Funny thing has happened of late.

Many midlist indie authors who were ranked fairly well fell into a black hole around the first of the month, and their sales never recovered. A few of my titles did the same thing.

I found it suspicious that all of a sudden, one day, several of my titles could drop from being ranked in the 2000 area to the 6000-8000 level.

Seemed weird to me.

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Equally odd was how several of my other titles could sell 60% less than a few of my fellow authors’ books, and yet be ranked higher. I saw that multiple times. It wasn’t a glitch.

So I developed a theory.

As theories go, it wasn’t much. I posited that Amazon must have changed more than the way free units were accounted for around the end of April. I guessed that they had started basing ranking on dollars, not on units.

That gut feeling has been validated, at least partially. You can see an excellent blog on the topic here. I won’t duplicate effort by belaboring its points. Just read it.

This marks a turning point for indie authors. Amazon’s apparent tinkering with their algorithms has just made the now poor counsel to price your books at .99 a disastrous one. Besides undervaluing your work (unless it’s crap, in which case, you know your work better than I) it is now a recipe for lower ranking, and poor sales. Self-fulfilling prophecy, that.

I have mixed feelings about all this. On the one hand, I believe that the .99 cent thing was a shoddy gimmick and poor branding. And it will now be even worse for anyone who followed the advice, because as I’ve said numerous times, it is very hard to move from being a .99 author to one where your work can command many times that amount. So not only are you now facing the whammy of having to sell 5 times as many books as a $5 book to rank the same (at least on popularity lists – don’t know what the future holds for bestseller lists), you don’t have any pricing power for your work, as you’ve valued it at a third of the price of a cup of big city coffee. On the other hand, I wonder how we indie authors will get any visibility, if Amazon is calculating ranking based on list price, not on sales price, as it would appear they are doing. That gives the trad pub gang, and Amazon’s own trad pub label, a huge advantage, as they can list price a book at $14 even if the actual selling price is $7. If I am correct and that artificially inflated price is the one the algorithms recognize as the “price” of a unit sold, then the game is forever rigged in favor of trad pub books. They will virtually always place better on some of the lists, if not most.

Is this the end of the world?

Not really. It just means that the crack high of free books and boom times from the associated promotions are largely over for indie authors. Because now that Amazon has won the war for market share and dominance, it is going to get down to making money. And a $10 title makes it a lot more than a $3 title. So which would you focus your efforts on selling if you were the company? To me it’s obvious. You go where the money is. Companies are not in business to better humanity or prove points. They are commercial enterprises whose sole reason for existence is to make a profit. I get it.

I don’t think Amazon is targeting indie authors for extinction in any way. I think that many will become extinct as a byproduct of this, though. Which brings me back to my blogs of six months or so ago. About why you write. To repeat myself, if you write because you hope to hit it big, or even make a decent living, you are writing for the wrong reasons, as the odds say you’ll starve. To me, that’s the wrong reason to write.

If, however, you wish to open a self-publishing business, where you create a product you hope to sell enough of to recoup your investment of time and money, and generate a profit, you need to care about these developments, as they radically impact your chances of succeeding. My own company included.

In the end, I think we can safely assume that Amazon will do what’s best for Amazon, just as your company will do what’s best for you. That’s how things work. But if you are still hoping to use last month’s strategy of going free to boost sales, or are thinking that cheap will translate into sales success, you’re badly mistaken, and will learn the hard way.

Or you can read this blog, and know about trends real time. Or at least, as soon as I become aware of them.

Good luck out there. For what it’s worth, I also believe that free is rapidly going the way of the dinosaur. It still has a tiny bit of life in it, but it’s on life support, and I bet it is dead within 30 days. I’ve pulled all but one of my promos for that reason.

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As always, if you want the artist’s contact info, drop me a line.

Until next time, go buy a bunch of my crap. Buy two. I need to pay my bar tab.

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Comments

  1. andy holloman
    Thu 17th May 2012 at 10:08 am

    …cool, thx for the share…and for linking back to those other posts, very helpful to get up-to-the-minute info from smart folks,…oh, yeah, and from you *smile*

    Reply
  2. Thu 17th May 2012 at 10:49 am

    Very interesting indeed.

