How to buy your way onto the bestseller lists (it’s not that hard).

UPDATE: This post was hypothetical, but I’m not actually going to do any of these things. The reason is, it’s important to keep your “also-boughts” clean; which means, you want people buying your books who are buying other books in your genre. There are lots of ways to make that happen. But getting a whole bunch of fast sales or downloads isn’t a great idea if they’re random people buying random books or junk.

It’s so much better to build a huge list with giveaways, then use them to get a ton of downloads and book reviews; or encourage them to buy your book along with some other bestsellers in your genre (I’m going to do both, using different lists for each).

———————

A client is launching a book and asking about the KDP free campaign; I’m writing a long email so I thought I’d share my comments. Some people get riled up about “gaming” Amazon or doing things they consider sketchy. They want their success to be natural and accidental (that almost never happens). Personally, I think it’s fine to engineer success – I treat writing and publishing like a business. I’m willing to advertise and pay for services to make sure my books get visibility.

You can’t buy CONTINUED success. Even if you buy 100 fake reviews (which I never do, nor do I endorse, though many people have misinterpreted my advice to mean so), and get robots to download 5000 free copies of your book to hit #1 so you can call yourself a bestseller, your book will quickly be brutally destroyed with negative comments until your sales slow down if it isn’t really good. You’ll still sell a lot of copies, but you’ll kind of destroy your credibility as an author.

Still, a bad book with 1000 negative reviews is almost better than a good book with 5 reviews that nobody sees. At least the author gave it his best effort. If you’re going to publish, publish hard. After all, you believe in your book, don’t you? That’s what matters. You can’t find out if it’s any good until you get a few thousand people to read it.

SO, this is how you buy your way onto the bestseller lists.

I’m using KindleSpy to check out the category the book is in, “Legal Thrillers.”

It looks like this. Right away I see a problem: that first book, Hostile Witness, has 3550 reviews and is getting an insane 30,000 downloads a month.

legalthrillers

 

sales1

 

They did that by making the book permafree (I’m pretty sure) which is the most amazing, powerful book marketing tool in existence, especially because most authors refuse to do it.

There’s no way a new book with few reviews can get that many downloads and steal the number one spot. Which is why, probably, my author should pick a different category, with less competition, to get number one. It’s nice to hit #1 so you can say you’re an Amazon bestseller, but personally I wouldn’t sweat it much. I’d stay in the category – really you’ll be fine if you get on the FIRST PAGE of your category. Which means you only need to be out the 20th spot, which has a ranking of 25,370 and is getting around 200 downloads a month. That should be super easy – use KDP and submit the site to all the “free kindle” websites and Facebook pages and you should get at least 1000 downloads.

I’m using Kindle ROI now to submit books to free sites.

You can also hire a few Gigs on Fiverr to post your books everywhere, or use Ebookbooster’s paid service. This is all for the free version of the book. I haven’t tried it yet but I’m also going to test this service soon – 15000 downloads in 24 hours for $379. That should get you to #1 in your category (most categories… not this one unfortunately because that one book is doing so damn well).

What about the paid list?

I strongly urge you to do a free campaign first because you’ll reach more readers, wait a couple weeks to get some reviews, and then switch to 99cents and try to hit #1 again. This is what the “Legal Thrillers” paid category looks like.

paid1 paid2

 

That number one slot is crushing it, with 105,000 sales at $1.99 for about $208,950.

The next two books are making twice that even though they’re selling much fewer books per month (these figures are estimated, by the way, not exact). Right under “To Kill a Mockingbird” is “The Good Lawyer”, which is probably self-published (because it’s .99 cents) and has over 2000 reviews – so my guess is they went permafree for awhile but may not have. It’s not earning much money, but a respectable $6K or so a month and it’s in good company. With that many reviews, I’d set it up at $1.99 at least and start earning more… but when you raise the price your sales usually go down and the rank may fall. Still, I’d test it.

