Amazon & The Importance of Popularity

A few days ago, I tweeted a link to a survey which purported to show that self-publishers had captured 77% of the spots on the Kindle Top 200 Science Fiction Bestseller List.

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. 

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

115 Replies to “Amazon & The Importance of Popularity”

  1. Fascinating, David (as usual). I’m going to have to pop later today and follow all those links. Thanks for posting this.

  2. It just makes common sense that Amazon is going to give KDP Select authors a bump in one way or another. I mean, they are in business to make money, and they want more and more authors in the system. I just wonder if we can ever really prove it? Probably not.

    The Amazon algorithm is the new Google algorithm. Whoever can crack it will make millions telling other people how to do it. The problem with that is just like Google, they can change it overnight. I’ve had it happen to me in with the Florida update in 2003, and now in recent years people got hit with the Panda update.

    We’re soon going to see a rise in “Book Ranking Firms” just as we did with SEO firms in the past 10-years. They won’t be as big or powerful though because there just aren’t that many authors out there as their are websites/businesses, so there’s no scale. At the end of the day, I think this Amazon gold rush will fall flat because the numbers just don’t support it. Soon many will realize that it’s hard darn work to make money as an author, even self-published, and they’ll return to their other “get rich quick” money making opportunities.

    1. It could be viewed as a classic carrot/stick approach. The carrot is the extra money from borrows, and the tools like the free run. The stick is that if you don’t participate, you won’t have borrows to boost your ranking, and you will lose visibility in places like the Popularity List.

      Re SEO, it’s sure possible. We see the seeds of that now with tagging circles, liking circles etc. However, Amazon is pretty smart about this stuff. As soon as a feature gets gamed like that, they tweak the algo. And, in fact, there is some evidence to suggest that participating in such things can have adverse effects.

      It seems to me that Amazon make *major* changes to the ranking algo far more often than Google do. It seems that as soon as someone has figured a key aspect out, they go and change it again.

      As such, I expect this post to be out of date by Monday 🙂

      1. Exactly. One big difference. Google adjusts the algorithm based upon relevance. Amazon adjusts it, probably, based on $$$. Google doesn’t have direct sales figures to weigh in like Amazon does. To Google, the harder it is to “rank” organically just means you spend more on advertising (Adwords). To Amazon, it’s all about whatever sells the most.

  3. When you do a keyword search at Amazon (e.g. “western short stories”), are the results you get ordered according to the Popularity List, rather than relevance? I’ve noticed that my book slips down in search results when sales are down.

    1. This is where things get murky (for me at least). I believe that’s the Popularity List (or a filtered version of it), but I also think that other factors play a part here (such as tags, the relevance of your search term etc.).

  4. What are other major ebook retailers doing, or planning to do, to convince authors that giving up exclusivity and the advantages of KDP Select, and letting them also list their books, is a good thing? Are they providing any tools, benefits, marketing services or extra visibility?

    1. Apple announced some stuff which, cleverly, didn’t demand exclusivity. Unfortunately, I don’t have all the details as it was only available to those uploading directly, but perhaps someone else can chime in here.

      B&N has done nothing. If I was B&N, this is what I would do: offer authors tools such as the ability to go free a couple of days a month and the ability to run a limited time sale, and NOT require exclusivity. That’s enough to keep some out of KDP Select.

      I don’t expect much from them. They never matched Amazon’s 70% royalty rate, and their store is still a mess, with little sign of improvement (such as the lack of basic categories). Indies don’t sell there because you can’t find their books. The search is awful, and they only have a small handful of categories. It’s notable that one of the few categories they do have (Romance) is one of the few genres where indies see some success.

      But you have to ask the question, do B&N want their customers to find indie books? I’m not convinced.

      1. I think the only reason B&N does indie is because Amazon does and they want to cover their bases. It would be easy for them to be competitive with indie, but they don’t want to try. Which is why both of my books instead of just one will soon be in KDP Select.

        Frankly, their system is buggy. When I uploaded my first book, the publication date was reset to 6 months earlier. I had to go back in and change it. On top of that, within the first 15 minutes I got a 1-star rating and a 2-star, both with dates months prior to even the incorrect publication date! Still haven’t gotten those corrected because PubIt doesn’t control that aspect. Had to contact regular B&N online.

        My books were languishing, not a quality problem, just couldn’t get any eyeballs on them, especially the YA one. Put it in KDP Select and I’m finally getting sales, getting into the Top 3000 and 2000 on Kindle, top 100 in children’s books. Amazon gave me the tools to do that and they take 30% of my success. Everyone wins. The others could compete but they don’t.

        1. Virtually all the sales I get on B&N are customers I bring to them. So, what good is that to me? I could sell to those guys direct and keep near 100%.

          The big problem is categories. There are so few on B&N it’s laughable. That should be so easy to fix. It’s no surprise that the only books that seem to sell are either in the Top 100, or in the few categories they have. How can someone discover my book on B&N if the site doesn’t give them to the tools to do so?

          Right now on Amazon, there are lots of ways readers can discover my work. I’m on some bestseller lists, I’m in a bunch of different categories, I’m right there in “Top-Rated” for one of my books (based on reviews), plus my stuff gets recommended to strangers through Amazon’s excellent “customers who bought this also bought…”. All that stuff enables strangers to find my books and buy them. None of that stuff really happens on B&N, and consequently, I sell little there (despite my best efforts).

