The New Bestseller Lists

Guest post by L.J. Sellers

 [Note from Jodie: I’m on my way home from When Words Collide, a writers’ conference in Calgary, where I presented two craft-of-writing workshops, so I didn’t have time to prepare a post for today. My good friend LJ Sellers kindly accepted to step in for me. Thanks, LJ!]

Elements of the publishing industry have never been more hotly debated! The most passionate discussion is the Amazon/Hachette dispute over distribution terms and pricing, but another issue has come up that may have a broader effect on authors. Or at least, a more personal influence. 

Amazon’s new Kindle Unlimited program was unveiled recently, and it’s already affecting the measure by which authors all live—the Kindle bestseller lists.  I’ll get to that in a moment, but first the background: Kindle Unlimited (KU) is a subscription service for ebooks. For $9.99 a month, readers can download all the digital books they want. So far, the books included in the service mostly come from the Select program of Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and Amazon Publishing (AP) imprints. 

[You can enroll in the KDP Select program by clicking on the box when you upload your book. When you click the Select box, you’re agreeing to make that ebook exclusive to Amazon and not sell it in ebook form anywhere else. In exchange, you get various promotional opportunities, plus you’re enrolled in KOLL (the lending library), so you get paid each time someone borrows your book. And now, with the new program, you’re also in Kindle Unlimited, for even more paid sales.]

The issue of how authors get paid for books that are read through subscription services was already under debate with the launch of other services such as Scribd and Oyster. But deep-pocketed Amazon is offering to pay authors for each download that the consumer reads more than 10% of—the same as if it were a sale or a Kindle Lending Library download. 

So the famous Amazon algorithm—that generates the Kindle top 100 lists—treats these downloads/reads the same as it does a retail sale. Now books that are being consumed through the subscription service are being bumped up in the rankings, and many are making the top of the bestseller lists. 

This is great news for authors like me, whose books are published either through Thomas & Mercer or KDP. Those lists represent visibility, and visibility leads to more sales, and more sales lead to higher rankings, which leads to more visibility. A positive cycle! 

But for authors with traditional publishers, or KDP authors whose books aren’t in the Select program, the effect may be the opposite—bumping their titles farther down the list. 

Digital Book World has decided that phenomenon isn’t fair, and so it’s excluded from its own bestseller list all titles listed in Kindle Unlimited. Which is also not fair, when you consider that the top-tier books from KDP and AP are bestsellers even without help from KU downloads. 

And now they’re being excluded from this one particular bestseller list. Many of those authors may not care much about Digital Book World. Ranking high on Amazon’s lists is the key to success. The other lists they care about are from the old guard: The New York Times and USA Today

But what if those print-media lists decide to exclude Kindle Unlimited titles too? That could be a major concern for those authors. So the big question is: Are those subscription downloads the same as a sale? Digital Book World says they’re not, because they’re not point-of-purchase sales. But Amazon and authors in the program argue that those downloads are paid for and should contribute to ranking—which is about popularity. 

What do you think? Are they sales? Should they count toward bestsellers lists? 

L.J. Sellers writes the bestselling Detective Jackson Mysteries—a two-time Readers Favorite Award winner—as well as the Agent Dallas series and provocative standalone thrillers. L.J. resides in Eugene, Oregon where many of her novels are set and is an award-winning journalist and the founder of Housing Help. When not plotting murders or doing charity work, she enjoys stand-up comedy, cycling, and social networking. She’s also been known to jump out of airplanes. LJ’s Website  Facebook  Twitter  Google+

19 thoughts on “The New Bestseller Lists

  1. Digital Book World can bite me. Their move smacks as yet more anti-indie bias as many of the big trad pubs don’t participate in KU.

    If anything the Amazon lists may be more indicative of popularity because it equates more to capturing books that are checked out of the library. If those borrows were captured, the best-seller lists would likely be populated with tattered romances and westerns (just like when record sale stats were recalibrated and country shot to the top.)

    Basically, right now, and probably for another year, anything with Amazon or Kindle in the title is going to be sneered at by the so-called establishment. Meanwhile, many Kindle writers will follow Raymond Chandler’s advice of the only reviews they read are royalty checks.


    • Thanks for posting, Terri. Some segments of traditional publishing are still pushing back against the transition to digital. But I was surprised to see the Digital Reader take that position.

  2. This argument reminds me of another one: money or recognition? When you go indie, you give up reviews in prestigious journals, active membership in some writing orgs, and perhaps bookseller/library sales. But your paycheck hopefully is bigger with no middlemen. So if money is more important (plus total control over your product), who cares about these other sites? You can laugh your way to the bank. But if recognition matters, then this exclusion may hurt. It’s an interesting question, but if people are reading your book, isn’t this what should matter, rather than how they obtain it? And then shouldn’t that download count, same as a library loan?

    • Readers are what matter! And the bestseller list, for most indies, is more about visibility and gaining new readers than about recognition. But I agree that those reads should count. And unfortunately, library loans don’t count toward bestsellers list.

  3. Thanks for stepping in for me, LJ. I can always count on you for a well-researched, thought-provoking post! I’ve gone on and off KDP Select, but over 2-3 years have found out I get way more benefits from staying with Select than from opting out. Others may have different experiences.

