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Lessons in bestsellerification


I forget my reason for visiting, but while I was on the site I had a look at the various beseller charts. The science fiction one proved especially interesting. Here are the top ten “Bestsellers in Science Fiction” on Amazon for 8 March 2013:

1 Wool, Hugh Howey (Kindle edition)
2 Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (Kindle edition)
3 The Mongoliad Book Two, Neal Stephenson (Kindle edition)
4 The Martian, Andy Weir (Kindle edition)
5 Three Feet of Sky 2: Outside Eternity, Stephen Ayres (Kindle edition)
6 The Meaning of Liff, Douglas Adams (paperback)
7 In Her Name: Redemption, Michael R Hicks (Kindle edition)
8 The Phoenix Rising, Richard Sanders (Kindle edition)
9 Wool, Hugh Howey (hardback)
10 Les Misérables, Victor Hugo (Kindle edition)

And no, I’ve no idea why Les Misérables has been classified as science fiction.

Eight of the ten books are Kindle editions. As far as I can determine, six of them were self-published (I’m including Wool, although the edition which appears twice on this list is from a major imprint). Two of the books started life as serials on their authors’ websites – Wool and The Martian. Three are sequels, and one is an omnibus edition of a trilogy.

So what does this tell us? That most sf sold on Amazon these days is sold via Kindle. That self-published sf is out-selling sf from major imprints on Amazon. That the best way to build a platform for a self-publish sf novel is to serialise it on your website. And that I’m not the only person to have written a realistic treatment of a mission to Mars (and we both called our Mars programmes Ares, too).

Aside from the last point, all of the above seem to run counter to what is actually the case. Paper books still outsell ebooks, as far as I’m aware. And fiction from established imprints still far outsells self-published novels. And where are the big sf names? George RR Martin appears at #11 (and it’s fantasy not sf, but never mind), followed by Stephenie Meyer at #13. John Scalzi sneaks in at #19. But where’s Peter F Hamilton, Iain M Banks, Neal Asher, China Miéville?

It’s probably worth pointing out that all 20 books in the “Bestsellers in Fiction” list are all Kindle editions. I checked the Amazon list against the one given in the Guardian Reviews section for 23 February 2013. Only two titles are in both lists – Life Of Pi (#2 on Amazon, #5 in Guardian) and The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry (#19 on Amazon, #2 in Guardian).

So if there’s a conclusion to be drawn from all this, I’m not entirely sure what it is. It seems self-evident that Amazon has “massaged” its figures… But to what end?

23 thoughts on “Lessons in bestsellerification

  1. The Meaning of Liff (Douglas Adams) isn’t Science Fiction either. Whilst Douglas is a science fiction writer (Hitch Hikers Guide etc) this particular book is actually a ‘dictionary’, using place names to give a word to the things that there previously weren’t words for.

    Example: Alltami(n.)
    The ancient art of being able to balance the hot and cold shower taps.

    It’s a very funny book, but almost certainly not Sci-Fi 🙂

  2. Hey Ian– I am perfectly willing to believe that the charts are accurate. These are Kindle figures — a platform owned by Amazon and they may well reflect what Amazon is actually selling, not what the broader market is. Where I think the massaging is happening is at the algorithmic level i.e. which books get pushed onto also-boughts, put into recommendation emails, whatever. Once a book gets pushed to a certain level success becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. I’ve had a few books on the UK epic fantasy bestseller lists and I can testify that once you hit the front page, you get a big uptick in sales. The hard bit of selling books is getting noticed. That really gets you noticed.

    • So Amazon is selling more ebooks than paper books? Yet these best-selling ebooks appear in no other bestseller chart? These unknown self-pubbed authors, some with only a single title to their name, are out-selling George RR Martin, Peter F Hamilton, Neal Asher… all the big selling genre names? Why aren’t they household names, why aren’t their books series known?

      My two Apollo Quartet books have been selling steadily since their release, but it’s still only a couple of copies a day. And yet my books have been reviewed on numerous websites, one of them is even on an award shortlist… So I’ve been noticed, but it still doesn’t put in anywhere near the same league as the authors above.