          And there system is real buggy, and it’s getting worse too. The only improvement I have seen in the last 12 months is a *slight* improvement with their own version of Also Boughts. No new categories in that time. Not one. Really abysmal. Other authors report that not all of their books turn up on a search for their name. Which is a joke, frankly.

      2. Their bricks-and-mortar store experience is excellent. The online experience is terrible. I have a friend who’s traditionally published and has been for a number of years and his books don’t pop up when a search is done using his name.

        My YA book sold a dozen copies the first month on there, which I figured was pretty good for a debut author. Those weren’t even copies to friends or relatives. Then only 3 books the next month, then 2, then none. I figure as soon as I was off the new releases area, that was pretty much it.

        I think they’re holding out for traditional publishing to start giving them co-op money for online space, they way they do in their physical stores. Or they’re clueless. Or smart but understaffed and underfunded in the PubIt division.

    2. Instead of whining about Amazon’s dominant position, other retailers should move their backs and do something. But I suspect they simply don’t know what to do, or don’t want to do it.

  5. This is a very informative blog and helps me to understand Amazon a little more. There is a lot to learn. I think the better informed we are about their process the easier it will make it on the writer/consumer. Thanks.

  6. Such an important, must-read post, David!

    Thanks Bunches for this scoop! I’ll be sharing it everywhere!!!

    For me, the issue is that if Amazon doesn’t count Free Downloads towards Sales Rank then why should a “Borrow” be counted (which, in effect, is also Free)? For example, the Free Lists are separate, so why not make a Borrow List too?

    I do continue to believe that KDP Select was a brilliant strategy on Amazon’s part to basically corner the market for a mere $600,000 – $700,000 per month, which is pennies to them.

    And for those of us selling – like I am – $5,000 to $8,000 per month on Nook, Apple, Sony and Kobo, we can’t afford to go exclusive via Amazon’s KDP Select. There’s no way I want to alienate my readers who aren’t Ereading via Amazon.

    Brilliant strategy on Amazon’s part though. I’ll give ’em kudos for that!

    1. I think part of the reasoning for including borrows in sales ranking is that borrowing is limited to the reader– one book a month– and the author gets paid for the borrow. I actually LOSE money on borrows on two of the three books I have enrolled, but the option to list my book for free for two days was invaluable. My book CHOSEN was #2 Mover and Shaker the day it came off free and got as high as #19 in the top 100. it stayed in the top 100 for eight days. Free works.

      1. You’re sooo right, Denise, that Free does work!

        Amazon price-matched my Free title Bootscootin’ Blahniks in September 2011, and it’s still Free and has now had over 100,000 downloads!!! Over 100 Free downloads still per day (6 months later)…that’s 100 new D.D. Scott readers per day!!! And it’s lead to over 60,000 sales of my other titles!!! That book hit #1 on Amazon’s Free List and two of the other books in the series made the Top 100 Paid as well as #2 on Movers & Shakers twice!

        That Free-time on Amazon – and all other platforms too – is “priceless”!!!

  7. You are absolutely right, David. One of my books which has been in the top 20 bestselling of Kindle Historical fantasy for over two months, is 31 in Kindle ‘popularity’. The number one book in ‘popularity’ was free a few days ago (right above my free book, Daughter of Time, that I talked about on your blog in January), and #7 in ‘bestselling’. In a less fluid category with no free books (ever!), like children’s medieval fiction, my book is #1 in both.

    1. I checked through numerous genres, and the differences are fairly stark (probably a lot more than the example I used). Anything that’s not in the Lending Library seems to get knocked down by quite a few pages. In my genre, I was #2 in Bestselling, and on Page 6 (!) for Popularity – a huge difference as virtually no readers will click that far down the list.

      While there appears to be more differences between Popularity and Bestselling than free books, those free downloads seem to be the most influential difference, by far (as your example about children’s medieval fiction illustrates).

      1. It’s a little more nuanced than that. The choices that are available to you when uploading through KDP don’t exactly match the actual categories in the Kindle Store so some mapping is often required. In addition, Amazon will scan the contents of your book, and may make changes to your selection based on that (or add additional categories). Sometimes their automated system gets it wrong, with hilarious results.

        1. Exactly. So you can suggest poorly actually because they don’t match up. I was informed once that those categories are created based upon where people found you and perhaps what the clicked on to get to your book. Who knows.

  8. I have also been confused by the multiple Amazon lists when searching for books. Thanks for helping to make it a little clearer. Also, it’s great information for those entering the self-publishing world. Thanks again.

  9. This is a great post, David. It’s stunning how Amazon can rig the game to entice enrollment. Of course it benefits authors who participate but eliminates a large potential audience who are not kindle owners or Prime subscribers, etc. I have recently enrolled in the Select program and see now the effect you describe in operation. Red Cloud Pistachios started in a basement sales rank of something like 398,000. Last I looked it was at 331 and rising, is #1 on the Lit Fiction list (or was if downloads keep up), and something like #23 on the Contemporary Fiction list. Now, I think these are the bestseller lists as they are the links on the book’s page rather than the left column links on the home page. At any rate, I now have a much better understanding of the action. And by the way, I was enticed into signing up for the KDP Select by your pal Tony’s guest post here last week. Cheers.

