Sunday, November 25, 2018

How to Analyze an Amazon Book page - Business for writers

Buckle down, fellow writers, this is a long, long post. But I hope you do read it, for you'll have a skill that will serve you for years to come.

For the savvy writer, other authors’ book pages are a wealth of business information. I’ll take you through an Amazon book page in how it appeared on my laptop/browser in November 2018, and show you what I look at when I’m doing a business analysis of a page.

I began writing this post by digging down (randomly choosing a genre I do not write in) into the Mystery top e-book list and choosing a book around #100 in that broad genre. (I don’t know this author, by the way!)

Let’s start with the first thing I see on that book's page (again, on a browser), the title, author, average rating, and number of reviews.

Wow, over 11,000 reviews? My formula for determining what reviews say about sales: only count verified purchases (ARC reviews are meaningless for this analysis--or really for knowing anything about the book--so you want only real reviews, and therefore you sort reviews for verified purchases). I still subtract 10 from that number, for those first reviews may be from family and pals who bought the book. Here, it’s hardly necessary, the number is so high. But I subtract 10, and there are still over 11,000 real reviews.

Take that number, multiply it times 100 (1 in 100 readers spontaneously reviews a book), and you have a good estimate of how many books this title has sold: 1,100,000 copies. Not bad, eh? And the rating is high--very high! With this many reviews, that’s not fake or inflated (with 20 reviews, it could be inflated by friends/family reviews). It’s real. People do love this book.

I’m talking myself into buying this book to see why it’s so good and successful!

In this next section of the page, the prices are listed, and these prices are what attracted me to analyzing this book, because they screamed “indie book” to me. Though this fact could change next year, most indie books sell for 2.99-4.99. .99 is an indie book on sale. 1.99 is usually an older trade-published book on sale. Trade ebooks at full price are 7.99 to 14.99.

I see it is furthermore on KU, Kindle Unlimited, so he’s exclusive to Amazon; you could not buy this book on Barnes and Noble. To estimate his income, I only need look on Amazon. Easier! If this book was wide--selling at B&N and Apple, I’d compute its income at Amazon, multiply times 1.25, and come close to knowing what kind of money this book was making him.

I scroll down the page and see this section. It's an Amazon Advantage ad. They cost more than I'm willing to spend. And you'll see them more for indie books because a big indie writers' FB group is touting them (and their pile-on will doubtless render them ineffective, because that's how that usually works).

Moving on. Now this is the best bit on any book page, and it tells me a lot. He’s an LLC, which is unsurprising. I could do a FISA search in his state and find out more if he's a C Corp or whatever, but I don’t care to and there's no reason to.

Still in that graphic above, “Sold by: Amazon LLC” confirms what I suspected from other clues, that this is indie, or a self-published book.There isn't actually a small publisher called "Phoenix Flying" that you could submit to--it's just him.

The rankings: this tells me how many books he is selling (or are being borrowed, which in KU has the same effect on ranking) this very day. #256 means a hundred or so per day right now. $2.73 income for each sale, about $1.67 for a full KU read. As I have had books everywhere from #39 in the US store to #1,000,000 (pen names) this autumn, I know this equivalency off the top of my head, but there are calculators all over the internet that are fairly good at estimating what a ranking means for sales. Just Google for them if you're curious.

Publication Date: 2013? Whoa. Very impressive that it can rank like this after five years. Damned few books do. I wonder if there is a reason beyond people liking the book. Typical reasons for a recent surge would be that: 1) this book is a Prime Reading selection read right now or 2) it just had a Bookbub or 3) he just released a new title in this series, driving up sales of the first. I check out the last guess--May 2018 was the release date for the last in series, and that's not in the 90 day meaningful sales-boost window, so no on #3. I go to check 1), Prime Reading. Aha. Not this book, but one of his others is in there, which would attract new readers in KU to all his books, driving up the ranking of all his books, perhaps. I did not search for a Bookbub Featured Deal, but there may be one recently.

Total speculation based in nothing you can see on this page but in my knowing how stuff works in the book business: I’d bet this month’s income (mine, not his, which is a bet I could not afford) that Amazon offered him an Amazon Imprints deal and he said no, thanks and doesn’t regret that answer. In fact, I’d be surprised if the Big Five didn’t tender offers to him--possibly every single one of them. Hmm, looking back over the page, scanning the tabs, I find there is a Mass Market PB that predates the ebook. Aha again! Strike that speculation and replace it. He was trade published before the Kindle came out but must have not sold ebook rights back then (smart move, but then he’s a lawyer), or he bought back all rights on an out-of-print book when he decided to go indie. If I ever take him out to lunch, I’ll ask this story, which I bet you is interesting and possibly full of frustration with trade publishing. He also produced his own audio books, which is a lot of work. He’s super-indie. I’m indie, but I’m not that indie! (My audio books are trade. I don’t have the time to oversee engineering of audio.)

