being paid for it! (And yes, I believe that WHICH books are reviewed/recommended in traditional media is strongly influenced by money. I don’t mean that publishers are paying for good reviews/recommendations per se, but I do believe that publishers DRIVE which books get attention with their advertising dollars, and that translates into greater attention to those books by reviewers.)

Okay, so now the book bloggers who don’t actually make a living at reviewing books are being asked to disclose the fact that they received a book for free (with a WHOPPING value of, what, $8 for an mmpb, $15 for a trade, and $25 for a hardcover) because I MIGHT believe their review is an honest expression of their opinion of the book. Well, heaven forfend!

To me, the irony is that I think when people read a review in the New York Times or on Publisher’s Weekly, I’m betting that for the most part, they actually think they’re reading the revewier’s honest opinion, even though the reviewer is getting paid to do the review. If we DIDN’T believe that when reading a review, regardless of the medium, why would we bother at all?

And of course, this doesn’t even get into the whole free speech thing. If I love a book and want to recommend it to my friends, how I came by it is irrelevant. I should be able to say what I want about it.

Frankly, I’m stunned by this. Even more so that this is the FTC under my president. What gives?

Musing on Monday: Placement Does Matter

Last week, I asked you all what most influenced your book buying decisions. The results (you can see them yourself by clicking “View Results” on the poll in the right margin) were quite interesting to me, mainly because they confirmed my long-held believe that there’s not much an author can do to materially affect her book’s sales. I was especially interested to see that very few people cited advertisements or online blog appearances as having a significant impact on their buying choices.

What I did notice, however, is that the majority of the respondents said the book’s cover, title, and blurb, along with a scan of its contents was a factor in their choices. That makes sense to me. I know those are a factor in my decisions as well, along with the second-biggest vote-getter, word of mouth recommentations from friends and family. But while most everyone knows that picking up and reading/handling the book is an important part of their book-buying choices, few of you acknowledged that the book’s placement in the store or availability in stores like Target/Walmart had an affect on what you choose to buy.

Now, I suppose if you do a lot of research on books before you even walk into the bookstore and have a very strong idea of what you’re looking for when you get there (and I generally do), store placement/distribution probably doesn’t have much effect on what you purchase. You’ll go searching in the stack for that book you’re interested in whether you can find it easily or not.

But what about those impulse buys? I have to admit, store placement makes a huge difference to me, because I certainly haven’t got the time to go through ALL the books that are shelved, spine-out only, in the romance section to see if the cover and title then the blurb and contents grab me. So it’s just a fact that the books that are shelved face out, whether in the front of the store or on end caps and tables, are going to draw more attention from me unless I’m looking for something specific. And while the cover and title may entice me to pick up the book, the blurb may intrigue me, and the contents may actually induce me to buy, unless I SEE that cover and title, I’m never going to pick the book up in the first place unless I’m actively looking for it.

This is even more true if you do most of your book-buying (as I suspect the majority of Americans do) not at book stores that shelve a wide variety of titles, but at big box chains like WalMart, Target, and Costco. Everything at those retailers is stocked face out, but it’s only a limited subset of everything that’s available at any given time. Those stores have, quite honestly, a huge impact on the reading tastes of Americans. A book that doesn’t get stocked in WalMart, for example, will generally wind up with an initial print run of less than half a book that they do pick up.

All of this makes it tough for authors whose books don’t get picked up by those big chain stores AND whose publishers don’t choose to purchase that face-out space in brick-and-more stores. Your initial print run is pretty much guaranteed to be under 30,000 books. And many potential book buyers who might really like your book will never even see it, because it will be buried in the shelves at Borders or B. Dalton, spine out, between hundreds of other spine-out books. It’ll be there for people who are actually looking for it, and that’s a good thing. No one can buy a book that isn’t stocked. But it’s an uphill battle to get exposure for a book unless the publisher buys it, because there just isn’t a whole lot the author can buy that works half as well.

What Influences Book-Buying Decisions

One of the most persistent and pesky questions that authors and publishers deal with is what sorts of promotion are most effective for getting a book into readers’ hands. This is especially true now, as the whole world of advertising is changing so dramatically with the rise of the Internet and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.

Because of this (and because I’m infinitely curious about the degree to which an author can effectively promote her book independent of what her publisher does), here’s a little poll on how you make your book-buying decisions.

[poll id=”4″]

And I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours ;).