How many books does Amazon sell on Kindle each day? How closely does it follow the 80/20 rule, in which a few top sellers account for a huge percentage of total sales? Is there a classic long tail — and is it even worth being on it?

Amazon is incredibly opaque with the details, even when you’re publishing on their system.

The day after its debut, my story The Variant briefly reached #18 on the Kindle bestsellers list. While that was exciting, I still don’t know exactly what it means.

Like other Amazon statistics, it seems to get recalculated hourly, but there’s no indication whether it’s a pure number of sales that hour (which would make for very erratic swings) or some sort of sliding average over time. Based on how it’s handled for physical books, it’s probably a combination:

Only the top 10,000 books are updated every hour and the ranking does not depend upon the actual number of books sold, but rather, on a comparison against the sales figures of the other 9,999 books within that same hour. Simultaneously, a trending calculation is applied to arrive at a computerized sales trajectory. So, hypothetically, a book that held a ranking of 2,000 at 2pm and 3,000 at 3pm, might hold a 4,000 ranking at 4pm, even if it actually sold MORE books between 3-4 than it did between 2-3.

All I really know is that the day I hit #18, I sold about 500 copies. So my hunch is that titles around that spot in the list (say, 15 to 25) might sell around 500 copies per day. That is, they probably sell 500 as opposed to 50 or 5,000. I’m only try to get a sense of how many zeroes are involved.

Stephenie Meyer is rich

twilight salesAs it happens, all four of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books fall into this range, and have been here for quite a while. They’re priced at $5.50 (for the first two) and $9.99 (for the second two).

If each is selling around 500 copies each day, that means the four of them are generating $15,400 per day, or $107,800 per week. Granted, that 500 is a guess, but it’s probably a number with two zeroes.

We don’t know the split between Meyer, her publisher and Amazon — it’s possible that the retailer is deliberately taking a loss on the Twilight books in order to woo Kindle buyers — but it’s clearly a nice bit of money with no paper, shipping or inventory costs.1

Worst bestsellers

Unlike the iTunes App Store, Amazon doesn’t distinguish between free and paid content on their Kindle bestseller list. In fact, 19 out of the top 50 books are free. There’s nothing wrong with free, but it’s a semantic and tactical mistake to include them on a “bestseller” list.

The current system keeps Serial in the #1 slot for no real reason other than being free. I envision many brand-new Kindle owners powering up their devices for the first time, and wanting to download a book to test out the service.

Where do they find a book? The bestseller list. And look! The bestseller is free!

This isn’t a knock on Serial or its authors. In fact, one of the writers has a useful post of his experiences with publishing on the Kindle. He notes that…

The freebies are being downloaded and read. There isn’t money changing hands, but branding and name-recognition — two essentials for every successful author — are happening.

Free should always be a choice. But I’d argue the free preview feature on every Kindle title is designed for exactly this sort of try-before-you-buy. If after forty pages you haven’t convinced a reader to pony up at least 99 cents, I don’t know that “branding” is really the issue.

By letting bestsellers be free, Amazon also makes it easy to game the system. The Cook’s Illustrated How-to-Cook Library got into the top 20 as a free book, then jacked up the price to $9.99. 2 Letting author-publishers change the price is smart; letting them monkey with your bestseller list is dumb.

I’d propose Amazon keep the zero-price option, but move free titles to their own list. After all, nothing else in Amazon’s ranking system has to compete with free.

But until they make that change, I’m considering organizing an online flash mob for The Variant. For one predetermined hour, I’ll set the price to zero and invite everyone I know to “buy” it. I’m curious how high I could get on the list.

Overall impressions

As I noted in my earlier post about formatting for Kindle, getting a book published on Amazon’s platform is surprisingly straightforward. But I really hoped for better reporting. Should one raise or lower the price? Do ads work? Do reviews help?

Without better information, it’s tough to make any of these decisions.

The Kindle isn’t currently the (mythical?) indie goldmine the iTunes App Store has become. Despite Amazon’s first-mover advantage, there is clearly opportunity for competitors, like Google, Apple or Sony.

More pressingly, there’s a need for better international ebook distribution. The Kindle is U.S.-only, likely due to do rights issues. A European solution would be great; a global version would be better. My e-Junkie/PayPal system for pdfs and ePubs is just barely workable. If I could graft it onto a trusted store like Amazon or iTunes, everyone would feel more comfortable.

  1. Yes, clearly Meyer and her publisher are making great money off the printed versions of the books, which probably account for 95%+ of sales. But the Kindle sales aren’t insignificant.
  2. Indeed, many of the reviews are some variety of “I can’t believe it’s free!”