    1. Hooray! Glad is working out for you! Those are some REALLY good numbers! I’m not going to keep banging on about Select, as it is a moral morass – but it’s working (still) for me, and now for you, so congratulations!

      1. Tony, turns out those #s lasted about fifteen minutes … my fifteen minutes of fame haha. So fleeting. Ce le guere

  10. Right on, for the moment! But for reasons I detailed under Tony James Slater’s guest post, Amazon’s dominance may be short-lived.

  11. Excellent post, informative replies, and I’ll second the suggestion that readers check out Phoenix’s analysis of Select on her blog.

    This is why I come here 😉

  12. Dave,
    Thanks for the research. But–it trips me up when reading what you say about customer behavior, like this:

    “Many readers browse through these lists looking for books to buy.”
    “The Popularity List isn’t used as a discovery tool by readers as much as the Bestseller List”
    “A lot of Amazon customers believe that the Popularity List is the Bestseller List”
    “but it’s used by a significant enough portion of Amazon’s customers”

    As someone who’s analyzed user behavior for a living, these kind of statements always make me ask “really? And how do we know that?”

    So, my question is: how do you know this? Because I’m trying to find good data on what Amazon users (readers) are actually doing. For example, some more tech-inclined people say the majority of Amazon book purchases start with a web search (like Google), not trolling Amazon’s website.

    Also, I can’t seem to find out how many customers are actually enrolled in Select. Anybody know?

    1. The majority of book purchases do start like you describe, as far as I recall.

      However, I remember reading something last year where Amazon (at least I think it was them) said that approximately 20% of their customers arrived on their site without a specific product in mind, i.e. that they didn’t arrive by direct link to a specific product, or they didn’t go straight to the homepage and search for the specific product (sorry for the hazy details), and instead went browsing until they spotted something they liked. Given Amazon’s customer base, that’s not an insignificant number.

      There is a load of guesswork here, as there is no solid data I know of to rely upon, but the hypothesis I’ve sketched out seems to tally with the known facts (but I’m very open to correction on any aspect). Here’s what I think is happening:

      The Bestseller List is easily accessible from any book’s product page. It’s clearly highlighted beside every single book’s ranking. Self-publishers continually report that appearing on this list is a huge boost to sales. For example, those who do some advertising or get a certain media mention who just fall short of the Top 100, find they can slide back just as quickly. However, the rank is usually “stickier” for those who can scrape in. That seems to indicate that being on this list leads to visibility which leads to sales.

      The Popularity List is primarily accessible (from what I can gather) in one of two ways: from the search box, and from the list on the left-hand side of the homepage. I didn’t mention search in this post because that’s a whole other tin o’worms, and even less is known about what affects ranking on that version of the Popularity List.

      There is much, much greater churn on the Popularity List which would indicate that appearing in a good position on that is not as “sticky” as a similar position on the Bestseller List, which would in turn indicate that position there doesn’t lead to the same level of visibility, and, therefore, sales. It leads to some, for sure, but not the same level IMO.

      As for people mixing up the Popularity List and the Bestseller List, a simple trip through the reader and self-publisher sections of Kindle Boards will show that straight away. From what I can tell, most people seem to do it, and just assume that the Popularity List is populated by the same algo as the Bestseller List. The point of this post was to try and tease out some of the differences, but I’ll admit we are very far from having a clear picture.

      In the absence of hard data, we can only try and deduce from the behaviors we observe. I’m throwing this hypothesis out there. If it’s wrong, or parts of it are inaccurate, I’m sure there will be a flurry of examples which contravene what I’m saying.

      If someone has a more plausible theory to explain the post-free bounce, I would love to hear it.

      As to how many customers are “enrolled in Select”, do you mean how many titles are in the Lending Library, how many self-published titles are in KDP Select, or how many customers are in Prime (which are the only ones that can borrow from the Lending Library)?

      If it’s the first or second, it’s just over 100,000 titles, with the first number being approx 5k larger than the second number, as that’s the number of trade published titles in the Lending Library (rest are self-published and in KDP Select).

      1. Thanks again. That does help clarify things a bit, though I’m hesistant to use the self-selected Kindleboards reader groups as a way to talk about all Kindle readers.

        “As to how many customers are “enrolled in Select”, do you mean how many titles are in the Lending Library, how many self-published titles are in KDP Select, or how many customers are in Prime”

        Right you are–I mean Prime. Forgot to switch gears from author to reader.

        1. As for Prime, that’s (unsurprisingly) another figure Amazon doesn’t release. I’ve seen estimates go from 4 million to 14 million. I have no idea (but would be reasonably confident it’s at the lower end of that scale). If you put a gun to my head, I’d say 5 to 6 million (not counting anyone on a 30 day freebie with a Kindle Fire).

          You should also factor in that not all Prime members can borrow books from the Lending Library. You have to own a Kindle, you can’t borrow through, say, the Kindle app on the iPad.

          However, we do know roughly how many KDP Select books were borrowed from the Lending Library since it launched: 1 million. Over three months or so, that means that approx 350,000 Prime members are using the service *to borrow KDP Select books* (the biggest complaint from those that don’t that I’ve heard is that there is no point with just one borrow).

