Friday, August 31, 2012

The Amazon Bounce

For many (most?) indie authors, the Amazon thrill is gone. But a select few still have that spring in their step. So, what kind of Sales Viagra are these guys on?
Recently I posted about how, for author after author, the gravity-defying indie sales boom of the past few years has ended

But today, there's good news: One author has bucked the trend, by coaxing the old, familiar Amazon bounce from KDP Select. The question, obviously, is how he did it, at a time when so many others cannot.

In my earlier post I noted that, while Amazon was turning off its marketing juice for books under a certain price threshold, it would almost certainly make an exception in the case of a book that performed exceptionally during its early run. (This would be the case whether or not the book was initially a free download, but - for reasons that are probably obvious - making a book free early on makes an exceptional performance that much more likely.)

What author Richard Stephenson did, in this case, was make an extra effort to publicize his book during the KDP 'free' period. A man with an apparent analytical bent, he gauged the effectiveness of the Amazon Bounce by making a test study of books by an author with a poor reputation [edited for brevity]:

"An acquaintance had self-published a few books the previous summer and I always kept a close eye on his rankings.  I also kept a close eye on his reviews, which were far from kind.  Some of the most horrible one star reviews I'd ever read adorned his books. His work would usually hover around the 60K neighborhood on the rankings. The days following his free promos, he would skyrocket into the 1-2K rank, even going as high as 692. The next day, he would very quickly spend the next two days plummeting back to the 60K range. This impressed me a great deal, clearly there was something to this KDP Select thing. If the free promotion could propel a very poorly written book (based on reviews mind you, I only read the sample, which was awful) into the top 1000 then it was definitely worth giving a try."

He then describes his own efforts:

"On August 4th and 5th I had my first free promo weekend.  On August 3rd I spent a great deal of time getting the word out to potential readers.  I was very fortunate to have a comprehensive list at my fingertips thanks to Rachelle Ayala's blog.  I made as many notifications as I could and programmed TweetAdder to start informing the Twitterverse of my upcoming promotion.  I also used the very efficient Tweet Teams at the World Literary Cafe to help get the word out.  For more information on how to effectively use Twitter for book promotion, please read my blog entry.

The free weekend was a huge success. Collapse made it to #17 on the Top 100 Free list and stayed at #1 on the Free list in both of my categories (War and Political).  On Monday morning, the instant my eyes opened I logged on the check the final stats - 13,957 downloads."

(One aspect of this summary worth focusing on is the author's use of Twitter here. I recommend a close look at his last link.) Stephenson's promo was enough to trigger Amazon's marketing machine. He then experienced the Amazon Bounce that most writers had previously received without such a special effort:

"For the month of July, I sold 191 digital copies of Collapse on Amazon.  In the two days following my free promo weekend, I sold 218 copies and 51 borrows.  That's right, in two days, I sold more copies than I did the entire previous month."

Stephenson notes that his book was priced at 99 cents, and believes this may have been an advantage in terms of his sales. This is where our opinions radically diverge - I have to date seen no evidence that such low pricing (outside of the initial 'free' run, that is) helps a book's sales. Indeed, in this case it was a self-imposed obstacle that the author was obliged to overcome (via his key marketing effort).

Stephenson concludes:

"I have no regrets when it comes to Select, best decision I've made in terms of marketing.  As of the date of this post, my rankings have stayed in the 2K range whereas it was in the 15K to 20K range prior to the free promo."

Aside from Stephenson's happy outcome, there is one more piece of good news to report: Amazon is preparing to launch (just a few days from now) and promote a brand-new Kindle Fire. The sales of empty e-reader tablets has always translated into a 'pop' in e-book sales. Therefore I expect a Christmastime rebound for indie e-book authors.


  1. Appreciate this post. Yes, I am vain, I have a Google Alert for Collapse "Richard Stephenson." Gotta keep up to date on the buzz. I'm glad I have the alert set up, it brings me to great places like this.

