Monday, August 20, 2012

Is Amazon Select Free Dead?


Yes! No! It depends!

If all you're using Select Free days for is to bump more sales, then your answer will be shouted from whichever side of the sales curve your book happens to be on after a free run.

And, because things with Amazon are always changing, it appears a waking dragon is starting to make some interesting noise.

Let's look at the trends over the last two months. Oh, wait, there are no trends. Results are all over the map, and each book I'm privy to sales figures for seems to have its own idea of how to perform duing and after its free run. Maybe YOU can spot a trend.

I'm going to arbitrarily break the books down into New Releases, Series, and Standalones because maybe it makes a difference where a book is in its lifecycle. Or maybe not. I'll include genre, free history and site mentions. Note that none of the books I've seen sales figures for has had a paid ad for its free run. For the books I have permission to name, I am. Others I don't, so I won't.

At the end, I'll compare how my strategy today for a free run is different from what I posted way back last February.

And what about that waking dragon, you ask? For US-based authors, it's beginning to look like the UK has raised its sleepy head and is starting to roar. But like the rest of the Select Free equation, if you're on the wrong side of the sales curve, you might not be able to hear it yet. More about that in the individual results below.

NEW RELEASES

NIKO'S STOLEN BRIDE by Lindy Corbin - Contemporary Romance - Standalone

Notes: Definitely an out-of-the-ballpark hit that defies all lessons learned about free runs. New author, no reviews, no major site mentions. Only the smaller sites that auto-list all the free books picked it up.

Free Stats
Free for 5 days, July 12-16 (set free within a few days of publishing)
#5 overall in both the US and the UK
US: 30,000 downloads
UK: 5000 downloads

Sales Stats July 17-31
US: 1800 sales (1460 sales in Week 1 at 99c, 340 sales in Week 2 at $2.99) and 104 borrows
UK: 250 sales (220 sales in Week 1 at 99c, 30 sales in Week 2 at $2.99)
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PARANORMAL ROMANCE by a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author - Series

Notes: This book is the beginning of a new series set in the same world as one of the author's traditionally published bestselling series. Unlike Niko above, this book had a "name" author, 6 reviews before it went free, and was picked up by every single major site.

Free Stats
Free for 3 days, Aug 9-11 (set free 2 weeks after release)
#14 overall in the US
~#200 overall in the UK
US: 15,500 downloads
UK: 290 downloads

Sales Stats Aug 12-18
US: 280 sales at $2.99 and 39 borrows (compare to 250 sales at $2.99 during its first 2 weeks in release before going free)
UK: 8 sales
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ARROW TO THE HEART by Jennifer Blake - Historical Romance - Standalone

Notes: This is a backlist re-release of an older national bestseller, with high-profile reviews for other editions. It got no major site mentions.

Free Stats
Free for 5 days, July 11-15 (set free within a few days of publishing)
#17 overall in the US
#89 overall in the UK
US: 22,000 downloads
UK: 1000 downloads

Sales Stats July 16-31
US: 340 sales at $2.99 and 58 borrows
UK: 28 sales
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SPANISH SERENADE by Jennifer Blake - Historical Romance - Standalone

Notes: This is a backlist re-release of an older national bestseller. It got a Free Kindle Books and Tips mention only from the majors. Mixed reviews since, but we simply didn't see a bump even before the reviews started coming in. Sales are even just a little below pace of the 3 other historical romances released at the same time that did not go free.

Free Stats
Free for 3 days, Aug 9-11 (set free within a few days of publishing)
#33 overall in the US
#179 overall in the UK
US: 10,700 downloads
UK: 430 downloads

Sales Stats July 16-31 
US: 42 sales at $2.99, 8 borrows
UK: 14 sales
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DEADLY IMAGE by Tamelia Tumlin - Inspirational Romantic Suspense - Standalone

Notes: With no reviews upon release, we didn't expect this book to get picked up by the majors in July, and it didn't. We did hope for a pickup in August after it got a handful of nice 5-star reviews, but again, no major mentions.

Free Stats
Free for 1 day on July 12, and 3 days Aug 10-12
July: 1250 downloads
Aug: 1050 downloads

Sales Stats
July: 71 sales (60 at 99c, 11 at $2.99)
Aug: 14 sales (10 at $1.99, 4 at $2.99)

SERIES BOOKS

Anecdotal only, but based on the collateral sales for other books in a series when one title is free, it does appear that series sales remain strong when free books hit in the Top 100. Several successful books that are not Steel Magnolia titles, but whose authors have kindly shared data, have had collateral sales in the couple of hundred copies during the course of the free run and in the immediate aftermath. Having other books in the series discounted during the free promotion also appears to be quite attractive to readers.

