Friday, February 3, 2012

KDP Select, Amazon Rank And The Secret Of Why Select Members Have An Advantage

One debate I won't get into is the "Amazon as evil empire out to take over bookselling as we know it" one. We all have our opinions about Amazon, exclusivity and what business intents there may or may not be. We all clearly have a side in the debate, and it's obvious from my posts what mine is. I have no interest in persuasive arguments and calls to the heart and emotions on the matter, but that's me and not you.

From Day One, I have contended joining KDP Select is a matter that must be decided on an author-by-author, genre-by-genre and book-by-book basis. My attitude on that hasn't changed. What I do try to offer here is insight on what's worked or not worked for me, and that can maybe be extrapolated to your situation.

I've read numerous posts and comments about how free can get a book a better rank in the paid store. What I haven't seen is a drill-down into what that actually means. And it's here that I think folk who don't understand everything that happens the day after free have a hard time seeing how free can possibly be a viable sales tool.

Let me be clear: This post is NOT about the long tail of free but about the short-term after-glow. In the long tail, we all hope maybe 10% of folk who download a free book will eventually read it and that a percent or two will go on to purchase other works we have on offer. It's about exposure and connections. It's about the personal reader-author side of the book business. It's the side that is easily understood. It's the side where authors line up either for giving away their books to get that readership or against giving away their work for free.

But there's much more to the Select Free Model than that. You see, Amazon gives Select members who choose to make a book free two tremendous perks that non-Select books don't get. Amazon doesn't advertise these particular perks, possibly because it wants to be able to change them at will without encumbrance, but savvy authors will want to know what Amazon is doing behind the scenes to promote its Select members, at least during these initial months of the program.

I'm astonished at how few folk seem to get it. On the first of this month, KDP reporting went into meltdown. Sales, free downloads, and rank were all affected. It was crisis mode for indies who obsessively check their stats. There was a lot of moaning about the sales and rank side of things, but never once in my travels through the interweebs did I run across anyone else who had the same concern I did: The books that came off free and went into the paid store on Feb 1 were not getting the expected perks. Oh, people were concerned about "rank" in general, but no one seemed to understand what the real panic moment was.

So in case you missed it, I'm going to share the secret side of the Select program for your eyes only. Do remember, though, that you're in partnership with Amazon. You do have to meet them halfway by doing what you can to ensure your book has a decent number of downloads compared to other books in its category.

PERK 1: Kindle Lending Library Placement

Only indie books that are in Select and exclusive to Amazon can be placed in the KLL. Placement of books listed there depends on three things: Overall popularity of the book in the long term, whether a book has recently been made free, and how well it performed while free.

The first pages of the KLL are volatile. Planned churn keeps new books in front of borrowers. Where does the churn come from? Books with high downloads coming off a free run. Each day new books come off free and wind up on the front page pushing older books further back into the catalog. Books that continue to sell well once back into the paid store can linger on the first two pages for a few days, but most books soon lose prime placement.

What can you expect being on Page 1 of a major category in KLL? More borrows certainly while it's there along with a few more collateral sales from folk who decide to purchase rather than borrow your book.

You can see the KLL here.

PERK 2: Kindle Catalog Placement By Popularity

Fine, so you don't care about borrows and the KLL. You want real sales, and real sales aren't impacted, right? So, so wrong.

Amazon has many ways to discover books, but a reader has to know where to look to find, say, the Bestseller lists. Casual browsers likely go to the Kindle store and click on the category links Amazon provides on the front page of the store. Do you think the list the reader sees doing that is a bestseller list? No. It's a popularity list that is manipulated to favor Prime/Select books.

In many ways, this Popularity Catalog List (my term, don't know if it has an official name) mirrors KLL. That means the number of Select books presented to the reader/buyer on this default list outnumbers those offerings that are not in Select.

The churn on this list also mirrors the churn in KLL.

For example, in Technothrillers right now, the first 6 books presented are all Select books, and SECTOR C happens to be #3 on the list.

In the same category in KLL, SECTOR C is #2. On the Bestseller list, SECTOR C is #12.

The Analysis

Typically, Days 2, 3 and 4 after coming off free are a book's best sales days. That's when the book has the most visibility in the KLL and on the Popularity Catalog List before being churned off to Page 3 or 4. Day 1's sales are usually so-so until the book is placed into these lists, which usually happens within 24 hours of coming off free.

Right now, today, SECTOR C has better placement in the lists that casual browsers see first than other books that are considered bestsellers. This better placement is a DIRECT result of 1) the book being in the Select program, 2) the book having just come off free, and 3) the book having had thousands of downloads during the time it was free.

Beyond the first 3 or 4 days after coming off free, an otherwise unknown book must rely on the "also bought" lists its associated with, the "also vieweds," and the "recommendations" it can get. Placement on the lists on the product pages of briskly selling books depends on how good sales are in those crucial first 4 days coming off free.

