Friday, July 05, 2013

Guest Post by Kevin Hardman

Joe sez: If you've missed the previous guest blogs, they've been fascinating and informative.

You can read Shantnu Tiwari talking about publishing cliches here:

You can read Mike Dennis talking about noir here:

You can read Douglas Dorow talking about the publishing game here:

You can read Iain Rob Wright's 10 self-publishing tips here:

You can read about Tracy Sharp talking about just doing it here:

You can read about AJ Abbiati's Transliterator here:

You can read G.E. Nolly's fifty year journey as a writer here:

Now here's Kevin Hardman...

Zen and The Art of Amazon rankings…Part Deux!

For those who are interested, the first "Zen" post is on my blog and can be found here.

Several years ago, I had an intern assigned to me for a few weeks at the office. I'm an easy-going guy and wasn't trying to push him too hard, so I gave him one of the easiest assignments I had available.  It was essentially a cut-and-paste job, essentially no way to mess up - and yet he did.  It was a complete no-brainer, and he screwed it up from top to bottom. The title? Wrong!  Headings? Wrong! And so on... (Oh, and just so that there's no misunderstanding, these were bits of information that I gave him, e.g., "The title should be _______.") He just didn't get it.

In that same vein, it seems like I've been struggling in some ways to find my sea legs in terms of writing.  I feel like my journey as an indie author has consisted of one boneheaded mistake after another, particularly when dealing with ebooks and the ranking system on Amazon.

For instance, my novel Sensation was released on Kindle on May 3, 2013.  I was blessed to find early success, and the book seemed to resonate with readers such that it climbed the rankings relatively quickly. (It's a superhero story for all ages, although it may have particular appeal for teens/young adults.)  Like a lot of authors, though, the rankings became like crack cocaine to me, and I found myself checking them constantly.  I was forever jonesing, needing a fix every few minutes in order for everything to be right in my world.

Thus it was in that frame of mind that I initially noticed an issue with my book's ranking. After calling Amazon to address the matter (which is noted in the first Zen post on my blog), I came away knowing a little bit more about the algorithms used to determine rank.  However, I didn't learn nearly enough.  You see, the first issue I had dealt with rankings in the "Books" category (I also publish print editions of my work on Createspace); shortly thereafter, I noticed an issue with rankings in the "Kindle" categories.

Basically, my book wasn't ranking in any Kindle categories at all.  That seemed ludicrous to me, because - based on my overall rank in the Paid Kindle Store - I should have been comfortably positioned in several areas.  That being the case, I contacted KDP Support with the intention of putting somebody in a chokehold until I got some acceptable answers.  Well, it turns out that I had apparently neglected to list a publisher for my book.  If you don't list a publisher, guess what? You don't get a ranking in any Kindle categories, no matter how well your book is selling!

Needless to say, I was somewhat nonplussed.  What the hell does selecting a publisher have to do with whether or not you rank in your chosen categories?  Regardless, when I double-checked, they were right: I hadn't chosen a publisher. (In my defense, I had first published the book via Createspace and had clicked on the "create a Kindle version" button which was supposed to transfer all relevant info over to the Kindle edition.) I quickly remedied the situation, and a short time later I began ranking in Kindle categories.

Thereafter, all was well in the Kingdom of Hardman - until another dragon reared its fearsome head.  This time, I noticed that - while I was now ranking on Kindle in my chosen categories - other books in the same genre were ranking in a different Kindle category.  In short, other superhero novels  were ranking in a category shown as:

     Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Fantasy > Superhero

Frankly speaking, I hadn't come across this when I went through the list of available categories.  Therefore, I thought that it was perhaps something automatically created by Amazon for books within a certain genre.  Moreover, I knew that time was an element of the ranking algorithm, so I hoped that after a few days my book would appear on this other list.  When that didn't happen, I contacted KDP and the conversation went something like this:

KH: I'm trying to find out why my book isn't ranking in this particular category when it's clearly part of this specific genre.

KDP:  It's not ranking in that category because you didn't select that category for it.

KH:  That's true, but I didn't select it because I went through the entire list of available categories and couldn't find it. There ain't no such animal; it just doesn't exist.