          Not all books borrowed are self-published though, and a huge chunk of additional borrows would have went on the Hunger Games trilogy alone (I think all three books were top of the Lending charts last time I checked). So, as to how many borrows in total, we simply don’t know.

          Given that there are only (roughly) 5,000 trade published titles and over 100,000 self-published titles in the Library, I wouldn’t say the overall numbers are that dramatically different, even allowing for the fact that those 5,000 titles were handpicked by Amazon and are likely to draw far more borrows than the average KDP Select title.

          Note: None of those 5,000 trade published titles, as far as I know, come from any of the “Big 6” who refused to participate. Scholastic are one of the few larger publishers who are participating. They get vastly different terms – Amazon “purchase” the book each time it is borrowed – meaning it’s a lot more lucrative for them. And, of course, they also benefit from the extra exposure from borrows counting as sales for ranking purposes and so on.

      2. David, this isn’t necessarily true:
        “The Bestseller List is easily accessible from any book’s product page. It’s clearly highlighted beside every single book’s ranking.”

        If your book is already on a bestseller list, your page will always link to the bestseller list. For example, last week, my novel, THE MIDGET’S HOUSE, was on both the paid Literary Fiction and paid Historical bestseller lists. Links to both those lists, as well as the overall Kindle paid bestsellers, appeared on the selling page for my book.

        But, a day or two ago, after my book lost its spot on the bestseller lists, I clicked on the 100 Top Sellers and was taken…not to the bestseller list, but the Most Popular list. Except, it wasn’t called that. Can’t recall what name they gave it.

        Today, the selling page for my book, again, links to the Bestseller list.

        I can’t tell you whether this was a glitch, or if Amazon is experimenting with new ways of promoting books. It’s an interesting development to keep watch on, though

        1. Hard to say if that was a glitch or a little test of something, I would guess the former, but you never know. That would certainly be a radical shift, and would make the post-free spikes we have been seeing a magnitude bigger again. I’m skeptical though, as it would mean less eyeballs on the actual titles that people are most likely to purchase. In short, will they start routing traffic from Grisham and King just to make KDP Select more attractive to self-publishers? I’m not so sure.

    2. Even Bloomberg can’t find the answer to the actual number of Prime members, which I assume you mean rather than Select customers.

      David’s made a couple of statements that I don’t necessarily agree with based on my own anecdotal evidence. But just as we can make close surmises of what Amazon’s algorithms are based on and can tell when they change based on behaviors and results, I think as more folk start doing better trending, we can start to make good assumptions as to buyer behavior.

      For instance, between the time one of my books came off free and it hit the first page of the popularity list (42 hours), it averaged one sale per hour. In the next hour after it appeared on that first page, it had 13 sales. This is repeatable behavior and not a coincidence. As more folk track and share, we can start understanding how many customers shop using the popularity lists.

      Also, I think it would help to dissociate the behavior of folk looking for fiction versus non-fiction. In your example re: the majority of folk whose buys originate outside of Amazon. are they searching for nonfiction to answer a specific need or does that metric include folk looking for an entertaining read? We still have a long way to go, I think, to truly understand buying behavior in the granularity we need it to be able to slice and dice appropriately.

  13. Thanks for the shout-out, David! The more folk who are thinking about what the influences are and the more people tracking the trends, the better understanding we’ll have as a group. Not to game the system, but to better work within it. I’ve grown fond of saying that no one knows where lightning will strike, but if you know the lightning’s properties and typical behavior you can position yourself to better the odds of being struck. Glad to know a lot more folk will be studying this going forward!

  14. Wow. Looks like you are right about the popularity rankings.

    I am number 18 on this popularity list: Kindle Store › Kindle eBooks › Children’s eBooks › Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror

    And number 52 on Children’s ebooks, which is a wide range of books.

    I suspect I’m getting a number of sales because of these listings.

  15. I had never seen or heard of the popularity list until a couple weeks ago… When I accessed the bookstore through my Kindle Fire, I noticed that the pecking order was very from the “top 100 paid” list I see on my desktop computer. I wondered if popularity factored in customer reviews, but it makes sense that it’s factoring in free copies.

    In sum: Kindle Fire customers access this popularity list automatically every time they open the store, and it gives greater prominence to Select books. Before learning this, I was going to cancel my Select membership when the term ran out… but now this one feature has convinced me to stick with it.

    1. That’s very, very interesting Sam – I didn’t know that. (Going to check now on my Kindle Basic – I never use it to browse, but I’d imagine that’s a lot more common activity on the Fire).

    2. Interesting. On the Kindle Basic, you have a couple of options when you want to shop for books. The top link on the homepage is to browse “Books” – which seems to be the Popularity List. The third link down is Kindle Best Sellers – which is the Bestseller List. It seems that would push more Kindle browsers to the Popularity List over the Bestseller List. From what you describe, the Kindle Fire is even more explicit in pushing customers to that.

  16. Umm.. I hate to say this, maybe I’m just tired, but I don’t understand. The popularity list is based on the amount of stars received or downloads or how many people actually read the book ( which would be wild)? And there is a new algorithm feeding into it? Does best selling list mean actual monetary sales or just transactions? What is the difference between the two? I always thought popularity meant star ratings, but maybe I was wrong. I read what you wrote and it is wonderful as usual, but I am apparently not able to make all the pieces fit. Help!

