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+

How Much Money Is In the Self-Publishing Game?


I have a good friend who is a big-time business guy. One of his pet sayings is, “Data drives decisions.” In a bottom-line world, you can’t depend on sentiment, heart, hope, dreams or desire. Those all may factor into starting a business. But if the business is not making a profit, and you have hard data showing you why, you either change course or go under.

Does “data drives decisions” have any quantifiable purchase in the world of book publishing? When I became a published writer, having come out of a background in both law and business, I looked at the industry from a writer’s perspective and said to myself, “This shouldn’t be called a business at all. There are too many variables and quirks outside of anyone’s control. There is no way to reach an assurance level on ROI (return on investment). This is more like craps.”
Publishers are more in line with business practices, but even they cannot escape the gaming analogy. I mean, look at the wild 1990’s in publishing and the crazy money being thrown around, and what was happening? Publishers rolling the dice and occasionally coming up with seven. But more often than not it was snake-eyes, and books they thought would be sure hits were flops. Occasionally a book that had minimal support shot up to huge popularity. When other publishers tried to replicate that, it usually didn’t work.
I think the phrase, “What’s up with that?” started in a Manhattan conference room during those years.
Now we have entered a new world where the rules of the game are even murkier. Everyone’s trying to figure out what works. And what data to analyze.
Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest conducted a 2013 survey of authors to try to get at some answers. The survey asked the writers to identify as Aspiring, Self-Published, Traditionally Published, or Hybrid. One part of the survey took a look at how much money writers in each category are making. Predictably, the hybrids are doing the best vis-a-vis annual income. The income stream is analyzed by Dana Beth Weinberg over at the DBW site. I commend the article andthe comments to you. A couple of pull-outs:
The survey results show that hybrid [authors are] achieving greater success with their self-publishing efforts than…authors who only self-publish, but they don’t tell us why.
This is probably immune to precision. There are so many factors that are not replicable, and the landscape changes almost weekly. But there are clues:
Perhaps the greater focus on earning income among hybrid authors or their experience in traditional publishing leads them to make more strategic decisions about what to self-publish, how to bring it to market, and how to promote it.
This is undoubtedly so. The more you approach this game with a strategy, the better your odds of making some bank. Perhaps a more suitable analogy is blackjack. If you know the fundamentals you can almost draw even with the house. If you know how to count cards, you can improve your chances significantly. Which is why if they catch you counting cards in a casino, Sal escorts you out.
Or perhaps [hybrid authors’] greater success is the result of little more than the name-recognition boost that comes with having a brand developed in the traditional publishing world.
I would say there is more to it: the ability to write, proven over time.
Or maybe their success is a matter of selection: The hybrid authors surveyed were good enough to break into traditional publishing due on average to some greater talent or marketability that also translates well into the world of self-publishing.
I wouldn’t make any claims about talent, but I have worked hard on my craft from day one. When self-publishing became a viable option, I do think I’d reached a certain professional level I could depend on.
For authors deciding how to publish their work, the key question is this: Is there some set of practices that any author might adopt to improve chances of gaining readers and income from self-publishing, or are there advantages related to being a traditionally published author that might remain out of reach for the vast majority of self-published authors?
After a year-and-a-half into my own self-publishing journey, seeing not only what worked for me but also a number of colleagues, I set down what I saw as the key

principles, and came up with 5 absolutely unbreakable laws. I stand by them. They are the foundation for creating your own “set of practices” for self-publishing success. 

For example, the primary law is, “Write the Best Book You Can.” The set of practices you design to make it so might involve craft study, writing, feedback, writing, finishing, revision, craft study, coffee, more writing. Plans are unique, but the writer who pursues a strategic and thought-out approach to getting better is more likely to win in the end. 

The data from the DBW/WD survey also gives a realistic snapshot of what kind of winnings writers might expect. Big returns are rare but they do exist. This is, not surprisingly, what the entire world of free enterprise is like. Boffo successes are always fewer than tanks, near-misses and modest returns.
I would also remind writers of two axioms from the world of business:
Quality is Job #1.
Your mileage may vary.