KDP:  Oh no, it exists.  You just can't see it, and you can't select it either.  We have to do it for you.

KH:  (After a long pause) Are you trying to make me angry?  You wouldn't like me when I'm angry...

Okay, that last line didn't happen, but I really was about ready to Hulk out because this was like a sharp stick in the eye.  How are authors supposed to know that certain categories exist (and are available) if they're not on the requisite list?  Long story short, KDP added the category in question for me. At this juncture, all should have been well in the Kingdom of Hardman, but then another monster invaded my lands.

This time, it related to my other book, Warden, a paranormal/horror story.  Once again, though, it related to rankings; as before, there was a category that I felt my book should be in, but it wasn't an available option during the publishing process.  The category at issue was:

Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Children's eBooks > Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror > Spine-Chilling Horror

I contacted KDP again (I know - I should be on a first-name basis with the staff there by now), and they were kind enough to add the category for me.

However, after a couple of days had gone by, I noticed that the requested category still wasn't showing up for my book.  Therefore - guess what? - I reached out to KDP again trying to ascertain what the problem was.  This time, it turns out that my keywords were preventing the category from applying to my book.  Apparently, I had chosen "teen" and "young adult" as keywords, but they are incompatible with this category.  More specifically,  KDP says that a book can't appear in both the "children" and "teen" category.  (Despite KDP's limited view of the subject, I personally feel that the children and teen categories can overlap, and that - like my other novel - Warden is a book for all ages.)

As you might suspect, I went back and deleted the offending keywords.  Now here I sit, calmly waiting to see if the proper categories will finally attach for this book. (I'm keeping my fingers crossed...)

In retrospect, I feel that being an indie author by definition involves a steep learning curve (and keep in mind that I have only discussed one issue - rankings - in this post).  Yet, despite all of my bungling, I've still managed to achieve a modicum of success.  Sensation was able to achieve a #1 ranking within a month of being published and, as I write this, has managed to pull off the literary hat trick and is currently ranked #1 in three categories:

Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,981 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
·         #1 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Comics & Graphic Novels > Graphic Novels > Fantasy
·         #1 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Fantasy > Superhero
·         #1 in Books > Comics & Graphic Novels > Graphic Novels > Fantasy

On its part, Warden has continued to perform respectably and is currently ranked as follows:

Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #18,118 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
·         #44 in Books > Children's Books > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Spine-Chilling Horror
·         #83 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Teens > Horror

In essence, I guess I'm proof that you can make mistakes and still achieve a measure of success as an author.  I'm blessed to be in the position that I'm in, and to have had so many people - readers, authors, etc. - support me and encourage my work.

Last but not least, I really have to take my hat off to the KDP Support team.  I know I made fun of them in this post to a certain extent, but they've been nothing but professional, courteous and supportive in answering my questions and helping me muddle my way through this morass that we call indie publishing.  I'm sure at this point they are sick of hearing from me (I just fired off another email to them while drafting this blog post), but they really are world class in my opinion.

Joe sez: There's a fine line to walk between being obsessive and being informed.

I think all authors at one point or another get caught up in watching their Amazon ranks. I used to do so frequently. Now I limit it to when I'm running promotions or releasing a new title. Like reading reviews, watching rank just isn't necessary, and you can drive yourself nuts trying to figure it out.

That said, paying modest attention to how your books are doing can help you catch problems if/when they arise.

I congratulate Kevin on his success, and am glad he's worked things out. But I also encourage him, and all authors, to unplug once and a while. Your books will continue to sell without you checking on them constantly.

It's also worth noting that sales rise and fall depending on too many factors to count, but there usually is a gradual decline in sales over time. This decline can be countered by doing promotions (BookBub and ebookbooster) and releasing more titles. Tweeting constantly about the one book you have for sale isn't going to make it go viral. And lapsing into panic and depression because you fell out of the Top 100 in your genre is silly. My titles have bounced around quite a bit in ranking, and have been doing so for years.

You don't have control over your ranking, or your sales, and worrying is a useless emotion. Instead, focus on what you do control. Any other path leads to madness...