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Marketing Through Amazon

~ by Thomas M. Sipos (November 2001) ~


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If you self-publish, then the bulk of your sales are likely to originate from Amazon.com. This is natural, because most bricks & mortar bookstores don't stock self-published books. BarnesandNoble.com (aka bn.com) will likely rank a distant second in your book's sales.

The exception may be GreatUnpublished.com authors, because GU does not register with Amazon. (Nonetheless, GU books get listed because, aside from publisher registrations, Amazon draws listings from Books In Print.) You might also sell some books through your self-publishing services provider (e.g., Xlibris, iUniverse, 1stBooks), mostly to fellow authors using the same provider.

And since Amazon is the 800-pound gorilla behind the fate of so many self-published books (because it retails self-published 'vanity' books alongside 'real' books) authors are naturally obsessed about Amazon's inner workings.

Amazon's Book Rankings: What They Really Mean

Nobody knows. Not really.

Sure, we know that a 1000 rank is higher than 1,000,000, but Amazon won't say how it determines those ranks. Still, authors have been comparing notes, and have gleaned the rough outlines of Amazon's arcane ranking system.

  1. Until Amazon sells at least one copy, that book has no rank. Once Amazon sells a copy, the book is ranked. Currently, one sale will rank the book in the 1,700,000 - 1,800,000 range.
  2. Amazon's rankings reflect both amount of copies sold, and recency of sales. A book with some recent sales may outrank another book that's sold more copies, long ago.

Chuck Devore, self-published author of China Attacks says: 'You need to know that the Amazon rankings are fairly logarithmic. A ranking of 1,500,000 means you've sold one book, 500,000 about 2-3 books, 60,000 about 1 book a week, 10,000 about 10-15 books a week.'

Devore adds that rankings in the mid-hundreds indicate about 25-30 books in a day. He mentions another author who'd sold 10,000 copies (of a traditionally published book) on day one, was ranked #1, and then slipped to #6 in two days.

My own experience is that a book with two sales will hover around 1,200,000, and a third sale will raise it to the 800,000 - 900,000 range. My self-published book, Vampire Nation, shot to a ranking of 2024 after one promotional effort garnered 40-50 sales in a day. Of course, 40-50 sales may have ranked Vampire Nation higher than 2024 without my catching it, because by the time I saw that 2024 rank, it was plummeting every hour.

The frequency with which ranks are updated depends on the rank. Books ranked over 100,000 are only updated weekly (currently, sometime late Sunday, although it used to be early Tuesday). Five figure ranks are updated daily. Under 10,000, ranks are updated hourly. So Vampire Nation's 2024 rank might have been in the hundreds only hours earlier.

Morris Rosenthal's Surfing the Amazon is a splendid analysis of Amazon's ranking arcana, based on Rosenthal's experiences. It's a fine article, although my own experiences (and those of others) cause me to disagree with the following:

  1. Rosenthal claims every book is assigned a unique rank. Yet I know several authors who were ranked 2024, and several have claimed to share a rank, simultaneously. Thus, I suspect that Amazon ranks in batches, assigning identical ranks to books with comparable sales. Obviously, this would save programming time and processing power.
  2. Rosenthal compares Amazon's ranking system with that of BarnesandNoble.com. But contrary to his statement, I have heard that BarnesandNoble.com rankings reflect both online and bricks & mortar sales (even though Barnes & Noble only owns about 50% of BarnesandNoble.com, the other half owned by Bertlesman). Furthermore, it appears easier for everyone listed at BarnesandNoble.com (or at Amazon's foreign affiliates) to rank higher than at Amazon.com. I've sold far more books through Amazon.com than at BarnesandNoble.com, yet Vampire Nation's BarnesandNoble.com rank is higher. Vampire Nation's rank at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.de are also respectable, although I think I've only sold one copy through each.

BarnesandNoble.com does share one similarity with Amazon: neither ranks a book until having sold at least one copy.

Listmania

High rankings not only reflect sales, like any bestseller list, they earn credibility for books, thus encouraging more sales. And high ranked books are more likely to be recommended by Amazon to readers seeking similar titles. Thus, authors are naturally concerned with boosting their ranks (and actual sales).