Remember those two things. The first will keep your priorities straight and the second will keep you sane. And keep writing, because you won’t win if you don’t play.

Is Traditional Publishing the Raging Bull of Industry?

Jake LaMotta, the middleweight boxer who was the subject of the Martin Scorcese/Robert De Niro film, was known as the Raging Bull. He’d never stop coming at you, and he simply would not go down.
No matter what punishment was rained upon him (most savagely by Sugar Ray Robinson), Jake LaMotta refused to be knocked out.
Sort of like the traditional publishing industry.
I mean, look at the beating trad publishing has taken in the last few years:
BAM! The Kindle.

BOOM! Amazon offers authors 70%.

WHAM! Barry Eisler turns down half-a-mil from St. Martins.

SMACK! Department of Justice.

OOMPH! Borders goes under.

BOP! Barnes & Noble brick-and-mortar stores on the ropes.
Traditional publishing is reeling! Cut! Blood is on the canvas! The referee steps in to see if he should stop the fight. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
“You’re holding up big six fingers. No, five…”
The referee lets the fight continue. We’re in Round 6 of a scheduled 12 rounder. Will traditional publishing avoid the knockout?
That was the question on everyone’s mind at the Digital Book World Conference in NYC last week. Reports are that the publishing executives who attended were remarkably “upbeat” about the future, even as it remains an uncertain and challenging one.
According to a commissioned survey of 53 publishing executives, 85% of respondents were “optimistic” about the digital transition and 64% say publishers are “capable of competing” in the new digital marketplace. A 55% slice were confident that their own companies can compete. However, both of the latter two figures are down 10% from the same survey last year (source: Publishers Weekly). From the same PW story covering DBW, key executives “offered perspectives that ranged from an enthusiastic embrace of the new technology . . .to being a little bewildered over selling direct.”
Direct! That is one of the key areas where publishers must learn to compete. But according to Marcus Leaver of Quarto Group Publishing, “We sell directly to consumers, but I’m not sure we’re good at it or ever will be good at it.”
Former Macmillan president Brian Napack, now a senior advisor at Providence Equity Partners, was interviewed at DBW about trad publishing’s future. While admitting that the former “big six” may well end up as the “big three,” he believes “the power of innovation often flourishes in markets during periods of consolidation and new companies.”
That last prognosis is the one we’re all waiting to see show up. Traditional publishing is unsteady on its feet right now. It’s wiping blood from its eyes. But it’s not down for a ten count. 
What will it have to do to survive and, perhaps, thrive again? At the top of the list has to be substantive responses to the needs and concerns of their sole asset: writers.
Reports are mixed on whether, as a whole, trad publishing is getting that message. A surveyof 5,000 authors — aspiring, traditionally published, self-published and “hybrids” (those who are both traditionally published and putting out a self-publishing line) – reveals the following:
One-third of traditionally published authors are interested in self-publishing their next book. Writes DBW online: “This trend should be worrisome for traditional publishers, which are struggling to demonstrate to the marketplace that they add value to the publishing process in an era where anyone can publish a book.”
That’s the key: Add value. Where does that come from? It used to be via distribution to physical bookstores. But as shelf space dries up, how will that advantage compare to the digital platforms that writers are perfectly able to exploit on their own?
The survey did reveal a spot of good news for Jake LaMotta: Not yet published authors hold a high opinion of traditional publishing, showing the “prestige factor” still remains. Publishers can build on this. But it will require some significant changes in practice, as indicated by the responses of those who have been published traditionally:
While outsiders who probably have among them the next generation of best-selling authors believe that publishers can help them and have fairly high opinions of publishers, those who have experienced both publishers and the alternative have a very low opinion of publishers, by comparison.
Perhaps it is because those authors who have both self- and traditionally published are unreasonably bitter as a group by some slight they experienced at the hand of a publisher. Or perhaps they have made a reasoned comparison of what the publishing industry offered them and what self-publishing offered them and were more satisfied with the latter. Either way, it would suggest that traditional publishers could do more to woo and impress published authors.

