Saturday, 25 June 2011

On numbers and what they mean

Any indie with a book doing reasonably well on Amazon is obsessed by numbers, and Amazon makes it easy to indulge one's obsession.

Once an hour, rankings change. On Author Central, you have a sales graph going back to December last year. You can watch sales tick up on your KDP page (Kindle Direct Publishing) as they happen - last night I waited before turning out the light for the last few UK sales that would take Replica to a total of 7,000. Childish, I know.

What I don't forget, though, is that each time the number goes up, a human being has decided he/she likes the look of my book, and is prepared to spend several hours reading it, and I am very grateful. Now and then readers write a review, or email me to say they enjoyed the books, which makes my day.

David Gaughran has blogged about some other very interesting numbers, under the title Print Continues Its Death Spiral; the American Association of Publishers have released their sales figures for April 2011. The figures make it clear where books are heading - away from print and towards digital. The implications of this are enormous for writers, readers, and anyone in the publishing industry.

Winners and losers in the revolution? My guess:

Authors and readers - it's often forgotten, but they're the only essential components of the business. And Amazon, whose business nous is awesome.

Bookshops (we'll all be sad about this), publishers, agents.


  1. Hey Lexi,

    You are exactly right. The only essential components are readers and writers.

    Agents can help you get a publishing deal. Publishers can help you get into bookstores. Bookstores can help you sell print books.

    But with each drop in print figures, that "help" is less value for the price (a huge chunk of your royalties).

    E-book retailers (like Amazon) are also not essential (as JK Rowling has shown). However, most writers will not be able to reach large amounts of people without them, so their future is secure.

    The rest? Not so much.


  2. Yesterday I went off into a pleasant daydream about selling ebooks from my website...

    ...then realized I am not JKR, with zillions of fans, unfeasible quantities of money and a spiffy interactive state-of-the-art website, and I'd better stick to good old Amazon.

  3. Congratulations on the 7000 copies!

  4. Lexi,

    With your numbers it must be worth looking into, no?

    You would end up with a lot more than 70% (and a lot more than 35% for lower priced stuff).

    All you need is a (free) shopping cart and a PayPal account.


  5. Thanks, K :o)

    Dave, I'm uncertain about how you deliver ebooks - though I had a quick look, and there are firms like Clickbank you can sign up with who will do it for you.

    But the main thing is, to do well on Amazon you need to do well on Amazon. The higher you are in the rankings, the more visible your book is all over the site. Currently my website and blog send buyers there. It would be a bad idea to syphon off some of the sales, even at twice the profit, if that undermined my Amazon sales.

  6. Yeah. That's the biggest thing in the "con" column, for sure.

    But this is what I was thinking. Rankings only get you so far. At some point in the future, that book is going to slip down the rankings, while your newer books take its place on the bestseller lists.

    At that point, would it make sense then? I'm just thinking out loud here, but I'm sure plenty of big writers have older books that are around the 10k mark (or lower), where they aren't troubling even the outer reaches of the genre bestseller lists.

    Would it make sense then? Maybe.

  7. Every time you publish a new book, you gain new readers, who, if they like it, will then buy all your other books. I think the problem with big writers is that their back catalogue ebooks are over-priced by their publishers, so don't sell. Readers can buy the paperback for less.

    One can only guess at Amazon's algorithms, and they are certainly not simple. But at the moment, my two books appear to be selling each other; they are taking turns to forge ahead. I like to think that whichever people buy first, they go on to buy the other one :o)

  8. While looking at some of the popular free books on Amazon it occurred to me that the 'old style' publishing had one big advantage for me as a reader.It acted as a filter to remove books that really weren't up to standard. Unfortunately it also blocked good books that didn't fit approved profiles.

    I wonder whether the e-book revolution may throw up new opportunities for out of work agents and the like. I would like to see a 'seal of approval' awarded to provide evidence that various literary quality standards have been achieved. Authors would have to pay for this literary rating and could include it in their promotions. An author would only need it once and could then reference the approval on subsequent books as proof that they can write well.