    1. Hey. Simply put, it’s sales + free downloads, where as your normal Sales Rank (which is what decides the Bestseller Lists) is just sales.

      That’s why you get such a bounce after free, because all those thousands of downloads are treated the same as sales by the algorithm that feeds into the Popularity List. People see your book there (a good free run will get you on page one of that list), buy it, then you move up the normal rankings and on to the normal Bestseller Lists.

  17. I agree, the Popularity list IS influenced by the free downloads. I screwed up after I went free because I accidentally got to the Contemporary Romance Popularity List showing I was #2 and called my mother screaming. Nope. I didn’t rank on the Contemporary Romance Bestseller List after going free, and the highest ranking I had after going free in the Paid Kindle Store was #1200 something and you need to be in the Top 500 overall to rank in Contemporary Romance Bestseller. I sold about 100 copies the day I was ranked #2 on the Popularity List. This was February 2, wen reporting was screwy, so it might have been more, but I don’t think so. I sold 200 copies total that week ending February 4th and I was free on January 30th and had 8,000+ downloads in 24 hours.

  18. I can confirm the effect – I wrote a blog about it last week, based on my experience with one of my thrillers, The Geronimo Breach. For the last two days, I’ve been free with my Wall St thriller, Zero Sum. During that time I have ascended to the giddy position of #5-6 on overall Kindle Free, and firmly in #1 on Action/Adventure. On Geronimo, 7 days after coming off free, I am still at #380-420 in overall paids on Amazon. As a direct result of the one free day, where I saw 12K downloads. Zero Sum has seen 17K so for over two days, and will likely see 22-25K over its two day free run. It will be interesting to watch and see how that impacts sales. My hunch is it will be substantial. Check in at my blog next week or watch the rankings to see. At this rate, it makes sense to stay in KDP even though my books are more expensive titles ($3.99-$5.99) by self-pub standards, and even though I’m seeing a reduced income from the loan fees as opposed to a pure sale.

    I think Amazon has been brilliant so far in their approach. They have made it possible for a hard working author to make a good, if not handsome, living. I saw $1500 net revenue in Dec., four times that in Jan, and higher sales still in Feb. – a traditionally slower month (as everyone digests all the books they got for Xmas and downloaded for their new kindles in Jan). Hopefully sales will continue to ramp. I plan to do a year end summary for 2012 but my expectation is Dec 2012 considerably higher than Jan. Only question is how much higher.

    I say this because it is Amazon that made this possible. I started my sales in June of 2011. First month was $22 net. My hunch is that June 2012 will be considerably higher – and all because of Amazon. This is a seismic shift we are seeing in the industry, where the playing field is leveled for an author like me.

    Is it hard work? Sure. I write 12 hours a day when I’m in a novel, and clock another 3 or so on social media. Could I make more doing something else for the same number of hours? You bet. But it wouldn’t be writing, and that’s my love. Thank you, Amazon. You rock. Call me. Really. I heart Amazon. Mwah.

  19. I hate to say it, but if anyone has mastered the art of stacking the game in their favour, it’s Amazon.
    I still think it’s such a questionable issue, ethically, what they’re doing with Select – but then they are a business, and have only ever been so – they just appear to be benevolent at times because they give us an opportunity to publish (and occasionally, some money!).
    But Select really DOES do what it says on the tin. I said before, I noticed an improved bestseller rank (improvement of around 10k) almost instantly after enrolling in Select! So whatever the almighty algorithm is, I believe that it does heavily weight books enrolled in Select – even if they’re not selling any more than an equivalent none-Select title. This is blatantly unfair (and could even be a case for trades descriptions?) – but Amazon makes the rules, and this is probably one of the many reasons it keeps its algorithms so close to its chest.
    The enhanced competitiveness for Select titles when compared to Big 6 books, which can’t be in Select, is worth the drawbacks for me – it’s like being given another weapon in the battle against the omnipresent big name bestsellers. But still – it’s a clever tactic, bordering on the underhand, to try and force all indies either into their stable or, increasingly, out of it.
    What happens if Select becomes mandatory for titles published through KDP…?
    Hopefully that’ll never happen. But what could make a big difference is this: Amazon offering EPUB versions of the same books for sale, on the same page – perhaps in a box with ‘If you DON’T have a Kindle’ on it. Of course they want to drive people to the reading apps, which ties them into a .mobi format collection, meaning when they eventually buy an eReader they’ll go Kindle – but what a way to put Barnes & Noble’s online store out of business in six months eh? Every book in EPUB, sales page and rankings all the same (but drawing input from both versions) – I bet a lot of customers with other branded eReaders would far rathe shop at Amazon, given the choice…
    Wow. Think I got a bit off topic! But where else can I discuss this stuff…? Oh yeah. IWU. See you there :0)

    1. Unfair and underhanded practices? Um, huh? Are you sure you mean the Select model? We’re talking digital placement in an electronic store. Nothing more. Traditional publishers have long bought space on front tables, front-cover-out shelf placement, endcaps, and kiosks at the registers to make their books more visible. Amazon manipulating lists that Amazon MADE UP is in-store promotion, nothing more. Bookstores, grocery stores, retailers in general are not democratic trade arenas. Besides, how many stores carry every brand of every product available? The predatory lure you’re insinuating is simply Amazon recognizing that anyone who goes exclusive is risking potential sales elsewhere. For that, they reward the authors willing to take that risk. The higher the risk, the better the reward. You bet I want something more for giving up my non-exclusive rights than the author next to me who hasn’t gets. Duh. That’s also how business operates. And that’s why we have a Popularity List that favors exclusive authors who utililize the tools Amazon provides.

