Did Life Just Get Harder for the Indie Author?

Just What is the Amazon Sales Rank Algorithm?

Before I write this post, I want to make a disclaimer. I am not an expert on Amazon sales rankings. I did, however, find this article on the subject: http://ebooksuccess4free.wordpress.com/2011/09/13/amazon-sales-rank-secret-algorithm-exposed/. If you aren’t following the “How to Make, Market and Sell Ebooks – All for Free”, then I recommend you do. There’s a lot of good information there, and I do have Jason Matthews’ book, but I haven’t read it yet.

What Did Amazon Do This Past Spring When They Changed Their Algorithm?

Okay. So that article he wrote is better than what I attempted to do a few months ago to explain how Amazon does things. I don’t know how many people heard it, but Amazon tinkered around with their algorithm, and I didn’t know enough about this to do a post on it. However, after a friend sent me this link (http://www.kindleboards.com/index.php/topic,84102.0.html) from the Kindle Boards yesterday.
Amazon made extensive changes to their algorithms through the spring, with the last round of changes (that I know of) happening in mid-June. Rankings are now a lot less “sticky” – you only get 30 days on the Hot New Releases lists, for example, instead of 90. I also *think* they are tweaking the algos to boost books with growing sales, and push down books with shrinking sales (meaning once you have a slower week, it’s extremely hard to recover).
I believe this has all been done to offer more quickly changing content on the bestseller lists. And I speculate the reason is that the newest batch of Kindle owners are the less-voracious readers that primarily shop the bestseller lists.
But whatever the reasons, the algos are a *lot* meaner now for indies. They favor books with pre-order pages and books with big marketing budgets or big audiences that can hit with a bang and take full advantage of the boost I think they’re now giving to “fresh” content.
It doesn’t mean indies can’t do well – but the rules are a lot different than they were six months ago. I may not be entirely right on what they’ve done (since I’m guessing from the outside), but I’ve been watching pretty closely, and I have a fair amount of experience at this kind of guesswork.
I don’t think many people will see a “September turnaround” for older books. And I think a lot more authors will discover the downhill slope to sales (six months ago, numbers only ever seemed to go up). Yes, seasonal factors are in play – but amazon tinkering with how they make books visible is a way bigger factor.
I know this sounds harsh. I’m definitely not trying to be the bearer of bad news – but I think it’s a reality people need to know about, and figure out how to respond to.

What Are the Implications for Big Publishers, Small Publishers and Indie Authors?

So this is what I get out of it, and if someone gets something out from it, please let me know. From what I see, if Amazon is focusing more on the guys with the bigger audience and bigger budgets (big publishers come to mind), then this has just made life a lot more difficult for the indie author, especially the one who is just now getting their feet wet in publishing. As my friend and I were talking, she said that the big publishers are upset with the success indie authors have had and this is one way they are trying to push themselves forward in order to get the sales they have lost because of indie author successes. It makes sense. If the big publishers and Amazon worked out a deal, then perhaps this is why Amazon changed their algorithm.
And then I thought, “Hey, didn’t Amazon change their algorithm around the same time they made it “illegal” for authors to promote on the forums on their site except for the Meet Our Authors forum? *raises eyebrows* I admit that I engage in a lot of conspiracy theories (mostly because they make for good story material), but I’m thinking there’s a decent chance of the two events matching up. Who went on to the forums to promote their books? Mostly indie and small published authors. Who is now getting a boost from the algorithm? Books with a big audience/big budget. Pre-Order pages are getting a boost, and indies are unable to make pre-order pages, right? So, when I’m connecting the dots, I’m coming up with what my friend called a conspiracy. It’s the big publisher conspiracy, I guess.

Is There Anything the Indie Author Can Do to Off-Set This? (Note: I Honestly Don’t Know But I’ll Offer What I’m Doing Because of This.)

So how is an indie author to cope? I don’t have the magic answer, unfortunately. But I have some ideas. I don’t know what the best course of action is, but I’ll pass along strategies I’m using. I realize these might not work, but I see my sales ranking going down (and if it’s harder to bounce back), then I need to at least try something to position myself in the best light possible. If it fails, it fails. But I can’t sit around and do nothing.
Well, I decided a low price will work in my favor. On the forums, readers are complaining because some publishers have raised their prices of ebooks so that they’re more expensive than paperbacks. So, to me, the obvious answer is making myself attractive by pricing low. It’s one thing that the big publishers won’t do, and it’s really the only advantage I have on Amazon (that I’m aware of).
So after trying to make yet another move to price my pre-2011 books at $2.99, I went ahead and put them all back to $0.99. I still think $2.99 is competitive so my new books (with the exception of one) stayed at $2.99. I also put my sci-fi thriller from $3.99 to $2.99. It wasn’t selling well anyway. I sold five of those last month and have finally sold seven this month. So I am trying to give a boost to the books that aren’t doing well.
I also decided to make the first book of a series that hasn’t sold well this year free to spark interest in the next book which is $2.99. I put it free on Smashwords, and then I searched for that “find a lower price?” option on my Amazon Kindle page, but I couldn’t find it. I can’t go in and select a book to be free on Amazon, so I guess I’ll have to see if they’ll pick up on it when it goes free on B&N and Apple (the two places I think Amazon feels most competitive with).
Will these moves make me look like I write a bunch of garbage? To some, it will, but regardless of the Amazon situation, some people assume that anyway. I’m not out to look like a traditionally published author with my pricing; I’m out to attract readers to my books. Given the economy and the stuff the big publishers are doing with their prices, I reason that a low price and offering some books for free will still work more in my favor than it will work against me.