So again, we could switch categories and put it in something more obscure to hit #1, or just keep it here and shoot for the middle – about 5000 downloads will get us in the top ten. At .99cents each, earning 35%, that would make us $1732.50. So in my mind, I’d be very happy to spend at least $1000 bucks to make sure I got that many downloads. You could spend it on targeted Facebook advertising, or ebookbooster’s 99cent paid services, or ads on book review sites… for me one of the safest options is Mike Balmaceda’s Rank Superstar: for $497 you’d get into the #1000 – #3000 rank on Amazon, which is probably equal to about 2000 sales. That should put you on the first page at least, and I’d spend the rest on Facebook ads or other things.

If you don’t already have an amazing cover that looks JUST AS GOOD as all the other bestselling books on the first page of your category, don’t bother spending this kind of money…

But if you do have a great cover, and you’re confident your book is just as good as the others on that page, and it’s been edited and beta-read and you’ve gotten some great unsolicited reviews from strangers, then buying your way up the rankings is simply the best use of money (much better spent than money wasted on a press release or a billboard or something like that).

Once your book is ON the first page, it will get a lot of visibility; Amazon will start sending out emails on your behalf encouraging more sales. If you have it on Apple too, they might feature it in a banner on the ibooks store. Success begets success.

Personally… I’ll probably do a KDP free campaign and then a 99cent campaign and buy some of these services for my own books, but only because I’m also building a big platform and can get a lot of reviews quickly because I have an email list of fans. But otherwise, I’d launch it at permafree for a couple months until I had 1000+ reviews, then set it at 99cents and do some promotions to get to the first page, and then a more comfortable 2.99 to try and earn a lot of money (unless it’s part of a series, in which case I’d leave the first book free or at 99cents and make money on the other books).

Isn’t that cheating?!

There is success, and not success. If readers discover your books and love your books, will they be upset that the first 5000 “sales” that brought you to the first page so they could find you weren’t real?

Possibly, maybe. Readers are funny like that. A lot of them are idealistic and passionate about integrity and moral causes. To me it’s like tasting a pie that won a famous award and thinking it tastes amazing, and then finding out it didn’t really win the award… and suddenly the pie tastes like shit because the quality was in our minds only. I think people who are so easily swayed by external factors that they care more about what other people think about a book (or a pie) than what they think about a book (or a pie), probably aren’t people I’d enjoy hanging out with.

You could spend far more and buy an advertisement in a famous magazine. Publishers get famous authors they work with to write blurbs for other famous authors they work with. Book marketing is about perception and presenting your book like a bestseller. It’s your responsibility to make the book look good so that people want to buy it. There are lots of different ways to do that. The ones most authors use aren’t actually effective and waste time and money. And that’s too bad, because maybe readers would have liked those books, but they never discover them.

It’s fine to leave your (thoughtful) comments below, but keep in mind I’ll probably delete them if things get heated or the conversation gets personal. This is my site, and I’m writing articles to try and help writers be more successful. My intentions are good, even if you don’t agree with my methods.

Edit: I didn’t mean to imply that Mike B.’s service uses robots – it doesn’t. He doesn’t guarantee sales, just an estimated boost in rankings. The other service, with exact downloads, may use robots, but I’m not sure. It’s also been pointed out that using a service like this, if they are using robots, would be a big risk because Amazon could flag your account.

I may not have made this clear, but there are loads of much better ways to build an author platform, attract readers, and sell books. But they take time, and you have to learn design, branding and marketing – most authors continue to take “easy” tricks and shortcuts because they can’t figure out how to do it right.

So then the issue becomes: the only books that succeed are the ones with authors who know about design, branding and marketing. Is that a fair qualification? Personally, I’m just fascinated by this stuff and like to test things out and see what happens, but you need to make your own decisions.

About Derek Murphy

I help authors and artists turn their passions into full-time businesses, make a bigger impact, and blaze a luminous trail of creative independence. Right now I'm in Taiwan finishing a PHD in Literature, writing several books, and managing a handful of online businesses. Find me
  • Davide Mana

    The only true critical factor is the quality of the book, I fear.
    A few “authors” (quote marks are needed) have been known to write horrid drivel, and then play the system to get on top of the lists. The idea, I have often been told, is, if you get high enough in the Amazon Top100 and you have a big number of reviews, “real publishers” will get in touch and offer a contract and a bag of money – not to buy your book, actually, but to buy your readers. Hence, the book quality is irrelevant – they just hope to sell your name on a cover, to those that already bought it once.
    This is humiliating (IMHO and all that), but a lot of people seem to think along those lines.

