Want to Be Popular?First step: visibility

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We all know that if we want our books to sell, and sell well, it pays to make sure that we’re somewhere in the visible range on Amazon. The problem is, that’s harder than it sounds! There are over a million books on Amazon.com and even more if we count the paperbacks on Create Space, so how do we stop our books from languishing down in the 100,000s and get them up to someplace where people might actually see them? The answer, is firstly to promote your butt off, but also to understand more about Amazon’s Popularity, Hot New Release and Bestseller Lists, as well as using categories cleverly to increase your visibility. Dave Gaughran has kindly let me run his excellent post on understanding the popularity list from over on his blog, so we can all understand a little more about what it takes to be popular—and to stay popular.

For most writers, anonymity is the biggest hurdle they face. The open nature of digital distribution can be a double-edged sword; there are 1.1 million titles in the Kindle Store after all.

While the virtual shelves are endless, and while readers have demonstrated an increased appetite for reading (and hoarding) once they switch to e-books, the spotlight is limited. There can only ever be 100 books in the Top 100. The major sites (like Ereader News Today or Pixel of Ink) will only feature a limited amount of books per day. There is only one Kindle Daily Deal.

Visibility is a continual challenge, and, when we look at that problem a little closer, it’s not radically different to the challenges faced by a new print release in bricks-and-mortar stores. Let me explain.

A new print release will only get a sales window of a few weeks to prove itself. If it falls flat, it will be yanked from the shelves and replaced with something else. At that point it will be warehoused, or returned to the publisher. Even if it’s the former, the sales potential of the title will be greatly curtailed and it will likely be returned in due course anyway.

How is this phenomenon replicated with e-books and online bookselling? Curtailed visibility. When you publish an e-book on Amazon, for example, your title is eligible for something called the Hot New Releases list.

The HNR list is a function of the Best Seller List, limited to books that have been release in the last 30 days (as well as pre-orders). Like the Best Seller List, readers can drill down by genre and sub-genre. This, for example, is the HNR list for Historical Romance.

Getting on the HNR list (especially the first page or two) is a real driver of sales and should be part of any launch strategy. As it is limited to books released in the last 30 days (and pre-orders), it’s much easier to qualify for than the Best Seller list. Taking the above example, to hit the Best Seller list for Historical Romance, you need a rank of around #2000 (which translated to selling roughly 50 books a day), but to hit the back of the HNR list, you only need a rank of #13,000 or so (roughly 10 books a day).

Naturally, once your book has been out longer than 30 days, and you no longer qualify for the HNR list, your sales will drop as you’re no longer benefiting from that visibility; if readers don’t see your book, they can’t buy it.

Amazon’s HNR list (and there are similar lists on the other retailers) is just one way that it regulates churn – the frequency with which lists will be “refreshed” with alternative titles. Retailers always want some level of churn so that readers won’t be faced with the same books ad nauseum. They particularly want heavy readers to be tempted by new titles each time they log in.

Get in the good books on the popularity list

Another way that Amazon manage visibility and churn is with the much-misunderstood Popularity list. If you click on that link, you will notice it looks quite similar to the Best Seller list but the order of books is different.

The Best Seller list is ordered by Sales Rank and the only thing that affects ranking is sales (despite popular beliefs to the contrary surrounding reviews, free downloads, price etc.). It’s a weighted average, with more recent sales being given most value, and historical sales counting for very little. It’s supposed to be updated hourly, but there’s often a lag. Sales normally take a few hours to affect your ranking, but, again, that depends on the current glitchiness of the system.

The Popularity list is very different. Ranking is (currently) calculated using a rolling 30-day average of your sales, with no greater weight given to more recent sales. This is a radical difference that rewards consistent sellers over those who spike and fade. Other crucial factors are free downloads (which are worth one tenth of a paid sale), and price (more expensive books are given a greater weighting and 99c books are now actively discriminated against).

Why does the Popularity list matter? Amazon pushes readers towards it. On the homepage of the Kindle Store (pictured right), the lists you see take you to the Popularity list rather than the Best Seller list. On top of that, if you are browsing the Kindle Store from a device – rather than a computer – you tend to get pushed to the Popularity List instead. Finally, for readers using the search box, results are displayed in order of Popularity.

The net result is that a huge amount of readers browse the Popularity lists (which are broken down into the same categories as the Best Seller lists), and appearing high in your category has a really noticeable effect on sales. Conversely, dropping down the Popularity lists is like attaching weights to your book, and it will, in turn, plummet down the Best Seller lists.

If you had a sales spike in the last six months (e.g. after a big free run or being featured by Ereader News Today or Pixel of Ink) you will know what effect a sudden surge of visibility can have on your sales. However, you might have also noticed a huge drop-off in sales about a month after your spike.

Because of the rolling 30-day average that’s used to calculate the lists, once that sales spike is more than a month old, your book will “cliff” and plummet down the Popularity lists. That decreased visibility leads to less people buying your book, which in turn affects Sales Rank, and pretty quickly your book gets sucked back into the primordial ranking ooze.

Let’s return to our putative new e-book release. In its second month, it faces the double whammy of losing HNR visibility, and gets further oxygen removed by being pushed down the Popularity list (because of the lost sales from not qualifying for the HNR list anymore, and the launch-week sales no longer being part of the rolling 30-day average).

The effect is not too dissimilar to the limited window a print release has in bricks-and-mortar stores. However, there is one crucial difference: e-books don’t get warehoused, and they don’t get returned to the publisher.

In other words, you have the opportunity to reverse that trend.