STANDALONES

In July and August both, we had books free that had all at one time or another been in the Top 100, many several times and many in the Top 50 once or twice.

Books that received one major site mention landed in the Top 200, but none cracked the Top 100. Each run in July and August, about half the books that were not new releases fell into this group. A far different scenario from having 7 out of 10 free books in the Top 100 in May. I did, however, have 3 books I was managing in the Top 35 in August. So, for a while, we owned 10% of the top third of the Top 100 Free list :o).

Downloads averaged 1000-1500 with a major mention, and 200-1000 without a major mention.

Post-free sales ranged from 30-100 in July and August during the first week post-free for books with 1500 downloads and 10-20 sales for books with fewer than 1000 downloads.

SECTOR C

Then there's my thriller, SECTOR C. This book has had a free run each month since January. Data for Standalones above would indicate diminishing returns for books that keep pulsing free. Yet, somehow, SECTOR C keeps plugging along (helped, of course, by the kindness of at least one major freesite mention each run - in July, it got a mention from Ereader News Today and in August from Pixel of Ink and Kindle Fire Department).

A brief history of its free run download numbers:
Jan - 17,000
Feb - 2300
Mar - 2400
Apr - 1900
May - 11,500
Jun - 3850
Jul - 3450
Aug - 9400 US, 1770 UK

Concerned that 1) SECTOR C may have played itself out on the free circuit and 2) total sales each month have been on the downslide, I decided I needed to do something to help inject new life into this little book. Fond as I continue to be about the saber-tooth image the cover originally sported, one thing I'm certain helped this time is the cover change I made. It's much more obvious this is a medical thriller now. And by putting a woman on the cover, I hope to appeal more to women readers.

POI readers seemed to respond well to the new cover; the last time it was featured on POI (in June), it got fewer than 4000 downloads.

Also, it's never gotten more than 200 downloads in the UK before. I think it received so many this time for two reasons:

  1. The new cover has a broader appeal
  2. Freebies in the Mystery/Thriller genre seem to be more popular across the board now than in the past. Another thriller free the same time SC was followed SC up the charts, then went on to dominate overall with an additional 2 free days. And a mystery went gangbusters there, as well. Both authors tell me this is the best their books have done in the UK.

Of interest, I had only 3 days for my free run. UK downloads kicked in hard near the end of Day 2 and the rank was still improving in the UK when I canceled the free run at #17 overall. By then, its US rank had gone from #34 to #55. Another day or two free in the UK would have made a huge difference, I think. I'm not sure it could have rivaled the 5000 Niko's Stolen Bride got in July, but it might have come close.

But a great free run without a sales bump would be disappointing, no? As a pleasant surprise, the UK delivered. Why? Because the UK is still running the old algorithm for its pop lists where freebies are weighted close to the same as a real sale. Great visibility in the UK is the reward for a successful free run.

Sales comparison for the first 7 days post-free for the last 4 runs:
May - 173 sales at $4.29 and 38 borrows
Jun - 142 sales (43 at $4.39, 83 at 99c, 17 at $3.89) and 35 borrows
Jul - 75 sales (45 at $4.39 and 30 at $2.99) and 23 borrows
Aug - 146 sales at $4.39 and 69 borrows in the US, 175 sales at $2.99 in the UK

Current Thoughts on Freebook Strategy

These are editorial in nature only. Typical caveat of "your mileage may vary" applies.

  • New releases (along with virgin titles that have never been free) can still do very well.
  • A free run continues to be part of Steel Magnolia Press' release strategy.
  • We have modified that release strategy to have only 1 title free in each Collection of 2-5 backlist titles of Jennifer Blake's that we're releasing each month. Each of the other books in the month's Collection is getting paid advertising.
  • The new release itself does not need to go free if another in the series can be made free instead.
  • Successful series sell well during a successful free run of one of the titles.
  • Go big. Earlier, it seemed to matter where a book was ranked when it came off free. Now, it's all about the raw number of downloads a book can manage.
  • If the first day's number of downloads is less than 1800, cancel.
  • The algorithms have a built-in 30-day cliff. Each free run is evaluated case-by-case as to the benefit of having a reserve of free days left to always keep that cliff 2 weeks out.
  • We'll likely hold all current books in Select until March, then re-evaluate the benefits then, unless...
  • If things change drastically, we're prepared to make what changes are needed to best optimize our promotional opportunities. 

There's nothing stagnant about this business. We all have to keep trying new things, watching the results, and tweaking our plans on the fly.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Just How Do Those $&%*# Amazon Algos Work Anyway?