    One thing I didn't mention in my post was that I paid a little bit of money to advertise the free promo. Kindle Nation Daily is the best thing going for Kindle advertising in my humble opinion. For $29 a day, you can list your book in their Free Book Highlighter Service. Great service, I feel that it paid off.

    As far as the 99 cent thing goes, I was just experimenting, trying to figure out what worked. I wanted to keep the momentum going on the rankings, originally just planned on one day, but I rode that wave until it started to fade out. I then raised the book to its regular 2.99 price. Any indie out there that is financially dependent on their writing in any way should not do this, you could make a lot more money if you return the price to normal after the free promo. My goal was exposure, plain and simple. I'm writing a series of four books and I'm thinking long term. (Okay, fine, you caught me. I also REALLY wanted to break into the top 1000, came close. LOL)

    Another update - coming up on a month since that promo and Collapse hovers between 6K to 8K on the rankings.

    Will I stay with KDP Select? Not all the time. I'm working on a book signing at Barnes & Nobles for Black Friday. They haven't raised the issue, but I'm sure they wouldn't be happy if I was in there selling books in their store and it wasn't available for the Nook.

  2. Hi, Richard. You certainly should not apologize for keeping tabs on who is talking you up! It' part of the business of being an author in this brave new world.

    "As far as the 99 cent thing goes, I was just experimenting, trying to figure out what worked. I wanted to keep the momentum going on the rankings, originally just planned on one day, but I rode that wave until it started to fade out. I then raised the book to its regular 2.99 price."

    I did get that, but I did not dwell on your raising of your price because $2.99 is still too low! That is: It's considerably below the threshold at which Amazon decides to send some of its (considerable!) marketing help your way. In my previous post, I detailed the nature of this. It may seem counter-intuitive (it is for MOST writers - you've got plenty of company), but if your goal, as you say, is "exposure, plain and simple", a $2.99 price point runs COUNTER to that goal.

    Having said that, you remain an exception. Because you marketed your initial entry well, you got kicked up into the higher ranks of authors. That fact ALSO comes into play in Amazon's algorithms, and I suspect you have been given a marketing boost in spite of your "algorithmically-incorrect" pricing. It's a complex concept, but what I am saying is that there are a number of factors going into a book's early success via Amazon. You need a powerful market entry (which you achieved). You need a price such that Amazon does not feel the need to penalize you (which you did not know, and may not believe even now!). You need a cover and plot summary such that, once people DO see your book, they feel compelled to click.

    After that, of course, other factors figure into a book's continued success. It helps if it's a good book (!), but that means little or nothing at first. Entry, price, cover and marketing are what matter at the outset. We are, after all, talking about grabbing the attention of early adopters here.

    Thank you for the update!

  3. What price would you recommend? I don't want it to be too high. 3.99? 4.99?

  4. It's tricky. Amazon probably gauges this sweet spot by analyzing all prices for similar (i.e., color cover, B&W insides, similar page count) books. So the 'right' price today may not be quite right for tomorrow. It's also possible that the 'right' price for indies differs (is lower) than the criteria for non-indie (allied with known publishing companies) books. Also, I do not know if Amazon adjusts its marketing for a book that comes into the 'proper' price range after a book has been out for a while. It's possible that, once a book has been at $2.99 or below, Amazon sees any subsequent price adjustments as 'experiments' rather than indications of the book's True Worth.

    Having said all that, there is nothing to do but experiment. Folks I've bounced this off of feel that $4.99 is the price that gets Amazon's attention. I believe the target should be higher - $5.99. (Remember that a Stephen King e-book will still run you $15 or so, and he's doing quite well in e-book sales at that price.)

    My concern is that $4.99 may be still too low to get Amazon's marketing attention, which is after all the whole point. But the $4.99 adherents insist that $4.99 is a figure ingrained into consumerist culture. It 'sounds' right to them.

