Book-watching on Amazon.com — by Peter Grant
I’ve been trying to monitor the relationship between my books’ number of sales each day at Amazon.com, their rank in the Kindle Store, and their level in its ‘Hot New Releases’ and ‘Best Sellers’ rankings. (The former lists best-selling books published during the previous 30 days, the latter all books in a genre or category irrespective of publication date.) To my surprise, the various numbers don’t always correlate. Some of what I’m going to say here may seem simple, even intuitive, but I hadn’t thought about these things in detail before. I hope this discussion will help other authors who are trying to understand their own sales figures.
First, let’s consider a book’s sales per day compared to its rank in the Kindle Store. I’ve found that if a book drops in rank, its sales don’t necessarily drop as well – in fact, they may increase! For example, the day before I wrote these words, my latest novel ‘War to the Knife’ dropped more than 400 positions (from the mid-1,400’s to the mid-1,800’s) in the Kindle Store sales rankings; yet it sold more copies that day than it had the day before. Clearly, sales rank doesn’t depend only on how many copies of your book were sold, but also (and perhaps more importantly) on how many copies of other books were sold. If books in other genres or categories spike upward or downward in sales, it can lower or raise your book’s Kindle Store rank, sometimes substantially, even though its own sales are maintaining a level.
Second, there’s a book’s position relative to its competitors in a given genre or category. I’ve taken the two days before writing these words as an example. On the first day ‘War to the Knife’ was ranked 7th in Amazon.com’s Kindle Store ‘Hot New Releases in Military Science Fiction’ list, and 10th in its ‘Hot New Releases in Space Opera Science Fiction’ list. The following day (when its sales rank dropped over 400 places, as noted above) it climbed to 5th in the former list and 8th in the latter. Clearly, its declining overall sales rank had nothing to do with its sales rank within its genres. The same effect was visible in Amazon’s Kindle Store ‘Best Sellers in Military Science Fiction’ and ‘Best Sellers in Space Opera Science Fiction’ lists. In both ‘Best Seller’ categories my novel climbed two places over the two-day period in question. (At the time of writing it’s 19th on both lists.)
It’s been my experience that one’s position in the ‘Hot New Releases’ lists is critical to early sales success. If one’s ‘true fans’ or ‘core readers’ buy enough copies of a book during its first day or two on the market that it gets into those lists (and particularly onto the front page of the list, which shows the top 20 new releases in the genre) that’s a real boost to its visibility. A lot of Amazon.com customers appear to browse the ‘Hot New Releases’ lists in search of reading material. If a book stands out there, it’s likely to achieve decent sales during its first month on the market.
That’s where I find my blog to be a critical, indispensable sales tool. I can announce a book launch there knowing that my core readership will go to Amazon.com and buy a copy, thereby boosting its position in the sales rankings almost immediately. Apart from the first novel, which took two days to chart, every one of my books has hit the top 20 (i.e. the front page) in its ‘Hot New Releases’ genre lists within the first 24 hours after publication. That’s what cultivating a ‘fan base’ can do for you.
It’s been my experience on Amazon.com that after 30 days, when a title drops off the ‘Hot New Releases’ lists, its sales decline more quickly. Of the total number of copies of each book sold during the first 6 months after publication, I’ve learned to expect between a quarter and a third of them during the first 30 days. The rest follow more slowly as sales drop off. (A lot depends on the frequency with which you publish. If you launch another book within 3 to 4 months of the first, the former improves the latter’s sales. If you don’t, the latter’s sales decline further and faster, in my experience – but they still pick up again, albeit from a lower base, when your next book comes out.)
Two factors have influenced sales of my latest book in ways I hadn’t previously experienced. It’s the first in a new trilogy rather than a continuation of my earlier (and ongoing) series, the Maxwell Saga. I’d read articles on forums (and been warned by my wife, who studies the statistics on these things more closely than I do) that the first book in a new series always sells more slowly than another book in an established series. I’ve certainly noticed that with ‘War to the Knife’. Another factor is that book sales in general are reputed to be slower during the summer months, because people are allegedly devoting their dollars to vacation expenses and other forms of entertainment instead of reading. Again, this appears to be borne out by sales of my most recent book.
While the third volume in the Maxwell Saga, ‘Adapt and Overcome’, notched up just over 3,000 sales during its first 30 days on the market after being launched in early February 2014, ‘War to the Knife’ has sold just over 2,000 copies during its 30-day post-launch period. However, given the ‘double whammy’ effect of a first-in-a-new-series book and a summer launch, I don’t find that disappointing. I look for its sales to get a boost when the second book in the Laredo War trilogy comes out at the end of this year, just as the second and third books in the Maxwell Saga gave big boosts in sales to the first in that series when they came out. (As a result, the first book is still the highest-selling in the Maxwell Saga, despite its debut-novel flaws. It’s sold well into five figures by now.)
The date of its release doesn’t appear to affect a book’s relative sales rank in the Kindle Store. ‘Adapt and Overcome’ sold more books on a day-to-day basis than ‘War to the Knife’; but its Kindle Store rank during the latter half of its first 30 days on the market (the only period for which I retained records) was pretty similar. In other words, when all books are selling more, they seem to maintain similar Kindle Store ranks in relation to each other; and when they all sell fewer copies, that appears to have the same effect.
Although I can’t provide hard evidence to back up my theory, I suspect there’s another factor affecting the sale of all e-books: namely, the price of used copies of hardcover or paperback editions. I’ve bought a number of books from Amazon.com in recent weeks, and deliberately compared their e-book prices with those of used paper copies. I found that in many cases, the latter were available for less (sometimes much less) than e-book editions. Here are a few examples (print edition prices include shipping costs).
John Ringo – ‘The Last Centurion’ – e-book $6.83 – used hardcover from $4.00.
David Weber – ‘Mission Of Honor’ – e-book $6.69 – used hardcover from $4.00
Antony Beevor – ‘Stalingrad’ – e-book $11.02 – used paperback from $4.22
This has implications for the level at which indie authors price their books. By setting my e-book price at $3.99, I’m in line with what a good-condition used copy of a ‘mainstream’ paper book is selling for on Amazon.com. If I were to increase my price by even a dollar, it would put me over that level… and I suspect that would be enough to deter some purchasers. I’m beginning to wonder whether readers are comparison-shopping indie e-book prices against those of used mainstream print books, rather than new mainstream e-books. If so, that sets a de facto ceiling on the prices indie authors can reasonably expect to ask for our work. (Certainly, in my case, I routinely order used print editions whenever the e-book price is more than 50% higher than theirs. The latter may be instantly available and more convenient to carry around, but I’m on a limited budget!)
Incidentally, this appears to be borne out by the latest Smashwords survey of indie authors. It makes very interesting reading, but the price points identified in previous years’ surveys – namely $2.99 and $3.99 – continue to be the most widely supported by readers. I’d love to know whether the price and availability of used editions of ‘mainstream’ books factors into the popularity of those price points. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that question asked or answered in major surveys.
That’s what I’ve learned so far this year from watching my books’ performance on Amazon.com. I’d be very interested to hear what other writers have noticed about the same subject. Do you have any insights to share with us? If so, please leave a comment below. I’m sure all of us will find it useful.