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  • Susan May

You can't bank rank!

This is a post for authors not readers. But readers, you may find the behind-the-scenes interesting. Many independent authors these days obsess over how to find readers and where they rank on the Amazon store. They believe where you rank on Amazon makes a difference to finding readers. I don't agree.

I don’t blog much about the business side of my writing anymore but yesterday I ran a horror box-set cross-promo with four other successful horror writers. One of them Joe Konrath, wrote a very significant post about the effect on sales of Amazon book and author ranks.

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I tried to leave a comment on Joe's post, but my comments were too long. Well, I’m a writer, so when I get on a topic, I write a lot. So I’m posting this on my blog, so I can share with my fellow authors some of the things I’ve learned in the last five years since I started self-publishing.

I've been writing seriously for eight years and I've got three still unpublished books to prove it. So I'm no spring chicken in this game anymore. They say it takes about ten years to gain success in this business, if ever. And whether you go the indie route or traditional publishing I figure that's pretty much right. Unless your lucky and have a hit, but don't count on that. Count on the marathon.

After several years in the top selling lists and twice for two weeks in the top 100, thanks to some weird Amazon algorithm, I reached the same conclusion as Joe's post. RANKINGS DON'T AFFECT SALES. Maybe marginally but you cannot tell or even take that to the bank. In fact, you can't bank rankings. They might impress dinner guests but they won't pay for the food.

I'm going to reveal some truths. January last year, two authors and I were picked up by an Amazon algorithm. One of each of our books got shot up into the top 100 overall ranks on Amazon for two whole weeks. I think my top rank was #63 or something. I knew we were somehow experiencing the same thing because each day I moved up, they were near me in rank. Then if my rank degraded a little, so did theirs. As anyone would, I checked my sales every couple of hours. Obsessively. This was with our chosen books at full price. Mine was $6.99. So happy days. We were all in the same sub-category, so it had something to do with that. We also all started to appear in each others 'also boughts' on the front page.

So I correctly deduced that wherever we were being promoted, maybe at the back of books or an algo wave of some kind, we were together. So I wrote to these two and asked them did they know what was going on? Nope, it was as much a surprise to them as it was to me.

Exactly at 2 weeks, whatever algo was loving us disappeared and our amazing sales shriveled instantly. Our ranks returned back to normal over the following days.

This proved to me what I had suspected all along... that this chase to gain 'visibility' was an urban myth.

Further proof came last November 2017, as one of my books was ending its run in Prime Reads. Zon must have shot a couple of reminder newsletters out that certain books were leaving the program and mine must have featured.

I wake up to discover I'm ranked #14 in the whole store. My inbox lights up with emails from author friends saying congrats on your success. But there was no success. Keep reading to learn why.

That book stayed in the top #100 for about a week. For several days I was #1 Horror author on Amazon above Stephen King. Sometimes I'm in the top 10, you bounce around, but this was the first time at #1.

The thing was though my sales didn't change. I didn't sell anymore that week, maybe a couple of books more than normal, and I mean a couple. This proved absolutely to me that ranking doesn't matter. It doesn't feed in a loop to keep your sales. So if you're spending money to gain visibility, donate that money to charity because it's just going down a drain for the most part or into Amazon's pockets with AMS. If you are making a profit then all good, keep at it.

You can use it to boast to your readers who don't know what it all means, but that's about it. I don't give rank a second thought unless we are doing a promotion like we did with our newsletters yesterday. In fact when I hit #1 in the horror ranks I didn't tell anyone because I knew it wasn't real. I don't want to brag about something that isn't true. I didn't sell more books than Stephen King in horror. I probably sold enough books to rank at #20 to #30 that week.

You can't bank rank. So what do I care where I am in the charts? It's a fun screenshot and that is it.

I believe ranks and even sales are akin to driving around suburbs and pondering lifestyles. You drive into the expensive area with the mansions and you think, these guys are rich. But are they? They look rich because externally that big house is mighty fine. However, you don't know their debt ratio. Maybe their cash poor, working their butts off and stressed all the time to keep this illusionary lifestyle. Who wants that? It's transitory usually and stressful.

Then you drive through a less prestigious street, middle income and these houses are okay, nothing to aspire to but the people have a nice rhythm to their lives, a balance, and their debt ratio isn't terrible. They're working toward financial freedom and they know it’s going to take a few decades but they're sensible. And they want to enjoy life. So, it's a gradual increase of wealth.

Then you take a drive through the lower socio-economic areas and this is not where you want to live. But some of these guys might actually be happy because there's no stress. This suburb is near a beach and they can go for a surf every day and sit in the sun. (We have areas like this in my city with loads of apartments, so not expensive). Occasionally they'll do the odd job, but life is not bad. Some of these aspire to middle income because they imagine that's where it’s at and they can dream of the big houses in the rich area. But a few are quite happy where they are. "No stress, man. Living the dream."

And this is indie publishing these days. You don't know what goes on behind closed rank doors. Some authors might look as though they are making a fortune but how much are they spending on promotion? That's why I would also take some of the Author's Earnings' reports with a grain of salt. I've just shown this with my Prime Reads story that you can't measure accurately from rank. Not to mention it's gross sales. The report doesn't show net. Net profit is the money with which you feed your family. Net is the important figure.

