The End is Nigh!

During the summer there was a welcome bout of optimism in indie circles. John Locke entered the Kindle Million club, JK Rowling announced Pottermore, and more and more midlist writers struck out on their own.

In addition, while the news wasn’t welcome by any means, continuing bookstore closures and the final, tragic collapse of Borders indicated that self-publishers were backing the right horse. Indeed, some were referring to a Golden Age for indie authors.

I don’t know if it’s the change in seasons, but the mood now is decidedly different. Since Amazon rolled out a major redesign of the site, allied to a widely touted shake up of the crucial algorithms which drive sales through recommendations in the “Also Boughts” and the like, many indies are altogether more pessimistic about the future.

On self-publisher forums such as Kindle Boards, a lot of the talk is of increased competition and Amazon no longer favoring indie books as they once did, instead tilting things back towards the bestsellers (which predominantly come from the larger publishers).

There are also some murmurings of discontent surrounding Amazon’s forays into publishing. Their new mystery and thriller imprint – Thomas & Mercer – now has a very impressive roster: JA Konrath, Blake Crouch, Barry Eisler, Vincent Zhandri, J Carson Black, Scott Nicholson, Michael Wallace, and Ed McBain.

In fact, the astounding success of Barry Eisler’s The Detachment (which cracked the Top 10 just after release and is still in the Top 50) showed the power of an Amazon push, but this has led to some speculating that Amazon will “game” the algorithm to favor their authors.

This worry, at least, can be discounted straight away.

Amazon’s sophisticated algorithm displays books to customers based on – amongst other things – their personal browsing and purchasing history. If you want to see the difference your history makes, log out of your account, delete all your cookies, then browse the site; it’s very different.

The whole point of the algorithm is to display the books that you are most likely to purchase. This is something there are continually perfecting (as you may have noticed in the last few weeks with experiments such as “Also Boughts” being replaced with “Bestsellers In This Genre”).

If Amazon starts keeping these spots for their own books, or offering them up for sale to the highest bidder, then they will be – by definition – no longer displaying the book that you are most likely to purchase. And they will lose money in the long run, as there is no point showing you books you don’t want to buy.

Amazon is a tech company at heart, and they know their history. Yahoo lost the search advertising war (from a dominant position) because they offered up the top spots to the highest bidder. Google won because they made relevance more important. Amazon knows this, which is why they aren’t going down the same road as their competitors.

Barnes & Noble (and Apple) are making tentative moves to sell online co-op – and we already know they juice their algorithms and bestseller charts in other ways which reduce the visibility of indie books.

It’s a clash of philosophies, but essential Amazon are taking the long view and trusting that by always showing the customer the book they are most likely to buy (whoever it is published by), they will rack up more sales over time. Their competitors are taking the quick and dirty cash.

They are Yahoo in this war. Amazon is Google. That’s why I think Amazon will win.

This might be cold comfort to indies who have seen their sales drop as a result of Amazon’s recent tinkering with the algorithms. I understand – I really do – my sales collapsed this month.

But if we can look at the bigger picture, we will realize that Amazon is attempting to build a better website, one that truly serves the needs of their customers: the readers.

Some of those who are reluctant to switch to e-books feel that online retailers fail to capture the browsing experience of a bricks-and-mortar operation. A slicker Amazon, with more useful, targeted recommendations can go some way to assuaging their concerns. And the more people that make the switch to digital, the more readers we all have to fight for.

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David Gaughran is the author of If You Go Into The Woods, Transfection, and Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should. You can catch him at http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com

11 replies
  1. Robert Francis
    Robert Francis says:

    David,

    I agree that it’s wise to try to take a longer view here.

    My sense, before reading your piece, was that these algorithm tweaks might be permanent. And if so, writers will have to adapt accordingly.

    But I’m intrigued by your confidence that Amazon will follow a more Google-like route than Yahoo. This assumes a lot, but it’s a provocative suggestion, and may indeed come to pass.

    Reply
  2. Scott Nicholson
    Scott Nicholson says:

    I think the Golden Era ended in the spring. But that doesn’t mean plenty of authors won’t make plenty of money, it just means it’s not an automatic. You can’t just dump up your slush and rake in cash.

    Amazon is waaaay more concerned about readers/customers than writers, as it should be. And Amazon is still learning and tinkering. Of course they want to sell their own books but they don’t need to game the algorithms–they already have the data to send interested readers the right book.