I'm not sure I'm getting across the true power of that placement in terms of sales, but it's the driving force behind many of the successes you've read about here and elsewhere. SECTOR C reached at least #110 in the free store during its free run on Jan 31. I think it actually broke into the Top 100, but that's about when the rankings stalled and things started melting. I expected to get placement on the Perk Lists by the end of Day 1. When the book didn't get that placement, I panicked. I didn't care that I couldn't see rank or that the sales-counting report was broken. I knew those things would be fixed. Not getting that placement and the sales it could drive couldn't be fixed.

Luckily, thankfully, Amazon followed through on its perking, and SECTOR C and Gypsy Bond by Lindy Corbin (which had an amazing second free run and reached at least #65 in the free store), are seeing the benefits.

The Reality

Not all books will benefit. Not all books will achieve the downloads needed when free to compare favorably to other books in their categories. Not all books will resonate with readers and benefit from a free run whether they're in Select or not, whether they get prominent category placement or not.

SECTOR C and Gypsy Bond are doing well. I don't know that SECTOR C will do as well this time as it did after its first free run in early January, but sales are definitely picking up today. Gypsy Bond is doing even better than SECTOR C this time around.

Two of the books that also went free on Jan 31, though, aren't enjoying anywhere near the same success.

I'll be back later with an analysis of the discrepancy. And I'll have a wrap-up of January sales on Monday.


Michael said...

Great post, Phoenix. Thanks for the helpful analysis.

J. R. Tomlin said...

One of the things that no one except me seems to think is important is that the popularity list when you pull up categories from within your Kindle are quite different than those on the website. Why, I have no idea but I have seen it with my own novels dozens of times and I'm pretty sure it has an impact on sales. We tend to forget that there are people who buy from their Kindle.

M.P. McDonald said...

Wonderful post and I totally agree with your analysis. I had some excellent results after Christmas. I can't wait to use the free feature again, but I am waiting until after I publish my third book in my series. It's so hard to wait, I even had a dream I set my second book free last week. lol

Lisa Grace said...

Hi Phoenix. I agree. The extra visibility of being on all the extra lists, plus the fact that there are almost a million less books enrolled in Select (KLL), can give books a boost.
Even six weeks after running free, my sales are higher. My rank overall is not as good, but I'm still on three bestseller lists and bounce on and off three others regularly.

Author Bio said...

Phoenix, outstanding article and analysis. In mid January, I had one five volume series (combined book) download over 26,000 copies in two days, followed by three days of 175-190 sales a day (@ 8.95) then 60-80 a day for the next week, then settling in to about 30-50 a day where it remained for two weeks. It continues to do about 25-30 a day at that high price point. I did not even know about the KLL at that time (yes, this is a Select book) The big question is that since Jan 31, freebies are NOT moving (or reporting) and hence will certainly not make the early pages of KLL. Any insight on this phenomenon? Cheers,

Gordon Ryan

David Gaughran said...

Interesting post, Phoenix.

I'm still against Select (on principle, and for me), I think it's the wrong move for me and my books, and my whole approach.

However, I'm also prepared to be wrong about it, and I'm fully aware that I can't really be sure unless I try it out. I saw what happened with my two shorts when they went free, and I'm pretty sure they would have vaulted into a killer position if I could have switched them back to paid after two days.

In the spirit of Opposite George, given that I'm writing a novel in a month, and writing it straight-to-keyboard, and largely winging it, I was thinking of going the whole hog and putting the book in Select for a one-off 90 day period on release, before uploading it to everywhere else.

If nothing else, at least I will have hard data to base my positions on. Still not interested in doing it for current titles though.

Libby Hellmann said...

Great post, Phoenix. I really appreciate your thoughtful analysis. Will chew on it.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

@Michael: Thanks for dropping by. The data you provided from your free times helped validate what Amazon is doing. Congrats on the Movers & Shakers list coming off your last free run! (Told ya it wasn't a wasted effort!)

@J.R.: That's a great observation. Maybe a group of us on KB can start watching it and noting what we see. Fodder for another MEGA thread perhaps?

@Mary: You had a great run! LOL dreaming about it. Feed that addiction!

@Lisa: You know, I think it's pretty well established now that whatever Amazon did to its algos in December led to it being harder to hit and maintain a rank. Seems to take about double the numbers now than it did in the summer. Sticking has become a heck of a lot harder.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

@Gordon: The run your omnibus had parallels the trend we've been seeing with coming off free when you've got a book readers want. The interesting thing is that price point doesn't really seem to matter in the anecdotal evidence I've seen. Those sales rock at that price!

As for the books coming off free on Feb 1 or 2, Amazon still has visibility to the numbers of downloads. Michael, Ed Talbot and I all had books coming off free during the glitchy time (I had 4 major books I was managing plus 17 short stories). It seems everything was delayed by 24 hours, but the books finally did hit the lists they needed to.

The question I have is whether they get short-shrifted because of all the other books still coming off free and clamoring to be on those same lists. I can't believe everything will be backlogged by a day going forward. And I've definitely seen the Konrath/Crouch/Blake/Carson group's books hit the lists (ahem, ahead of mine) already.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

@David: I agree Select isn't for all books. I have one holdout myself. I do think it's a terrific no-brainer option for MOST (not all) new books. 90 days of exclusivity isn't so very long, especially if it's not a series book. I know you have "Storm" up on other sites so Select wasn't an option for it, but I'm betting it would have gotten a nice boost out the gate through Select.

