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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Amazon: The Gorilla in the Library

I love bookstores. I really love independent bookstores. I estimate that I've signed books in more than 75 independent bookstores since Artifacts came out in 2003. I'm heartbroken to report that at least 25 of those stores has gone out of business. I will do all I can to help independent stores survive, because they are champions of my books and of other good books by non-famous authors, and because I believe that they're important to our communities. But I also can't afford to ignore online sales, because I can't imagine that they won't continue to be a large portion of books sold. And when you're talking about online sales, Amazon is the gorilla in the library.

This is even more true in the ebook world. Authors who independently publish their books have access to sales figures that traditionally published authors do not, and they are almost unanimously telling us that Amazon/Kindle represents the largest fraction of their sales. The question for any author hoping to sell on Amazon is this: "How do I get my book noticed when there are more than a million others clogging up this site???"

I've got both authors and readers reading this blog, but it's been my experience that devoted readers are fascinated by the process of making a book. (Hence this blog.) Today, we're going to talk about the interesting relationship between Amazon and the authors who hope to sell lots of books there. There have been books written on this topic, and if anybody knows of one they can recommend, please post it in the comments below. Here's a quick overview:

Sales and sales ranking.
If somebody buys your book, your ranking goes up. (And your ranking is calculated by a secret formula that takes into account how many sales your book has had, how recent they were, and how close together those sales occurred. I have seen analyses that purported to explain the ranking system, but I'm not convinced that anybody really knows how it's done.) The higher your book's rank, the more likely it is to be recommended to other shoppers. You've seen this. You're browsing through Amazon and you see a box that says, "You might like this book," or "Others who bought similar books bought," or whatever. Amazon's computers used that book's ranking, among other things, to choose which book to show you. This is free advertising, folks. I wonder how much it would cost you to pay Amazon for it. Egad.

Sales ranking also determines where your book appears in search results, and I presume it's a factor when Amazon sends out emails promoting books. (I just love it when somebody tells me they got one of those with my book in it.)

Unfortunately, you can only buy so many of your own books, so you can't influence your sales rank too much.

I've only recently become aware of tags. You have to scroll waaaayyyy down a book's page to find them. They're simply a way for anyone with an Amazon account to describe a book to other shoppers. You'll see books tagged with words like "mystery," "thriller," "legal," "historical," and so on. You also might see one tagged with an author that might be considered similar. Then, when a shopper is searching for that author, the tagged book can be included in the search results, or it might be recommended to someone who has already bought books by that author. As you can imagine, being tagged as similar to Stephen King or John Grisham or J.K. Rowling is like money in the bank.

Amazon reviews are a hot topic of conversation among authors. They are very important, but we don't really understand why. Just because SuzieQ really liked a book and gave it 5 stars doesn't mean I'll like it. Because I don't even know who SuzieQ is! However, it appears that many shoppers do care what SuzieQ thinks and that her 5 star reviews sell books. Even more important, unprovable (I think) scuttlebutt says that Amazon uses 5-star and only 5-star reviews to decide who gets those priceless recommendations on the site. So if you loved a book and give it a 4-star review because you're a reasonable person and you didn't think it was perfect, that review doesn't help that author nearly as much as you might hope. It doesn't make sense, but I'm told it's true. And I know for a fact that a particular website that promotes ebooks will not promote a book until it has 5 5-star reviews.

So...what does this all mean for readers and writers? Heck if I know. Let's talk about it and see what we can figure out. In the meantime, if you're the kind of person who likes to game systems, let's look at what we've learned about how to help a book achieve greatness on Amazon. If there's a book or an author (and maybe that author is yourself) that you'd like to help, here are some options:

1. Buy it. (Duh...) Unfortunately, this costs money.

2. Review it and give it 5 stars. It costs nothing, and it only takes a minute if you've already got an Amazon account. It doesn't have to say much more than, "This book rocks." Sadly, you don't even have to have read it, which takes me back to the question of why shoppers pay attention to those reviews. The important thing is the 5-star rating.

3. Tag it. This costs nothing, and it only takes seconds. Click on tags that you think describe the book. Create tags, especially the names of bestselling authors of similar work.

At this point, I'm tempted to give you links to my entire ouerve, but I've got eleven titles on Amazon. So I'll just post one link to my new environmental thriller, Wounded Earth, which is currently available on Kindle and which will be available as a trade paperback sometime this month.

Yesterday's blog post on ebooks was my most-read ever, by a factor of two, so there are a lot of you out there. If I wake up tomorrow and find that Wounded Earth has acquired a host of reviews and tags, I'll know that you all read this far. And if there are people reading this who would like to post links to their own books in the comments below, go to town. I won't stop you.

Oh, and if you look to the right, you'll see Amazon links for every one of my mysteries... :-D

Happy reading,
Mary Anna


  1. I just went to Amazon and created an account so I could tell everyone how much I enjoyed your books...but it won't let people post reviews until 48 hours after they've bought something from Amazon! Stinkers...

  2. Interesting...I guess they didn't get to be the gorilla in the library by being shy about separating people from their money. :) Thanks for trying, Michelle

  3. As a reader, here are some of the reasons why I have to check reviews (this mostly refers to nonfiction, which I read more often):

    * the book description and editorial reviews don't tell enough about what it covers (including at least the first level of the table of contents would help, but it's difficult for fiction)
    * knowing what the book omits
    * learning about style issues that may make reading difficult or unpleasant
    * learning about inaccuracies

  4. Nothing shy about Amazon for sure! And very sad about independent bookstores...there's used to be several very good ones in my neighborhood but they're all gone except for one. I miss them all because each one offered different selections & advice. They were among the nicest people in the world. They really cared about their customers, the books & the authors.

  5. Those are good points about nonfiction reviews, Paolo. Fiction, like any work of creative art, is an unusual "product," in that judging its worth is subjective. The most experienced and unbiased reviewer could still hate a book that I love. The converse is also true. This is why it is so hard for me to make a decision based on the recommendation of someone I don't know.