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Pre-Orders, Sticking on Amazon, and Hitting Best Seller Lists

| Posted in Amazon Kindle Sales, Tips and Tricks |

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For a while now, you’ve been able to upload your ebook early on Amazon, Kobo, Apple, and some of the other sites, listing it for pre-order 90 days (Amazon) to a year (iBooks) ahead of time, as many of the traditional publishers do with their titles.

In most cases, you need to have a dummy file as part of the process, but some of the distributors are able to get you into stores now with “asset-less” pre-orders, meaning all you need is the title and book description. You don’t even need a cover.

As I write this, you still need a complete .mobi file for Amazon. Lots of people use temporary files (I put a rough draft up there when I did the pre-order for my last Dragon Blood book). You just need to make sure you upload the final draft at least ten days before the publication date on Amazon, because everything gets locked up in that last ten days.

But the real question is…

Should you list your ebooks for pre-order?

I’m going to make part of this equation easy: for all other sites besides Amazon, the answer seems to be yes, if you can swing it and deliver it on time (even if you don’t deliver it on time, there’s not a huge punishment for a delay at those stores).

It probably won’t make a difference if you don’t have a following yet, but if you have a series that’s selling well (or selling at all) on Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and/or Kobo, then having a pre-order can help you get sales while you’re fresh in the readers’ minds (i.e. If they finish Book 3, and see Book 4 available as a pre-order, even though the publication date is two months away, they can commit to it right then, instead of possibly forgetting about it by the time it’s released.)

On Amazon, there’s a little more to consider.

Pre-Orders on Amazon, Extra Considerations

On some of the other sites, your sales supposedly don’t count until release day, meaning you can get a big rankings boost on release day, perhaps enough to propel you to the top of the charts in your category, thus resulting in more visibility.

I say “supposedly,” because when I had Blade’s Memory up for pre-order on Kobo and Barnes & Noble, I peeked into those stores, and the book did have a sales ranking and was already showing up in the steampunk categories. I didn’t notice a huge surge on release day in either of those stores. (I never bothered looking in the iBooks store, because the Dragon Blood books have never sold as well there as they did on Barnes & Noble and Amazon.)

So I can’t say from personal experience that you’ll get a big boost if you sell hundreds or thousands of early copies in these stories (but I’ve never sold thousands anywhere except for Amazon, so maybe that’s part of the deal). I would love to hear from others on this matter, so please leave a comment with your results, if you’re doing well with pre-orders in the non-Amazon stores.

But to get back to Amazon…

When you list your ebook for pre-order there, it gets a sales ranking, as soon as you start selling copies. Even though you don’t get paid for those sales until the book goes live, it’s moving up and down in the charts, based on how it’s doing from day to day. You will not get a big surge in ranking when all of your pre-orders turn into sales on release day. You’ll just get credit for whatever sales you make that day.

This means that if you have a following and usually sell a lot of books on release day, it might be better not to do a pre-order on Amazon.

This is because if you can sell a lot of books over 2+ days there, you have a better chance of sticking, thanks to higher visibility in the charts, a surge of also-boughts (possibly with other new books launching at the same time), and the way their algorithms work in general. Nobody knows everything about those algorithms, but we have a lot of data to suggest that they’re designed to help books that already sell well. In addition to appearing in also-boughts and in charts, those high sellers can expect emails to go out recommending them to readers who have bought similar books.

However, if you’ve been running a pre-order, and all of those guaranteed sales from loyal readers have been spread out over a month or more, you may be less likely to stick in the rankings. You can sell a lot of books on release day (more later about when this can be super useful) and get a really nice paycheck, but you may lose out on visibility in the long run.

This is a big part of why I didn’t, until Book 5 in the Dragon Blood series, give pre-orders a try, except in the other stores and only to make sure the book released everywhere on the same day.

Why I Chose to Do a Pre-Order on Amazon for Book 5 in My Series

There are a couple of reasons why I decided to try it with Blade’s Memory (released on June 12th of this year).

First of, thanks to a BookBub ad back in January, the Book 1-3 bundle was still selling well this spring. I had a fourth book out in the series, and that was selling well too. I took some screenshots of my books hogging up the top slots in the steampunk category on Amazon there for a while. (Granted, steampunk isn’t a very competitive category, but slot hogging makes you feel good no matter what genre it’s in.)