Amazon offers several marketing aids to do just that. One is called Listmania. This allows anyone to create a list of items available through Amazon: books, videos, CDs, whatever. For readers, it's a fun way to promote their favorite stars, artists, movies, books. For authors, it's a form of self-promotion.

Your list can be a simple collection of favorites, or it can be theme-oriented. Once you've created a list, whenever a reader seeks a book on your list, your list will (sometimes) appear alongside that book's listing (on the bottom, or right-hand side of the screen), inviting readers to browse your list. A sort of: 'If you like this book, you'll like...'

Naturally, as with banner ads, readers can click through to the listed item.

To create an effective promotional list, you should include your book on a list of popular items. That way, your list may appear whenever someone seeks that book or author. I say may, because including popular items onto your list is a mixed blessing. A computer screen only has room to display so many lists. If someone seeks Stephen King's latest, and his book appears on 500,000 lists, your list must wait on line. Only a half dozen or so of those lists will appear whenever a reader seeks that King book. Conversely, if you list an obscure book, you can be sure you list will appear whenever a reader seeks that book. Which may be once every two years.

Because there seems to be separate lines for each item on your list, it's wise to include a mixed bag of items; some wildly popular, some more obscure. Also, the more items you include on your list, the more often it will appear.

Aside from including popular items, it's important that your list only include items thematically similar to your own book. You won't boost sales of your history of Roman aqueducts by listing it with glitz novels. Your list may be seen by legions of Danielle Steele fans, but will they want to buy your book?

I created a separate list for each of my two books. For Vampire Nation, I created a list called Communist Vampires. (Yes, you must name your lists). For Manhattan Sharks, I created a list called Office Slaves to Yuppie Scum: a list of Workplace Satires.

To promote his self-published sci-fi noir thriller, Ferriman's Law, Lee Zion created a list called The great sci-fi murder mysteries.

Sponsored Results

Listmania is free, but your list must wait on line. The more popular an item, the longer the line. If you want more promotional bang, you'll have to spend some bucks.

Amazon allows you to do just that, with something called Sponsored Results. Sponsored Results is like Listmania, but it costs money. In return for which, X number of placements are guaranteed, and in a more eye-catching portion of the screen.

Here's how it works:

  1. You decide what to sponsor. (Like, your book -- duh!).
  2. You buy points. 20,000 for $20.
  3. You bid on keywords: book titles, author names, themes, genres, whatever. The minimum bid is 5 points per keyword. If someone already has that keyword, you can outbid them for 10 points, or higher, in increments of 5. (Kinda like Ebay.) Once your bid is the highest, the keyword remains yours -- until you are outbid, or until you run out of points.

Run out of points?

That's right. You see, each time a reader types that keyword into Amazon, your sponsored item appears on the upper left-hand corner of the screen. On top if your bid was highest. Below it if your bid was second highest. Not at all if your bid was below that. And each time your sponsored item appears, your 20,000 points are reduced by your bid amount. So a keyword that cost you 5 points will buy 4000 impressions of your sponsored item.

Again, as with banner ads, readers can click through to the sponsored item.

For Vampire Nation, I bid on several keywords: vampire, Ceausescu, communism, Reagan, Brian Lumley. (I bid on 'Brian Lumley' as one keyword). I obtained each for 5 points. I charted my progress over five days. That's how long it took to deplete 20,000 points. One reader sought Ceausescu, and did not click through to Vampire Nation. A few dozen sought Reagan, none of whom clicked through. I canceled my Reagan bid after three days. (Yes, you can chart your marketing results, and adjust accordingly.) About 4% of readers seeking vampire or Brian Lumley clicked through to Vampire Nation.

As best I know, I sold no books through Sponsored Results. Thus, I declined buying another bundle of 20,000 points, and surrendered my keywords. Joseph B. Mullen, self-published author of Psychic Secrets, claims better results. Maybe informational nonfiction (as opposed to opinion and inspirational nonfiction) is easiest to market through Sponsored Results.