    So, do the promotional periods on KDP Select have any impact anymore?

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Thu 17th May 2012 at 11:10 am

      The answer is some, but not much. As in, maybe 10% of what they had a month ago. I think the writing is writ fairly clearly on the wall for the future of free, which makes Amazon no money, as well as .99 and cheap books, upon which Amazon makes little money. If I were them, I’d be focused on making more money now that I have most of the market share, and the Big 6 and Apple with the DOJ breathing down their necks.

      Reply
  3. Thu 17th May 2012 at 2:05 pm

    “Evolving” seems to be the new catchword these days. I would say Amazon is just working its way along that business evolutionary chain. If what you say is true, the Big 6 may be heaving a sigh of relief because it means competitively priced, quality indie writers will be no future threat to their tried-and-true business models. Yet, through perseverance and good promotional skills, some indie writers may continue to find a little light at the end of the tunnel. Nonetheless, delivering products (books, TV, film, newspapers) to a fickle marketplace will always remain a challenge. Thanks for your insightful thoughts on all of this.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Thu 17th May 2012 at 2:57 pm

      I’m not sure competitively priced quality indie writers were ever a threat. If I’m lucky enough to sell 100K books in a year across 15 titles, I’m a nobody. But economically, I’m dancing in the streets. Trad Pub probably wouldn’t even give me a yawn with those kinds of per title sales. My hunch is that the Big 6 correctly view the end of their reign more a function of being disintermediated by technology over time, than you or I taking Stephen King’s spot.

      The truth is that a decent trad pub deal isn’t a bad thing. The trick is getting a decent trad pub deal. Most don’t. But my feeling is that it’s going to get much tougher for indie authors over the next 12 months now that the pricing model favors higher priced books. Having said that, I completely understand why Amazon would do that. It makes perfect sense. They want to sell a unit to a customer. That unit could cost $3, $5, $10. At $10, they are a lot happier – they get $3. At $5 they make half as much. At .99, they see .65.

      All things being equal, if you knew you were still going to sell a unit no matter what price, which would you rather direct buyers to?

      Reply
      • T I WADE  –  Fri 18th May 2012 at 4:37 pm

        With a 99 cent book sale and paid with a credit card, how can Amazon actually make any money? I think they shot themselves in the foot allowing books go so cheap!

        Reply
        • Russell Blake  –  Fri 18th May 2012 at 5:42 pm

          No, quite the opposite. I think that all along, they have been very smart. To whit, if you wanted to bludgeon the trad pub houses into submission, who wanted to dictate terms to you, you could say, “No, we won’t do that – we’ll sell something else to all the kindle buyers.” The trad pub houses would have laughed, and said, “Who are you kidding? There is nobody else.” So Amazon creates the somebody else – the viable indie sensations – and in we rush, and for two years, trad pubs watch their numbers shrink while Amazon still sells plenty of books and creates a whole new viable vendor class. Now, suddenly, with a DOJ investigation and the writing on the wall, wanna bet the trad pubs are more willing to listen to reason? Suddenly they see there is a choice B that is taking market share, so they have to play nice. Brilliant on Amazon’s part. But I don’t think the plan was ever to put Trad Pub out of business. I think it was to show them who was boss. Now it’s clear, so Amazon really doesn’t need us (indie authors) nearly as much as we need them. If I were them, my strategy would be, first thing, get rid of or minimize the low price crap so everyone can start making real money with the established vendors now that they’re being reasonable.

          I am 100% convinced that is the play. If so, it’s smart. Very smart. A similar thing happened with payola in the radio business in the 80s. The record companies refused to pay it to the equivalent of lobbyists, so the radio stations started playing countless small label songs, making a whole new set of hits with no big label acts scoring any play. Within a few months, the labels were willing to pay up again, and all those little labels and acts faded into obscurity. I think Amazon wanted to show trad pub that the channel/technology company is in the driver’s seat, and can make or break the vendors. I think the trad pubs now get that, and with the DOJ causing grief, have to play nice. So mission accomplished, and now a return to business as usual. Most of us will lose long term as indie authors if I am correct. Which doesn’t make me incorrect. Just wishing I was.