So I look at how many books he’s written by switching to his author page, how well his business seems to be handled based on evidence on this one page, the self-published audio books, and I conclude that this guy is hard-working, a real go-getter. This wasn’t some random lightning strike of luck. He earned and deserves every bit of success he’s had. Yay, fellow writer I’ve never met or spoken with! I applaud you! I admire nothing more than hard work, and his business smarts are just icing on the cake of hard work to me. Quite thick and rich icing, it seems.

Curious, I scroll back up the page to look for more and find this: this book was an Amazon All-Star last month (and I’d not be surprised if he was All-Star as an author over all titles as well). So he got a bonus of $1000 or $500 for having a top KU book. This requires on the order of 3 million pages read of this book in one month. Take 3 million page reads x $.0045 (a common payout per page in KU lately) = $13500 KU income for this book alone last month, + the bonus… so now I want the guy to take me out to lunch next time I’m in his neighborhood, for he could certainly afford it. (and write it off on expenses, though god knows, he has zero to learn from li’l ol’ me! So I’d still need to take him out to lunch. Somewhere nice, too. In my best clothes.)

I read the first couple of reviews to see what people like about his books. (Were I to write legal thrillers, I’d read more reviews. Also, I’d read half the books in the top 100 and analyze their content. Length? Chapter length? Lead character? Allies/enemies? Client/bad guy/good guy? Tone, diction? I’d take what I learned from that deeper research as business advice.)

He tells me here in his bio that he’s told 3 million books, which I 100% believe at this point, and was a WSJ best-seller, which is not a very manipulated list. (NYT is about who you know and other twisted facts, not how many books you sell, but USA Today and WSJ and Amazon’s top 100--except for Amazon imprints, which can fudge their way up to the top numbers--are much closer to reflecting the truth.) Here's his impressive genre rankings at Amazon from his author page:

For heaven’s sake, I’m being wordy!. Stand up, stretch, and take a break. ... Now let’s go on.

I learned a lot about this author, his financials, this book and its sales from just one webpage. If you gave me a day, I could estimate his November income pretty closely by digging through every book's page on the main four English language territories.

But now I’m curious enough to plug the book’s ASIN (Amazon’s ID number, equivalent within Amazon to an ISBN) into Kindle Nation Daily's book ranking tracker, which will give me its whole ranking and price history. I see that for years, he had this book at .99. Years upon years upon years--a loss leader. Pricing it higher the past two years, he runs a countdown deal on it every three months, like clockwork, to .99. It’s often in the top 50 in store. Today’s ranking in store is quite low for the past year. That’s great! Whoot! to this total stranger. High five for your success. He's a millionaire earner, and he deserves it.

Because I've done this many times before, it took me ten minutes at most to glean all this information. (It took me considerably longer to screen cap and write this post.)

That's enough. You're bored. I can feel it seeping back in time and over the internet waves.
Okay, so why do I do all this in the first place? First let me answer a question I can anticipate: “isn’t this rude or intrusive to do it?” Hey, it’s up there. Anyone with the basic knowledge of how to look and interpret can see it and know it. Author Earnings and Amazon and (if they’re smart) big publishers are tracking all top sellers with spiders/automated programs and interpreting what they see exactly as I am. So why not me? I’m not out to hurt him. Without knowing him, I like and admire him. I’m studying the success of the book. Believe me, when Starbucks went public, they researched the food industry as deeply as they could, particularly coffee shops. There are even corporate spies out there trying to ferret out secret information. I’m not a spy; I’m just staring at what is already public information, and the filter of my knowledge of the book industry tells me what it tells me.

On the “rudeness” of writers talking directly about money. Indies talk about money to share the information. Trade publishers don’t want authors to talk about money details because they don’t want them to know more and to use it advantageously in negotiations, so there are even NDAs--non-disclosure agreements--about it. Indie authors are their own publishers, and they do want to know these things, and they tend to be open about money because they understand anyone with the knowledge can detect it anyway from page examinations like the one I just did. And also, politely not talking about income or how it happens seems an upper-class attitude, “politeness” partly meant to hide from working class people how they might make more money. Screw that! I’m all about helping people do better, if they are willing to work for it. If you're poor or without connections, I’m showing you, insofar as I know how, one tool of the successful self-publisher. You don't have to be connected any longer to be successful. You just have to write well and have the skills to study the best-selling authors and their strategies.

Theoretically, why would I examine this particular page beyond nosiness or using it as the example to write this blog post? Let’s say I want to be a very successful indie author. The best way to do that is not to randomly sign up for $500 courses or believe every rumor I hear. (see my post of three weeks ago about who not to listen to). It’s to study what already successful authors have done, a study which costs me nothing but time. Were this my genre, I would also go look at his FB page, his website, and sign up for his mailing list to see exactly how he communicates with fans. If I lived in his area, I would, as I joked above, invite him to lunch and pick his brain. (Indie authors are often very good about that.)

