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+

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Giveaway Report

Two weeks ago, I wrote about why I was giving away my latest novel as part of Amazon’s KDP Select program. Now that the offer is complete and I’ve had a week to see some results, I thought I’d share how it went and whether I think it was worthwhile.

To recap the advantages of Select, once you give ninety days of exclusivity to Amazon, your Kindle ebook can be borrowed by members of Amazon Prime as part of the Kindle Online Lending Library. Amazon has paid around $2.25 per borrow in the past, but they recently announced that, for the months of December to February, they have added a $1.5 million bonus to the normal pool of money allocated for borrows. Depending on how many additional authors enroll in KDP Select, it means the amount per borrow could go up substantially during this period (Amazon won’t report the figure for December until 2013; they always tell authors after the month is over).

The other advantage of Select is the ability to give away your book for free for up to five of those ninety days. The days don’t have to be sequential, and you can opt to use only a portion of them or none at all. For my book, The Roswell Conspiracy, I originally chose three days, December 5-7.

To promote the giveaway, I let all my fans know on Facebook and Twitter and asked them to share the information with their friends and followers. I also filled out forms on two dozen blogs that promote free books. Five of those sites ended up promoting the book during some part of the giveaway. Blogs that I didn’t solicit also picked my book to promote.

Thanks to those mentions, the free downloads did so well that I decided to extend the giveaway for the full five days in a row. The Roswell Conspiracy had risen into the free top 100 on the Kindle store, so I wanted to continue the momentum. The giveaway ended on December 9 at a number nine free overall ranking in the Kindle store, with 25,343 downloads.

I think that’s a pretty sizeable number of downloads, although it’s impossible to tell how many of those downloaders will end up actually reading the book. When I set out on this experiment, I expected the benefit to be primarily in the long term, with reviews trickling in during the coming months. I also hoped that those who read The Roswell Conspiracy would like it enough to buy my other books.

What I didn’t expect was the short-term boost. As I anticipated, the sales ranking dropped substantially from what it was before the free giveaway since I had sold zero copies on the days it was free. Despite the drop in ranking, I started to see noticeably stronger borrows and sales immediately. My theory is that Amazon’s algorithms had linked my book with all the other books that people had downloaded during that time, so that it appeared in a large number of “Customers who bought this item also bought” scrollbars. The Roswell Conspiracy was therefore seen on many more pages within the Amazon bookstore. Even though the book was no longer free, the important thing was that people could see it existed.

Because of these sales and borrows, the book’s ranking started to go up quickly (borrows seem to be accounted for in the Amazon ranking, though no one knows the secret formula). Before the giveaway, my sales ranking was hovering around 12,000. Within three days, The Roswell Conspiracy got up to the 600 range. It’s now been a week since the giveaway ended, and as I write this the ranking is 1105.

My conclusion already is that the giveaway was worth it. I’ve had enough borrows to completely make up for the income I expected to lose on Nook, iBooks, and Kobo over the next three months combined (remember Select’s exclusivity requirement). And the sales alone have already equaled my earnings from Kindle in the entire month of November. In addition, the number of reviews has increased by 50% in the last week over what the book had received in the previous four months, and they’ve been overwhelmingly positive.

I don’t know if this boon will continue. One downside of using up all my free days at once is that I can’t use that as a tool to juice sales during the rest of the exclusive period. If you’re thinking about enrolling in Select, remember that one anecdote doesn’t equal data. I can’t say how well this program will work for others, but I’d love to hear in the comments about positive or negative experiences from people who’ve done it before. I can tell you that I’m happy I tried it.


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