In other words, I had a lot of people reading 1-4, but I didn’t have 5 ready yet. Since I figured it was only a matter of time before the earlier books dropped and stopped selling as well, I decided to get the cover done for Book 5, so I could take advantage of the other books’ popularity. Let people grab Book 5 while they’re still thinking of Books 1-4. So I put it up in early May and had it on pre-order for about 5 weeks. I ended up selling over 4000 early copies on Amazon (more than a thousand of those being in international stores — it was fun watching the sales drop onto my dashboard first when New Zealand hit midnight and then so on around the world).

In addition to striking while the iron was hot, I realized I didn’t really give a #*(@ about the sales ranking of a Book 5 in a series. I’ve heard other authors talk about how releasing new books in their series gives them a big boost in sales series-wide, but I’ve never noticed much of an increase in sales from that alone. I get boosts when I run advertising campaigns on the first books. Maybe a few people here and there notice a Book 5 and go back and check out Book 1, but I doubt anybody is going to jump into a new fantasy series there.

So basically, I had nothing to lose by doing the pre-order on Amazon and possibly had some sales to gain.

Here are some of the things that came out of the pre-order (in addition to sales) that I hadn’t considered ahead of time:

The book spent much longer than 30 days in the “Hot New Releases” window

Usually, a book gets 30 days to appear in the “hot new releases” window over in the sidebar of its category lists (assuming it’s first, second, or third in sales among the other new releases in that category). But my 30 days didn’t start ticking down until the official release day. My ebook was selling well enough (remember, this isn’t that competitive of a category) to hang out there from the time that I put up the pre-order in early May until mid-July when it hit 30 days after the release.

I have no way of knowing how many bonus sales you can get for appearing in that slot (and I’m sure it varies by category and book), but I always figure that any extra visibility, especially on Amazon, is a good thing and will probably result in some sales.

The also-boughts populated earlier than they would for an out-of-nowhere new release

If you publish a book through the KDP dashboard, even if you announce it to your mailing list and sell piles right off the bat, it usually takes 1-2 days for the also-boughts to populate, meaning that books appear in your book’s “also bought” window and (more importantly) your book appears in other books’ also-bought window.

In addition to wanting to appear in the Top 100 lists for your categories, you want to be in as many other authors’ also-boughts as possible, since it helps readers find you, even if they don’t browse those lists.

Lots of purchases before any reviews showed up

I’m fortunate that the reviews for the DB series have been fairly solid so far, but you never know when a reader who doesn’t like the direction you’re taking a series is going to jump in and leave a one-star review (and be the first one to do so) on a new release. That could make potential buyers hesitate. With a pre-order, you get people buying the book without being able to pre-judge it based on existing reviews. If you’re doing something drastic with the new title (cliffhanger! major character death!) and anticipate some grumpy readers, it might not be a bad idea to collect those sales before the reviews start showing up.

Now, you may be asking, were there any cons for me with the pre-order? Not really, but as expected, the fifth book never did get a big jump into the top slots on Amazon. I don’t think it did better than 600 or so in the overall sales rankings (I’ve had other things debut at sub-200), and it soon fell to 1200-2500, about the level that the fourth book had been selling at.

As I said, that was fine for me in this case, because I wasn’t expecting much of a benefit from appearing up high with a Book 5.

Would I do an Amazon pre-order for a brand new Book 1 that I was hoping would stick and sell well with the help of the algorithms? No, I would not.

Pre-Orders and Hitting Best Seller Lists

My nice little steampunk books aren’t in much danger of hitting the New York Times Bestseller list, but I can talk a bit about USA Today. Thanks to that Bookbub ad, my 99-cent boxed set hit the USA Today Top 150 list back in January. Also, I recently participated in a multi-author boxed set that allowed my lowly pen name to hit the USA Today list (the pen name only has about 500 people on her newsletter, and has been largely ignored of late, so hasn’t been selling in spades).

Pre-orders were key in making that list with the pen name boxed set.

Since all of the pre-order sales are reported on release day, this is your best bet to make a list outside of a BookBub run. Sales for consideration for a list have to be made during their less-than-one-week reporting period. It’s a very small window for USA Today and NYT, so you’ll also want to release on a Tuesday and try to get all of the sales in those first few days.

How many sales it takes to make a certain list varies depending on the competition, but to be safe, from what I’ve read, you probably need to plan for ~7K for the USA Today list and 15K+ for the NYT bestseller list. IIRC, I had about 6k in the week that the DB set made the USA Today list, but that was in the middle of January, so a time when book sales weren’t super high in general.

For the romance boxed set, even though we were doing all-new novellas, we didn’t have a lot of huge sellers in the set, so getting 7K sales during launch week seemed pretty daunting. But we put the set out at 99 cents more than two months before the release date (using a dummy file), and it gradually accumulated sales in the various stores.

