Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Amazon Bestseller Status--Empty Brag or Not?

Yesterday, one of the science fiction authors (who shall remain nameless) I follow on Facebook posted a mini-rant about how some (presumably "indie scum") authors claim bestseller status from Amazon sales when those numbers don't compare to the ones needed to make bestseller status in the NY Times or USA Today. I didn't post a response then because I needed to focus on my writing and not argue with someone on his own Facebook page, but I think the topic merits further discussion.

Lyon's Legacy has made Top Ten in the Time Travel category on Amazon a few times, mostly when I put it on sale and advertised it on Book Gorilla. The first weekend it was permafree it also moved a lot of units without paid ads and reached #170 on Amazon overall for free books. Granted, each time there were only a few hundred units involved, and of course after a few days the novella slipped down the charts again. Other works of mine, such as "Letters to Psyche," Life at Seventeen Syllables a Day, and even SF Women A-Z also made it into the best-seller list for more obscure categories briefly with only a couple of sales. So, yes, I will grant this author the fact that Amazon bestseller status for an hour or two for a subcategory does not necessarily match numbers with bookstore sales generated over a week.

Is Amazon bestseller status misleading or meaningless, though? The author who complained about this is a well-known, award-winning author who shouldn't feel threatened by indie authors like me, who only make a handful of sales each month. For me, it is exciting to see a book climb the charts, even if I know it won't last. (However, when overall sales are slow, Lyon's Legacy can still linger for a while on the free Time Travel bestseller list with few sales, albeit near the bottom.) I do list Lyon's Legacy Top Ten Time Travel bestseller status in its book description on Amazon since I think that is a significant accomplishment. Maybe it came about after an ad, but then publishers pay bookstores for prominent placement of featured books, so they also invest in that status.

As for other bestseller lists, they can be gamed by people who know which bookstores are counted when compiling those lists, and the list-makers have been known to manipulate the lists to keep eBooks and the Harry Potter series off of the lists. Barnes and Noble has been accused of deliberately suppressing the ranks of indie books in certain genres so they don't compete with traditionally published books. Amazon can be gamed too, but in my opinion, it is the most honest, transparent store when it comes to its bestseller lists.

Bestseller status is important to big publishers and their authors, since they profit most when they sell lots of copies of a single title in a short time. Indie authors with lower overheads can make money off of fewer sales sustained over a long period of time. While it looks nice to be a bestseller, in the long run, I would like to have sustainable sales supported by true fans and word-of-mouth. It may take a lot of sales to many different people to reach my target audience, however.  I will only mention bestseller status for my works in the book description if it makes it to the Top Ten of its category. And while it's hard to avoid comparing yourself with others, for my own career, I'd rather focus on writing and publishing the best books that I can. As a reader, I'm too independent to read something just because it's a bestseller, but I realize others might value that popularity.

How do you feel about bestseller status for books? Does it matter to you as a reader? Do you care how the bestseller status was earned?


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

When it comes to big publishers and lists like the New York Times, I don't pay attention. I've heard how placement works on those lists, which is also generated by production rather than actual sales.
All of my books have been in the top one hundred for science fiction, and two of them remained there for months, first on the US chart, and then the UK chart the following summer. (Plus when my publisher put one on sale, I was in the top 200 of all books for a day, which was just neat to see.) I like the steady sales as well though. Either is good.
And since Amazon is where most people get their eBooks, I think best seller there does count as much as anyplace else.

Sandra Almazan said...

Congrats on your rankings, Alex! And yes, since Amazon is the most important book distributor, best seller status there matters.

Crystal Collier said...

I completely ignore the claimed status--unless it's an author I've read before. To me, it all comes down to what's in the first few pages. There are "best sellers" from traditional publishers that I've picked up, read 20 pages and put down just as quickly.

Pat Dilloway said...

I didn't used to think much of it but then I saw my publisher of A Hero's Journey claiming books as "bestsellers" even some that were free and thus hadn't really "sold" anything. So I figured if it's good enough for them, why not me? It is nice the couple of times I've gotten 2 or 3 on a list, though I don't think I've ever actually got the top spot.

Sandra Almazan said...

Exactly, Crystal. There are some very popular authors that I like to read, and there are many more that do nothing for me. There are also lesser-well-known authors I follow avidly. Everyone's tastes are different, and just because many other people may buy a story doesn't mean it'll work for me.

Maria Zannini said...

Ah, but isn't the NYT list also tainted? There are verified stories about authors getting enough pre-orders (on their own or through their publisher's contacts) so that when the book is released it immediately jumps in rank.

For the best success, books need to get on a list, Amazon or otherwise to garner enough visibility and momentum before their release. The means of doing that can be contrived or organic, but the goal is the same.

As a reader it means absolutely nothing to me because I choose books by other factors than popularity. It's hardly the norm though.

As social creatures, I think most people choose books that appear popular either for social acceptance, or simply not to feel left out. All trends create a sort of lemming effect. Books are no different.

Publishers know this. That's why these lists are important to them. By hook or crook, they need to get in.

Elena Solodow said...

I think same as drafting a resume, the more you have to say about yourself, the better. If your sales have at any point been top, it's worth mentioning in case it does make your book more attractive for a reader. For anyone to be complaining about the fact that authors aren't legitimately best-selling is silly. It's all at the end of the day a way to draw in readers! I think we need to use every selling point we have, same as you would if you were applying for a job.

Sandra Almazan said...

Pat, it does feel good to get into the Top Ten, doesn't it?

Maria, I agree bestsellers do get more visibility.

Elena, as an indie author, I need every marketing tool I can use!

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