Friday, December 12, 2014

FOR WRITERS: Amazon Rankings vs. Sales - Some Not-So-Simple Truths

I had an interesting conversation with a friend earlier this week about amazon rankings and what they mean in terms of actual sales. Having been self published prior to becoming traditionally published, I had the questionable advantage of knowing what most of the rankings equate to, at least broadly, in actual sales.
 
I say questionable, because while I know when my book's doing well, I also know when it's not.
 
Now, don't get me wrong, EUW had sold really solidly. Almost 5 months after release my ranking has only dropped into the sub 15k in the month of December. I have zero complaints about what's going on with my book. But I have found many around me have very high expectations about what an Amazon ranking means in terms of overall sales. And as for what that means for my income, well, let's just say I've had to set some people straight.
 
So I'll tell you what I know (or believe) to be true about Amazon rankings. Someone else may have had a different experience. But I think it's time to peel back the veil a little on this stuff, so I'm just going to dive in.
 
WHAT MAKES A RANKING?
 
Before we talk about actual numbers, it's important to know what contributes to your Amazon ranking and what doesn't.
 
Number one contributor to a books' ranking is the number of books sold in that format. This is an important distinction because each have their own ranking, and are calculated separately.

HOWEVER, there's some evidence that strong sales in one format may contribute to a boost in rankings for the other. Is this because the books sell each other, or because Amazon's algorithm has a point at which it says "Selling 10 books in hardcover in a 2 hour period will raise the corresponding ebook X points"? I don't know. I don't think anyone does except some people at Amazon who aren't talking. But regardless, be aware that foundationally, your book's amazon ranking is established by the number of books sold in that format over the past hour, day, week, and month, etc.
 
Secondarily, your ebook ranking is also boosted by KU (Kindle Unlimited) and KOLL (Kindle Owners Lending Library). Regardless of your royalty program (something I'm not going to comment about), Amazon counts every time a book is "shelved" on KU, or "borrowed" through the KOLL, as a sale. (For those of you considering going exclusive with Amazon in order to take advantage of these programs, be aware that a) Not every "sale" will give you a royalty and b) these programs actually contribute only small numbers to your overall sales. They do however, raise your profile. So....you decide).
 
Please note: Neither of these programs applies to hardcover/paperback formats.
 
 
HOW DO AMAZON RANKINGS GET CALCULATED?
 
When someone clicks "buy now" or "1-click" on your book's Amazon page, it counts as a sale.
 
Amazon then runs batch updates on books every hour, or two, or twelve, or whatever it is. I can't be sure of the firm timeframes, but I can tell you from obsessive experience during a self-pub release, and a traditional release, that as a general rule, as long as your book is selling at least a copy a day, you should update roughly every 2 hours. Hourly updates usually only occur (in my experience), when you get very high in the rankings: i.e. sub 1000.
 
Each update will count the number of books sold during the batch window. Roughly. Again, in speaking to someone who knows what they're talking about in terms of the back-end of these kinds of algorithms, we can't be 100% sure that every update catches every sale (i.e. the update may catch every sale from 10am-12pm, but not actually update on the page until 20 or 30 minutes later--during which time you've possibly had more sales. Or it might catch everything. Or it might be two hours out of date. It's impossible to know without talking to the person who wrote it. BUT, you can be sure that a chunk of your sales have been captured, and your information at the time of update is pretty close to real-time.
 
However, there's if a book returned within the same update window (ebooks can be returned for up to seven days after purchase--don't get me started), it negates a previous sale. In other words, when Amazon's algorithm runs it's batch update for your book, if it sold one and had one returned, it would count as if there were zero sales.
 
I know this because as a self-published author I had real-time sales figures. There were MANY updates where I sold only one book, and some where a return occurred during the same period. Trust me, this is real.
 
 
WHAT DO RANKINGS MEAN IN ACTUAL SALES?
 
Okay, so this is where I have to put my disclaimer: I have sold a lot more books as a traditionally published author than I did as a self-published author. I have insight from self-publishing updates, from other author friends who are self-published and who sold more than me in that format, and I have monthly sales figures from my publisher for the first couple months of my sales after release.
 
What I'm telling you here gets vaguer as the ranking gets higher because it's harder to pinpoint. Personal and anecdotal experience varies to a certain degree. But I can definitely give you ballparks:
 
So, strap in. Ready?
 
If your ranking is approximately....
 
