As it turns out, the list the survey was based on was not the Bestseller List, but the Popularity List (and I’ll get to the differences between the two below).
After this discrepancy was pointed out, the author re-did the survey, based on the actual Bestseller List, and found somewhat similar results – if not quite as staggering. Namely, self-publishers had captured 66.1% of the Kindle Top 100 Science Fiction spots.
There are all sorts of interesting nuggets in that post including the various prices books were selling at, and that more than half of the books on the list from trade publishers were backlist titles over ten years old. It’s going to be fascinating to see the results of other genres (there’s data on Fantasy there too), and watch any changes over time.
However, today I want to focus on something else, namely, the differences between the Bestseller List and the Popularity List, and how this is affording extra visibility (and thus sales) to those participating in KDP Select, and, conversely hurting the visibility (and thus sales) of those who don’t participate – including self-publishers, and all the trade publishers who have refused to make their books available for the Kindle Lending Library (which is most of them).
The Bestseller List
Amazon has a bevy of Bestseller Lists, all split into Free and Paid listings. The big one is the Top 100 in the Kindle Store, and placement on this list can drive staggering amounts of sales. This list is populated with items ranked #1 to #100 in the overall Kindle Store, which includes not just e-books, but also things like games, magazines, and newspapers.
The exact algorithm Amazon uses to assign a Sales Rank to each book is a closely-guarded secret, but the general make-up is easy to deduce. Simply put, your Sales Rank tells you how many books are selling more than you at this moment in time (it’s updated hourly). However, it also takes account of historical sales. More recent sales are weighted much more heavily in the algorithm, though, and velocity plays a big part too (how much your sales are increasing at that moment in time). There’s a lot more to it, but those are the basics.
The Kindle Store Bestseller List is then subdivided into a number of other lists, including Kindle eBooks, and separate lists for the other items in the store like Kindle Magazines and Kindle Newspapers, all accessible from a menu on the left-hand side.
The Kindle eBooks list is further subdivided into various fiction and non-fiction lists, with various genres and sub-genres (and sub-sub-genres). Some categories, like Literary Fiction, have no sub-genres, and you need a pretty high Sales Rank – around #2000 – sneak in at the 100th spot on the list.
Other categories, like Science Fiction, have several sub-genres. Something like Science Fiction/Anthologies doesn’t even have 100 books in its category, and you can place on this Bestseller List with any ranking at all (the 62nd book has a ranking of #891,386).
(Note: the importance of picking the right categories for your book shouldn’t be underestimated. If you pick two competitive categories without sub-genres, like Historical Fiction and Literary Fiction, and you aren’t selling enough to regularly chart better than #2000 or so in the overall store, you are missing out on placement on any Bestseller Lists, and hurting your sales. There is great advice here on picking categories for your work.)
All of these categories and lists are reader discovery tools. Many readers browse through these lists looking for books to buy. Placement on these lists can drive a lot of sales. For example, Let’s Get Digital was at or near the top of its “genre” list for months in both the UK and the US, which really boosted sales.
However, since December, I’ve suspected that these lists don’t drive as many sales as they used to, and that there seems to be a lot more churn on them.
There appears to be two reasons for this. First of all when a book is borrowed through the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library (the facility that Amazon Prime Members have to borrow one book, for free, each month), that counts as a sale for ranking purposes (this has been confirmed by Amazon).
Self-publishers can only list their books in the Lending Library by opting in to KDP Select. Those that aren’t in KDP Select, obviously, won’t have any borrows to help boost their ranking, and are now competing against books that do. On top of that, many self-publishers are taking great advantage of the promotional tools in KDP Select to put their book free for a few days, which often results in a huge post-free sales bounce, pushing all other books down in the rankings.
The above phenomenon is fairly well-known. However, I think something else is happening which means that placement on a Bestseller List drives less sales than it used to.
The Popularity List
While the various Bestseller Lists on Amazon are well-known and understood, the Popularity List is less so, especially because The Popularity List is often confused with the Bestseller List (and I’ve done it many times myself).
While the Bestseller List is the one that is linked to on the product page of all books (as shown in the picture above), the Popularity List is the one that’s easily accessible from the Amazon homepage.
From the main Amazon homepage, you can click a link to get to the Kindle Store homepage. On that page, there is a set of listings on the left-hand side of the page (pictured left), which lists various genres. Clicking on these links will bring you to the Popularity Lists.
While these categories are the same sub-divisions as the Bestseller Lists, the content is very different. For example, on the Popularity List for Mystery & Thrillers, the top three books (at the time of writing) are titles from J. Gregory Smith, Joan Hall Hovey, and Blake Crouch. However, on the actual Mystery & Thriller Bestseller List, these books are #2, #71, and #5 respectively.
To give another example, after I ran a sale last week and some ad spots, Let’s Get Digital climbed to #2 in its “genre” (Publishing & Books). However, when I checked the Popularity List, I was way out at #62.
I knew that there were differences between how the Popularity List and the Bestseller List were calculated, but the last time I looked into this, the differences seemed trivial.
However, since December, there appears to be a radical shift in the algorithm which feeds into the Popularity List, which tilts things dramatically in favor of books enrolled in the Lending Library and KDP Select, and especially those which have just come off a free run.
While the algorithm deciding your Sales Rank doesn’t seem to place any weight on copies that were downloaded while your book was free, it appears that the algorithm feeding into the Popularity List does. Thus, when books are fresh off a free run, if they had enough downloads when free, they fly up the Popularity List, pushing down everything else.
The Popularity List isn’t used as a discovery tool by readers as much as the Bestseller List, but it’s used by a significant enough portion of Amazon’s customers to cause a dramatic sales spike in books that have just come off a successful free run.
This spike in sales will in turn affect the Sales Rank, and the position of the book on all the various Bestseller Lists. It’s usually not enough to be self-sustaining; the spike is often temporary, as those “free” sales will have less weight in the Popularity List algorithm as time passes, and the book will slip in that chart, reducing its visibility, then its sales, and ultimately its Sales Rank and placement on any Bestseller Lists (although some lucky books can build on this extra visibility and hold position, or even climb the charts).
But, if you look at the macro picture, and factor in the huge amount of books coming off a free run every day, that depresses the visibility of everything else.
We can’t say for sure if this is a feature or a bug of KDP Select (my guess is the first), but there is no doubt as to the effect. Books enrolled in KDP Select have far more opportunities to be discovered by Amazon customers.
Aside from being listed in the Lending Library, and having those borrows positively affect Sales Rank – which leads to increased visibility on the various Bestseller Lists, coming off a successful free run can massively affect your position on the Popularity Lists, often putting you on the first page or two overall (and top of your genre).
As a lot of Amazon customers believe that the Popularity List is the Bestseller List, this can be a huge driver of sales (as self-publishers I’ve featured here have shown).
For those not in the Lending Library, which includes all self-published titles not enrolled in KDP Select and most books from trade publishers, achieving visibility on Amazon – and thus discoverability by its customers – has now become more challenging.
Note: Thanks to Phoenix Sullivan for helping me get to grips with the changes made to how the Popularity List is calculated. She has a very intuitive understanding of all things related to Sales Rank, Bestseller Lists, the Popularity List, the Kindle Lending Library, KDP Select, and free runs. Her blog is an excellent source for all these topics where she regularly crunches the data from her own books and those she publishes.