The good news for publishers is that aspiring writers still believe in their ability to help them. It’s not too late for publishers to improve their services to authors to attract and retain the next generation of best-selling authors.
So will this Raging Bull of industry still be around in twenty years? I think so. I’d like it to be. I’m a hybrid, and traditional publishing’s been good to me. But it will have to fight smarter, not just harder. (One comment made by an editor at DBW shocked the binding out of me. He said at his company “there are 42 people who have to touch a book to get it published.” Unless he was kidding, or answering the ultimate question of Life, the Universe and Everything, that is not a recipe for fast feet and effective counter punching.)
So consider me sitting at ringside, shouting, “Cover up! Watch his left! Work the body! The body!”
What are you shouting to the traditional publishing industry?
Jake LaMotta, by the way, is 89 years old. And he’s still on his feet.

How Will Your Book Get Discovered in The Roiling Sea of Digital Publishing?

Ah yes, this is the question of 2012 for authors (and traditional publishers, for that matter). Last year the question was, Should I self-publish? That question has been answered with, Only if you want an additional stream of income and a growing platform.

Of course, we now have self-pubbing authors jumping on board in numbers approaching the population of China. So everyone wants to know how the heck you get anyone to know you’re out there in this massive, churning, ever-expanding bedlam.

Well, that’s why Digital Book World, an arm of F + W Media, put on a big “Discoverability” conference in New York last week. I did not attend but followed it in real time via Twitter hashtag #DBWDM and the amazing, flying fingers of the indefatigable Porter Anderson. Porter’s nice summary of the conference can be found here.

I came away with some strong impressions and later discussed them with a publishing executive who attended the conference. One option that was expressed was starting an effective SEO campaign, which is one of the many WHITE HAT SERVICES that are offered.He confirmed some of my opinions, and they are as follows:

1. There is No Consensus on What Works

Rick Joyce, Chief Marketing Officer with Perseus Books, said there is a sea of conversation out there, and “there’s too much of it.” While people are trying different things, to truly be effective, “we’ll have to build some stuff that doesn’t exist.”

And when that stuff does exist, is there any guarantee it will be any more effective and certain? I’m not sure we will ever be able to say that.

Publishing has changed forever. As Joyce said, it “is no longer a mature industry.”

So it has to try things and keep on trying. “Standing still is not an option,” says Joyce.

Joe Pulizzi of Content Marketing Institute counseled, “Get uncomfortable. If you don’t feel like you’re running off the road, you are not driving fast enough.”

2. Best Advice Re: Social Media

Willo O’Brien, a creativity consultant, said that having a small, dedicated “army” you are engaged with is more important than your number of followers. So don’t just talk atpeople. “Empower people to speak back to you.”

3. Worst Advice Re: Social Media

“Be everywhere, all the time. Find your customer and give them what they want.” (Shall remain nameless, but works for a Big 6 outfit).

Now, to be fair, maybe the speaker was talking mostly about non-fiction writers who are an “information-based brand” and can spend countless hours hawking books consistent with the brand. I hear if you try a top-ranked Los Angeles SEO company they can provide some critical information on the topic that could support your book launch with content campaigns and optimising your website for search engines.

But for fiction writers (entertainment based), this is horrible advice. It will dilute the strength of your writing and the production of new work. And will not make any discernable difference in sales. The ROI (Return on Investment) is terrible. It’s much better to specialize in one or two social media forms, and concentrate on your writing.

4. Business-speak on Parade

Someone from a Big 6 told the audience, “We are working to build and deploy verticals to construct thematically framed communities.”

