The Amazing Amazon Algorithm

I’ll admit it, I was starting to doubt Amazon. I’d read the recent author success stories, and I’d followed their advice: write good books, publish exclusively with Amazon, and let the algorithms steer your work to readers who will love it.

Four novels in, I had quality stories and great reviews, but no breakout sales. Then, like lightning striking in the night, Amazon delivered. Over the past couple weeks, my sales have quadrupled.

This post is my best guess as to how it happened.

The Lure of Amazon and The Indie Writers

Full disclosure: I like Amazon. Im a Prime member. I know the company is not perfect. Maybe it’s disturbingly big, but the company does some pretty great things right now. Connecting readers to books they love is one of them. (Delivering diapers to my door in two days is another.)

I also like having control. After Id written my first book, I thought carefully about my path and decided to publish exclusively with Amazon. You get full control over your books, higher royalties, and direct connections with readers. As Ive said before, its a decentralized meritocracy that strips out the middle man. I love it  in theory.

The key, though, is the ability to connect with new readers. The key is Amazon’s connecting machine: the algorithm. I read fascinating things about keyword searches and Amazon’s recommendations for books with good rankings and reviews. I read about some enterprising souls who had wormed through Amazons data and charted how revenue from indie writers' ebooks was higher than from ebooks of authors with major publishers. 

Super, I thought, I just put my book out there and let the algorithm roll. The stage was set. Early readers were really enjoying Unbound. But it wasn’t quite taking off. I think the story is a page-turner that matters, and I hoped it would reach more people.

Was the algorithm missing my books?

Mixing Traditional and New Promotions

The book market is changing like crazy. The world is changing like crazy. This radical pace of change reveals something profound: certain truths hold steady.

One of those truths is that nothing markets books like word of mouth. Most of what I read I hear about from a friend. Relying on Amazon alone was never going to cut it. I tried more traditional promotion ideas.

My first break was a radio interview with Hugh Hewitt. Hes a brilliant guy who will be participating in upcoming Presidential debates, and he loved Unbound. The interview (you can listen to it here) led to me signing a contract with a PR company. Rebeca and LeAnn at Believers Trust were a huge help. They put copies of Unbound in the hands of interested readers and bloggers. More great reviews started rolling in. 

These embers glowed until the next gust of wind: Bookbub. I landed a spot in their daily newsletter for an Unbound promotion. In one day, May 1, over 14,000 readers got the book. By the end of the five-day promotion, almost 25,000 had it. 

That sort of exposure is worth a party, but Id been there once before with Light in the Gloaming. I knew it was no guarantee of an algorithm wave.  

Catching the Algorithm Wave

I can explain what happened above. I cant really explain what happened next.

After the promotional efforts, interest was simmering in Unbound and in the sequel, Clothed with the Sun. Slowly but steadily, more readers were finding my work. 

Then, on Saturday, May 9, I did nothing to promote my books. I was just hanging out with my wife and three little kids when this chart happened.

The blue line is Kindle Unlimited downloads. See that sudden rise? I certainly did, and I wanted to understand it. Google searches showed no spark of activity. My friends didnt start pestering hundreds of people out of nowhere to buy my books. The only explanation Ive come up with is that I caught the Amazon algorithm wave. I’m open to other theories, but why else would Kindle’s loyal readers start downloading my books in droves? Sales have continued rising since then.

I know this might not last. The algorithm giveth, the algorithm taketh away. It’s fun, for the moment, to claim #1 bestseller in three Amazon categories, but that’s not why I’m writing. The real excitement comes from all the people who are inspired by my work. That’s priceless.

The Algorithm Can Help Us Keep Reading

We dont know the mysteries of the algorithm. But heres what we do know: it runs on a math equation that mirrors real people reading real books, because its using their data. This helps readers find books they enjoy. People can debate whether those books are high quality or literary or whatever. But Amazon knows what people want to read.

This amazing algorithm is a powerful tool. As long as it’s used fairly, it will be a good thing for authors and for readers. It keeps old and new books flowing. It helps keep folks reading, and so it holds hope for the future of books, including mine.

Lets make our words count — J.B.