    I guess it’s as simple as not worrying about what you can’t control and just write the best next sentence you can. The rest will sort itself out.

    Reply
  3. David Gaughran
    David Gaughran says:

    Hi Doug & Scott,

    Yeah, Amazon’s announcement today caught us all by surprise, despite the many leaks. A $79 entry level Kindle? Wow.

    I think they will shift millions of devices before Christmas – mostly to new entrants. And the other manufacturers will shift some too – again mostly to new e-book readers.

    On top of that, more and more retailers are stocking e-readers: Target, Office Depot etc. – people will run into them everywhere they go. And e-books seem to be in the mainstream media every day now.

    Of course, all of that brings new competition from the increased amount of writers going it alone, new publishing companies, agents getting into publishing, and old publishing companies finally waking up.

    But hey, this is what we all wanted. We were all bleating away on our blogs, hitting the nay-sayers with facts and flesh-and-blood examples and stats. We won the argument. They believe us.

    And now they are all getting into the game.

    Ultimately, all of this benefits the people who matter most: readers. More choice, cheaper books, more and better e-readers. It’s a Golden Age for them.

    I think all of this has got to get more people reading. And then we all win.

    So yeah, the competition is a lot tougher, for sure. But there will be lots more readers to fight for too.

    While I think it’s prudent to understand the market and where it’s headed, I think Scott has some sage advice there: don’t worry about things you can’t control, just keep writing.

    One thing is certain, people will always want stories, and the only people that can produce them are writers.

    Dave

    Reply
  4. LK Watts
    LK Watts says:

    Absolutely love Scott Nicholson’s last words – ‘I guess it’s as simple as not worrying about what you can’t control and just write the best next sentence you can. The rest will sort itself out.’
    If I didn’t follow this advice myself I think I would have gone crazy a long time ago…
    There will always be change, nothing stays the same.

    Reply
  5. James
    James says:

    If Amazon starts keeping these spots for their own books, or offering them up for sale to the highest bidder, then they will be – by definition – no longer displaying the book that you are most likely to purchase. And they will lose money in the long run, as there is no point showing you books you don’t want to buy.
    I’d count on Amazon giving their imprints preference, actually. And it doesn’t automatically mean they lose money–there are many ways they can “show” results that don’t inhibit each other.

    Amazon is a tech company at heart, and they know their history. Yahoo lost the search advertising war (from a dominant position) because they offered up the top spots to the highest bidder. Google won because they made relevance more important.
    David, nobody actually knows exactly how Google displays results–that’s the key reason a whole market exists in trying to game Google via SEO. What is know for certain is that Google, in fact, does *not* display results based primarily on relevance–though they try and portray it that way. There’s an enormous amount of manipulation of the results.

    And I’m not sure Amazon is a “tech company” at heart. Their main aim is online retail infrastructure. As Bezos said a few years ago, they want to sell *everything* you want. Durable goods, mainly.

    Reply
    • David Gaughran
      David Gaughran says:

      Hey James,

      I was referring to search advertising rather than organic search listings. For the ads, Google had a very simple formula (which I believe was publicly available – either way, I was working there at the time). Relevance was a key component. The ranking formula for organic listings was always a lot more complicated (and top secret, even internally), and has only gotten more so.

      Dave

      Reply
  6. Jo Carroll
    Jo Carroll says:

    I, too, agree with Scott.

    Amazon will do what it needs to do to make money – it’s a business. It’s looks for profits wherever it can.

    Meanwhile, we carry on being the best writers we can be. If we lose too much sleep over Amazon’s shenanigans we end up too tired to put pen to paper.

    Reply
  7. Christine Leov Lealand
    Christine Leov Lealand says:

    There are wider forces affecting ebook purchases – like general financial liquidity. In NZ across the board in Sept there was almost no spending of money except on the rugby world cup and basic essentials. That is on-going here until the rugby ends on Oct 23rd. So – making assumptions about what is affecting your sales based on one or two basic considerations could be erroneous. I have been self-employed for many years and customers will flood in one month and stay away the next and, from talking to others in trade for themselves I can confirm that there seems to be no sense nor reason for these random fluctuations.
    It would be unusual if ebooks were exempt from these influences.
    Tomorrow will be better! – and then it will be worse! and then it will be better!
    Cycles is a better description of how finances work – on a world wide scale and on a local scale.

    Reply

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