    So I agree with your point – as a self-published writer, I must do all I can to reach my audience. But there are people playing the system in a much more dubious, debatable way – incidentally, fouling the environment for us all.
    In the end, it’s an interesting moral dilemma – considering there’s a lot of people using this system in a dishonest way, should I use it at all, even if I’m honest?

    • I hadn’t thought of that, you’re right… my point was, a really good book sometimes needs to take desperate measures to reach fans: authors are still doing 99cent promotions and notifying all the usual sites about it, but that hardly works anymore because those channels are saturated with tons of books (many of not great quality). And you MUST get your book up to page one in your category or it never has the chance to naturally find new readers – which is why you should be building a big author platform/email list. I guess it’s true that these tactics work, and they also work moderately well for bad books (not really though, if it had a really ugly cover, it wouldn’t work well; and if all the positive reviews were fake, you’d get a ton of negative reviews). But you could say, “It’s too bad that there’s too much shit and good books almost never rise to the top accidentally, but it does happen.” I’m just tired of all the thousands of authors I see complaining about how hard it is to sell books, and they are doing everything they know how to do, and nothing is working… and their books ARE good, and have good reviews and covers; they just haven’t been able to get it high enough in the rankings yet. What should they do, give up? I hate that answer, though I understand why many authors are choosing it. But then you’re blaming the system and refusing to participate. You keep your code of honor or integrity (only if you believe these tactics are morally dubious – I understand they’re questionable, but I have a grad degree in philosophy, so we could debate it) but you’re choosing honor over books sales. You’re putting yourself first. I put my readers first, which means, the only thing that matters is getting my books in front of readers and seeing whether they enjoy them.

      • Davide Mana

        Thanks for the reply – I totally agree with your points.
        And I won’t debate morals with you – I’ve a degree in paleontology, morality has nothing to do with digging up dead animals 😀
        Cheers!

      • Derek: I completely concur. I have several clients whose work absolutely DESERVES to sell better than it does. What’s “wrong” with them? They haven’t gone out and pounded the virtual pavement. They have no idea how to market a book. Some, of course, haven’t the budget to do what you’re doing–spending $500 would nuke their profits for a year. But some have it, and just don’t know the “how” of how to spend it. I’ve Evernoted this article, so that I can send it out like crazy. I don’t think that any part of it is “cheating.” After all, at the end of the day (to use an overused phrase), the quality of the book will make it sink or swim, no?

  • I hear a lot of arguments against free, including:
    “You’re training people not to pay for your work.”
    Piracy is awesome – if you put out books that people like and want so much that they steal them, you’re doing a great job. Most people won’t pirate your books; they’ll buy them for convenience. Maybe 2% of your readers will look around for a free copy of the book somewhere. It’s better to let those readers read for free than lose a potential fan. If you get 1000 pirates to steal your book, that’s still 1000 more people who might like it, talk about it, and share it – leading to 10,000 new sales. It’s not a risk you need to worry about. You need to worry about obscurity and visibility; that’s the true trick to book sales. After you have this amazing, polished product, how do you get anybody to SEE it when there is so much competition? That’s really difficult. In the old days, it was all grit and hard work and perseverance and showing up. Making each sale one by one for 10 years. I don’t want to work that hard. I want to reach my readers quickly. Just because other people started at the bottom and worked their way up from scratch doesn’t mean I necessarily have to do things the hard way. Not all shortcuts are bad. If you find a better, faster way to achieve your publishing goals and get your book out to more readers, don’t assume it’s sketchy just because it’s easy.