180,000+ - You probably haven't sold a book in a day or so. If you hit the millions, it's been over a week.
100,000-180,000 - You've sold 1, possibly 2 books in the last 24 hours (or since the last update*)
50-80,000 - You've sold 2-4 books in the last 24 hours (or since the last update*)
30-50,000 - You've sold 5-7(ish) books in the last 24 hours (or since the last update*)
10-20k range - You've sold between 10-40 books in the last 24 hours*
5-10k range - It gets difficult. But you've probably sold 50 books (ish) in the last 24 hours, possibly more*.
1k-5k range - you're getting up in the dozens of books per day range. If you're sustaining those numbers, you're probably selling 100+ a day*.
If you're in the hundreds for your ranking, you're in the hundreds for your sales. Sub 100 usually equals 1000+ or close to it, especially if you're sustaining the number*.
 

*THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HITTING A RANKING AND SUSTAINING A RANKING:
It is REALLY important to acknowledge the difference between hitting a ranking, and sustaining it. That's because, while we don't know exactly how the Amazon ranking system works, we do know that it updates many times a day--and your ranking changes every time. That means that somehow it's counting not just the sales you've had since the last update, but also weighting your prior sales against the prior sales of other books the same update batch.
 
This next paragraph is just my opinion: I believe what happens is that most books on amazon are selling less on Amazon than we think--between 1-20 a day. Given that there's somewhere in the vicinity of 8 million books to be found on amazon, and over 2 million different books making sales in any given week, there are going to be LOTS OF BOOKS that sell the same amount in any update window/24 hours/week/month. So I believe what happens is:
 
Say between 7pm and 9pm tonight my book sells 3 copies. But there's also a thousand other books that sell 3 copies. Another thousand that sell 4. Another thousand that sell 5... you see where I'm going with this. I think Amazon ranks all the books by number of sales since last update, then within each group of books that have sold the same amount in that update, it weights the number of sales in the prior 24 hours, then the number of sales maybe in the last 48 hours, then maybe in the last week, and so on, and so forth. In that way, it knows the difference between the book ranked 12,310 and the book ranked 12,309 is two sales one week ago. It also knows the difference between the different formats of the same book, etc, etc, etc. But this has just been my opinion.
 
I base that opinion on two major factors: 1) An unknown book can come out of nowhere and jump to the top 100 in a single day--ergo, Amazon clearly weights the very recent sales much higher than previous sales, otherwise bestsellers which sold a million copies in 2012 would still be sitting in the top 100. But you'll also see an unknown book, which has a price drop and a great promo for a day, drop out of the top 100 just as quickly. Ergo, there is some weight given to the previous sales, because a book which sold less, but continues to sell the next day, will stay higher in the rankings. 2) When I had one particularly good day of sales (EUW hit #114 on Amazon! Woot!), both preceded and followed by weeks of very solid sales, I watched my ranking take a noticeable dip every week on the anniversary of the sale. (I.e. My promo happened on a Friday. Every Friday after that the ranking I had been sustaining all week would take a noticeable hit and not recover). I also saw it take an even large dip on the fourth Friday after that sale, leading me to the believe that the weighting in the algorithm has something to do with the 4 week period. This is speculation. I want to be clear on that.
 
Confusing? Probably. But that's my opinion.
 
What I do know for a fact is that a book which sustains a ranking is selling a lot more over days and weeks, than a book that hits a higher ranking then drops.
 
For example: When my self-published title went on sale earlier in the year, it climbed from 85,000 to 7,000 in the course of six hours. The sales then petered out, and my ranking dropped back below 50,000 by the following morning. During that time it sold about 35-40 copies (yeah, you read that right--keep in mind what that means for ACTUAL CASH IN HAND).
 
Conversely, the a day a friend maintained a ranking of 10,000 (give or take +/- 1,500) for a full 24 hours, she sold somewhere in the vicinity of 60 copies.
 
So, when I talk about "sustaining" a ranking, I mean, if a book sits between 6k-9k for an entire week, it's selling, on any given day, more than a book that hit 7k one time, on one day. Because sales have to keep coming in to keep the ranking steady. I couldn't tell you exactly how many books you have to sell to sustain a ranking, but if you're talking about the 5-10k mark, I personally think you have to be selling roughly double what you'd sell to hit the ranking once, then drop.
 

DISPELLING SOME URBAN MYTHS ABOUT RANKINGS:

We've all heard of the Hunger Games. We've all heard of The Fault in Our Stars. We see these books and they're consistently in the bestseller lists, consistently in the top 100 of Amazon. Consistently selling huge numbers.