I should point out that the sales ranking during the pre-order time wasn’t anything amazing (2-3K overall in the store), considering it was a 99-cent title with 12 authors. My fifth Dragon Blood was in pre-order status for part of the same time, and I remember that it was doing better in the rankings. But my book had a shorter pre-order period. A longer pre-order period can only help if you’re trying to accumulate sales before release.

The romance set ended up selling around 5200 copies before going live (about 4000 of those being in the U.S. and numbers that would count for a U.S. list).

For the release day (and a couple of days after), we had a lot of ads booked, and all of the authors plugged the set to their mailing lists. We ended up selling around 10,000 copies by the end of the week and hit the USA Today list at 88.

Is it possible we would have made it without pre-orders? It’s possible, but when you send out newsletters to your list, you never know if people will buy right away. They might wait for paydays or set the letter aside for later. With the pre-orders, you know those sales are going to drop right on release day. You also miss out on people who might have randomly come across the book during the pre-order period.

Note: You have to go wide if you want to make a list in the U.S. as Amazon sales alone aren’t enough to get you accepted. Your book sales also have to be reported by at least one other store (basically Apple or Barnes & Noble). I don’t know for sure, but I’ve heard you need to sell at least 500 copies in a week for the stores to bother to report.

Making Lists vs Sticking on Amazon

Before I sign off, I should point out that our boxed set hit as high as 94 in the overall store, but started to drop fairly quickly. I think this is in part because it was a pretty eclectic boxed set (we gave it an action-adventure-romance theme and had everything from modern day treasure hunters to my far-future space opera romance) and didn’t really hit on the popular tropes in the genre, but I’m sure part of it was also that thousands of those sales were spread out. Had we gotten all 10,000 sales in a couple of days, we might very well have stuck up higher for longer.

Let me wrap up this long post by summarizing:

  • Pre-orders are probably a good idea, no questions asked, on the non-Amazon stores.
  • Pre-orders can be a good idea on Amazon if you’re trying to get people to buy while earlier books in a series are hot or if you think you have a chance of making a list (for most of us mere mortals, they’re probably close to required to make a list).
  • As of the time of this writing, pre-orders can hurt you on Amazon if your goal is to stick and get algorithm loving — that’s where you want to sell piles of copies over just a few days.

If you have thoughts on pre-orders or any experience with hitting the lists, please leave a comment with your thoughts!

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Comments (20)

You always have the most fascinating posts! Thank you for sharing your experiences.

It makes me sad that there is any downside for authors to making a pre-order available on Amazon because as a reader I personally benefit from long pre-order periods there. I never pre-order books myself, but I do rely heavily on pre-orders to help manage my book time and money budget. I keep a complex watch list of upcoming books so I can better juggle what I am reading and re-reading. I try to keep enough slack to deal with surprises, but new releases sometimes get relegated to the read-it-later pile just because I’ve already burned my book budget for the month. (And the read-it-later pile is so big these days that once it’s in there, it may be months or years before a book actually get read.)

Thanks for giving the reader perspective, Sandra. I hardly ever use pre-orders (maybe because the trad publishers put them up so crazy far in advance), so it’s good to hear from someone who actually uses them regularly!

Interesting post. I’m trying to decide whether to put my debut novel on pre-order on Amazon (I’ll be KU exclusive for a while) right now. As a new author (with no following and no hope of making a list) I’m leaning towards doing it because it gives me the opportunity to give my (few) followers the book at a discounted price. I guess it can’t hurt and any additional visibility (however small) would be good.

Great post, Lindsay. Thanks.

While I am very, very new to this, and have only been seriously self-publishing my books since March this year, I have been using Amazon pre-order, but for very different reasons and with different expectations than those you mentioned.

Basically, I am using the Amazon pre-order option as a means of motivation to keep going. I have a full-time job and I write in the evenings and on the weekends. Using pre-order as a “deadline” keeps me active. It helps me schedule drafts, edits, feedback and covers, for example. Yes, I love it when my book gets in the top 100 of Steampunk, but I know my sales are so incredibly low that it doesn’t make much of a difference.

I look forward to the day I can update this comment with more insight regarding my sales. Until then, pre-order is all about focusing on the goal of getting each book finished.

Thanks again, Lindsay. I get a lot out of your posts.

Chris

That sounds like a great way to stay motivated, Chris. I know I hate to miss deadlines, even self-imposed ones, and since Amazon dings you if you don’t upload your final file in time, that’s extra incentive. Hope it’s going well for you!