We're putting the Steel Magnolia Press books in Select as they debut. The first book we're putting through the paces is rocking it on its second free download run. Triple digit rank and over 300 copies sold so far. Even its first run, though modest, ended its first 3 weeks with 235 sales.

Still, you're pretty clear who your audience is and where you want to find them. A slower, steadier build will likely be stickier too. Whatever strategy works best! I'm just hoping folk make as informed a decision as possible ;o)

Phoenix Sullivan said...

Thanks, Libby!

Mel Comley said...

Thanks, Phoenix, you're a star for taking an in depth look at things for us and sharing your fantastic findings.

Lexi said...

Thanks Phoenix for the enlightening post. I don't like not knowing how things work :o)

Barbara Silkstone said...

Thank you. Your thoughts mirror my experience. My Fractured Fairy Tales do well and I would not consider making them free. I have a sleeper book that is not of that series. I will only use that one book as a freebee. I think of it as my "Here Kitty... Here Kitty" book... leading readers to my bowl of cream. I had 13,000 downloads when it went free on Jan. 19th for three days and continued with very heavy sales for the following week when it came off free. I was pleased with the results. I won't put my fairy tales up for free ever, but will repeat free days for The Adventures of a Love Investigator. Thanks for sharing!

Jan Hurst-Nicholson said...

Thanks for this interesting insight. Does the same apply to Amazon UK? I had four times as many downloads on Amazon UK as on Amazon US.

Anonymous said...

Very insightful post, Phoenix. Very informative. I am still reluctant, but I am thinking, I may give it a try with one of the books I wrote under a pen name, just to test the waters.

Ruth Nestvold said...

Very interesting analysis, Phoenix. I know my novel Yseult did quite well after going back to paid from free with KDP Select, but now I understand some of the reasons why.

Mike McIntyre said...

I had a terrific boost after my first free go around, but I didn't understand why. Now it's suddenly clear. I'm just coming off my second free promo, and things are happening exactly as you describe. Thanks for sharing this well-presented analysis.

Peter Dudley said...

Said it before, I'll say it again. You rock. Thank you for sharing all this incredibly hard-won knowledge. I hope one day to be able to pay this forward and help others, though not with this specific information. It still baffles me. (But I'm used to that since I got into Management.)

Consuelo Saah Baehr said...

Thanks for this link. I did look at the KLL list and Daughters was #13 today (perhaps it was higher yesterday) after coming off free on Tuesday. Daughters got as high as #10 on the free list and the downloads were huge - almost 10,000 the first day. Sales today were good. I'm #114 on the paid list. This post is so valuable and insightful, I don't think I can live without being one of your followers. Thank you.

Michelle hughes said...

Thank you for a great post about KDP. I have nothing but positive things to say about this program. It has done incredible things for my book and I think authors should get the facts.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

Thanks to all who have dropped by and shared experiences!

My apologies - a few comments wound up in the spam filter and I didn't see them until last evening (I keep forgetting to check). Comments are only moderated on posts that are 2+ weeks old so I promise I wasn't purposefully not posting any of yours!

@Jan: You asked about how this affects the UK sales and to that I don't have an answer. Obviously the UK doesn't have the KLL, and the popularity stats are different. And honestly, it seems that authors who upload to the UK store directly seem to do better in the UK than in the US. Perhaps Amazon has metadata it attaches to titles that originate in each of the stores that the algorithms are created to favor. Speculation only. There's still a lot to learn!

Carra Copelin said...

Best analysis of this subject I've read. I'm not publishing/selling yet, but this post will help sort it all out with Amazon. Thanks so much!

William Ockham said...

You seem to be missing out on understanding the most important impact of Select. That is, the placement of your book on people's personalized recommendation list is the most significant effect of a well-designed Select campaign. I would highly recommend that you spend some time reading the patent application for the Amazon recommendation system. It is available on the web. If you really want to understand it, it is worth setting up a real Amazon account to buy, borrow, and download (free) e-books. Watch how the recommendations change when you buy or even view various kinds of books. Pay attention to the email ads Amazon sends you. If you have an iPad, get the HTML5 Kindle store "app". It is a great way to look at your Kindle recs. But also login to the Amazon site to see "people who bought what you bought" list.

Jonathan Winn said...

As someone who's preparing to publish his first book on Amazon -- Martuk ... The Holy --, this article, as well as several others on the subject, are a literal Godsend.

I have a lot to learn, I'm sure. And it's only through the generosity of people like you who share their experiences that my learning curve will be a little less steep.

Needless to say, I'm eagerly awaiting my first Free Days and tracking, through trial and error, what works for my book and what doesn't.

I do believe, though, that other than publishing the darn thing (working through a formatting issue with my code-wizard), joining KDP Select is a very solid first step to finding an audience and hopefully selling a few books.

Or a lot!

Thank you again.

Holly Grant said...

Thanks for this insightful post. I've bookmarked it to read several times.