[Updated June 20, 2016]
As a bestselling author, I’m often greeted initially with enthusiasm.
“Oh! You’re a bestselling author? How cool!” – Most strangers I meet.
Then they discover I’m an independent author who self-publishes, and their tone takes on a different characteristic. It’s what I like to call the “isn’t he cute” tone.
Oh. You’re talking about Amazon. I thought you meant a real bestseller list.
What the average person (i.e. a non industry insider) doesn’t understand is that the Amazon lists reflect pure sales numbers. You can buy the same book a dozen times, and it doesn’t matter. Amazon chalks it up as a single sale. In fact, Amazon’s algorithms are smart enough to recognize when a family member buys a copy of my book and excludes that purchase from the calculation. You’d need twelve separate, unrelated accounts to register twelve separate purchases. And twelve sales isn’t going to put a dent in your rank. If you want to get onto an Amazon list, you’re going to need more than twelve sales. In fact, you’re going to need sustained sales.
And if you think a free promo changes that equation, here are two reasons you’re wrong:
- Amazon separates free books and paid books onto two entirely separate lists.
- In terms of effect on rank, it takes 10 free downloads to have the impact of a single paid sale.
With the New York Times, however, it often takes little more than several subsidiary companies (or clients) making geographically diverse bulk purchases.
Did you read that? If I convinced a dozen people or companies to purchase my book in lots, I’d have a chance to make my way onto the New York Times Bestseller list. The smaller and more spread out the lots, the bigger my chance.
Don’t get me wrong. Books that end up on the New York Times list were sold, true enough. No denying that. But when the average person hears “twelve thousand books sold”, they think “twelve thousand individual readers.” Not “two dozen small companies purchased 500 copies each.”
I don’t want to hit this too hard. And I’m certainly not suggesting that the books we all know and love don’t deserve their place on the list. All I’m trying to do is point out that there’s a disconnect between what the general reading public thinks it takes to get listed on the New York Times and what it actually takes. Generating 1000 sales on Amazon is far closer to “one thousand individual readers” than that same number represents on the New York Times list.
This is old news, but I stumbled across an article today and thought I should share it. I suspect the general public would be shocked if they knew the truth behind the way in which many books end up on the New York Times Bestseller list.
There have always been ways to game the system, and you can bet large publishers know them (and employ them) all. All it takes is money and strategic, geographically diverse bulk purchases.
[Update] Tim Grahl, a book marketing consultant, recently appeared on the O’Reilly Factor to discuss this very issue. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNst2OX9X0E
Before moving on to the article I’m talking about, I want to leave you with this: Writers, be proud when your book lands on an Amazon Top-100 list. It earned its right to be there the old-fashioned way. Don’t let a common misconception of the public take away from your success. You may not be J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. But enough people are buying your books regularly for Amazon (the largest distributor of books IN THE WORLD) to place you on one of their bestseller lists.
The New York Times doesn’t sell books. They collect data.
Amazon sells books. A LOT of books. In fact, MOST of the books. So…you know…consider trusting them when they bestow the title. You earned it.[Link to original article and quote from that article follows this image of a metric shitload of cash.]
An endorsement from Oprah Winfrey. A film deal from Steven Spielberg. A debut at the top of The New York Times bestsellers list. These are the things every author craves most, and while the first two require the favor of a benevolent God, the third can be had by anyone with the ability to write a check — a pretty big one.
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