I’m just back from The Smarter Artist Summit in Austin, Texas. I won’t try and capture the magic of the event – Kobo Mark does an excellent job – but I would like to talk about the big takeaway: the dangers of Also Bought pollution.
Also Boughts are probably the most important aspect of the entire Amazon recommendation ecostructure. And also the least understood.
They are much more than a little strip under your book’s description – they power a huge chunk of the recommendations that Amazon serves to readers.
The Also Boughts are what tells Amazon that the readers of my non-fiction also like reading Susan Kaye Quinn, Sean Platt and Johnny Truant. Amazon uses this data to decide who to recommend books to – because Amazon is always seeking to show readers the books they are most likely to purchase.
For this reason, it’s important to monitor your Also Boughts. They can really help you, but also totally break you.
Case Study #1 – Great Success!
When I first launched Let’s Get Visible, I knew it was important to have the companion book Let’s Get Digital in the #1 Also Bought spot, and vice versa, so that when one title had a sales spurt, Amazon would recommend purchasers (new and old) the other one in the set. The launch plan was simple enough: tie the Also Boughts together, push both books as hard as possible, and then sit back as they both bootstrap each other up the charts, creating an awesome feedback loop.
In detail what I did was this:
- Created pre-release buzz in my audience by teasing excerpts from Visible right here. These posts were accompanied by a clear CTA to get people to sign up to my list.
- Gave out 20 ARCs to a tightly focused group of writers in my target audience, and encouraged them to post reviews on release day.
- Arranged blurb quotes from experienced and successful authors who would resonate with my target audience.
- Wrote guest posts on targeted blogs. I deliberately didn’t go hard on this as I was more concerned with selling to purchasers of Digital at first. But for each guest post I pushed the following deal just as hard as the new release…
- Dropped the price of Digital to 99c for launch week, and threw a bunch of ads at it. I also had a BookBub lined up for 30 days later, to catch both books before they fell off the cliff.
- Made a ballsy prediction in the text of Visible along the lines of “by the time you read this, Digital will be #1 in the Also Boughts of Visible and vice versa.” This could have gone very badly wrong! Instead it made me look good. Phew.
And it worked a treat. The launch was huge, both books pushed each other higher and higher, and I think Visible had an incredible run at the upper reaches of the charts for something like 8 to 10 weeks before it even started to dip. A perfect launch – largely because my Also Boughts were pristine.
Now, I only have so much juice. I can push a launch to my list and to my social media platform. But after four or five days of hustle, it’s not me pushing the book anymore. It is word-of-mouth and its AI clone: the Amazon recommendation engine – which I always think of as a giant system for both stimulating and simulating word-of-mouth.
Had my Also Boughts been off when Amazon’s system kicked in, it would have started recommending Visible to all the wrong readers. And this isn’t just theory.
Case Study #2 – Disaster Strikes
Let’s contrast that perfect launch with the complete mess I made of Mercenary. It wasn’t a bad plan per se, or even a bad launch week. I just didn’t know enough about Also Boughts at the time. It was also your fault. Let me explain…
My first novel was quite niche, so I made an effort with Mercenary to widen the commercial appeal – i.e. this time the protagonist was American, half the book was set in New Orleans, and it was generally a little more action focused and character-driven.
As such I thought it might be a cool idea to launch at 99c, and give my writer audience a chance to sample my fiction at an impulse price. That all went to plan, I think I had something like 400 or maybe 500 sales during the four days I was pushing the book hard.
And then it flopped. It barely sold another copy for six months. Why?
My generous writer audience bought in their droves, so my Also Boughts were a mixture of writer How To books, and a crazy mix of genres: thrillers, romance, science fiction. Lots of erotica too. Just saying…
Anyway, this meant that when Amazon’s system took the temperature of my book – which it does twice a week when Also Boughts recrunch – it decide (a) this book is fairly hot. Let’s push it! And (b) let’s send it to people who like science fiction erotica about how to optimize your keywords.
Because your book is being tested by the system all time. If they send it out to 100 readers and none of them click on the cover… it’s going to stop sending it out. It’s going to decide your book is radioactive, and it’s going to push it down the rankings.
Which is exactly what happened. And then you are in a Catch-22 where you have no sales, and no reviews because no one is buying, and you can’t get an ad because you have no reviews. A death spiral of epic proportions.
What I should have done at that point was take the bull by the horns and do something radical to clean out the Also Boughts and replace them with books in my genre. I could have done a free run. I could have run a 99c sale on a handful of sites that had less strict review requirements. Hell, I would have been better off pulling the book down and publishing again.
Instead, I let it mold and fester until it eventually got enough reviews to run a decent promo – and that cleaned up the Also Boughts to a certain extent. But the book… well I don’t know if you would say it never recovered, it certainly never reached its sales potential. It was a much, much better book than A Storm Hits Valparaiso, but never brought in as much money.
Lesson learned, right? Wrong!
I took some time out after the second edition of Digital to step away from the hustle and become a better writer, not just in terms of craft, but also in terms of writing to market. I spent a lot of time analyzing tropes and archetypes, and improving my plotting skills. So I was pretty pumped when it came time to release Liberty Boy. I knew it was a good book.
So I launched it and it did… okay, I guess, considering my list was kind of stale and it had been a while since I released anything, especially a historical. But I wasn’t sweating it because I knew the book was good enough to find its audience eventually.
But then the Also Boughts didn’t appear when I expected them to. I clearly had more sales than the threshold needed for Also Boughts to appear (used to be 10, I think, and I’m pretty sure it’s 50 now). I emailed KDP and, well, you can imagine how that went. Canned responses and stonewalling. KDP customer service is just not good when it comes to complex issues.
I ended up going crazy over this, emailing Amazon the whole time, trying to get them to look at it properly. At the time (last summer), there was a huge rolling problem with Also Boughts. Authors were seeing books revert to Also Vieweds for no reason. Amazon refused to acknowledge there was an issue for ages – and it was driving people to despair, because without Also Boughts, your book is essentially invisible to the recommendation engine.
My situation was even worse because I didn’t get them at all. You might as well have deleted my book from the Kindle Store.
Now, before we get too maudlin here, I eventually solved the problem with brute force: three months after the launch, I dropped the price to 99c and kept throwing ads at the book until the Also Boughts eventually appeared (and I never did find out what the problem was).
What I should have done is cut my losses much earlier. I should have done a free run or 99c sale, or thrown some Facebook ads at the problem.
But that’s not the key point here.
What you really need to takeaway from all this is that you need to find your readers, and you need to aim your marketing at them. Exclusively.
Don’t target Action & Adventure readers when your novel is at the more literary end of the historical spectrum.
Don’t target erotic romance readers when your stuff is sweeter.
Yes, there might be some crossover, but if your Also Boughts get polluted, you will be completely screwed. And the most crucial time to avoid that is when the book is being launched, and there is no long history of your target readers, the right readers, buying your book.
When we start out, we’re desperate for sales. We’re over the moon when our mother purchases our debut, or when that guy in work picks up a copy, even though he’s more into thrillers. But that is killing your book – especially if it happens before you develop a sales history with the right readers.
Those people can buy later, just not at the start, not while your book is still new, and it’s baby-head is still soft. And certainly not before you get Also Boughts.
I’ll be talking a lot more about this subject over the next few weeks, as it ties into everything. And it’s like the indie movement has gone full circle . From the Buy My Book cliché to demurring:
“Please don’t buy my book.”
I mean it!