Thursday, September 4, 2008

Thoughts on Amazons and Microorganisms and the ways they me be similar

Even if they don’t admit it, I’ll bet most authors watch their Amazon ranking. Some, like me, go beyond admitting “watching.” I will admit to tracking and analyzing, in some detail. That should not surprise any of you who know Aspergian nature.

In an analysis of 20+ big books last fall, I found the absolute Amazon rank, and the rate of rank change (up or down), and the longer term momentum to be strongly predictive of trends 2-4 weeks later on the NY Times Bestseller lists. As much as people disparage these ranks, I think there’s a lot to learn by watching the movement at the top.

Many articles have been written about Amazon rank and I won’t repeat them here. In this post, I’d like to talk about something different: the hidden relationship between Amazon sales and bricks-and-mortar stores.

I have tracked Look Me in the Eye since last June, when preorders began trickling in. Back then, my Amazon rank was in the 250,000 range, rising to 2,000 two weeks before the on-sale date. When reviews came out, the rank shot up. A full page in People pushed the rank into the top 100 the day the magazine went on sale. Appearances on network TV pushed it even higher, into the single digits by the on-sale day. After the media blitz, my rank dropped through the top hundred over a few months, and the top 1,000 over nine months.

The meteoric rise is common for books that get a lot of media coverage. The slower trail-down is normal too. Obviously, some books trail off at a steeper angle than others but the general trend is shared by almost all books.

For the past 11 months, the demand curve for my book (as expressed by Amazon rank) has been steady and fairly predictable. Suddenly, a month ago, demand dropped precipitously. What happened?

In the space of a few weeks, the rank dropped from 1,000 to 10,000.

Why?

It took me a little while to figure out the answer. My Amazon rank dropped as bookstores allowed their stock of Look Me in the Eye to run down in anticipation of the paperback release. The less visible I was in stores, the less I sold online.

There is a fascinating and observable correlation between the visible presence of my book in stores, and the Amazon rank. What does this say? I don’t know about you, but it tells me that people see a book in a store and then buy it on Amazon.

Why would they do that? Why buy later online if you are actually next to the book in a store? There are many possible reasons. I’ve even had people admit to this to me in stores. They’ve said things like, “I enjoyed coming to see you tonight. I’m going to go home and order your book!”

I always wonder at comments like that. I’m standing in a store, next to a pile of books, and someone says, “I’ll go home and order it.” I say, “Why not buy a copy now?”

Sometimes they look like I suggested something shocking, and they buy the book. More often, though, they offer some inane excuse and wander off.

So we have a kind of commercial symbiotic relationship. The evidence of my own book shows how Amazon feeds off people’s exposure to books in stores. How does the existence of Amazon benefit the bricks-and-mortar stores?

I know some booksellers will read this and feel like jumping all over me with hostile disagreement . . . but consider the balance between Amazon and the traditional bookstore like the relationship between many microorganisms and the host body.

Those organisms have evolved over thousands of years to a point where both benefit the other in some way (thought it may be hard to see), and neither one is too lethal to the other. Is there such a balance between the traditional retailer model, and online models like Amazon?

For online businesses like Amazon to succeed, I submit that they must achieve a stability based upon mutual benefit, just as microorganisms do. Is that happening?

10 comments:

Alex said...

I sometimes buy books at brick and mortar stores but I buy most of my books on Amazon because they are much cheaper. I pay extra to get better shipping (Amazon Prime) so I get most shipments in two days. Prime actually saves me money on shipping and the savings on the books themselves leaves brick and mortar stores little room for competition. I have even purchased books on Amazon through my iPhone while inside a book store.

Some of the advantages that physical stores have is being able to browse through the books and find books by serendipity which is much harder to do online. They need to press their advantages or Amazon is going to drive them out of business. Being able to ask a human for help or return a purchase without hassle is not something to be sneezed at.

John Elder Robison said...

Well, Alex, you example shows how traditional stores benefit Amazon, and how both benefit you.