We think that most books either do that, or don't. Either you're a "successful" author, or you're not.

But the reality is, the vast, vast majority of authors will never hit a "real" bestseller list (and by that I mean the Amazon Top 100, the NYT, or USA Today lists). Most authors are what we would commonly refer to as "midlist". I.e. The author is making an income, but they've probably got another job, or a life partner that financially supports them / their family to varying degrees. This is because it's normal for books to sell in fits and starts, to languish at 50k for a month, then jump to 15, then drop to 75...

The other reality is, it's actually fairly easy to hit the top 10 or top 100 of a somewhat obscure Amazon category list. So, sorry, I don't applaud the "#1 Bestseller in Amazon Kindle-ebooks-Romance--Fantasy and Sci-fi--Space Adventures--Aliens" with the same gusto that I applaud "#124 Amazon--Books" They just aren't in the same league, friends. It isn't my desire to take away from someone's achievement. (I still dance when I hit #3 in Teen books about bullying, and it's hardly a serious contender for a major category). Hitting any bestseller list is a great boost. It just doesn't necessarily mean that your book is selling tons of copies.
The good side of this is that as authors, we probably have much higher expectations than our publisher in terms of what our amazon ranking should be in order for our book to be considered "selling well". Even books with big coverage and lots of promotion from the big Six rarely sustain a ranking higher than 20k for more than a couple months. Don't get me wrong, some bestsellers go mental and stay mental. But most books hit a peak soon after release and just drop from there.
 
 
IS MY BOOK DOING WELL?

If you're obsessing about your ranking, and it's keeping fairly steady, that's a really good sign. It means that word of mouth is keeping your sales going, which gives you the chance to bust out at some point. What you don't want to see is your ranking dropping to 80k+ and staying there. That means you're grounding out.
 
The other thing I've been told by authors who've been at this game longer than me, is that books from the same author sell each other. It's way harder as a debut author because you've got one product out there. BUT even though second books in series might not sell as many as first books, second books boost sales of first/previous books, so at each release the author is selling more books overall.
 
This also applies to different versions of the same book - your hard cover might be selling 10 a day, and your kindle edition 20 a day. Each format page rankings aren't super-high, but together they're selling strongly.
 
In other words, when "they" said this is a marathon, not a sprint, they meant it. Don't let yourself decide that your first book is bottoming out, therefore your career is too. Publishers are WAY more patient than authors when it comes to building an audience. If you earn out in the first year, you're Golden.
 
 
AMAZON ISN'T EVERYTHING
 
The last thing to keep in mind is that while Amazon is a really good indicator of the audience for your book, it isn't the only place that you can be successful. If you have even a modest deal with a major distributor, you won't live or die by your Amazon ranking. In fact, in my humble opinion, the real value behind the big publishers isn't the marketing budget they may or may not put behind your book. It's their reach in terms of distribution, whether they hold table space at the front of bookstores, or have publicity teams that know how to position you as an author...but that's a post for another day.
 
I think that's everything, folks. If your experience varies greatly from this, please weigh-in in the comments and let people know. The more information we all have, the better!
 
Your Turn: What is your expectation of an amazon ranking for a "good" book? What do you think determines a book's success?


13 comments:

  1. Awesome post, Aimee!!! I'm going to pass this on. Things I long suspected were true but didn't have visibility into.

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  2. Thank you for explaining your helpful take on Amazon rankings. I had heard that a second book would help sales of the first book and so am concentrating on finishing the second book. It feels as if it is the only thing I really have control of right now. And I enjoy writing much more than I do trying to promote sales.(Don't we all.) While I am writing I feel grounded. When I am trying to promote, I feel at sea. Your friend Liz emailed your post to me. Thanks to you both. M.A.Adler

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    1. Thanks for stopping by. You're definitely not alone in wishing we could avoid the promotion side. I'm going to be posting on that soon, too!

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  3. Great write up, thanks for sharing!

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  4. Amazing justifications and explanations, really impressed with the way Aimee has nailed the article.

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  7. Thanks! That helped out so much! I've been dying to know my sales numbers. I used BookBaby and the downside was that they distribute to Amazon -- thus leaving me out of knowing my sales numbers for up to 90 days. My debut novel, Angles - Part I, was on pre-sale for only a few days and on the first official launch day it debuted at #25k. It was steady for almost a week but now has been all over the place. I've been dying trying to figure out how many I have sold. 90 days is a long time for a ranking obsessed author! If anyone has additional insight to my specific numbers I would REALLY appreciate it. Thank you!!!

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