      1. Yep. Your average reader, or writer, has no idea that all those print books on the aisle tables or the shelf end caps at Barnes & Noble aren’t just there because they’re popular or the staff likes them. They’re there because the publisher paid for co-op space to promote the books. The great thing about Amazon is that if they are doing this with Select, they aren’t charging money, just asking for exclusivity.

      2. “Traditional publishers have long bought space on front tables, front-cover-out shelf placement, endcaps, and kiosks at the registers to make their books more visible. ”

        True, but you’re leaving out the elephant in the room–the author is able to know the publisher’s marketing plan. Amazon operates differently. An interesting question might be: why? Saying tritely “that’s just business” is both silly and inadequate for professionals.

        “Amazon manipulating lists that Amazon MADE UP is in-store promotion, nothing more. Bookstores, grocery stores, retailers in general are not democratic trade arenas. ”

        I’m not clear where slater was calling for democracy–if anything, he seemed to be calling for more opacity. Also, what about large publishers dealing with Amazon? Are you telling me that Amazon doesn’t inform them of how they use their placement system? If so, that seems a much worse deal for publishers.

        “The higher the risk, the better the reward.”

        Nonsense. Sloganeering like that is what helps people make stupid business decisions. Businesses take great risks for no greater reward all the time. So do humans.

      3. “the author is able to know the publisher’s marketing plan”

        This is not generally true. I work with a bestselling author who had a $150K deal on the table with one of the large houses and asked to see the marketing plan in advance of signing precisely because she never saw the marketing plans for her books in the past. What they provided was laughable – vague references to taking advantage of potential co-op placement and the possibility of ads in genre venues. All generic. All caveated with a ‘subject to change’ statement. They refused to lay out a precise plan and/or commit even when she told them her signing was contingent on them providing some guarantees. She walked away.

        Another author was verbally promised to be treated like a front-list and was launched as a mid-list, meaning virtually no promotion from the publisher whatsoever.

        If you’ve seen contracts where the marketing plan was highly visible and set in stone, and would be willing to share, perhaps I’d see the same elephant in the room that you do. Otherwise, to a one, any traditionally pubbed author I’ve engaged with about marketing simply shrugs when asked about concrete plans.

        “Sloganeering like that is what helps people make stupid business decisions. Businesses take great risks for no greater reward all the time. So do humans.”

        I would say that if businesses were habitually taking risks for no reward, then that is the stupid business decision. Humans aren’t businesses and act in ways that aren’t logical all the time.

        There is a difference, though, in taking a risk because a company is gambling on Gadget A being a popular holiday gift so manufacturing triple the number in anticipation and failing to meet expectation (Nook Touch?) and another company asking your company to stop selling Gadget A anywhere else and only sell through them. If that other company doesn’t pony something up to reward that risk and demonstrate that it’s willing to risk something too (in this case, it’s risking the reward for your company), then why do business with them?

        Slater seems to be insinuating that Amazon is doing something underhanded by coming up with a list of books that it puts in front of customers and that it slaps with the term “popularity.” What is Amazon claiming that is potentially shady in this? At the same time, he’s claiming that this is an underhanded way of getting indies to join Select. I think by the fact that so many indies don’t seem to know what’s driving that list that either Amazon has failed miserably in their underhanded tactic at coercing indies to accept the Select model or Amazon is simply keeping its options open by leaving its marketing plan caveated by that same ‘subject to change’ disclaimer the major pubs are using.

    2. I don’t think it is unethical to compete. It only seems unethical when someone (or a company) is competing so ingeniously, aggressively, and successfully that it seems inherently unfair because they are light-years ahead of everyone else.

      Which, by the way, is what successful authors are doing. Life has never been fair and the best “quality” books don’t win.

      And BN is already out of business. They just haven’t stamped the papers yet.

      1. I don’t think it is unethical to compete.
        Me neither. I’m not clear what’s “competitive” about Amazon obfuscating marketing practices from self-publishers, though.

        Scott, are there any large corporations that you personally believe are unfair or unethical in how they deal with others?

  20. Thanks so much for all of the thought and research that went into this. I’m a true numbers geek, and my sales spreadsheet is colour-coded, cross indexed, and I track trends as much as possible. I think what you’re saying falls into line with my experiences with the six books I have enrolled in Select. I will say that I also believe the refreshing of the also-bought list with a freebie promo have a huge effect, because my books are suddenly getting seen by people who might not ordinarily find them.

    The effect of a Select promo last roughly two weeks (regardless of the length of the promo or the day of the week on which it began) and the biggest bump is 1-2 days AFTER the promo ends. I’ve chalked this up to that being how long before my book starts showing up on the also-boughts of all those other temporarily freebie books.