      • In truth mate, it is perfectly possible on Amazon’s own charts. Look at it this way– Amazon represents perhaps 20% of the UK book market– I am making that number up but let’s use it for the sake of argument. It represents 100% of the UK Kindle market. I don’t know if Amazon reports its Kindle numbers to Bookscan or any of the other tracking agencies but let’s for the sake of my argument say it doesn’t. There is right away a point of divergence between Amazon’s bestseller lists and anybody else’s. Factor in that Amazon has an incentive to push it’s own digital books rather than stuff it warehouses with other people’s paper and it’s not hard to see how independent authors might end up on Amazon’s charts.

        Bear in mind you are also looking at a very specialised list over a limited period of time. DId any of those big names have a new release out at the time? Were some of those indie books new releases? These things all count.

        • If all of the books on the list were new – though Wool, while not new, has just been released by a major imprint – but they’re not. Most appear to have been published last year, well within the same timeframe as Pete Hamilton’s or Neal Asher’s latest. Two have film adaptations, and I have no explanation for The Meaning of Liff’s presence.

          • Let’s go through some numbers.

            I recall from the Guardian fastseller articles that a new book by the late and much-missed David Gemmell would sell around 96000 copies in its first year. Let’s make that 100000 just to make the math easy. At the time Gemmell was the biggest selling fantasy author in the UK after Mr Pratchett.

            Let’s assume 20% of those sales went through Amazon. There’s 20000 sales over the year. Let’s assume that 50% of those sales went out in the first 3 months. It was probably more but let’s assume.

            That means for the rest of the year the book averaged roughly 1100 copies a month, probably up some months, down others. Book sales have gone down since the glory days of the early noughties. Let’s be charitable and assume they have only declined by 10%. That’s 1000 a month.

            Last year when I was shuffling around the lower reaches of the epic fantasy top 20 I was selling between 850 and 950 copies of Death’s Angels a month. So there you have my gunpowder military fantasy series by an indie author within spitting distance of the UK’s BIGGEST SELLING heroic fantasy author in the charts. With relatively small variations in numbers, there would be times when I was above him. Does it seem possible now that an indie author might be above a traditionally published bestseller or should I proceed to demonstrate how (in this theoretical argument) one of my books could be in the same region of the Amazon charts as Iain M Banks. I will if you make me :).

            • I know this, Bill. And if I’d seen your name in the top ten, I wouldn’t have been surprised. You have a large fanbase – not just from your indie fantasy series, but also your Black Library books. But a one-off by a complete unknown? Or the second books in series by a pair of complete unknowns? That bears looking into – if only to work out how they managed such success. I have a couple of installments of a space opera series available on Kindle (under a pseudonym). I’ve sold less than half a dozen copies of each. Perhaps I’ve priced them too high at £2 each.

              • Actually, mate, I think you’ve priced them too low! But that’s a topic for another day.

                I’m not going to deny that Black Library name recognition helped, but the fact remains that at any given time there were usually half a dozen people with no previous publishing track record above me in the chart and often outselling me by considerable margins.

                It wasn’t price that did it, because their books all cost the same as mine or in some cases more.

                It wasn’t covers because in some cases, the covers were a bit of stock art with some muddy fonts on them and mine were professionally painted.

                There were a couple of identifiable factors that might have accounted for it. In many cases the books had a huge number of extremely positive reviews. 147 five star reviews in one case if memory serves.

                In some cases, they were sequels to free books. (In those days free books were a lot less common than they are now.) This is still a good way to lead in a series BTW.

                Both of those factors are present for several of those indie books in the present charts. There was another factor I had thought of, but I’ve forgotten it! Well, it’s late, the baby is crying and my brain is like a sieve. I’ll shut up now.

  3. It’s interesting that Martin and Meyer are the genre representatives on the best sellers list. They have a lot of cross-over appeal (and supported by TV-Movie budgets.) I think self-published e-books are the new drug-store comics and paper backs. The loam for the genre-devoted. And it’s not a fad.