I love your posts. They’re always so detailed and fun!

I have a question. How do you know whether you made the bestseller lists (NYT, USA Today)? Is there a website where you can check?

Haha, you don’t unless you check! I had no idea the DB boxed set had made the list for months, until I saw someone on Kboards talking about his numbers and making the list. I thought, hmmm, I think *I* sold that many in a week once. So I did a Google search, and there it was.

This is the link to the current week’s list: http://www.usatoday.com/life/books/best-selling/ I believe there’s a PDF you can grab, too, that lists all 150 without clicking.

Here’s the NYT list: http://www.nytimes.com/best-sellers-books/

I can’t remember which day of the week they update, but I want to say Tuesday or Wednesday.

I’ve found the pre-order nice for promotions. I could set up a promo or submit the book to a few sites and have it featured on release day because I had the ASIN and link to give them already. I didn’t have to wait for the book to go live to be able to link people to it.

That said, it did take away a little of the thunder on release day, but not enough to deter me.

I can see where that would be helpful for the sites that will promote new books without reviews. I think more of them are doing that if you have other books that are well-reviewed.

Fascinating post, and very timely too. I am launching three KU steampunk fantasies in October. (I will be thrilled if my books come anywhere near yours on the lists!!) and I was wondering if I should use pre-orders. After reading this, I think I’ll give it a miss. I would rather have a sales day bump, bolstered by advertising, than the sales. Thanks Lindsay. I have to tell you, I love your podcasts. Never miss them. And I am hugely excited about the Basilard novel. Really keyed for that!

Thanks, Gwynn! The DB stuff has dropped in ranking, so I’m sure something else will jump up to “slot hog” next. Maybe yours! :)

Wouldn’t that be a fine thing!!

Thanks so much for another informative post, Lindsay. You’re always so thorough, and I learn so much. I’ve been wondering about pre-orders lately, as I am about to publish another book. It makes my decision much easier when you summarize the pros and cons so succinctly.

You’re welcome, Justice. Good luck with the new book!

Thank you for posting this, Lindsay. I write a suspense fiction series and according to the reviews of the first three books, readers are waiting for the fourth book with bated breath. So I think that as soon as I have the beta version ready, I’ll pick a release date and backtrack to make the book available on pre-order. I never thought about having a pre-order of the book available, but your article mentions a good reason for doing so – so people who liked book 1-3 can pre-order the fourth book.

Thanks again, keep up the good work!

Martyn V. Halm, author of the Amsterdam Assassin Series.

I agree with your conclusions, Lindsay. The only reason I’ve found NOT to do Amazon pre-orders is if you want to shoot for the Top 100 of all paid. Otherwise the advantages far outweigh the cons. I do pretty well, but I haven’t been able to crack the Top 100 yet. Got as close at 150-ish, but just can’t seem to get over that hump. So now I do pre-orders for everything.

The only OTHER reason not to do pre-orders is if you’re a new author and no one will be pre-ordering your books anyway. No orders means no ranking on the Hot New Releases, which can get you added visibility. Plus, it’s kind of sad to see a book up for pre-order that’s sitting in the 6-digit ranking. For an author, that can be very depressing and an ambition-killer.

That’s a good point AO. I think low sales or low pre-orders can affect a new author. I would prefer to launch when the books ready and do some promotions and hope for sales

I love the idea of being able to pre-order. I’ve got a mental list of authors/books to ‘go back’ for when they’re published. This reminds me that one should have been this month. Just finished my 100th book for this year (plus some re-reads) so I’ll easily agree that I’m not most readers.

Timely and great post. I’m sucking some air through my teeth right now, because my longest novel is up for pre-order. I’m hoping that the downside will be minimal. I only put it up for pre-order for a bit over a week, so reviews from the print copy could link to the e-book pre-order. Hmmmm, this is my first really concerted effort in marketing a new book, so I’m hoping I didn’t screw the pooch (so to speak) by using the pre-order. So many things to consider and coordinate. It seemed like a solution to other issues at the time.

Great post. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I found this via Joanna Penn, The Creative Penn on Facebook and reblogged it on my http://www.GraceBrannigan.wordpress.com page. I’ve tried pre-orders through Smashwords on two books in a Fantasy Romance series, book 2 and 3 for Faeries Lost, but I don’t have an extensive mailing list at the moment. I also did the pre-order on the 3rd book on Amazon, sold a few and I mean a few copies. lol. For me at this point it’s not worth it. Also, I may be in my own little dimension with my writing because I write in 6 different genres. :-)

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