  21. Fascinating! I had no idea about the Popularity List. I always assumed that was a Best-Seller List. I can vouch, though, for Amazon’s algorithms offering increased exposure for books in their KDP Select Program. A couple of days ago, I offered all three books in my Trilogy of THE FISHERMAN’S SON for free for two days in a row. Over 5,000 copies of those books were downloaded during those two days, including over 3,800 copies of the first book in the series, THE FISHERMAN’S SON. Afterward, I discovered that all three books were listed as books “also bought” by customers who purchased other books. THE FISHERMAN’S SON is currently listed as an “also bought” for a huge number of books, and even for the game of ANGRY BIRDS. Last night, I was browsing through the Popular List of Children’s and Young Adult Kindle Books (at the time I thought it was a Best-Seller List because my sales as well as the number of times my book had been borrowed had increased) and was stunned to find THE FISHERMAN’S SON at the #24 spot on that list. As far as I know, that’s the first time that’s ever happened with any of my books. I guess the trick is to figure out how to keep the sales momentum going. 🙂 I’ve not yet figured out how to do that.

  22. David, where have you been all my life? As an Indie author, this is the clearest, most to-the-point source for information and understanding of the waters we all swim in that I’ve found. To say the least, you’re bookmarked on MY computer. Thanks.

  23. The reality of today is that the success of most books is computer driven. Writing a good book helps but it’s getting the eyeballs on it that makes hay. The freebie sites have so much power now. My agreement with Amazon ends in April and my plan was to get my book up on the other sites, but I’m certainly thinking long and hard about it. Especially since the bump I got from my last free run upped my sales by a mere 2000%, give or take. Now that sales have leveled off again, what other tools do I have to get momentum going the right way again? Certainly nothing remotely close to Select.

  24. ““the author is able to know the publisher’s marketing plan”
    This is not generally true. ”

    Phoenix, I can’t think of a single publisher author I know who isn’t aware of their publisher’s marketing plans (or able to be). In fact, they’re often an active and key *part* of that plan. Do you commonly encounter publisher authors who are in the dark about how their work is being marketed?

    “I would say that if businesses were habitually taking risks for no reward, then that is the stupid business decision. Humans aren’t businesses and act in ways that aren’t logical all the time.”

    Sure–but I didn’t say “no risk”. I said that higher risk does not logically (or automatically) equal higher reward.

    “I think by the fact that so many indies don’t seem to know what’s driving that list”
    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts about why Amazon doesn’t (and won’t) share information about how they promote an author’s work. Surely every author would like to know–wouldn’t you?

    1. James,

      It seems to me that Amazon has a great many tech people working on their algorithms and changing them on a regular basis. My guess is that Amazon isn’t about to share the tech side of their grand algorithm experiment with their competitors at this point in time, and so it seems reasonable to me for Amazon to keep quiet on exactly how their algorithms work. As an author self-publishing through KDP Select, I feel that Amazon’s been open about what they’ll do for me. They give me 5 free days every 90-day period for each book I publish through KDP Select. As the free copies are downloaded and borrowed and the paid copies purchased, I find my books on more and more “also bought” lists, best-seller lists and the popularity list that David explained here. It’s been exciting for me to see the algorithms placing my books in more and more visible places on Amazon. It’s obvious to me that complex algorithms are at work as a result of the promotional tools that Amazon’s made available to me.

      My understanding from talking with authors published by the Big Six publishing houses is that marketing plans are explained, but not necessarily followed through on if a bigger and shinier book by another author comes along or the author only makes mid-list. I’ve known authors who have been dropped completely by the big publishing houses and told by their agent they might want to start using a pen name if they ever want to publish again after only making mid-list. And how many times have we heard about agents rejecting excellent books because the book simply wasn’t a match for their own personal tastes? To me, it’s tremendously more unfair when things are done that way than Amazon being open about their marketing plans while keeping quiet about their experiment with algorithms.

      1. “To me, it’s tremendously more unfair when things are done that way than Amazon being open about their marketing plans while keeping quiet about their experiment with algorithms.”

        To me, Amazon’s marketing model (and to a similar degree, Apple’s) sounds like a handful of people in a room behind a closed door, while the kids crowd around in the hallway outside and bet each other on what they’re talking about.

        What’s truly frightening (to me, anyway) is that the kids seem to be saying “well, the *other* people that used to go into that office weren’t very nice to me, so these new people behind the door must be really nice.”

        Then the door opens, a hand throws some candy into the hallway, and the kids scramble and shout “hooray! we’re winning!”

        1. I think at the end, for me, it’s about sales. I just clocked my first $1000 royalty day on Amazon.

          I’m a vociferous critic of monopolistic or unfair business practices, but at the end of the day, none of us would be shouting at the monolith and debating these issues if Amazon hadn’t decided to turn the industry on its ear and give we little mouse people a chance to roar.

          I’m about done with backseat driving for today. The numbers speak for themselves. I started in this biz with a whopping $22 month. 9 months later I clocked my first $1000 day. I am not disappointed. I understand that’s atypical, but guess what? I don’t care. Without Amazon making this possible, I wouldn’t be doing it. So far March looks like this, US only, with UK running around 10% of US sales by month end: March 1. $500. March 2. $750. March 3, $1100. Needless to say, even though those sales are likely due to promotions, my trad pub buddies would drool to make the same kind of money on a consistent basis.

          None of which is possible without Amazon.

      2. Marilyn,
        I agree, Amazon isn’t about to share. There *is* a good reason for that–it’s because there’s not really an easy way to share it and still have the ultimate flexibility to change things across all product lines.