          Time will tell.

          Reply
  4. Thu 17th May 2012 at 3:32 pm

    Point taken. Enjoy your work. All the best.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Thu 17th May 2012 at 7:59 pm

      I have tried to post a lengthy comment that is intended to be an open letter to those authors who have contacted me privately, but for some reason the blog SW won’t let me post it. I’ll make it a separate blog in a few days. Don’t know what’s going on with the comments. Must be the clowns. They never quit.

      Reply
  5. Fri 18th May 2012 at 4:28 pm

    LOVE it! just raised my ebook prices from $3.33 to $4.99 with a bump to $7.99 in a month if things work out.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 18th May 2012 at 5:29 pm

      I’m not sure that everyone’s audience will pay nosebleed prices for indies. Or anyone’s. I wish you much luck with that. Please let me know how it works out.

      Reply
  6. Sat 19th May 2012 at 3:22 pm

    Nice to know I’m not the only one who watched sales go over a cliff in the past month.

    I did notice my own rankings were affected much more with sales at 2.99+ than they were at .99. Fine by me, I’d rather make more $$. I’ve also noticed KDP free days are having almost no effect on ranking anymore, unless there’s serious sales momentum immediately afterward.

    Has anyone bought ad space on Digital Book Today or World Lit Cafe? I’m wondering if their “social media buzz” packages are worth trying.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sat 19th May 2012 at 3:49 pm

      I’ve done both, and in my opinion, both are worth doing. Especially the WLC – I just signed up for one!

      Reply
  7. Sat 19th May 2012 at 7:40 pm

    As usual thank for this timely info RB.
    W4$

    Reply
  8. Anna
    Sun 20th May 2012 at 12:24 am

    The only problem I think Amazon might have from their policy is that the customers like the low-priced books. If they can’t find them, they’ll probably buy fewer books overall. Of course that may be my wishful thinking. I know I’ll cut back on my purchases.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 20th May 2012 at 12:45 am

      Agreed that there will always be a subset that buys on price. Call it 10%. Maybe even 20%. But the other 80% won’t be exposed to a title at the lower price by virtue of the sorting algorithm. So yes, there will always be customers for the day old bread store, but that’s not their lion’s share of the biz.

      Reply
      • Pat Chiles  –  Sun 20th May 2012 at 8:29 am

        I’m reluctant to pay more than five bucks for an ebook, even by a “name” author. Any exceptions have to be something I really, really want. Or, it has to be a big ‘un that’s just more comfortable to read on a Kindle. Recently picked up a few that on paper are 1200+ pages and love having them electronically.

        Reply
  9. Sun 20th May 2012 at 1:23 pm

    I like the development, and think it is much-needed, but it really should be based on the price As-Sold. Fair’s fair, and a dollar is only a dollar when you’ve actually got it.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 20th May 2012 at 5:05 pm

      Agreed, but I am not sure that Amazon’s imperative is fairness. Having said that, I’ve noticed recently that life isn’t fair, so that would be in keeping…

      Reply
  10. Sun 20th May 2012 at 6:22 pm

    In this case, “fair” can translate to an increase in how many books, regardless of origin, sell for real $$$, as opposed to fiddly list prices.

    In any case, unfair or nae, I don’t think this is a TAKE IT TO THE STREETS Indie moment. I’ll just keep expanding my pile o’ books.

    Reply
    • David Barron  –  Sun 20th May 2012 at 6:23 pm

      ….that was supposed to be a reply to the above.

      Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 20th May 2012 at 7:43 pm

      I’m not sure there is anything the indie authors can do about this. But in the 11 months I’ve been self-pubbing, I would say this is the largest negative that’s occurred, just as the free thing while units were calculated on a 100% basis for the purposes of placement on the lists was the most positive for us. I’m quite sure there will be more of both, although I don’t like the overall implication of this trend, obviously.

