Monday, December 21, 2015

Yes, Amazon is My Friend

I’ve been feeling a little depressed lately, wondering what the point of life is. We have so little time on this planet before we all pass into oblivion and… wait! I just checked my KDP sales page and I sold a copy of my book! Yaaayyy! Life is great again!

Okay, so actually I haven’t been depressed and I almost never ponder the meaning of life. But I sure was thrilled to see someone bought my novel! One silly sale shouldn’t mean anything. At 99 cents, I’m only going to see a profit of 35 cents. But I have to say, maybe I’m just an easily amused simpleton, but I still get such a kick out of this crazy self-publishing thing. It makes me very happy to know my story is out in the world and people can buy it. Especially when someone does. And I owe it all to Amazon.

Oh, sure, much of what makes it possible is the internet, computers and the digital revolution. (Not to mention my own efforts in writing the darned thing.) But that particular sale can pretty much be completely credited completely to Amazon. Technically, thanks to the internet, I could offer my book for sale on my own website as a PDF, but the odds of someone signing up their credit card, or even using Paypal, for a 99 cent purchase of a plain old PDF on a stray blogger’s site is pretty much nil. I suppose its also possible, if my book was available on some other book distributor, it might have sold too, but even those sites only stepped up their game to support self-publishers in response to Amazon’s success. (Prior to Amazon they all required either fees to publish, like Bookbaby, or required going through an aggregator who took a cut, like iBooks.) Not to mention, other distributors sales are still a drop in the bucket compared to the Zon. I don’t know if someone decided to buy Eve’s Hungry after a recommendation by someone else who had read it, or because of my modest promotional efforts on social media, or if they just stumbled on it through Amazon’s very useful search features. But I know that the convenience and trust of Amazon’s Kindle sales and distribution platform played a huge part in them clicking that purchase button.

The best part is that one little 99 cent sale instantly propelled my novel from a Kindle sales rank number below 1.4 million right up to #120,614! Amazon has over 12 million books available, so my book is close to being in the top selling 1%! Which is a huge boost to my ego. My book is more popular than almost 12 million other ebooks and a mere 120,000 (in the world!) are selling better.

Well… actually no. Amazon calculates it sales rank based a rather complex (and secret) formula that takes into consideration not just pure sales numbers, but also sales “velocity.” Sales rank climbs very rapidly for a book with a low sales history (or a history of no sales), and very slowly for a book with a recent history of high sales frequency. So in all likelihood, there are many, many more ebooks that are selling in far greater numbers (and at higher prices) than Eve’s Hungry at the time of that single sale. Of course, while sales velocity will bump a low selling book up the chart fairly quickly, if the book doesn’t keep selling it will start back down again. So I have to enjoy my sales rank bump while I can. But I’m a “cup is half-full” kind of guy, so even if it goes down, then it just gives me a chance to get all excited when it goes up next time.

The other great thing about Amazon’s sales ranking is that it breaks books down into a variety of categories, so in addition to being ranked in the top 200,000 overall, Eve’s Hungry was at #1828 in Science Fiction, #1357 in General Humor, and all the way up to #45 in LGBT Science Fiction. Critics of Amazon make fun of all these various categories and point out, correctly, that it’s possible for people to game the system with a few sales and end up with what is technically a “#1 Amazon Bestseller.” But what the heck is wrong with that? It’s not like the New York Times best seller list isn’t gamed (and corrupt). You just have to be rich to buy your way to the top of that. Amazon gives the little guy a chance to win by carefully selecting a genre subset and using some smart promotion. And why not give a new writer a marketing tool by being able to claim (even if it was only temporary) a #1 status in a genre? Who exactly does that hurt? If it draws a readers interest, they might be thrilled to find something new. If they don't like the blurb, or the sample, they can move on, or even get a full refund if they start reading and don’t like it.

Now, there are plenty of good business reasons for Amazon to rely on “velocity” rather than pure sales, and also to add in as many categories as possible to give indy writers a shot at #1 bragging rights. It’s in Amazon’s interests not to have all the lists of top sellers dominated by the same books every day that readers might have already purchased or made a firm decision not to. It helps readers and Amazon to have frequent churn in the top selling lists. It also provides a lot of incentive for indy writers to keep writing and keep marketing, which means sales. Amazon’s exclusive deals with self-publishers are not only an asset to making money and keeping readers but also leverage in negotiations with big publishers. Still, while there are solid business reasons for Amazon to be so supportive of the struggling indy writer with low sales, it’s still very… nice. And I sure as heck appreciate it.

Last year, a bunch of Amazon haters, including writers with traditional publishing deals and pundits dining on big publisher’s expense accounts, warned self-publishers that “Amazon isn’t your friend.” It was a stupid, illogical, meaningless meme, undoubtedly cooked up in a PR spin room with the hope of turning indy writers against Amazon during the Hatchette/Amazon contract dispute. The indy community responded by patiently explaining that, no, we aren’t stupid, we understood that Amazon was a corporation and is just trying to make a buck like all businesses. Unfortunately, the meme did succeed in sucking some of the air out of the truth. Which is, while Amazon might not be a human “friend,” and some day it's business interests might change, right now it’s one hell of a business friend to indies.

Because, even though there are business reasons for Amazon to go out of its way to try to help self-publishers, there are plenty of business reasons not to. Amazon could, like Google and You Tube, focus on free content and give short shift to helping writers get paid. They could, like Apple, be far more focused on making deals with big corporations and major stars rather than helping out the little guy. And don’t think those big corporations haven’t noticed and aren’t happy about Amazon’s embrace of indies. There have been more than a few hints that the big publishers would like to dictate to Amazon how sales ranks are determined. More than one traditional publisher has floated the idea of segregating indies into a ghetto were they can’t be found. I firmly believe that much of the efforts by the traditional publishing community to get the government involved in “saving” literature is their hope that they can somehow force Amazon to tweak their search engines and rankings to be more favorable to the “right” kinds of books. Books by big publishers rather than indies.

Now, Amazon is not perfect, and not everything they do is going to make every indy writer happy.  Self-publishing is also hard, and if you're expecting overnight success you're going to be disappointed. But seriously, if you’re a self-publisher trying to make it in this crazy big writing world, Amazon is really is your best friend.


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