How To Win Sales And Influence Algorithms Amazon Marketing Publishing

Matt Iden & Nick Stephenson

Matt Iden & Nick Stephenson two crime/thriller writers who have been working together to increase their promotion and marketing range since June 2014

I’m hosting a discussion today between two authors who are using creative ways to share audiences, something which has the happy side-effect of increasing their respective sales.

As I said on Thursday, I think creative forms of collaboration – especially in terms of marketing strategies – are going to be big this year.

Traditionally published authors may have to compete with each other ways that may not be relevant/important to self-publishers – like agents, deals, grants, prizes, or co-op. But self-publishers have nothing to fear from cooperating with authors they are nominally competing with, and everything to gain.

The market is so large that no writer will ever reach all the readers out there, and the odds of getting noticed can improve greatly with the right kind of cooperation – as many authors with box sets saw last year.

If you are still skeptical, consider this: Amazon’s recommendation engine can drive sales like nothing else. The Also Boughts (the strip of other titles under your book on its Amazon page) are central to that recommendation engine in ways that we only partly understand. What we do know is that they are key influences on all those emails which are sent to Amazon customers.

Did you ever have an unexplained bump in sales that couldn’t be tracked to a mention somewhere? There’s a reasonable chance you started appearing in the Also Boughts of a popular title in your genre, and then your book suddenly got recommended by email to a bunch of new readers in your target audience. Also, this phenomenon in reverse is often behind an inexplicable drop in sales (and is more comfortable than tin foil!).

Savvy authors are now pooling audiences in an attempt to influence their Also Boughts and get Amazon’s system to recommend their books to each other’s audiences. I noticed crime/thriller writers Matt Iden and Nick Stephenson doing this in interesting ways over the last few months, and invited them to spill the beans.

Here’s Matt & Nick with more:

Matt: So, some background. I first looked into what you were doing after I finally noticed the cover of your perma-free novel Wanted in my also-boughts. In retrospect, it was like the 29th time I’d seen it. Your covers are very distinctive and the branding is strong and consistent—no accident, I know—and something deep in my reptilian brain told me, You’ve seen this before. Maybe you should click on it?

wantednickNick: Yeah, you know what they say: “twenty-nine times is the charm”. My marketing strategy revolves around annoying people until they buy. It seems to come naturally.

Matt: So I followed the trail to your author page, where your list of blog posts were about experiments in promoting, marketing, and unraveling the mysteries of Amazon placement and rankings. It was obvious you were using some different approaches, especially when it came to increasing discoverability in non-traditional ways.

Nick: Yeah – I think there’s a bit of a marketing meme going round these days that all an author needs to do is “write more books”. Personally, I think that’s horrible advice. I get some amazing results from promoting my work, and it’s not all about Bookbub, either.

Matt: I could also see from your blog that you weren’t playing around. It’s pretty clear when a writer has gone all-in…or is writing for a hobby. (Just to be clear, we’re the “all-in” camp).

Nick: Damn straight. But I reckon, ask any “hobbyist” if they’d like to sell a few more books, I’m pretty sure they’d be happy to. I’ve spent the last couple of years figuring out what works, and the answer is gob-smackingly simple.

Get content. Tell people about content.

The “telling people” part is where most people struggle. But a lot of the work I’m doing with authors right now is helping them build up better ways to communicate with readers direct – rather than relying on Amazon and advertisers. And the results have been pretty incredible.

Matt: One particular thing that caught my eye was when you compiled some preliminary findings in a PDF report you shared (that probably formed the basis for your guide Supercharge Your Kindle Sales, which I was happy to blurb). It filled in a lot of gaps for me on keyword selection, rankings, and some other juicy bits I hadn’t seen treated quite that way anywhere else. I promptly told all of my blog people to go follow you and that really started our collaboration.

Nick: That was pretty cool of you! Putting together “Supercharge” was a lot of fun – it was cool to see two-years’ worth of experience jump out of my brain and onto the page. I was in the zone for a few days with that book. And I still get emails from people who’ve had great results, so it’s definitely been worth it from that perspective.

Matt: And, of course, I knew we could work together when the subject line of our first email was “Sword fights, alcohol, and nudity.” Which is less weird than it sounds.

Nick: Let’s just call it a Game of Thrones reference.

Matt: I asked you some stupid things about my Amazon descriptions (like using H1 tags to emulate the orange section headers in my books’ pages on Amazon), while you pinged me for a little brainstorming help on the cover for your new detective series. We also compared notes on—we’d both independently done promotions there and found the experience lacking, which helped me decide to not pay for another round there.

Nick: Noisetrade, for anyone who doesn’t know, puts your book up for free – but unlike other retailers, will actually share its customers email addresses with you. So it’s great from that perspective. But I don’t think fiction performs overly well, so I haven’t been back (I know David G did really well with his non-fic work there).

Matt: I guess I should say at this point that attitude has had a lot to do with our successful experiments. Early on, both of us were willing to share what we’d learned, show our numbers, and ask stupid questions. Even though we write in roughly the same genre—and frequently compete for top ranks in the sub-lists—neither of us treat readers as a finite commodity, like assets to be kept from other writers.

Nick: I think this is a throwback from the traditional world, where a handful of titles would compete for shelf-space. And at $25 a book, I guess I can see the logic there. But with $5 (or less) ebooks, where there’s no pressure to sell a certain amount within the first few months, the concept of “competition” should really be thrown out. Authors aren’t competing with each other in this market – if anything, we’re all in it together. What helps one of us helps all of us.