    • The self-published books on the list are really cheap, some are even under £1. So people may buy it just to see what it’s like. Doesn’t matter if it’s crap, they’ll just not read it. I can’t see that as a sustainable model, though.

      • If its the first book in a series and the rest of the series sell, it’s a sustainable model. I have empirical proof of this. I earn enough to support a family of four from my Terrarch series.

        • Possibly, but the books on the list appear to be standalone. The sequels are priced at between £1.69 and £1.99.

          • How many sequels are there? You don’t need many at a 70% royalty. I was earning that family support money at a £2.99 price point with 4 books in the series, first one at 99p. Now the first book is free and the rest are £3.99 and I still earn enough to support a family two years in. Honestly, this stuff works, mate. I do it for a living.

  4. If you take even a glance at the first page of pretty much most of those self-published books by authors with no previous professional track record, it makes you wonder who the hell could be buying them – regardless of their sales – because they’re so incredibly badly written. I’d much rather prefer the figures were being ‘massaged’, because the alternative explanation would be that if you feed people shit, they’ll jump up and down and clamour for more. And that’s just too depressing a thought.

    • Even The Martian, which is probably the one I’d be the most interested in, doesn’t look very good. Lots of science about surviving on Mars but a complete failure to get across the setting. The story might as well have taken place in Antarctica. Not to mention a graceless infodump which gives the history of the Mars missions without actually explaining anything.

  5. Hi Ian, I just checked my Amazon sales rankings and they have posted a message saying that my historical data has not been updated since 1st Feb. I suspect this may be true for other authors… not sure how this, if at all, is skewing the numbers Amazon are presenting at the moment.

  6. Thanks for raising these questions about the Amazon charts, Ian.

    Very interesting — I would be most curious to see how these figures work out from “behind the screen.”

    I am afraid that I am not able to answer your questions, but I am willing to watch and learn.

    Meanwhile, I spotted this coverage of Hugh Howey’s digital publishing success in WSJ.

    I know nothing about Howey’s writing, but I am glad that his example may encourage others to take a stand in negotiations.

    WSJ BOOKSMarch 7, 2013, 6:45 p.m. ET

    Sci-Fi’s Underground Hit

    Authors are snubbing publishers and insisting on keeping e-book rights. How one novelist made more than $1 million before his book hit stores.

  7. Firstly I suspect these are snapshots, They tell you nothing about how a book sold over the month but a lot about how they sold over the day.
    secondly the prices are a huge influence, The Mongoliad is 99 pence. The Martian is 77 pence. The life of Pi thanks to the ongoing price war with Sony is 20 pence.

    It really is not unusually to see Indie and small press ebooks books going for even less, even zero. having the kindle edition free or near free for a day or two has got many an unknown independent author onto a genre best seller list at Amazon. While creating no stir in the wider community.When you pay pence or zilch for a book there is little urgency about reading it.

    Is it really surprising that The Martian at 77 pence outsold The City & The City at £5.03 on a given day?

    As a result of this post I bought The Phoenix Conspiracy for 0p Yes, I took that risk. and if it is readable I might indeed venture the £1.49 for The Phoenix Rising,which is on your list. rather than buying the new Asher.
    These lists show its seems to me the froth on the top of the beer rather than the depthof the draught. As to why that is. Amazon want to sell you books if they show you an unchanging list then they sell fewer books than if it changes frequently.

    • That’s certainly a possibility, but looking at the same chart today it’s unchanged. But perhaps it’s recalculated on a weekly basis. I’ll check again next week.

      Looking at the range of prices – from 77p to £1.99, it’s hard to see which is the perfect price point. Under £2, obviously. Obviously, common sense says you’ll sell more at a cheaper price – but below 99p, you only get 35% royalty… By my calculations, you need to sell 1000 copies at 77p to get approximately the same earnings as 150 copies at £2.49.

  8. Perhaps it just indicates that readers of proper, quality sf in proper, quality printed books are giving Amazon a wide berth as serial exploiters of writers, workers and taxpayers. Personally, I’ve avoided them for a very long time – well before it was fashionable – because of their dubious reputation as employers.

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