  • carol hedges

    Very interesting, and yes, it underlines that ”cheating” that indie writers have to do to compete in the market. BUT I have never found that people getting my books for free have left reviews. And this is the experience of others also. So would I do such agressive marketing, as you propose? Probably not. And I wish people like you wouldn’t do so either. We soend years honing our craft, and writers like you (and believe me, I also address others) undermine this by offering your work ”for free”. I do not expect my electrician, cancer surgeon etc to offer their services for free. f you all stopped indulging in this, then the whole platform would be a more balanced and level place, where writers not as canny, but probably with books equally as good, if not better, than yours, would stand a better chance. End of rant. This is not a personal comment upon YOU, but upon this methodology, which I have blogged about before.

    • I’ve found for myself that the worst reviews tend to come from readers who get a book for free. As a non-fiction author myself, it seems that a good portion of those who get free books are either A) those who don’t value free things as much and therefore don’t implement what they could from the book or B) are of an entitlement mentality and therefore will never be totally satisfied.

      With regards to authors giving away books for free, I think it’s fair for an author to charge as much or little as they want for their own work. Why would I lose sleep if a doctor does volunteer work? Why would it matter to me what any other author or person charges for their services? This just becomes blaming others for my own inability to convey the value of what I have to offer and expecting everyone else to change – a pretty powerless position regardless of its validity.

      If I make my work valuable enough and can *demonstrate* that value through effective marketing, the people who are willing to pay will pay. This can be seen when people offer a “pay whatever you want” model and still find they can get a nice income from those willing to pay even if a portion choose to get something for free or a penny.

      Rather than focus on losing money to the freebie seekers, I’d rather focus my attention on the tribe of people who do value my work enough to pay for it – even if they had to get something for free at first to trust I can deliver value.

      • Great comments – I don’t disagree. And I don’t recommend giving away all of your books away for free forever. If you have a platform, or traffic, or know something about book marketing, and can position and sell your book well, you can start off charging. Most authors don’t have any of that; they start of with nothing, can’t reach readers, have no idea how to sell books, and feel stuck and frustrated. “Free” is the cheap and easy way to get your books out to more readers and build your platform. If you do it big enough and well enough, you can easily build a list of 1000 real fans (even if most people who downloaded the book didn’t do anything with it). Of course it won’t work if people don’t love the book. You have “a tribe of people” that you built up by delivering value to. That’s awesome. You can build that tribe a lot faster by giving away free content to earn their trust. That’s all I’m recommending. Many authors won’t do it, never build a tribe, and consequently can’t see their books at any price.

        • Yes, I agree. To make it clear I will point out while my worst reviews have come from when I’ve given away free copies, I’m still happy I gave away those books for free to build my audience. The large number of fans that discovered my work outweigh the “cost” of some bad/no reviews and less sales upfront. I’m not sure how I would have ever established myself if I didn’t run big free promos on kindle which then later translated into paid sales afterward.

          On a more general note about business – it’s almost a ‘rule’ that one would offer to *give* value first before asking for value (money) in return. A free book to introduce the value an author provides to readers is an excellent way to start that relationship.

  • Pingback: Why Free Books Help You Sell | Publishing Spark()

  • Tristan Vick

    One thing I want to point out is that for hybrid authors like me, pirating sites are a huge hassle.

    After Permuted Press picked up my title, the re-edited and redesigned my series to better fit their own publishing standards.

    This means I now have a lot of old copies of my book floating around on pirate sites that isn’t the same book that’s been revamped.

    The good news is that very few online pirates write reviews. It seems that they just want to collect free content.

    But the problem is that the pirate sites flood the Internet with outdated content that becomes direct competition to the book as it is now, even though it’s virtually the same book!

    It’s a very bizarre and paradoxical problem, to say the least.

    Now, if I hadn’t been picked up by a publisher, then this kind of thing wouldn’t even be on my radar, but I got lucky –and by luck I mean I worked my ass off writing the best possible story I could and kept at it until someone noticed– and now I do have to worry about such things as pirating.

    The best way to deal with pirate sites is to send them a notice via email that they are in breach of copyright law and that you are the copyright holder.

    If they don’t respond or if they respond poorly you can usually email their website host / provider and have them shut down until they comply. Web providers are much more weary about being surd than some nerd in his mother’s basement running a pirate site.

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