Matt: Also, knowing that you’re British has made me all the more eager to collaborate, since it’s given me the chance to use “mate” and “on holiday” in our chats. Even though I’ve never heard you use those words.

Nick: I only get them out at parties.

Matt: I’m still looking for an opening to use “blimey.”

Nick: To be honest, the Irish have much more colourful language…

Matt: Back to the collaboration, thing–this may be blindingly obvious, but self-pubbers are in a perfect position to treat other writers as collaborators, not competitors, considering the low price-point of most self-published books. This is especially clear when best-selling indies can sell a boxed set of twelve books for $.99. Traditionally published writers don’t have this advantage.

Nick: I think it’s from that old-school mentality that a trad-pub’s main audience is the casual / bestseller reader. The kind of people that pick up the latest Dan Brown in the airport, but won’t read anything else all year. I think the self-pubbers REAL advantage is that we understand we need to reach readers direct, and not just deal with publishers and agents. That shift in mentality puts us in our customers’ shoes. We know what our readers want, and we give it to them. THAT’S our killer advantage.

Matt: Well, no kidding! At $25 a pop, I wouldn’t be looking to buy another book for a while, either. Which might point to why traditionally published writers hoard their fans like Gollum hides his jewelry.

Nick: But now, the ebook revolution has brought in the voracious readers – who gobble up a book a day. So you’ve got to price for them, really. And with our prices hovering in the $2.99 – $4.99 territory, our readers are probably buying seven books at a time.

Matt: One of your ideas that takes this “allies-not-competitors” innovation a step further is asking your newsletter subscribers what books they’ve read lately, then actually sharing those titles and authors in future newsletters.

Nick: Yeah, it’s the first thing I ask them when they sign up. I build my email list like I’m talking to friends – and it works well. I’ve picked up 15,000 new subscribers in the last 6 months, and all of them engage really well. It’s a great question to open with – it gets a dialogue going. And I’m not just “some random stranger” emailing them – there’s some connection there, through books.

Matt: I followed your lead by sharing Blake Crouch’s Wayward Pines series with my newsletter gang and got a great response. Not to mention it was fun…we writers are readers first.

Nick: Yeah, always. I think what’s good for one author is going to be good for everyone. Getting more people reading is the aim for me, even if they’re not my books! So, if I have a month where I’m not promoting anything, I’ll recommend other authors’ work that I think my readers will enjoy. I’m not “losing” sales. I’m building trust and connections.

reasonmattMatt: A natural extension of that was to run some promotions together. I think the first was a coordinated email blast to our respective newsletters…at the time that meant about , what? 4,000 people saw both of our sale books? And you threw in an e-Ink Kindle reader to sweeten the pot.

Nick: Right. We sold 352 books from that email – and many of the people we emailed actually already owned copies. So that was a great result. Actually, apart from Bookbub, that’s a better result than pretty much any advertiser I can think of – and we didn’t have to pay anyone or jump through any hoops.

Matt: I was afraid some readers might think we were engineering the subscriber relationship a bit, but I don’t think we’ve done it in a mercenary way.

Nick: I figure, if it’s good for the reader, than it’s good for us. I’d heard your name come up a few times with readers emailing me, and I was keen to prove to them that I was listening.

Matt: And I’d seen all of your books in my also-boughts, so some of my fans were already buying you.

Nick: So it seemed like a good fit — my readers like your books, and hopefully vice versa. No one’s complained so far! In fact, I still get emails from readers thanking me for turning them on to your series. So that’s got to be good.

Matt: That little collaboration had an entirely unexpected learning moment for me as well when you pointed out that my price point outside of the U.S. was probably killing my sales.

Nick: Yeah. I’d been tracking the sales of the books in our joint email promo and saw that, while our sales tracked together in the U.S., they weren’t even close in the UK. While my book, Fallen, was ranked 4,500 – 6,500 a week after the promo, your novel The Wicked Flee was up in the 20,000 – 30,000 range.

Matt: And there was no good reason for the disparity. We had the same number of books published, about the same starting ranks, same genres…

Nick: …but, based on my (narrow) experience, it might possibly be price related. I saw a 50% increase in sales dropping my price from £2.31GBP (equivalent of $3.99) to £1.93GBP (around $3.30). That shows up at £2.35GBP and £1.99GBP respectively, after VAT is added. (Note: this is before the recent VAT changes.)

Matt: Blimey.

Nick: Brits (and other markets) are a few years behind when it comes to ebooks. Cheap still = good.

Matt: The $.99 stigma hasn’t hit yet.

Nick: Right.

Matt: So, I dropped my price in every market except the U.S. and saw about a 50% upward bump in sales in almost every market. Another major thing we’ve tried to do is influence also-boughts by “advertising” in the back of each other’s books. Specifically, each of our perma-free books.

Nick: We actually managed to get our sales on an almost identical track – check it out:


Matt: So, that’s our collaboration experiment. Our future plans include continuing to share newsletter space and expand our reach, as well as pinging each other about specific concepts to increase sales outside normal channels. With my Marty Singer series recently being acquired by Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer, it’s more important than ever for me to find ways of boosting sales without just churning my price point.

Nick: And my focus will continue to be building up that direct line to readers. With the promise of good content and building a valuable connection, readers are more than happy to hear from me with news about upcoming promotions or launches. It’s been a real step-change for me.

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Nick Stephenson is a self-published author making six figures a year – and he also helps other authors find their first 10,000 readers. He currently offers FREE video training on how you can do the same at

Matt Iden is the author of the Marty Singer mystery series, which was recently acquired by Thomas & Mercer. He has never used the word “blimey” in his fiction. Find him at

David Gaughran

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