How does Amazon benefit the traditional store? Do they?

Polly Kahl said...

HI John, I think there's one reason why people buy at amazon rather than the non-virtual storesa, and that is money. I haven't bought a book in an actual book store in years. Even new books are reduced at amazon. Between amazon and eBay and the price of gas, there's no reason for me to drive to a store and pay more for a book I can easily wait three days for. Add my wonderful local library into the mix and brick-and-mortar stores don't stand a chance.

Do real stores benefit amazon? Definitely, 100%. Does amazon benefit real stores? No, not that I can see (tell me if I'm wrong. I'm interested to hear it.) I think brick-and-mortar stores are going to REALLY have to get it together if they expect to compete with online stores in the future.

Strange Behaviour said...

May I offer this: I always have to wait for paperback versions of books, because of their affordability. I rarely shop for books online because my kids require an in store, see-it, touch it- take it home immediately experience. Subsequently, I spend all my money on books for the 3 of them.

Great deals are available at bookstores, but if the book I want is not in stock, I have the store call another store that is close by, and if it is there, I will zip over to the next town to get it. If not, I know I can buy it on line and get it quicker from Amazon.

So it seems I am an habitual in store type of customer.

Jess said...

More like parasites, but that's just me.

Strange Behaviour said...

Oh Jess, I dearly hope you meant the other people are the parasites, and not my book-loving, budget-busting kids. Hee hee ;-P

jess said...

I love to browse in brick and mortar stores. I love the walk-about, the aimless browsing, the (as Alex puts it) serendipitous finds. When I am in the stores, I typically end leaving up with a book or two (or three).

However, I have grown increasingly frustrated with the physical stores when I am looking for something specific. The large chains seem to have a uniformly laissez-faire attitude about service, an organizational sense that is haphazard at best and nary a clue about their own inventory - all of which drive me to distraction (and to Amazon!)

Half the time, when I'm looking for something they offer to order it for me. Hmm, full price and I get the priveledge of coming back to the store to pick it up vs discounted on Amazon and free delivery to my very own doorstep. Not a tough decision.

Interestingly, when your book first came out, I called my neighborhood bookshop to ask them to hold a copy aside for me. They didn't have it. They didn't even know about it. (Though I'm sure they do now!). Of course, they offered to order it for me. Ugh.In that case, Borders came through and I had it in my hands by day's end, but you see what I'm getting at.

When looking for 'something to read' nothing beats a bookstore for instant gratification. When looking for something specific, it's hard to argue with deep discounts and door to door service. Incidentally, I love to 'patronize' small bookshops through Amazon's Bibliofind. It just feels better to me to buy books from people who love books.

While I see your argument about how physical stores feed internet sales, I can't find a compelling one for the reverse.

So, that's my 2 cents. Which would be 1.5c on Amazon.

Jess said...

Nooooooo, the other parasites, Strange Behaviour.

Do you have a blog? Alas, I could not find one.

And I must admit, I'm mightily confused by the other Jess who comments here. Every so often I glance and say, "Hey! I don't remember writing that! Hmmm..."

v-ness said...

i walked downtown into northampton to buy your book at Broadside. they'd run out of the hardcover and said they'd have it in a couple days so i had them hold one for me and i guess i paid $25 for it when it came in 4 days later. i guess i could have said screw it, gone home and ordered it online from amazon, paid less, and had it in the same amount of time. but i liked buying your book locally. i don't actually know if you ever made a book-related appearance in Broadside, but i DO know you will never make a book-related live appearance and sign a book on Amazon. i'm not above ordering from them on a rare occasion, and hell i am not above shopping at Walmart either, but in this case i liked buying a local author locally. even if i had to wait and shell out a couple extra bucks. now....to get you to sign it..... ;) v

Anne said...

Sorry, the link was cut off. Full link is:

http://www.livingtheautismmaze.com/radiator_082708.mp3

Anne