If legal thrillers were my genre, and I wanted to do better, I'd conduct an analysis at least once every few months of the top 10 in the genre, tracking what’s happening in my field and watching the trends and ferreting out facts about the best-selling books and authors. I'd study their blurbs to write my own. And even though this isn’t my genre, will never be my genre, it doesn’t hurt me to glance at this information. What if you totally burn out on writing your genre? There might be another genre you could write, and before making the jump, you could be looking at all sorts of top sellers in various genres and thinking about which genre suited you. Perhaps this is one genre you believe you could write well. Or maybe a different genre’s authors figured out something clever about marketing before people in my genre, and I can get a jump on a trend by not incestuously focusing only on my genre’s book pages, but ranging out to study other genres’ bestsellers.

I also check out book pages when small publishers contact me about wanting to grab my rights and most of my income. (Oh, I’m sorry, I meant “kindly offering to ‘legitimately’ publish my books.” Ahem.) I look at their most recent and top book pages and see how they sell. The answer is always “poorly,” but I go look each time anyway, because maybe it is someone who is killing it as a new publisher, and why not check? But no, with exception of my first audio publisher, whom I knew little about before I researched them, and who was offering to do something for me that I never did on my own, it never reveals good news. The email is only someone wanting my money for doing nothing for me and screwing my readers by doubling the prices of my books. (Ain’t gonna happen.)

But I confess that the reason I do this as often as real business research is to check out authors who are making claims I’m suspicious of.
  • Someone emails me trying to sell me a course on increasing my income. A lot of such people are novelists. So I check their novels’ pages. They never look like this guy’s. NEVER. I give away advice for free still, by the way. It’s the way I came up in writing, and I think it’s tacky when other writers DO charge for that sort of thing when they can’t sell their novels and need other income. Figure out how to write and sell your own novels first before charging for your advice, not in lieu of it, that's my free advice on that topic! And if someone can't sell their own novels, you shouldn't buy their marketing book or course.
  • Someone on a writing forum says some promotions idea worked for them that sounds interesting and easier than what I already do. I hate marketing, so I’m eternally hopeful there’s an easier way to do it, a... a. trick, by golly! I go check their sales. 99 times out of 100 I find their “really worked well for me!” means it elevated their ranking from 2,000,000 to 400,000. Sigh. They sold one book. So I can throw out that appealing-sounding idea as well. (If it sounds too good to be true, unfortunately, it almost always is. Marketing is hard and boring and it sucks, and I know it, but hope springs eternal.)
  • Someone tells me some trade published writer named X who is the cousin of their dentist is doing great, far better than me! Or a writer tells me that trade publishing is the only way to go, as evinced by their success, and that I’m a fool for being an indie. (I have no problem with trade publishing. That's the thing you want to try? Go do it! I wish you the best.) I go look at the books of the allegedly "successful" author. Most of the time, I find a small press book, and the cover is ugly, the reviews don’t break the first 10 verified that I always suspect are from family and friends, the ranking is down in the sub-1,000,000 range, and when I check out their author name at Amazon, there’s only one book, maybe published two to five years ago, and there’s nothing before or since. No audio, no translations. So yeah, those claims about success are almost always fibs, and while I try to suspend judgment when I first hear the claim, even when it comes with that look down the nose at me, the Amazon page tells me the truth within seconds, and a visit to KND will tell me five years of your book's sales history.You can't fib any more about your success. The data is all right there, naked, readable. It wasn't in the year 2002, but it sure is now.
  • Some random writer in a forum or on Twitter claims they’ve just been “published” by a “real publisher” and names a press I’ve never heard of. (I've been in the biz for a while. I had a poetry and litfic career, so I recognize most of the respected small press names.) I check out the book page and almost always find it’s just them, self-publishing, thinking they can hide that fact behind a business name. “SOLD BY: Amazon” tells the tale. Depending on where they live and how public DBA records are there, a Google search might confirm the identity behind the "press" name, and a search of the "publisher" shows only one or two authors. So they're announcing a lie. Once a scammer, always a scammer, I figure, so I avoid them after that, and yes, I've seen this quite a few times. I suppose they think they're the first to think of it. Nope. I only started paying attention to indie publishing in early 2012, and I was seeing it then.
So take from this blog post what you will, fellow writers. You can study some of the pages of your top competitors' books and see what you can learn from them, if you'd like. Or if someone makes a claim that seems too good be true, research their book page/s and see if it is true. Or if someone is trying to sell you a course that promises you wealth as a writer, check their novel (not non-fiction) rankings. Or don't do this ever, and that's okay with me as well! I'm offering a tool--you can leave it in the back of the closet if you wish.

Thanks for following this month of writer-business posts in November, which I time to match NaNoWriMo month. Next month, I’m back to writing for my readers, about apocalypses, disasters, disaster prep, diseases, Nazis, and other similarly cheerful topics.

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