Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Bestseller Charts and Sales Rankings

Listen to the companion podcast episode

Amazon created a stir by launching "Amazon Charts," which rank the twenty "Most Sold" and "Most Read" books in the Amazon ecosystem. The "Most Sold" chart differs from Amazon's current bestseller charts in that it's a weekly measure, rather than an hourly update, and it combines all the formats in which a title is available. Most read is interesting, because it combines data from Kindle and Audible to find out what readers are actually reading.

A few thoughts on Amazon and other bestseller charts:


Aside from the Amazon charts, which are very new, we know Amazon sales rankings:
-Measures units sold, regardless of price (not counting free, which is a different chart.)
-Reflect sales over several days, with the most weight given to the current day, the previous day counting about half, the day before that half again, etc...
-Factor in borrows through the Kindle Unlimited program, but we don't know how much weight is given to those compared to sales.
-Assign different sales rankings to different versions of the same book (Kindle, Paperback, Hardback, Audiobook.)
-Amazon has many subcategories with their own lists, and some of the obscure ones only require a handful of sales to hit, which is why it seems like every indie author is an "Amazon bestseller."

We don't know much about the "Most Read" charts, save what is mentioned above. This one, however, will be interesting to keep an eye on. I noticed right away that five of the spots are occupied by Harry Potter books. The novelty books that often clog up the "major" bestseller lists aren't there, nor are books that are snapped up but go unread.

I do hope Amazon expands the "most read' list beyond a top-20, especially if titles like Harry Potter are going to occupy many of the slots.

There's a great deal of misinformation or unconfirmed information about the Amazon rankings, and a lot of conflation of rankings and "algorithms." A few things to remember:
-Unit price is not factored into rankings. A 99 cent Bookbub promo that moves three thousand copies will, at least temporarily, outrank a $14.99 trad-pub book that sells two thousand copies.
-Book reviews are not factored into sales rankings.
-Despite many rumors to the contrary, I've seen no evidence that Amazon artificially suppresses the rankings of "wide" books in favor of books that are Amazon-exclusive.

New York Times 
 The NYT list is arguably the most prestigious bestseller list in the United States. It does not, however, necessarily rank the "bestselling" books in the US. A couple of things to consider:
-The list is curated. NYT collects sales data from select vendors, makes rankings, and then subjectively culls the list. An author, especially an indie author, might outsell many of the authors on the NYT list in a given week, yet still be excluded.
-The list can be skewed by large orders placed by bookstores. Just because a store, or chain, orders a given number of books, that doesn't mean those books will be purchased by actual readers. Many will end up being returned.

USA Today List
USAT is generally considered to be a fairer and more accurate reflection of bestselling books than NYT. Its rankings are based on actual sales, using date from bookstores and online retailers. As an indie author, this is the list you're more likely to hit. It's still problematic for Kindle-only authors, because USAT requires that you reach a minimum threshold of sales on at least one vendor other than Amazon in order to hit the list. Consequently, in a given week an Amazon-exclusive author could outsell an indie who is "wide," but the "wide" author might hit the list while the Amazon-exclusive author doesn't.

Hitting the Lists
-Many indies attempt to hit the USAT list by putting a book, or more often, a boxed set, on sale, and stacking as many promotional efforts as possible leading up to and during a given week.
-Some authors lose lots of money in aggregate in the attempt to "earn the letters."
-Some authors have hit the list with multi-author boxed sets, in which all the authors combine their promotional efforts and resources. This is more challenging than it once was because Bookbub currently does not promote multi-author sets.
-Watch out for sketchy boxed set promoters. One author in particular has been under fire recently for using a combination of legitimate and unethical/TOS violation practices. Know what you're getting into before you join a boxed set.
-Not all bestsellers are created equal. Since these lists are based on unit sales (with the caveat that NYT curates), there's no distinction, at least on USAT and Amazon, between a twenty-book set sold at 99 cents and a single book sold at full-price.

What does it mean to hit a bestseller list?
It depends on the author. For some, it's a bucket list item or a level of achievement. For others, it's all about being able to put "New York Times (or USAT) Bestseller on their book covers. One indie author with whom I'm familiar puts "New York Times Bestseller" on every cover, in such huge letters that it dwarfs the title an author name. Do readers care? Probably not many, but I'm sure some take notice.

Is it worth spending thousands of dollars in order to hit the list?
It depends on who you ask. Some authors say they saw their sales increase once they could stamp the Bestseller label on their work. Others say it didn't pay for itself.
Some authors say it was worth it just to be able to call him/herself a "NYT Bestseller." Other authors, usually privately, say they feel like impostors because of the way in which they hit the list.

One thing I am certain of is the "Bestseller" moniker becomes more ubiquitous, and less valuable every day. If you do things the write way: a great cover, an engaging product description, a well-written sample, an appropriate price point, and effective marketing strategies, you don't need the "Bestseller" label in order to succeed.

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