Why do so many bad books sell on Amazon? This is the question many authors are asking these days. There are far more bad books than good books (which is always true of any entertainment field), but what’s different this time is that low-quality stories often seem to sell better than good stuff.
“Low-quality” isn’t a judgment about taste, reading level, or genre. I mean that books with poor writing, obvious filler, nonexistent characterization, and sometimes entire copy-pasted passages get into the Top 100 of popular categories. As a reader, when I fall for one of these top-charting books, I find myself thinking, This book shouldn’t be anywhere close to the top.
How Can So Many Bad Books Sell on Amazon?
Aren’t there any moderators?
Let’s talk about Amazon, the indie author’s self-serving best friend. Anyone who wants to sell fiction has to sell on Amazon, or else they’re just nibbling around the edges with Kobo, B&N, etc.
Paid advertising is not an option for most authors; it’s a challenge to break even on a $3 product, much less make a profit. Instead, authors have had to rely on Amazon to show their books through also-boughts and category charts.
For a while, this worked well. Amazon would show you books you truly wanted to buy, and those books were often more creative or served niches better than traditionally-published books. But now, Amazon’s recommendations aren’t based on quality or relevance, or even sales performance.
What they show you is mostly based on:
1. How similar something is to books you have already bought.
1. How recently it was published.
Yes, Books “Expire” Now
Amazon actively suppresses the visibility of works more than 90 days old. Even if books sell well and get many good reviews during that period, wham! They fall off the cliff on Day 31, 61, or 91. (This is well covered on kboards. Search for “30 day cliff,” and you’ll find an avalanche of intel.)
Obviously, books don’t suddenly lose quality after a set number of days. Amazon does this because it makes them more money, the same reason they do anything. For an author to stay visible, algorithm-gaming has to happen, and that gaming starts at the product level.
Publish Something New, Every 30 Days (Even if It Stinks)
Currently, the best way to stay visible on Amazon in category fiction, such as YA, mystery, or romance, is to release every 30 days.
This is because Amazon promotes new books as rising superstar or hot new trend. But after 30–90 days, your book is kicked from the showroom to the stockroom, where only people who specifically search for it will ever find it.
Authors simply can’t write fresh, imaginative, well-crafted novels in 30 days. But authors can manufacture copycat stories with interchangeable parts in 30 days (again, not judging—this is a paraphrased quote from a Harlequin writer).
Some of the most successful genre names are assembly lines of ghostwriters, editors, and trend-scrapers. The thought process goes like this:
Shark shifters are popular right now, so let’s bang out a shark-shifter romance and call it Deep Blue Billionaire, and stuff the subtitle with keywords. Just copy the plot from last month’s tiger-shifter billionaire romance, make the girl a maid instead of a personal chef, and change the names and city.
A ghostwriter will fill in the outlined plot. It will get a cursory copyedit. A cover designer makes it pretty and clickable at thumbnail-size. And that’s a product. It works… for about 30 days.
I can’t blame these assembly lines for existing. They’re playing the game the best they can. No author can afford to invest their time in quality if they’re actively penalized for it.
The Algorithms Sell You What You’ve Already Bought
The recommendations reward this book-fabrication process. If I buy The French Duke’s Dilemma by bestseller Author A, and they’ll show me The German Prince’s Problem by savvy copycat Author B. The plot points will be exactly the same, perhaps with the covers done by the same designer.
Amazon looks at the newest book that is the closest match to what’s in my purchase history. It’s skin-deep and simple, but it must work because Amazon keeps doing it.
That is, if you get organic also-boughts at all.
Why Have Those Also-Boughts Disappeared?
Aren’t also-boughts what drive sales? Why did Amazon take them away?
I’m speculating here, but I saw an article from 2017 that claimed e-book sales were stagnating.
If true, this is a problem for Amazon, which needs growth to keep corporate people happy. They have to make more money, and if it’s not coming from book-buyers, it has to come from somewhere else.
When did they roll out AMS ads? Was that… 2017, perhaps?
I find it quite possible they removed the organic also-boughts to “encourage” authors to take out in-house ads (Amazon Marketing Services / Amazon Ads). This is the row of sponsored products that often replaces the organic product recommendations. Authors pay for those.
Now, when a book is sold, Amazon can mine 3 different resources:
- The Books. Amazon gets a commission.
- Readers. Their data and profiles, to sell them more product.
- Authors, who must make up for the lack of organic visibility with ads they pay Amazon for. Since authors aren’t generally great marketers, many probably pay more per borrow or sale than they make, but just don’t keep track of it. Cha-ching!
All this encourages lower-quality books to be produced and shown to buyers.
But if the Books Stink, Why Are People Still Buying Them?
People compromise and have poor impulse control—factors marketers exploit regularly. Readers grab junk food over real food because when they’re hungry, they’re hungry now. To make it worse, Amazon’s decreasing delivery times and increasing list of conveniences are training us to be impatient, spoiled children.
So What Can You Do to Compete With All the Junk-Food Books?
Gaining visibility at a low-enough cost to make a profit on sales is the entire game. Here are a few techniques that are working in my sphere, which is dark fantasy and fantasy romance:
1. Serialize Your Fiction
Amazon wants something every 30 days? Fine. Serialize your works. Break them up into 20–30k word installments and publish them every 4 weeks. Is it ideal? Of course not. You’ll get 3-starred by some people for putting out incomplete stories, but that’s better than getting no visibility at all.
To test, you can take an old work that’s not selling and chop it up. Don’t change anything, because you’d be putting out multiple versions of the same book and confusing people. Just re-issue the pieces with some new covers and see what happens. Amazon doesn’t care if what you publish is 2,000 words or 200,000 words, as long as it comes every 30 days.
2. Cross-Promote With Other Authors
Use newsletter swaps and reciprocal Facebook posts. These are becoming more and more important, now that Amazon is not giving books organic traffic. If my niece loved Detective Manny & The Dazzling Diamonds, chances are I’d also buy Super-Sleuth Sammy & The Enchanting Emeralds. Reach out to other authors. They’re all in the same situation. Despite what you may feel, they’re not your competition. They’re your allies.
3. Record Your Own Audiobook
This is not to put on Audible, but as free content for places you can’t otherwise reach. Upload it to iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, YouTube, everywhere you can think of. The purpose is to get more people aware of what you do. You don’t even have to do the whole book, because the function is exposure. You can read novellas, short stories, etc. Just be organized and link back to your book or website.
4. Start a Patreon or Other Subscription Site
There is a lot of info on how to do this already, so I won’t get into it here. Even if you don’t have that many patrons, you will have a Review Army which will give you those necessary 5–10 first reviews to bump your Amazon rank for new releases. Your podcast could integrate with a Patreon easily.
I hope this at least gives you some insight on what’s going on. I don’t think the way Amazon operates is sustainable, but it’s what we have to work with now.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What tactics have you tried to gain visibility with your on-sale books? Tell me in the comments!