    Either way (who knows, maybe an even HIGHER figure is key), I have no doubt that $2.99 is too low. It sends a signal to Amazon that YOU do not consider your own book to be special enough to break from the madding crowd. And since you have no such faith, they won't get religion about it either.

  5. Just a quick note re my Stephen King remark, above. Folks tend to say, 'He can get $15 because he's Stephen King'. But there's more to it. Without getting into it too much (the concept deserves its own post), people will pay $15 for a King book because they WILL pay that price for a book they want. What the 'King' name does is eliminate sales resistance, so that people pay the price they are willing to pay. ANY author offering a consistently fine product can (eventually) do what it takes to eliminate sales resistance. The only reason you or I cannot get that NOW is because we have not done all that it takes to achieve that. Along the way to Stephen King-dom, there are degrees of sales resistance that can be eliminated. Your first book, for example, should also be a marketing tool that helps you break through the resistance of "I don't know this author" for many people. It's something to build on.

  6. I actually had Collapse priced at 4.99 at launch. It did fairly well for some time but after three weeks or so I saw little increase in terms of ranking. I dropped it 2.99 and after some paid promos in conjunction with the KDP Select promo, saw some dramatic increases as laid out in the blog post this one refers to.

    I have another KDP promo coming up with a decent amount of paid advertising to go along with it. I'm planning on bumping the price up just prior to it to see what happens. After the promo, the 99 cent thing is not happening, no matter how tempting the rankings might be. LOL

    Like you said, experimenting. It would be so much easier if Amazon just made the algorithms public. ;) LOL

  7. "I actually had Collapse priced at 4.99 at launch. It did fairly well for some time but after three weeks or so I saw little increase in terms of ranking. I dropped it 2.99 and after some paid promos in conjunction with the KDP Select promo, saw some dramatic increases"

    Obviously, the analytical problem here is the lack of a 'control' product. Variables (in this case, the paid promos) come into play.

    I used to do promo work for NYC publishers. They did very little paid advertising. Most of the work was promotion, PR, publicity. From that background, I have never been a fan of paid advertising for books, and I believe that 90% of all products need marketing rather than advertising.

    Re flat sales: I saw some early interviews with JK Rowling, wherein she was 'thrilled' at having sold 20,000 books. This was a level of success that allowed her to focus on her next book (i.e., it meant that there COULD BE a next book). But what had happened was that sales had moved up gradually from a very low point, and had established a level. They were more or less flat (though acceptable to the author) for months. But you know what eventually happened - her sales went through the roof. And that happens a lot in publishing - those flat periods, where sales are in a range but not declining - can mean that a book is finding traction, building an audience. So, what I am suggesting (and I am just reading tea leaves here, not pretending anything else) is that in your case, the bump in sales MAY not even have been due to anything you did in terms of promo or price changes. It may not even have had anything to do with anything Amazon did. It's possible your audience was simply building and getting ready for a bump to a higher level. What might be telling in that regard is this: Have you held that new level? If you fell back after the promo, it may have been the promo that goosed sales. But if you popped up and established a new, higher sales range, this may have been a natural part of the growth of your audience.

    Just a thought. I did years of various types of analysis of sales numbers, always trying to build a better mousetrap. It's hardly an exact science, I assure you.

  8. "It did fairly well for some time but after three weeks or so I saw little increase in terms of ranking."

    See, I'm focused on that. It does not sound like price resistance. Sounds like you found a level. Then some time passed, and you found a higher level. I don't know, from this distance anyway, that dropping the price or doing the promo was a determining factor. Dropping price CAN work to generate interest, but you were only three weeks removed from giving the book away free! So I would not suppose that it was a question of doing a price special to generate interest - you had only just done that, and presumably found the crowd that was ripe for that.

    There may also have been factors unaccounted for. For instance, Amazon may have released a new Kindle when you saw the second bump. That without question drives e-book sales.

  9. More speculation on optimal e-book pricing, with a guess at $5.99 being the effective low end: