Guest Post: Adventures in Amazon's Algorithms
It’s a pleasure to be asked to write about my experiences self-publishing on Amazon. My name’s Dave Schroeder (SHRAY-der) and I’m in a metro-Atlanta-area writing group with Matt.
Amazon’s algorithms can be powerful allies for authors. I’m about to self-publish my eighth novel and so far have sold over 26,000 copies of my books in paperback, via Kindle, as pages read on Kindle Unlimited, and through Audible, so Amazon and its algorithms have been kind to me.
What I discovered with my own books is that it takes time to build a loyal group of fans who eagerly look forward to your books and buy them whenever you release a new one. I work hard to cultivate fans using Facebook, my mailing list, and face-to-face conversations at science fiction and fantasy conventions. My Xenotech Support series of science fiction humor books about tech support for alien technology helped me build a loyal following. Many of them bought The Congruent Apprentice, the first novel in my Congruent Mage fantasy series, on the first day or two it came out, thereby bumping it up high on Amazon’s Young Adult Epic Fantasy sales list.
Once the book was in the top twenty for that category, Amazon’s algorithms started featuring the book in its You May Also Like suggestions. That resulted in more people discovering and liking it, thereby feeding a virtuous cycle that’s led to sales of over twelve thousand copies of The Congruent Apprentice and twenty-one thousand copies of the books in the series total, since the first book came out in March of 2017.
The key, to my mind, is to pick a narrow category and work hard to get a lot of sales of your title right up front, so Amazon’s algorithms are aware that people are buying your book. I expect those algorithms will have a minimum sales threshold that varies by category. Once that threshold is met, the algorithms themselves will do the work of spreading word about your book to wider audiences.
Most self-published authors can’t afford to buy advertising to drive big sales numbers, but we can use less expensive approaches and the power of our fans to have Amazon’s algorithms work for our benefit. For many narrow categories, it doesn’t require a lot of sales to put you in the top twenty in sales. Just over a hundred buyers could be enough, at least in my experience.
Sales of my fantasy series on Kindle and Kindle Unlimited led to a contract with Podium Publishing, a Toronto-based audiobook publisher, who noticed my books’ big numbers and offered me a contract to create audio versions of the Congruent Mage series, which led to even more sales though a different medium. Without my good Kindle sales, they never would have reached out to me. One word of caution—Audible listeners want to get value for their credits, so I’d advise you to bundle your books into at least ten hours of spoken content—typically a hundred-thousand words plus, depending on how fast your narrator speaks.
There’s something in self-publishing known as the fifth book phenomenon, where sales don’t really pick up until you’ve released your fifth (or fourth or third) book, so that readers know you’re “real” and will be sticking around. They don’t like making investments in an author when there’s only one or two books out there. Releasing four or five books somehow gives readers permission to fall for a particular author and indulge in a natural tendency to read everything they’ve written. That’s a lot harder when you only have one or two books out, so don’t feel bad when the sales of your first few books aren’t stellar. Building your audience—and collecting loyal fans who will buy your next book en masse and bump it up in Amazon’s algorithms—takes time. Continuous cultivation of your fans is part of what it takes to be successful in today’s small press and self-publishing world. Best of luck in building your own loyal followings. Amazon and its algorithms will repay you for it.