(Yes, I'm still around -- thank you to those of you who have emailed their concern. I'm just concentrating on other social media areas and posting to a few private and public groups, which is cutting into personal blog time.)

Warning: This (very long) post contains math.

Authors are a funny lot. Since a core group of us introduced the idea that Amazon's algorithms for its popularity lists contain a price bias and that freebies now seem to count about 1/10 as much as paid sales on those lists, the amount of misunderstanding regarding the findings has been, to say the least, staggering. Misinformation and disinformation propagating through the interweebs and the various forums point to a serious non-grasping of the underlying concepts.

And the authors reacting to just plain wrong information are understandably questioning why they aren't seeing results in line with what they're reading.

So let's quickly revisit what those findings are and what they aren't. Then we'll take a look at how the algorithm for determining rank on the popularity lists probably works at its most basic structure. Mind you, the actual algorithm is likely much more complicated than what I'll present, but the simple form you'll see here should help you to understand how it determines the playing field.

Popularity List Findings

First, the popularity list is NOT the bestseller list. They are two different beasts. On the Amazon webpage and on Kindle devices, you have to actually navigate to the bestseller list to find it. The BS list will show the paid bestsellers in one column on the left and the free bestsellers in a column to the right. If you're not seeing BOTH paid and free books on the page, you are not looking at the actual bestsellers. If at the bottom of the page you don't see links to specifically scroll through the Top 100 books and ONLY the Top 100, you're not looking at the actual bestseller list.

What you're looking at is the popularity list. And it's THIS list we'll be discussing.

Differences between the popularity and bestseller lists:

  • The popularity list figures in freebies. The bestseller list does not.
  • The popularity list does not figure in borrows. The bestseller list does.
  • The popularity list has a price bias. The bestseller list does not.
  • The popularity list influences the bestseller list more than the bestseller list influences popularity.
  • The popularity list figures in sales (and sales-equivalents) over the last 30 days. The bestseller list weights sales history, but not to the extent the pop list does.
  • The popularity list recrunches about once per day. The bestseller list recrunches hourly.
  • The popularity list has a lag time of about 2 days. The bestseller list has about an hour lag time.
  • The popularity list rank does not display anywhere except in the list itself. The bestseller rank is the rank you find on a book's product page.

The only way to know where your book ranks on the popularity list in any given category is to tediously scroll through the list to find it. (If you're pretty sure you're several pages in and don't want to scroll through every page, you can change the page numbers via the url in your address bar; but this option is for advanced users only who can find the page number designation in the url code.)

So, to make this as clear as possible:

  • The number of freebies you give away during a free run does not in any way affect your bestseller ranking. 
  • The price of your book does not in any way affect your bestselling ranking.

These variables are used only for determining a book's rank in the popularity lists.

The reason the popularity list rankings are important is that your book's visibility in those lists seems to be a huge sales driver. YOU may not personally find books by browsing that list, but a lot of folk apparently do. Also, some of the recommendation emails Amazon sends out display the top 6 or 7 books in a category, then provide a link to the pop list to discover more books in that category.

Watching your pop list numbers is as important -- and for some, even more important -- than watching your bestseller numbers.

Algorithm for Determining Popularity List Rank

The popularity list algorithm has undergone at least 2 major changes since it came under scrutiny in January. Back then, freebies appeared to be weighted 100% of a sale and borrows appeared to be counted in as well. Because of these weightings, books in Select that went on a successful free run with 2000 or so downloads would wind up at the top of the pop lists after the 2-day lag to get there. That resulted in the famous 3-day bump when browsers would start seeing a book on the first page of a pop list and hit Buy, catapulting a lot of indie books into the stratosphere. That was the Golden Age.

In March, Amazon started doing split marketing, testing different algorithms to create its popularity lists. Between late March and early May, there appeared to be 3 separate lists being tested, and predicting the popularity of a freebie following its free run was difficult because of the multiple lists.

In early May, Amazon apparently settled on a single algorithm to display to the majority of its customers. (Caveat: the list for the Fire seems to be out of synch from the rest -- either Fire readers are being presented a different list entirely or else the servers sending out the data to Fires are delayed.) There are umpteen possibilities as to WHY Amazon settled on the algorithm it did. I've speculated elsewhere about the why as have others, and this post won't rehash those speculations. We're simply accepting that Amazon wanted to elevate certain classes of books and decelerate the meteoric rise of others. It's how they're accomplishing this that we'll look at today.

Remember, we're working on best-guess speculation here, figured out from watching how the books on the list perform against each other. It's reverse-engineering -- and subject to a lot of variables that those of us outside of Amazon are simply not privy too. There will always be outliers, and there will always be minor differences in rank performance due to those other variables. For the most part, though, this simple formula seems to be the base for the current popularity list algorithm.

