I absolutely adore Ursula K. Lequin. I want you to know that right up front. She’s one of my favorite writers of all time. I love how passionate and outspoken she is about many issues, ranging from books to feminism. However her latest post on Bookview Cafe missed the mark on a number of levels. The post, title Up the Amazon with the BS Machine, takes Amazon to task for creating a system where the latest best seller drives out better books.
Her argument in a nutshell is that Amazon has an obscure algorithm for determining best sellers. It focus on selling books fast and cheap, favoring the quick pop success of fad titles and then burying books that have ran their course into obscurity.
I see three big issues with what’s she’s saying. The BS machine (best seller machine) predates Amazon’s rise and dominance by many years. Amazon’s admittedly murky algorithm actually works against the BS machine and Amazon doesn’t condemn any book to obscurity, quite the opposite.
The BS Machine
Let’s start with the rise of the BS machine. It didn’t happen overnight. It rose in large part due to the same market forces that slowly turned hundreds of medium sized presses into the big five corporate publishers we have today. You can glimpse the same complaints in books on publishing that were themselves published as far back as the 1980’s.
It goes like this, as publishing becomes more and more driven by corporate bottom line, publishers natural focus on “marketable” or “commercial” fiction. i.e. books that sell well enough to make the company a big profit. The hunt for the next big thing soon trumps keeping a stable of moderately successful writers happy.
The rise of big box stores and discount sellers in the nineties drove this to new heights. Suddenly books didn’t just have to sell enough copies at regular price to be profitable, they had to sell at a sharp discount and still be profitable.
Amazon came along in the mid-nineties and has slowly gained a greater and greater market share, eclipsing Barnes and Nobles and driving Borders out of business. Lequin is right to say that they have continued to force the trend towards highly discounted books, but wrong to say they are responsible for the best seller mentality, which came from publishers and big box stores.
Amazon’s Sales Rank
The way Amazon determines sales rank for books, and therefore best sellers, is indeed a murky business. They are notoriously secretive about their algorithm. But what we do know about the process actually works against the BS machine, not for it.
First off, the reason Amazon is so secretive is that they fear publishers or indie writers will game the system if the system is too well understood. After all, it happens all the time. Every time the algorithm becomes too clear, someone figures a way to make it work for them.
The best example is free. It’s also the best example of how the current system works against the BS machine.
Back in the early days of KIndle Direct Publishing, Amazon counted any download equally. Authors figured out that they could make their book free for a short time and shoot to the top of the bestsellers list. Once they put the book back to regular price it would slowly drop off the list. In the meantime, they would be on Amazon’s front page, getting a huge boost in publicity. This would result in a huge number of sales for the author, enough to justify the free promotions.
Problems abound for Amazon and for author’s in general. The value of being a best seller was watered down. Bad books often did come to the top. Clever marketers succeeded while good writers failed.
So, Amazon started changing their system. They no longer count free downloads towards sales rank. Free giveaways still have value for some writers but they aren’t a quick way to game the system anymore.
The murkiest part of Amazon’s algorithm is “stickiness.” What exactly counts as stickiness is uncertain, nor how they measure it or how much weight they give it. In general terms what it means is this, Amazon weighs consistent long term sales more than short term ups and downs.
For example another way to game the system was to get all of your fans to buy a book on a certain day. Authors did this through email lists, twitter or other social media. By micromanaging their sales they hoped to get enough downloads within a given period to push their sales rank up into the bestseller list. Like other ways of gaming the system, it worked for a time.
Then Amazon changed the system. They started updating the sales rank more often. That had the result that sales all in one day would boost your rank, but it would drop the next day, back to what it was. The benefits of gaming the system became short lived.
Now many indie authors have noticed they’ve taken it a step further. If your book has been selling at a certain rate and had a certain sales rank for several weeks, small bumps in sales have little effect on that rank. So do small dips in sales. Sales ranks have become “sticky.”
Amazon has done this to prevent gaming the system, but it also works against the BS machine. Stickiness means that books that sell reasonably well will be kept around and will keep selling reasonably well, while fad books rise and fall in the background.
“But you can’t buy and read a book that hasn’t been kept in print.”
Of all the arguments Lequin makes, this one is just plain wrong. Amazon had no mechanism to force publishers to take a book out of print and two important mechanisms in place to prevent it.
Amazon doesn’t want books to go out of print to make way for the next big thing. Publishers do. They can make more money off one title if they get the competition off the shelf. The generous return policies they offer retailers is in part aimed at that. Can’t sell title A? No worries, we will credit you for it and send you title B.
Digital shelf space is unlimited and Amazon makes far more money by selling a few copies of title A and a few copies of title B then they do by concentrating their efforts on a best seller. In fact they’ve driven Borders out of business, not by having more copies of one book but by having an enormous selection of books on sale, a selection no physical retailer could match.
How does Amazon preserve books? The most direct way is their own Kindle Direct Publishing. Digital books never go out of the print. Many authors have created large side incomes by taking older titles that went out of print and republishing themselves on KDP. Newer indie books are never in danger of being taken out of print by the vagaries of a traditional publisher.
The second way that Amazon keeps books in circulation, if not print, is through a vast collection of associate sellers. Anyone can start an online store through Amazon’s associate program. Used bookstores and book collectors run lucrative businesses reselling older titles.
I resisted online book buying for many years, preferring to shop at a local bookstore. But time and again, I couldn’t find the title I was looking for. Meanwhile, I’ve found hundreds of great out of print books on Amazon. I’ve been able to access some great books that publishers would have let die long ago, if not for Amazon.
I am no Amazon fangirl. You can criticize many of their business practices and I will be on board with you. They are a huge corporation. If you believe you can trust any corporation to serve anything other than it’s own best interests, you are dangerously naive. Publishers and authors should always keep one eye open to what Amazon is up to.
Amazon is also an online platform. That’s a big part of why I am not afraid of them. Like Facebook and Google, they have a good side and a bad side. They have value to both consumers and publishers alike. In the future that might change, and we will all have to roll with it.
It’s important to be objective, to not blame them for every ill of modern publishing, or for market forces beyond their control. They have their good and bad side, but this one is not on them, in my opinion.
What is your opinion? I would glad to hear it in the comments below.