Your Book's Amazon Listing

Naturally, if you're expending all that money and effort to draw readers to your book's Amazon listing, you're going to want to present them with some enticing content. Now, you can wait for your publisher, or self-publishing services provider, or Amazon, or somebody to spruce up your book's Amazon page and fix any mistakes. And maybe they will. Eventually. Or not.

Or, you can be proactive.

Yes you, the author, can add editorial content, fix errors, and upload reviews, directly, at Amazon's Contents Page. Just fill out the form, and the changes should take effect in a few days.

Two things to note:

  1. The page is designed for publishers, not authors. But this is not a problem. Where it asks for the publisher's name, give it. Where it asks for the publisher's representative, fill in your own name, then next to it, in brackets, write: (I am the author). I've done this often, and never had a problem. Where it asks for the publisher's contact info, simply put your own address, phone, and e-mail. You might add: (author's address, author's phone, etc.), but that may be redundant.
  2. Amazon is plagued by a minor bug. See where it asks for your book's ISBN, then asks if the info you're about to upload pertains to any other ISBNs? If a review pertains to Vampire Nation's trade paperback edition, I've always put its ISBN in the first slot, and the hardback ISBN in the supplementary slot. But through some quirk, Amazon reverses these so that, although the review appears in both ISBNs' listings, the paperback reviews state: 'This review pertains to the hardback edition,' and visa versa. Still, as every review appears in listings for both editions, I've continued to fill out Amazon's form 'properly' and let the error stand.

I expect that all of Amazon's foreign affiliates have similar pages. I found one for Amazon.co.uk at: http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/subst/catalog-updates/content-books.html/002-4549150-4820867 [].

Not everything can be adjusted on Amazon's Contents Page. When Amazon listed the wrong release date for Vampire Nation, I had to e-mail the corrections. Any problem you can't fix via the Contents Page, you can e-mail to Amazon. Again, it takes a few days for a correction to appear. After two weeks with no change, you may want to try again.

Amazon's corrections e-mail address is: book-typos@amazon.com

You can also e-mail jpeg files of your book's cover. It looks pretty shabby if your book's cover isn't up at Amazon.

Whenever e-mailing Amazon, keep it short. Just the facts, ma'am. State the book's title and ISBN, the problem, and that you're the author.

BarnesandNoble.com and Borders.com

As far as I know, Amazon's competitors have no content pages, but you can e-mail any info to them, including reviews and book covers.

For BarnesandNoble.com: titles@bn.com

For Borders.com: corrections@borders.com

Perhaps, being smaller, the above two are less plagued with lawsuits. In any event, they seem less paranoid. Amazon won't publish over a 20-word excerpt from any major media book review. If you see a longer one, it's because either: (1) it's an older review, before Amazon instituted the new policy, or (2) Amazon has a special licensing arrangement with them (as with Kirkus).

I've e-mailed lengthy review excerpts for Vampire Nation to both BarnesandNoble.com and Borders.com, with no trouble. No 20-word limit.

[ADDENDUM: Shortly before this article was written, Amazon announced it would assume management of Borders.com. Instead, since then, Borders.com has been wholly subsumed into Amazon. The Borders.com pages are the Amazon pages -- with the addition of a Borders jpeg. Thus, there is no longer any reason to e-mail Borders.com with information about your book's listing. There is no Borders.com.]

Shipping Time and the Amazon Advantage

The faster your book's estimated shipping time, the more likely customers are to order it--especially for time-sensitive holiday shopping. And once the book's been shipped, it's too late for customers to cancel their order. But what do Amazon's estimated shipping times actually mean? And can an author upgrade to a faster shipping method?

First, Amazon's shipping times are not quite accurate, but only an estimate. Often, a whopper of an estimate:

Chuck Devore adds: 'I have purchased books from both Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com. [The latter] stocks my book--when they say 24 hour, it means they have a copy ready to go. When my book [China Attacks] gets in the news because of bad behavior by the Chinese, it sells out and goes to a 1-2 weeks delivery notice until they restock. Amazon's 4-6 weeks seems about right. I've seen as fast as 10 days and as slow as 7 weeks for my book, which is harder to get as it is a print-on-demand title.'