They might be a six figure author but are they a net six figure author? Am I a net six figure author? Yes, for several years, so I know what I'm saying. And this is the first and last time I will ever talk about my numbers but I'm trying to make a point her to help everyone.

I sell less books than top #1,000 ranked book authors but my books are $5.99 to $6.99, so I don't need to sell so many. And my goal is to gain readers who will buy my books and read them, not leave them on their kindle because they've only paid 99c or downloaded them for free. I spend good time and money to create the most enjoyable read and experience I can, so I'm not giving my work away for no good reason. Not to mention I don't have to sell many to get into that six figure income bracket to which every author aspires.

I'm not saying others shouldn't sell their books differently or this is the only way. It's just my way and until it doesn't work, that's my strategy. When it doesn't work, I will change because that's good business and I'm always testing things and keeping an eye on the marketplace. That's also good business.

And the time spent on promotions, you need to factor that. Our newsletter swap yesterday wasn't a big thing, but it still took time away from writing. Well worth it just to hang out with great authors but this is a factor to consider in everything you do related to your publishing business.

And this is a business now. Behind a lot of successful indie author brands these days are business minds. In my previous life, I built and ran a multi-site, national, multi-million dollar franchise business in Australia. (Video game stores in the nineties if you're curious. Entrepreneur me saw a niche in 1993). So when I came to indie-publishing back in 2013, I brought that acumen, marketing and business knowledge. And the patience and determination. No money behind me though. I'd been a mom for thirteen years and hadn't worked outside the home since 2000 when I had my first child. But I had that advantage over many other authors.

I see a lot of the top authors in my genres have a business background. Each time you strive to push up in the ranks, there are a bunch of business-minded entrepreneurial writers determined to maintain their sales position. I'm one of them. Most now have a war chest and deep pockets. And you don't know how much each of them spend to gain sales or the size of their mailing list and how much they spent on that asset. You only see the ranks and the mansions.

Most will be doing very well, making hundreds of thousands but they are not making what the ranks say (most of them, maybe there's an outlier). I think I read a blog post somewhere that a top author who'd made millions was retiring as of this year because she didn't like the grind of churning out books. And why wouldn't you? You've made your money, written sixty books or so and if you're smart you've invested that money, so you have other income streams.

This all doesn't mean that there isn't room in Mansion Road for others. It just takes patience, study of the business and good books. The success of these big name authors was made that way.

This business turns on a day. One day you're selling nothing and the next thousands a month. And you don't know when that day is coming. I also don't think its wise to get too big for your boots because fate just loves to play with hubris. So I wouldn't tempt the gods to teach you humility either once you're up there.

In saying all this, (and thank you for reading this far) I've learned some lessons recently that I'd like to share. In 2017, I spent far too much time building mailing lists, hiring help that didn't work out (I'm back to just me), staring at spreadsheets, creating systems and reading more and more posts and kindle board threads on what works and what doesn't.

What I let slide was my focus on writing and my family and health. And I grew sadder and more frustrated every day. Now I have perspective. I spend some time working on advertising & building my mailing list, because if you don't you can only count on luck. And I don't like luck. It's fleeting and unreliable. But I never miss a day now of writing. The time is allocated. I also take 40 minutes a day to exercise and keep my body strong. And my family is my priority! I'm not going to feel guilty for not spending time with them. I write sometimes when they're around and doing their own thing but most of the time I down tools and we are together.

I've struggled to write my latest book, ironically entitled Best Seller (here's hoping). It's out in now. (If you want to join my readers' club so you know when the next book is out click here.) I think it's turned our pretty great and is about publishing but with my usual horror twist.

Some of the many reasons why its taken me nearly eighteen months to complete are highlighted in this post. Distractions, mostly. Not doing the job I'm meant to do, which is sit my ass down and write. Never, ever again is that happening to me.

My narrator has been lined up for six months to narrate. When I told him all the challenges I'd had, some being experimenting with new programs to help speed the process (some did help, some did not), he said to me, "Good on you for persevering." To which, I replied, "That's my job as a writer to persevere." And if you're a writer, that is a big part of the job. No shortcuts anywhere that I've seen.

So here's a few tip for 2018, get some balance in your life so you can do this writing gig forever. You don't want to burn out. That includes exercising, spending time with loved ones and not obsessing over who is doing well and who isn't, or what reports say, or listening to what anyone claims is gospel. You can't even get a straight answer from Amazon reps on how things work. Experiment yourself and only believe what you can verify.

The only thing in your control is that book and your attitude. You'd better love writing, because this business is savage and will mess with your mind. Don't let it. And don't chase fairytales. Sometimes those doors lead to nightmares.

Just be happy where you are at any given moment. Don't compare yourself to others because we are all at different stages of our careers. Easy to share all these when you are doing well and have built a little something in this industry, I hear you say. But for the most part, I thought this way before. I've been in business, succeeded and failed, and so I know nothing is forever. And you are going to get ups and downs.

I have for the most part always focused on quality writing. That's why I don't have that many books. It takes me a long time to get them so I'm happy readers will not be disappointed. Oh, and listen to Joe Konrath and his blog post. I listened to him back in 2012, when I found myself considering whether I should go indie. He was right then, and he's right now. So I owe him a debt of gratitude.

Go write, enjoy yourself and care about readers not ranks.

Here's my latest book released beginning of March 2018 that taught me a few lessons.



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