Are We All Best Sellers Now?

Back in February, using a free promotion through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing Select Program, my novel The Prodigal Hour attracted more than 8,000 downloads in a mere three and a half days. Enough to steadily climb Amazon’s rankings until it was the number one free science fiction novel on the site. And in the top five action & adventure novels. (You can get it, or any other title from Exciting Press, right here.)

Now, this was when it was free, but even after the $4.99 price tag returned, it stayed in the lists. Not as high, of course, but it sank rather slowly out of them. Moreover, its current ranking on Amazon is a couple hundred thousand higher than it used to be. More people have bought and borrowed it in the past month and a half than ever. The numbers aren’t astronomical, but they’re growing.

I’m happy about that. I distrust meteoric rises. Overnight sensations are years in the making, sayings go, and as I get older I realize I’m more suited, by temperament, to a good, slow burn than a brief flash. Mostly because that’s not the first time it’s happened; whenever I give a book away, it climbs the rankings. People love free e-books, it seems, and if they’re good, all the better. And sure they drop out of those top seller lists at first, but overall sales improve (which I think is more important, anyway), and I have little doubt they’ll return. Mostly because that was just one promotion. Given that I, as a proud member of the Kindle Select Program, can manage at least two free promotions per title of multiple days every 90 days . . . that’ll be eight promotions every year. And if the sales edge up, even just slightly, every time I do so (which they do. I haven’t just sold more titles of The Prodigal Hour this past month. More people have bought more copies of nearly all my books), well, that’ll be a very good thing indeed. And the sales seem to.

In that, I am not alone.

Seems like many authors’ free e-books rise up the sales charts, and I’d wager their sales increase, as well.

Many are quick to note that free downloads are unequal to sales. In that, they’re correct. I earned several hundred dollars in royalties while The Prodigal Hour remained a top seller after its promotion ended, but I would have earned more if all those downloads had earned royalties. In fact, if that had been the case, I would have earned from those four days’ royalties about half what I make in an entire year. Of course, I wouldn’t have been on those lists and gotten that attention in the first place if my novel hadn’t been free, which is why all those novels and other titles I’ve given away haven’t really been “lost sales,” as I’ve seen some people write. “Lost revenue.” It was revenue I never would have made in the first place.

Here’s the thing, though: Amazon doesn’t really differentiate. Sure, Amazon differentiates its lists between “Paid” and “Free,” but it considers both “Top Sellers.” There’s a Top 100 Free and Top 100 Paid, but they’re both on the “Best Sellers in Kindle eBooks” page. So The Prodigal Hour was among books Amazon calls Best Sellers. Is there need to further delineate “Top 100 Free Best Seller” or even “Number One Free Science Fiction Best Seller”? It doesn’t seem to be typical to see a book listed as “Number Seven New York Times Best Seller in Hardcover Advice & Misc”–such a book would, I’d wager, in marketing and promotional materials, simply be listed as a “New York Times Best Seller.” Of course, I’d wager it depends on what market one intends to reach; I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen “New York Times Best Selling Manga,” though apparently that category does, in fact, exist. It might well be that readers of manga and hard- & soft-cover graphic novels don’t really care which ones are selling well according to the ole’ Grey Lady.

It’s worth noting, here, the accuracy of that list may not align with its prestige–and especially not in our constantly connected age. Wikipedia notes:

It is based on weekly sales reports obtained from selected samples of independent and chain bookstores and wholesalers throughout the United States.

And The Sacramento Bee very recently published an interesting article on the list.

“Weekly” is an interesting note there. Amazon’s list isn’t weekly. So far as I could see, Amazon’s list is hourly, which makes for a whole new level of tracking and precision. Moreso, while the New York Times uses selected samples of bookstores, Amazon’s doesn’t seem so selective. Now, I don’t know that Amazon’s list ignores everything besides raw numbers, but I don’t know that it doesn’t, either. I’ve seen people write there’s an algorithm involved, but I’m unclear as to whether that algorithm is used for those Best Selling lists or in Amazon’s recommendation engine (that’s the “People who looked at this book also looked at these” bit).

But I think they work differently, because I think there’s a difference in use for discoverability. Getting on either list guarantees something very particular: mindshare. Not shelf space–that’s largely obsolete nowadays, I think, especially when what really flies of Barnes & Noble’s shelves lately is Nooks, and what really flies of independent booksellers’ shelves is their staff’s recommendations. On the other hand, getting a book on either list guarantees a book some attention from customers. In the Times‘ case, it’s going to get on a shelf regardless of a recommendation.

In Amazon’s case, that attention is straight to people simply browsing a list looking for new books to read. Which means, in a sense, Amazon’s “shelves” are more diverse, accessible, democratic, and perhaps even useful, at least to readers.

And especially to writers.

Because becoming a New York Times Bestselling Author was often less about making the list than it was about what it meant for an author’s career. It meant that author was, forever, “New York Times Best Selling Author,” which could be stuck on book covers to attract more and new readers. I’m not sure “Amazon Best Selling Author” will mean the same thing, but I think it’ll ultimately mean something, especially as online retailing further demonstrates the obsolescence of shelf space. For most of my work, there’s no such thing as “stock,” and so nobody has to worry about where to put it and whether they’ll have enough room.

Amazon has made it far easier for new authors to publish their work, but it’s also gone a step further, now, with Kindle Select, and given authors an opportunity to achieve greater discoverability. And as more people publish their work, and maybe try out Kindle Select for 90 days and use a free promotion campaign to publicize their work, more of them are going to rise up those listings. And maybe it doesn’t mean sales, and maybe it doesn’t necessarily even mean revenue (at least right away), but it certainly means a lot more new readers are going to discover a lot more new writers, and I can’t imagine that’s going to be a bad thing. I think a lot of people worry that it’s going to mean a lot more readers will discover more crap, but I think of it this way: maybe a free promotion is just a quick flash of spark to kindling, and what’s really going to count is the long, slow burn of building a writing career by continually publishing quality work. Perhaps the former is just one small element of the latter.

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