        But I also agree with Russell–in the end, other things being equal, it’s all about sales. I’m not anti-Amazon, but I do think the bigger picture of Amazon operating in the world gets overlooked by most writers trying on self-publishing.

  25. Hi David, great post! I learned a bit more today.

    I have a question about your reply to James Kukral, where you wrote:
    “Re SEO, it’s sure possible. We see the seeds of that now with tagging circles, liking circles etc. However, Amazon is pretty smart about this stuff. As soon as a feature gets gamed like that, they tweak the algo. And, in fact, there is some evidence to suggest that participating in such things can have adverse effects.”

    I’d be very interested to know what sort of evidence you have that participating in orginised tagging can have adverse effects? I am a member of a tagging circle and like to know if I do more harm than good with that.

    1. I should have said “theory” rather than evidence, but this is how it usually goes. What a customer does when shown your book cover affects whether it will be shown to further customers with similar tastes. Similarly what they do on your book page feeds into the algo – whether they sample, purchase, or leave the page without doing either of those things. By participating in a tagging/like circle, you are increasing the number of views of your book’s product page, without any increase in your sample/buy rate. This reduces what you can call your “conversion rate” which is highly likely to be one of the myriad stats that feed into the algo decided who is shown your book cover in places like Also Boughts, and how often that happens.

      Because the Amazon system thinks those 100 people visiting your page from the tagging circle are genuine customers who are viewing your book and deciding not to purchase, the system will then show your book to less customers, and show something instead it thinks people are more likely to purchase.

      As to the “more harm than good” part, I’m skeptical as to the value of tagging circles. I think there was a clear benefit pre-June 2011, but since then, I think it may well do more harm than good.

      Personally, I get a few tags on a book after it launches, and let the rest happen organically.

  26. There is an important misconception embedded in this discussion. Placement on the various public lists is more an effect of increased visibility than a cause. I know that might seem deeply counterintuitive to authors who watch their sales move up in concert with their rank in a virtuous cycle. The key driver of sales for e-books (and, to a lesser extent, everything else) on Amazon is the personalized recommendation system. People make buying decisions from a list that no one else (except Amazon, of course) can see. This list is driven by what you have bought lately, what other people who have similar buying histories have bought, what products you have recently viewed but not purchased, the categories applied to your purchases, and what is happening right now with the e-books on your list. The factors matter roughly in the order I have listed, as best I can tell. You can read Amazon’s patent applications if you want more detail. This recommendation system has always been Amazon’s “secret sauce”, but it is critically important to indie authors. It is, by far, the most important factor in getting noticed. Being at the very top of any individual public list is useful, but you will almost never get there without taking advantage of the recommendation system. That includes optimizing your cover and blurb as well as using KDP Select to best advantage.

  27. There’s one wild card here: it’s not just Amazon that’s playing a part in author’s having astounding post-free success. The way I’ve seen it is the main way to get free downloads into the thousands is to have a listing on Pixel of Ink. Otherwise, downloads tend to be in the hundreds, which doesn’t affect sales for too long afterwards. So really, you could say that POI is just as much a player as KDP Select itself, as the after-free sales are dependent on their exposure.

    I could be wrong – maybe there are people ending up in the top 10 free without POI, but very often it’s their listing that makes the difference.

    1. Henry,
      And thoughts on how the average reader discovers Pixel of Ink? I’m seeing dozens of sites that aggregate and report on Amazon book promotions, so I’m trying to track down what’s *specifically* driving readers to POI.

      1. They have over 200,000 likes on their Facebook Page, and seem to be adding new likes at a rate of about 1,000 a day (rough estimate). I’m sure there are other sources, but that must be a big one. Unlike other sites, they seem to get a lot of interaction on their page (comments, likes, shares etc.)

  28. David,
    Interesting find as always. Sales for the MMPB genres imply that the tipping point has ‘come and gone.’ So here is a thought, is Amazon setting up the ‘popularity lists’ in order to pull more readers over from the genres that have remained more in paper.

    I think what Amazon is doing is eroding the NYT best seller list. There has been more Tomfoolery in the NYT best seller list than will probably ever happen with Amazon’s list. (Amazon has an inherent interest in keeping customers from trying other sites.)

    We’re watching generations of marketing buildup being undone. Rather impressive…

  29. I’m not sure if this has been addressed in the comment section, do I apologize if I’m repeating someone, but I thought star ratings and #of reviews are also factored in when Amazon calculates popularity rankings.

    Regardless, I really enjoyed reading your article. Very interesting and informative.

    1. Hey. Things have changed a lot since this post was published. The algorithms behind popularity are less straight-forward, but we’re pretty sure it’s still based on a rolling 30-day average of your sales, with price weighting now in effect (a sale at $9.99 is worth a lot more than one at 99c), and free downloads worth very little (was a full paid sale, then weighted as a tenth of a sale, then perhaps 1% of a paid sale – haven’t figured the latter out yet).

      None of that stuff affects Sales Rank (which is just raw sales, weighted historically, with a big bias towards the most recent). And star ratings and reviews don’t affect either. That theory has been advanced many times, but I can’t find any evidence to show that reviews and ratings affect anything other than placement on Top Rated Lists and some internal Amazon stuff like selecting books for certain promos and for offers from imprints.

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