How to get from the bottom back to the top

There are many ways to skin this particular cat. A new release is best of all, but even the most prodigious writers won’t be publishing something every 30 days. As such, if self-publishers want to regularly breathe new life into old releases, they must engage in some form of promotion.

There are many options here, but much of them are either a waste of time, or money, or both. Having tried pretty much everything at this point, the most effective forms of promotion (for me) involve a limited time sale, a group promo (like this one I’m currently involved in), a free run, an ad on sites like Ereader News Today or Pixel of Ink, or some combination of same.

Promotion gets a bad name among writers because it’s considered a time suck – something that cuts into (precious) writing time. But none of the above strategies require much time, and most (aside from an ad spot) don’t require any money (and the right ad spot will make you money). I tend to avoid any promotional activity which has a significant time cost (and those that do tend to have negligible results anyway).

Applying these strategies will prevent your books from withering on the vine, giving them crucial bursts of visibility which will increase sales and keep your titles high on the Popularity lists (and, in turn, the Best Seller lists).

(EDIT: Prompted by the comments, I should note that I’m not saying that authors must come up with a promotional wheeze for each title every 30 days. Pretend we are talking about fuel efficiency, and I’m saying the optimum speed you should drive at is, say, 47 miles per hour. It doesn’t mean you should (or could) always drive at that speed, but that’s the optimum for saving fuel.)

My sales and earnings have increased month-by-month this year, and I finally broke the 1,000 books barrier in August, then pulled in even more money in September. Let’s Get Digital (currently on sale at 99c) regularly appears at the top of its category, and A Storm Hits Valparaiso (currently free) has hit the Top 20 in the much more competitive Historical Fiction category.

However, for both titles, their time at top is usually short-lived. Even when I’ve been at top of the Best Seller list for my genre, I’ve been nowhere on the respective Popularity list. This is partly because I’m competing against books who have recently been on a free run.

As I explained above, those free downloads are worth one-tenth of a sale on the Popularity list. Every day, books coming off a successful KDP Select free run (i.e. those that garnered thousands of downloads), would appear above me on the Popularity list, pushing me down.

It became pretty clear that without regularly garnering thousands of free downloads myself, the sales potential of my books would be limited – as I wasn’t able to maximize any hard-won visibility.

First, I attempted to mimic KDP Select free runs by getting Amazon to price-match a book that was free elsewhere. I made my short stories If You Go Into The Woods and Transfection free and they got over 20,000 downloads between them in a matter of days. So far so good. The only problem was getting them to return to the paid listings, which, in the case of Transfection, took weeks.

A few months later, I tried again with Let’s Get Digital which got over 25,000 downloads in a few days, but was a little sluggish in returning to the paid listings. As such its bounce was muted – whereas a book written by a friend with identical download numbers ended up shifting hundreds of copies the following week.

When KDP Select was announced, I was dead against it. I objected to the limited-pot model of compensation, and, particularly, the exclusivity requirement. I’m more of a pragmatist than an idealist, and while I’m still against a limited-pot model on principle, in practical terms it has worked out quite well.

In any event, that wasn’t a deciding factor in staying out. The exclusivity requirement was. At the time, between 15% and 20% of my e-book sales were from Smashwords, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo – so it made sense to stay out. At the time.

More recently, e-book sales outside of Amazon have been in the low single digits. While sales on Amazon grew at an excellent rate, sales elsewhere dropped to near-nothing – despite my best efforts. (I wrote about why the environment is so challenging outside of Amazon here.)

As I gained a greater understanding of the algorithms that feed into things like Sales Rank, Best Seller lists, Hot New Releases lists, and the Popularity lists, it was clear that the best way to maximize my sales would be to enroll in KDP Select – particularly now that sales elsewhere have dried up, and I don’t seem to be able to resuscitate them.

A couple of weeks ago, I enrolled two shorts in KDP Select and tried out my first free run. While shorts are a harder sell (particularly in terms of getting featured on the big sites that really drive download numbers), the results were positive enough to convince me to enroll a full-length book.

A Storm Hits Valparaiso went on its first free run recently, and almost cracked the Top 100. For now, Let’s Get Digital is staying out – as that still sells moderately outside of Amazon. And I’ll consider each title for enrollment (and removal) on a case-by-case basis.

Ultimately, I don’t want my books to be exclusive to Amazon. I view this as a short-term arrangement. Quite frankly, the deficiencies at the other retailers (in terms of search, lists, categories etc.) make it incredibly difficult for self-publishers to gain traction (either by accident or design). I expect that to change, but it will likely take some time.

Until then, I’m going to maximize my sales on Amazon.

Note: Dave is currently working on the follow-up to Let’s Get Digital (working title: Let’s Get Visible) which will go into a lot more detail on things like visibility, Amazon algorithms, and the Popularity lists. The aim of the book is to give experienced self-publishers a selection of promotional tools that are genuinely effective, and don’t eat into writing time. Sign up to Dave’s mailing list to be the first to hear of the book’s release,  here. Your email will never be shared, and you will only receive messages about new releases.

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About David Gaughran

David Gaughran is an Irish writer, living in London, who spends most of his time travelling the world, collecting stories.He is the author of the South American historical adventure "A Storm Hits Valparaiso" and the short stories "If You Go Into The Woods" and "Transfection" as well as the popular self-publishing guide "Let's Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should".He runs the publishing blog Let's Get Digital and the South American history site South Americana, has a regular column at Indie Reader, and his work has been featured in the Huffington Post, The Sunday Times, and the Irish Times.

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