    This could remove the main advantage of the big publishing houses for me and save much time in sampling stuff that I would never want to read but manages to attract me with a title or cover.

    What d'ya think?

  9. Q, the reader has to select, even with mainstream publishing. I've learned to avoid novels written by television personalities, for instance, no matter how much I like them in their day jobs. They've been published for their platforms, not their ability to write.

    The idea of giving agents power to stymie indie writers, as well as those aspiring to mainstream publication, makes me shudder. Yes, there's a lot of dross out there (both indie and trad) but what's wrong with letting the reader decide? With the Kindle, you can read a large sample before buying. Reviews and rankings are an indicator of popularity.

    And how do you define 'various literary standards'? Such a judgment would inevitably be subjective and unfair.

    Agents acting as gatekeepers have, in my opinion, been a disaster, and are one of the reasons the publishing industry is in trouble right now. Giving them more power would be a BAD idea.

  10. Hey, Lexi

    We have watched together. I waited for the 800th sale of Excuse me, where is the exit? This month.

    Congratulations on the 7000th. That's enormous :-)

  11. Yo, Stella - I'm sure we are not alone :o)

  12. Lexi, I thought you might argue about this! LOL

    I do understand your perspective, but in science for example, peer review before publication is invaluable in blocking the rubbish and saving busy scientists valuable time. (Usually 3 referees read and asses the submitted papers). One can often get a paper published in lesser journals when rejected by the prestigious journals, but due to time limitations they are not widely read. Every physicist worth his salt reads relevant papers in Phys Rev Letts, probably the most prestigious physics journal. There is also great prestige attached to publishing in this journal.

    I want something similar for fiction. My leisure time is very limited and I can't use it up sampling all the new authors now publishing e-books. I would like a way of rapidly skimming off the cream. I don't really trust the reviews that appear. How many new authors get their mates to write a rave review?!

    With the current system, I'm inclined to stick with favorite authors that I know will deliver for me and just pick an occasional new author to try. That seems a pity when I'm bound to be missing new rising stars who are marooned, unrecognized in all the mediocrity which gets published.

    A rating system from unbiased professional writers would be most helpful as a light to guide my way!

    Delighted to see Remix and Replica sales soaring to the heights by the way. *smile*

  13. @quantum

    I have a quick question for you, if I may.

    I don't trust books that only have a few reviews either - there's a reasonable chance they are just family and friends.

    However, would you trust a book that had, say, 50 reviews, if they were overwhelmingly positive?

    Just curious...

  14. Q, I like free markets; I'm informally a libertarian, and believe the less regulation we have, the better. I believe in very few rules, rigorously enforced.

    If a book has no redeeming features, it will slide inexorably into Amazon's dark, cobwebby cellar where books go when nobody loves them. It will not be seen again, unless you go looking for it. Whereas, to switch to your metaphor, the cream you are after will probably not be too far from the top.

  15. Lexi,

    My second book is very much loved by those who read it. They contact me on twitter, totally unexpected, but it's somewhere down in the cellar. I guess just over 50 books in the first month is okay, though. It's a good book, but a rather unusual mix, I think. They don't have a romantic comedy tag on amazon, it's now paranormal romance which is not entirely correct.

  16. I don't think 50 a month is in the cellar. Garden flat, maybe :o)

    Remix sold 3 e-copies on Amazon in its first month. I was rather depressed about that at the time.

  17. Garden flat. I like that. Especially in the summer. Thing is, it's my second book. Though it's totally different from the short stories. And I admit I'm a bit depressed about the (just looked) actually 60 copies sold.
    25,666 of Remix is a rather good figure, I'd say.

  18. Plus, a very good first month can be deceptive.

    I sold 153 in my first month. This month is my second, and I'll be lucky if I get to 80.

    I'm not bothered so much, but it would be nicer to be going in the other direction!

  19. How can we not fret about the numbers? I try to be laid back about it, as you never know whether a book will go up or down, or why; so many factors are involved, including dumb luck. It's the uncertainty that makes the whole thing addictive.