In case of delay (when Amazon realizes a book requires more time to ship than claimed), Amazon sometimes e-mails the customer to ask if he still wants the book, or would like to cancel. So naturally, authors want Amazon to have their books in stock.

Unfortunately, many books listed as 'usually ships in 2-3 days' take weeks. Months, for print-on-demand hardbacks. For instance, Amazon refused to stock Xlibris books because there is little demand for most self-published books. Plus, being print-on-demand, Xlibris books are non-returnable. This resulted in an Amazon estimate of 'usually ships in 4-6 weeks,' to the dismay of many Xlibris authors. So Xlibris negotiated a compromise, where by Amazon would list Xlibris books as 'usually ships in 2-3 days.' It just wouldn't be true, not in most cases. Well, that's the rumor.

Some Xlibris authors think that a fast but false shipping estimate is preferable to a slow but true estimate, because it encourages book orders, only some of which will be canceled. I'm not sure about that. Readers expecting a fast delivery will be disappointed and angry, and more likely to cancel, than readers who go in expecting a slow delivery. (Readers making time-sensitive holiday purchase will be especially angry.)

Adding to delays, an Xlibris rep informed me that Amazon's computer inventory only knows about a book 10-15 business days AFTER receiving it. In her words: 'According to their [Amazon's] procedures, it can take about 10-15 business days to 'clear' the warehouse and actually be available. When we checked about this process in the past, it just seems to have lots of steps at Amazon before the status changes on the website. I don't know exactly what they do, but the process is certainly not instantaneous.'

So apparently, if Amazon orders an Xlibris trade paperback, it will take 7-9 business days for Xlibris to produce and ship the book to Amazon (longer for hardbacks). Then AFTER Amazon's warehouse receives the book, it will take 10-15 business days for Amazon's computer inventory to KNOW that the book is in stock. And THEN Amazon ships the book.

True? Beats me.

Not all publishers or books experience delays with Amazon, but neither is Xlibris uniquely handicapped. Experience indicates that other print-on-demand/self-published books also require more time to ship than their Amazon estimates.

1stBooks paperbacks require weeks, and one horror story has an iUniverse book taking four months to arrive. Nevertheless, you can bet Amazon's warehouse is well-stocked with Harry Potter. Whether Amazon keeps a book in stock, so it 'usually ships in 24 hours,' is largely determined by supply and demand.

You can edit the contents of your Amazon listing, but naturally, you can't change shipping estimates. That's for Amazon to determine. However, there are two ways for you to obtain that magical 'usually ships in 24 hours' listing: (1) create demand for your book so Amazon will stock up on it, or (2) purchase the Amazon Advantage.

The Amazon Advantage is a program whereby you pay Amazon to stock your book (last I heard, it was $100). Amazon uses your $100 to buy copies of your book, then replenishes the copies as they're sold. The downside is that Amazon expects a 55% discount on Amazon Advantage titles, plus you, the author, must pay for delivery to Amazon. After some number-crunching, some Xlibris authors determined that they'd lose money on every sale. But this may not be true for all self-publishers (primarily those who've opted for print-run over print-on-demand, as print-run is cheaper per unit for large quantities of books). Depending on your book's per unit cost, and your control over pricing (most print-on-demand/self-publishing services companies give authors no control over pricing), the Amazon Advantage may provide you with some real advantages.

(You may have noticed, the trade paperback edition of my novel, Manhattan Sharks, is listed as 'usually ships in 24 hours' despite its low sales rank. No, I don't have the Amazon Advantage. I think someone ordered it, got tired of waiting, and so canceled their order. Now, Amazon is stuck with one copy in their warehouse. When it's sold, I expect Manhattan Sharks's shipping estimate to revert to 'usually ships in 2-3 days.')

Oh yes, in keeping with the dotcom downsizing, Amazon will be closing some warehouses and stocking even fewer titles. So even small press and midlist authors from traditional publishing houses can expect slower shipment in future (regardless of their books' stated shipping estimates).