What About Getting a Publisher?

A couple of my indie authors friends said they would take a traditional publishing contract as long as it would give them wider exposure to a larger audience. So that would be another route to take if that idea appeals to you. I’m not opposed to traditional publishing, but it’s not for me. So this isn’t an option I’ll even consider. I thought about it for a year or two back, but the thing with me is that I love having full control of my book. I don’t want anyone to come in and say what I need to change or not change. I’m an adult and will figure out what I want to do all on my own. I see a traditional publisher as the entity that will take that away from me.
So maybe if you’re looking to boost readership, a big publisher is the way to go if you can wing it. Some indie authors have agents approaching them. Amazon isn’t favoring the small publisher who would most likely work with an author. Amazon is favoring the big one, and the big one has yet to prove to me that they care enough about the author. Case in point, the recent mess Kiana Davenport is involved in with a big publisher: http://kianadavenportdialogues.blogspot.com/2011/08/sleeping-with-enemy-cautionary-tale.html. So just be careful if you decide to go this route. I’m not saying this will happen to all indie authors who do this, but it happened to this one, and she was brave enough to share her story to help others be cautious.

Keep Writing and Publishing

I know JA Konrath says this a lot, but I’ve come to the same conclusion. I don’t sell massive amounts of one book. Like Dean Wesley Smith, I sell moderately but I have many slices of one pie in my bakery. (Sorry, I don’t have the link on hand for when he gives the bakery analogy.) The more books you have, the more you can work with pricing books and giving some away to gain exposure. You gain shelf space, so you’re more likely to get noticed. You’re not guaranteed to be noticed, but at least you’ll have a better chance. This is why I’m pushing for six books next year.
Now, when I started out, I did focus more on getting to know people. I hung out more on forums and participated mostly as a reader, though a couple of times I mentioned one of my books if they fit. Free worked best for me, so I found blogs that had a good amount of followers and offered a free ebook, and I even had all of my books for free on Smashwords and some of its distribution channels for awhile. It took a year of all free books to even get a bump in sales to get my first $140 from Amazon, and I already had about ten books or so up there at $0.99 a pop. Then I made the drastic move to charge $0.99 on most of my books. I guess I hear free isn’t working for everyone who tries it. I was surprised, but it only goes to show one method won’t work for everyone.
I don’t know what the best way for you to market your books will be except to try different things and stick the stuff you enjoy the most. If you’re enjoying yourself, it’s not work, and if it’s not work, you’re more likely to stick with it. It takes time to gain momentum, unless you’re one of those overnight success stories like Amanda Hocking or John Locke who sell a million books or makes a million bucks in a very short time.


My last idea on what indie authors can do because of this latest move by Amazon is to diversify. Go to Smashwords, B&N, Apple, Kobo, Diesel, Sony, and/or your own website. The more dispersed you are, the better. Putting all your eggs into one basket anywhere is a bad idea. If could be that while sales drop like a rock in water at Amazon, another site might pick up. I’ve done well in one place but not another and then it switched around and then went back to how it was before. In my experience, sales have no been predictable, and even where I sell at isn’t predictable. Some months I’ll do better in one place than another, and I have no idea why since I didn’t do anything different. So get into as many channels as possible.
And since some bookstores are smaller than Amazon, there might be a better chance of getting noticed. I wouldn’t let the fact that I’m not selling like Amanda Hocking stop me from celebrating the small victories. A fan emailing you, two more sales on your book than the month before, or getting noticed on a small site are all still steps in the right direction. People like Amanda Hocking and John Locke are rare. We hear about them so we think we have to aspire to be like them. Well, some people in high school were popular, too, but that didn’t mean we all ended up there. I for sure didn’t. I was the one that blended into the background. I’d be surprised if anyone from high school except my friends would even know who the heck I am. Welcome to most people. You got to appreciate the little things so you can avoid depression and giving up. (This is why I primarily write for myself. If no one else reads my books, I will.)

By Ruth Ann Nordin

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