  4. Authors get paid a royalty, and a royalty is a percentage payment for each financial transaction. If money changes hands on a library loan, that is a transaction, and hence is equivalent in terms of author’s standing as a sale. The library loans should count. The best seller lists have always been a bit phoney anyway, because the very big companies can manipulate them to some extent.

  5. Would someone please write a “the emperor has no clothes” post on the dubious use these days of “bestseller”? Recently, I read a post in which the writer described researching a so-called book marketing expert’s own claims to best-sellerdom. What he learned was that the marketer’s books had been bestsellers, once, for an hour or two at some point in the middle of the night–with only a handful of easily manipulated sales. Ever after, she has referred to herself as a best-selling author.

  6. Barry, I’ve felt the same way, shaking my head at all the so-called bestsellers out there. I can’t blame the authors for putting the term on their books, but for many, it’s a stretch.

    As for what Digital Book World is doing, who can understand their motive? There could be other players involved. The book business like other businesses is not immune to manipulation.

  7. I hope there are no authors out there calling their books bestsellers due to high Amazon ratings purely as a result of offering their book for FREE for a few days! Lots of people are quick to load free e-books onto their Kindle (me included) – whether they ever get around to reading them is another story!

  8. I’m sure they are lots of writers using the term bestseller without the real backing to do so. But at least with the Kindle Unlimited downloads, they only count as sales if they reader consumes more than 10% of the book. But how do you define bestseller? The NY Times list is not only manipulated by publishers and authors alike, but it excludes online retail sales.

  9. I think all this worry about the Amazon best seller list will level out eventually. Back when they first offered the ability to give books away for free for a few days, tons of indie books from unknown authors would hit the top of Amazons list and knock off well known authors whose books were being purchased for $$. After a month or two of that, Amazon wised up and made a separate list for Top Free Books beside their Top Paid Books list. I think all this worry about the Amazon best seller list will level out eventually.

    Back when they first offered the ability to give books away for free for a few days, tons of indie books from unknown authors would hit the top of Amazons list and knock off well known authors whose books were being purchased for $$. After a month or two of that, Amazon wised up and made a separate list for Top Free Books beside their Top Paid Books list.

    Something like that will probably come out to even out the list after they figure what needs to be figured.

  10. My staff has come up with our own program similar to Kindle Unlimited. I’ll let the boys explain it.

    Fillii: Well, first off we have the deal for both ebooks and audiobooks, but in two different delivery modes.

    Boffin: The ebooks would be on tiny e-readers that the person would insert in their eye like a contact lens, it could even go over their existing contact lens if they wear them. The book’d be right before their eyes anytime they want to read. They could even read while walking, or if they’re stuck in a really boring conversation with someone while looking like they’re paying attention and/or keeping eye contact with the converser.

    Berthold: They could theoretically even read while sleeping with the handy dandy backlit version available for a slight extra payment on their membership.

    Gnillii: They would turn pages by twitching their cheeks. Twitch right to advance a page, twitch left to go back. And they could turn the book off or on by twitching both cheeks simultaneously.

    Fillii: And for the audiobook memberships we would record the books and place them into a simple tooth cap.

    Boffin: Or for the more fashion conscious of the audience into one of those “mouth-grillz” thingies that some people are fond of wearing over their teeth.

    Fillii: Ooh…good idea. Either way the reader’s voice would actually come from inside your own head, and not bother anyone around you.

    Boffin: They’d control that one by sliding their jaw side to side for forward and reverse and simply jut out the jaw for play and stop. To share the book with someone while you’re listening, you simply stick your tongue in their ear and they hear all the voices inside your head.

    Berthold: And best of all you could get both ebook and audiobook versions for just a few cents more and synchronise your reading and listening since the twitching cheeks and jaw gesticulations can be done simultaneously, making for a full sensory experience.

    Fillii: And all of the narrations would be done by either Basil or in the case of books that are out of his league Berthold could read them instead, because he’s really very good at that sort of thing, and he does a killer Irish accent.

    Boffin: We all do a killer Irish accent…we’re Irish.

    Gnillii: Yeah, but your Irish accent sounds too Leprechauny.

    Boffin: That’s because I’m a Leprechaun, just like you as a matter of fact.

    Gnillii: But no one wants to hear a whole book read to them like the Lucky Charms guy.

    Fillii: Have to admit though, ol’ Lucky is rolling in moolah thanks to that accent. But like I said, Berthold is the best reader and the best sounder of all of us. What say you Berthold?

    Berthold:(in the voice of Morgan Freeman with a smooth Irish Brogue) If you live a life of make-believe, your life isn’t worth anything until you do something that does challenge your reality.

    Oh….and the program is called Kindle Unhinged

  11. DBW are excluding KU titles for one very good reason.

    They are FREE.

    No-one is paying anything to download KU titles at this stage, and no doubt millions are taking full advantage to download as many free books as they can (up tp 10) while the free period lasts.

    All KU downloads should be recorded in the Kindle free chart, not the Kindle paid chart, until such time as readers hand over real money for the ebooks. No-one would expect free books from the 5-day free run Select offers to be included in the paid charts.

    DBW tried to get a breakdown of PAID sales from the KU titles, but Amazon chose not to offer this information.

  12. I signed up for the KU free mo trial and so far I’m pleasantly surprised at the selections. KU works like my library, once I’ve finished reading I send the book back to Amazon. The library must pay Authors for copies of ebooks to loan and I assume Amazon must do the same. I think KU downloads should count. DBW is behaving badly, IMO.

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