Amazon Discounts

Aside from fast shipment, another sales incentive is discount pricing. Amazon is famed for its discounts. Naturally, you'll want your book steeply discounted. But unless you're a 'pure self-publisher' with a print-run, rather than one who opted for a 'self-publishing service,' pricing is not something you can control. 1stBooks Library is the only self-publishing service I know of that solicits author input on pricing, but even they set the final price. This is understandable, as they have fixed expenses when printing books on demand. (Whereas print-run self-publishers have already absorbed all production costs.)

As for Amazon's famed discounts, well, not all their books are discounted. Bad news for full-priced books, as Amazon's customers have grown to expect discounts. Print-on-demand/self-published books seem especially likely to retail at full price. Presumably, this is because of: (1) the high per unit cost of print-on-demand books, and (2) the low demand for self-published books.

It could be worse. Last March, Amazon threatened to delist Xlibris books altogether. Supposedly, this was because Xlibris canceled the Amazon Advantage. Authors were paying the $100 to Amazon, but Xlibris was taking a bath on the 55% discount.

Well, Xlibris books are once more available through Amazon, but at full retail price. Yet another negotiated compromise.

How Amazon chooses which books to discount, and at what percentage, remains another mystery. Presumably, strong sales, or participating in the Amazon Advantage, increase the likelihood of a book being discounted. But there were times when some Xlibris books were discounted, others not, without regard to sales figures. Both strong and weak selling books were discounted, or not. And without regard to Amazon Advantage participation.

Sometimes, Amazon seems to discount a book if they're stuck with a copy, but this too is not always the case.

BarnesandNoble.com and Borders.com have their own arcane discount policies (although their estimated shipping seems to bear a closer relation to reality that does Amazon's).

Award-winning Xlibris author, William Sanders (The Ballad of Billy Badass and the Rose of Turkestan), believes that $18 for a trade paperback (full retail price) is no barrier. If a reader wants your book, they'll buy it. But some readers have complained to me that $18 is overpriced for a trade paperback. Not that it's an unheard of price.

BooksaMillion.com seems to offer the best discounts among the online book retailers. Buy.com and other online general retailers often offer steeper discounts, but I don't believe their shipping estimates. These retailers' pull their inventory list from Books In Print, and list a book as 'in stock' because they assume Ingram stocks it. But an 'in stock' listing at Buy.com (or even at BooksaMillion.com), does not mean the book is in a Buy.com warehouse.

Amazon Associates

Some people confuse the Amazon Advantage with Amazon Associates. Well, don't.

Amazon Associates is a partnership between your website and Amazon, whereby which you create links to Amazon items through your website. If someone clicks through to one of those items and buys it, you get 15% of the purchase price. If they click through, but instead buy other items at Amazon, you get 5%.

To become an Amazon Associate you must apply. Amazon will review your website (disqualifying porn, hate, and illegal content). If your site is approved (over a million are, so it's not too difficult), you must upload an Amazon logo to your site identifying you as an Amazon Associate. Amazon has a vast choice of logos, including those Amazon search boxes you've doubtless seen on many websites.

You must not click through your own site to buy items from Amazon, thus commissioning yourself for your own purchases. You agree not to do so via the contract you sign.

BarnesandNoble.com and Borders.com have similar programs. Amazon and Borders are non-exclusive, so you can sign up for both, and others. BarnesandNoble.com demands exclusivity. If you sign with them, you cannot sign with Amazon. That may not be wise of BarnesandNoble.com. Forced to choose, the vast majority of websites (like readers) choose Amazon.

My own website, CommunistVampires.com (not to be confused with my Listmania of the same name), has logos from four online retailers, directing readers to the store of their choice. However, I am only an Amazon Associate. If you click through to BarnesandNoble.com, you can purchase Vampire Nation, but I earn no commission. However, my priority is to sell books rather than earn a commission, so I thought it best to give readers a choice of retailers. If a reader prefers BarnesandNoble.com or Borders.com (they may have a coupon), I'm more likely to sell a book if I present those retailers, even if I earn no commission.

And selling books is what marketing through Amazon is all about.


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