[(.1 x A) + B] x C / 30 = number of sales equivalents

where
A = the number of freebies given away in the past 30 days (notice it gets multiplied by 0.1 or 1/10);
B = the number of actual sales in the past 30 days; and
C = the weighting given for pricing.
30 = the number of days in a month (hence, the 30-day cliff that's talked about in conjunction with the pop list)

C is guess work since it's hard to figure exactly how Amazon is weighting price. It's a big enough variable to be noticeable, but not so big that it skews the results in a truly huge way. It also seems that the weighting of price goes by ranges of price, so a 2.99 book might be weighted the same as a 3.99 book. As a guess, the following matrix might be reasonably close:

99c -$2.98 = 1.0
2.99 - 3.99 = 1.1
4.00 - 5.99 = 1.2
6.00 - 7.99 = 1.3
8.00 - 9.99 = 1.4

So let's put some real numbers in there to see how this works. I'll use SECTOR C's past 30 days as an example since it had only a modest free run the last time out and its overall July sales were modest as well.

So for SECTOR C,
A = 3325 (number of freebies given away on the US site)
B = 328 (number of US sales from July 4 - Aug 3)
C = 1.2 ($4.39 is the book's typical list price)

Plugging the numbers into the equation, and showing our work, we get:

[(.1 x 3325) + 328] x 1.2 / 30 =
(332 + 328) x 1.2 / 30 =
660 x 1.2 / 30 =
792 / 30 = 26.4

So, 26.4 is the average daily sales equivalent for the past 30 days. Because of a healthy number of freebies being figured in, that means that SECTOR C is going to enjoy a better popularity rank than another book that has sold 328 copies over the last 30 days -- even if that other book currently has a better bestseller rank.

26.4 books is equivalent to a bestseller sales rank of around #3500. On Aug 3, SECTOR C's actual bestseller rank was between #5565 and #6930.

Now, because we don't know the exact number of books other authors are selling, we have to look at current ranks to make some best guesses to see why SECTOR C is at #29 on the popularity list for Technothrillers. And because books that have been on free runs are more volatile in the ranks, it's best to compare books that are not in Select (who is this Tom Clancy that has books on either side of mine on that list?!).

Here are the ranks and prices of the non-Select books closest to mine at #29:
#25 - 3178 - $3.99
#26 - 6030 - $8.99
#27 - 5380 - $8.99
#28 - 8720 - $4.95
#29 - 3500 (equivalent) - $4.39 (This is SECTOR C)
#30 - 24,365 - $3.99
#34 - 3931 - $3.99

"Aha!" you say. "A flaw in the calculations! Look at the 24,000+ rank on the book at #30!" Well, yes, I did look at that book and I found through Google that it had been free on at least July 25, so it was either price matched during the last 30 days or left Select in the past week. Variables like this are what makes reverse-engineering difficult -- and likely what makes many folk looking at a single snapshot question the accuracy of the findings. It has taken several snapshots over an extended period of time and deep research to come up with the guesstimations that we have.

While we can never draw conclusions from such limited data, we can look at the data above and see a couple of things:

At about the same price, the books at #25, #29 and #34 line up in the rank right where we would expect them to in relation to one another. We've already determined that #30 is skewed by an earlier free run. As I can only see today's rank for #28 (it's not listed on any of the tracker sites), it could well have had a better rank 2 days ago (another reason it's important to look at all this stuff over time as well). The 2 $8.99 books at #26 and #27 are Tom Clancy books that have been selling steadily at those ranks and are a demonstration of the price bias in action.

So, Realistically, What Can You Do With This Information?

Honestly? Not a whole lot. A higher price will give you a slight advantage, but only if you're selling well enough to be near the top of the pop lists anyway. It's not like a $4.99 book is going to rank dozens of ranks better than one that sells the same number of copies at $3.99. And a 99c book that sells 1000 copies will still rank higher than a $2.99 book that sells only 300. Simply pricing your book higher is not going to automatically boost your ranking.

Giving away a LOT of books during a free run can certainly help. Even so, the 3325 copies of SECTOR C given away last month only equaled about 332 sales equivalents. Depending on the category your book is in, that could be a drop in the bucket. In categories where the top books are selling 1000 copies a day, you'd have to give away 300,000 books to compete for first-page visibility. If you only gave away 200,000 books, you'd have to make up the difference with 10,000 paid sales. For most of us, it ain't gonna happen.

So if you're looking to the algorithms to help you sell, understand exactly what the algos are doing for you -- and how they work against you. There's no magic to them. It's all pure math. And Amazon may choose to change the math that feeds them tomorrow. Just maybe, the next changes will be in our favor...