The Seedy Underbelly of Amazon Publishing
Why I'm starting to bite the hand that "feeds" me.
Well, folks, Andrés Cruciani of Toho Publishing here, and there's a lot to report on the status of our publishing company, so let's just jump straight in.
As with most people in the United States, I've been a long-time customer of Amazon. Who knows how many thousands of dollars I've given them at this point. But, it's one thing to be a customer of Amazon, and a completely different thing to be a seller on Amazon. This I'm discovering as we publish novels and short stories through Amazon's KDP (on our quest to become the best independent publisher).
A couple of days ago, I decided to publish a short story on Amazon. Reason being that I wanted to get to know Amazon's Kindle Select Program (and do so without sacrificing a complete novel to the experience). You can learn more about Kindle Select and here. The story I chose to publish is called "The Scientist", a story about a scientist who thinks you have to suffer in order to achieve greatness. The story was originally published in Green Mountain Review.
So, I published it, and here's where things got interesting.
TAKEAWAY 1 of 3: Things on Amazon happen fast. (Also, btw, I'm burying the lede. Takeaway 3 is where the real gold is.)
First of all, it was surprisingly quick to have the story up. In fact, if I hadn't messed up my category keywords, the story would have gone up even sooner.
LESSON LEARNED: Don't put other authors in your category keywords. Even if you really write like Cormac McCarthy, don't put his name in there—Amazon will reject your publication as fast as my sixth grade crush. (My friend: "Andrés likes you. Do you like him?" Crush: "No.")
TAKEAWAY 2 of 3: You will get reviewed. So your work better be good. (Getting to the lede.)
Second, we got a download and review fairly quickly. Now, this is no big deal to the authors with thousands upon thousands of fans following them. But we're pretty much starting from scratch over here, so it was surprising how quickly this review arrived. In case you're curious, here's the review, memorialized as a jpeg star in this black ether we call the internet:
Bah. Four out of five! Could've been worse. But 4 stars as the first review? You're killing us. Remember what mom used to say?
So, in case you're curious, here's our response:
(Hopefully that wasn't too barbed.)
But, really, here's the whole reason I'm writing this post:
TAKEAWAY 3 of 3: Amazon is a cutthroat, seedy place. (The lede.)
So, after the story was published and the 4/5 star was tacked onto it (to live in the starry internet its eternal life), I started to watch the story "find its home".
Now, by "find its home" I mean the Amazon algorithm found the categories (and sub-categories and sub-sub-categories, etc.) to which the book/story belonged. This seems to take a day or two.
The story found its way into the following categories:
You should notice too something amazing: the story was working its way up the ranks! And, frankly, we hadn't even sold any. Remember: this was just an experiment to test the Kindle Select waters. We weren't trying to make any profit off this (yet), to the point that we hadn't even done any marketing. Just one single Facebook post. That's all the story got! And yet there it sat, in 32nd place. Not bad!
Well, as any publishing noob would do, I watched the charts like a highschool me watching my beeper (for beeps from my highschool crush). And (now after pushing the story onto a few folks) watched "The Scientist" climb to this:
25th place! It was amazing! I feel like people aim to get into 25th place and still don't make it. Meanwhile, we hadn't even tried and there we were. Well, gee golly whiz, we were excited! (And not just me this time either.)
But then, the thought struck me: what stories are in 24th place? 23rd? ... 1st? Could our story beat them? Could we outrank all of the 15 minute reads?
So, I went onto Amazon to research and saw what I'll share in just one second. However, before I tell you what's noteworthy, I challenge you to see it yourself. If you were trying to get top spot with a short story in the Kindle Short Reads (1-11 pages) category, what would immediately strike you as odd about the following?
What you might notice is that:
1) 1st and 3rd place are both in Spanish. Very much seems like this category is for English titles. (If you don't think so, then what about all the super-read short stories that are written in Chinese? Arabic? French? Russian?)
2) More importantly, 2nd and 4th place are both NOVELS. That's right. These are "1-11 pages" or "15 minute reads". Yet they're entire books. Not only that, they're written by very well performing authors (Charlane Harris and W.E.B. Griffen). You should be asking yourself,
Very simple: we do! Why? Because how the heck is a short story going to compete with entire novels written by very successful authors? Simple: you can't!
Now, you might think, "Well, it's the algorithm's fault. They just misplaced a few books. No big deal."
Well, that's what I thought at first too. Except that then you keep going down the line of "15 minute reads" and you see this:
It's pages and pages of this. Contenders that are not only not 15-minute reads, not just things written by bigshot authors, not just books written in other languages (good grief), but some of them aren't even stories or books at all! Look at #8. It's a checklist!!! And there were multiple of these!
Now, you can still think, "Well, again, the algorithm's not perfect. The poor thing is doing the best it can!" But there's something else to consider:
Many of these "short reads" are published by big-time publishers! Look at this:
Which tells me, maybe Amazon's not totally in on it (though somehow, I kind of doubt that—we're talking some serious money here), but Penguin certainly is. They're intentionally miscategorizing their books. Why? Because—ok, I'm giving away the secret formula here— there isn't much competition in Kindle Short Reads. Which means that if you can get categorized there and you have a bit of money to spend on, say, advertising (or giant email lists, social media, etc.), then you can easily rank #1 on this list (or at least close to it). Getting ranked high (especially #1) leads to more eyeballs on your book/story, which thereby leads to Amazon promoting your book more (the algorithm likes popular stuff). So your rank gets solidified/increased and then you can brag about being a #1 best seller (even though it's in a tiny category) to actual humans (who also like popular stuff) and then you *tada* you sell more books.
So, someone over at Penguin is lying about these books (really? part three in a TRILOGY is one page long???) in order to get them to rank higher. Other publishers are doing it too. Still others are miscategorizing their books in order to rank—since when is a checklist about fiction itself fiction (or literature for that matter)?
Which means that, once again, the little guy gets screwed. Which tells us that Amazon has become/is becoming another playpen for the big publishers and now for the authors who have already established themselves on Amazon. It's a ruse. And, if it's not a ruse, then fix it Amazon. Police these lists so that others with, say, actual short stories stand a chance.
By the way, you might be asking yourself, "So what did you about it?"
Well, for one thing, I wrote this post. For another, I reported every novel that was miscategorized in that list. I reported every checklist and every children's book written in Spanish (btw, I have NOTHING against Spanish—I speak it—but there are the same categories in Spanish, which also btw, those same books are currently listed in too). I reported every novel that claimed to be one or two pages long, so that we, the new kids to the block stand a chance. And we encourage you to do the same! (And for the record, we are not haters, we just want to level the playing field.)
To report a miscategorized work, find the feedback section on the book (towards the bottom of the page. Click on "report this content as inappropriate". State why.