Ack! I think that translates to: We are trying new things we hope will attract lots of buying customers to our online site, but that hasn’t happened yet.

I do recognize the challenge traditional publishers face. It is a harsh reality. They are competing against go-to sites like Amazon and Goodreads (10 million plus). This is where people are shopping and browsing. With bookstore placement shrinking, and more and more buying being done online (see chart, below) publishers have to carve out online territory. But can they, when they are essentially late to the game? Some may establish what will amount to a fairly popular blog. But then they have to compete against tens of thousands of blogs, too.

As Kelly Gallagher of Bowker put it, “Perhaps most daunting is that e-reader owners, tablet owners, online book shoppers, customers of different retailers, people of all demographics, readers of all genres are all discovering books in different ways.”
For a writer, one thing you can do is make sure you have an Amazon author page and keep it fresh and updated. That was stated several times at the conference.

5. Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

That was a major topic, and beyond the scope of this blog post. But here are some interesting stats from Define Media Group:

With 100 million searches per month, 16% of queries typed into Google daily have never been used before.

• You get 65 characters or less in a search result to make your point. Get a main keyword at the top. Branding at the end.

• Your web pages’ headlines should be optimized not just for the content, but for the keywords people are searching for.

• Search engines are very literal…They don’t understand nuance, sarcasm…they (simply) want to see a headline.

It is a good investment of a writer’s time to learn about SEO and incorporate some of that knowledge into your website and landing pages. Failing that employ a specialist: if you’re a drug rehab company then you want someone that specialises in SEO for your field – like Rocket Pilots. The same logic applies if you’re an author. Don’t find a generic ‘we’ll optimise your marketing’ company, find a specialist.

6. Marketing Psychology

Rob Eagar, a marketing consultant, said, “Successful discoverability starts with psychology rather than technology.” IOW, you want to create a feeling in the potential customer that answers the question, “What’s in it for me?”

I certainly think that’s true. But the method may be quite different for fiction than non-fiction.

If someone asks you what your novel is about, Eagar said, and you answer with the plot, you have hindered the sale.

I don’t agree. It is plot copy itself that creates a “feeling” in a fiction reader. If they are looking for a thriller, for example, it’s not persuasive to tell them, “You’ll be thrilled!” Or “You’ll be on the edge of your seat!” The days of that kind of ham-fisted advertising are over.

Instead, give them a foretaste of the thrills with powerful copy that creates the excitement. I tweeted this to the stream: “If we try to tell a reader that ‘thrills are in it for you’ they won’t believe it. The concept must create mini-thrill.”

This is a big one for self-publishers: master the art of cover copy! You can get the straight scoop on that in my query letter and proposal section in The Art of War for Writers.

The Bottom Line

As I said, 2012 is a key year in the digital publishing revolution. Look at how e-commerce has grown when it comes to book buying (it’s the red slice):

Next year it will be even greater, and will continue to grow, and there is going to be some major fallout in some very big companies. But not all. There will be survivors, and a new sort of equilibrium will begin to take shape. Self-publishing will produce more and more writers who are making a living going it alone. Those writers will be the ones who have developed a business mindset and implemented a strategy like the one found in Self-Publishing Attack!

But traditional print publishing is not going away. It will, however, face challenges it will have to meet with paradigm-cracking (and leaner and meaner) innovation. New contract terms will have to be worked out in order to retain and develop writers. Knowing this, writers and their agents are in a better position than ever to negotiate.

The new successes will be centered around thinking win-win, creative partnerships and shared risk/reward.

But whether we writers choose indie or traditional or a combination of both, we still have to figure out how to get our fiction noticed.

The good news is there is one tried and true method that is consistent throughout all marketing platforms: good old word of mouth.

Which comes from quality + consistency x time. The best books and stories you can write, and then more, and more, never stopping, ever.

So resolve to spend less time fretting about marketing and social media and all those things you could be doing to get “discovered” (the list of which never stops expanding), and more time producing words worthy of being discovered.