    Stella, I do think if your second book is very different from the first it is like starting all over again. Victorine Lieske has found this, when we all thought her next book would romp to the top, given the huge popularity of her first.

  20. Lexi,

    Yes, that's what I thought. I mean some of the people who knew the first book were waiting for the second after reading the excerpt on my blog.
    The success (116 in the first month) was due to the charity, I assume. Now people just 'rave' about it.

    At least its sales increase each month.

    Dave: nobody can tell me they're not worried about the numbers. It's your baby, your effort, your money in the end. But sales are erratic. Next month, you might sell 500, who knows?

  21. David Gaughran said...
    would you trust a book that had, say, 50 reviews, if they were overwhelmingly positive?

    Hi David
    Yes, such a response would encourage me to try a sample of the book.

    I don't think that Amazon actually defines 'Best Sellers' but they probably mean 'number sold in the past week' or something similar. That's useful for new publications, but other lists showing total number of books sold would also be of interest to me as quality rather than price would then be expected to dominate.

    For example, in the romance section, hardly any of the top American writers appear in the top 100 best sellers. How can you sensibly exclude quality writers like Catherine Anderson or Sophie Kinsella from any romance 'top 100' list.

    I suspect the Amazon lists are dominated by low price novels rather than the highest quality novels that I want to read. That's OK of course as long as its made clear just what is on display.

    More representative 'top 100' lists can be easily found on the Internet but will be dominated by eminent well established authors.

    Consequently I still think that some sort of quality rating system is needed for new authors to help readers choose and also to help high quality writers to become quickly established

  22. I completely agree when you say "each time the number goes up, a human being has decided he/she likes the look of my book, and is prepared to spend several hours reading it, and I am very grateful."

    Like Stella, my numbers can't approach yours, but each time another reader chooses my book, it is a celebration.

  23. @quantum

    You just mentioned Sophie Kinsella because you know I'm a patriot at heart and I have a lot of love for my Irish sisters. Now I'm completely disposed to your argument.

    We all want the good writers to do well. The problem is, we might not agree on who they are. So, what we need to do is come up with some kind of system where you can only see the reviews of people who like the kind of books that you like.

    Then you could trust the reviews.

    This is doable. What we need to do is take something like Goodreads and something like Amazon, and put them together. Imagine you could only see the reviews of your friends. Imagine you could only see the bestseller lists out of your friends.

    Imagine you could preset weights to your friends' choices, so that when Bob recommends a new science fiction novel, that displays, but when he recommends a horror it doesn't (because he likes gruesome stuff).

    Imagine you could have it all set up like that for all of your friends so that every time you log in to Amazon you have recommendations (and warnings) from friends that you trust.

    That would be cool.


  24. Dave,
    I like the way you think! *smile*

  25. Thanks for this great post! I needed it today as I've been over-analyzing my numbers for days. Your web site is so well done, too. I'm so glad I found you.

    Katherine Owen
    Author of Not To Us and Seeing Julia

  26. Hi Katherine,

    You are not alone! Analyzing the numbers does give some understanding of what is going on and how Amazon works - at least, that's what I tell myself :o)

  27. Hello Lexi.
    This is my first visit here and this is the first thread I've gone through. It is good - the discussion intelligent and useful.

    I noted this:

    Lexi said...

    I don't think 50 a month is in the cellar. Garden flat, maybe :o)

    Remix sold 3 e-copies on Amazon in its first month. I was rather depressed about that at the time.


    How did Remix move from that first position to where it sits now? Is it simply word of mouth for a fine story, or do you have the alchemist's marketing stone?

    I remember you from YouWriteOn - it is heartening to see how well you've done.

    Best wishes

    Harry Nicholson

  28. Hi Harry - thanks for dropping in. Blogger sent your comment to Spam, and I've just rescued it.

    Fancy your remembering me from YWO - it's ages since I've been there. The answer to your question is, I don't know - I did a bit of promotion, but you never know what works. Readers do seem to like Remix, and that certainly helps, because they tell other people. You need luck in any sort of publishing, and I've been lucky :o)