      Reply
  11. Lisa aka MoonShineArtSpot
    Sun 20th May 2012 at 11:30 pm

    I was wondering when & how it was going to happen. Thanks for the info.

    Reply
  12. Mon 21st May 2012 at 10:26 am

    The majority of your novels are still in Select??? isn’t that going to hurt those rankings?

    One thing is certain: Amazon will keep changing the rules to make the best return.

    Keep writing great books. hugs

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 21st May 2012 at 10:40 am

      They are in select, because loans are a big part of my revenue, or at least a significant part. I see 800 or so loans a month – far more than I sell anywhere else. At $2.75 a pop, that’s my bar tab. OK, maybe not the whole tab, but at least the tequila portion. That’s why I make the point that Select may have bennies, but it ain’t the free pop anymore.

      Reply
  13. Tue 22nd May 2012 at 10:40 am

    Thanks for the heads up. Glad I’m not in it for the money but sure did wonder how Makaveli’s Prince could drop so fast in the rankings last month.

    People are still buying and tweeting me praise so I’m happy. Currently working on a permanently free prequil to entice in new readers.

    Reply
  14. Tue 22nd May 2012 at 1:18 pm

    Eh, it’s just another turn of the wheel. It will be something different in two or three months.

    nice box set idea. Looks familiar! Lol…

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 22nd May 2012 at 1:31 pm

      Yes, my plan is to get rich off box sets. So far, not so much. Meh. There are no new ideas. Don’t believe me, just read a few of my novels…

      Reply
  15. Neasha
    Tue 22nd May 2012 at 5:25 pm

    Thank you for sharing this. I have read several other blocs on this the last few days. I am uncertain where this is going to lead for us Indies authors- I just can pray that Amazon doesn’t tweak their algorithms much more! With my book priced at 3.99 I’m hoping it keeps me in the game still. :)

    Reply
  16. Tue 22nd May 2012 at 6:37 pm

    Thanks for keeping us informed. On the one hand I am upset I missed out on the opportunity to promote myself during the free book boom, but on the other, I knew this would happen, and as busy as I am in my day job, I’m glad I didn’t sacrifice (waste) time promoting my writing only to have my sales rank slashed anyway. Phew!

    Reply
  17. Wed 23rd May 2012 at 1:09 pm

    Great post!
    I can’t fault Amazon for their business strategy on this. The MBA in me admires them :)
    This will really hurt those debut authors who sell at .99, have no reviews, and MS Paint looking covers. At free or .99, I’d take a chance on them and hopefully find a gem in the haystack, but not at $3.99.

    Reply
  18. Wed 23rd May 2012 at 3:47 pm

    Interesting. Amazon has marketing people planning their most profitable stratedgy. They can afford to.
    I don’t think many authors are any worse off than when trad pubs were guarding the gate. The best, most persistent writers will still succeed. I hope.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 23rd May 2012 at 4:02 pm

      Hope has proved a lousy investment and business strategy, as a rule.

      Agreed that most authors are still going to be hosed, just as they were when trad pubs were guarding the gate. And yes, a few will succeed. I wasn’t trying to argue that our lot in life is any worse. My point was that Amazon just tipped its hand, and the strategy looks like beat trad pub into submission, and once it is pliant, then continue with business as usual. Business as usual has never been that great for indie authors. I have no illusions that it will this time around.

      Reply
  19. Wed 23rd May 2012 at 6:40 pm

    I priced all three of my books at $0.99. Even then I thought it a bad idea. I’ve since increased them to $1.99. Not that I’ve seen any increase in sales since Amazon keeps tinkering with the prices without my permission. And apparently everyone fell out love with my novels at the same time since Amazon has not credited me with any sales for two weeks.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 23rd May 2012 at 7:42 pm

      I’ve been hearing about a technical problem reporting sales – one of my fellow authors got an e-mail from them acknowledging a glitch in reporting sales and said they were working on it. I would send them an e-mail and see what they say.

      Reply

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