Mythbusting The Amazon Algorithm Part IV – Is Amazon Ranking Broken?

Cate Baum examines the latest author outrage that Amazon is Broken.

Many blogs have been shouting about how Amazon has a loophole that means authors are scamming the system and stealing mountains of cash from the KDP Global Fund. Some authors are being strung up and called out. These shady goings-on must be examined! Welcome to the notorious Mythbusting, Part IV.

MYTH: Amazon’s Ranking is Broken.

Truth: Amazon Ranking is not ‘broken’, but there’s a front-facing issue with how ranking is displayed when switching from Free to Paid that is confusing people.

After reading about several authors that seem to have had few sales in paid, and yet making it to overall #3  – #1 on Amazon ranking, I investigated the ways that maybe these claims could be wildly elaborated. Maybe Amazon’s ranking was not broken as much as promotion companies have been exploiting a glitch, that actually isn’t really much of a big deal, because it’s a false positive. I also interviewed Kayl Karadjian, and studied his figures, as he has been called out as a “scammer” who made it to #1 overall on Amazon.com with “Dragonsoul” with only 74 sales. You can read about my conclusions, and why he was a victim of a promo company preying on authors with little experience of Amazon.

Amazon offers both a Paid and Free chart. This is one way uncovered that shady promoters are exploiting it:

  1. Set the book to a Free promotion in KDP
  2. Using a clickfarm, or other automated clicking technique, download many free books
  3. Wait until the book ranks very high in the Free Amazon Sales Rank
  4. Immediately change the book from “Free” to “Paid,” halting the promotion in the KDP dashboard

Here’s the “broken” bit: For a small period of time, while Amazon switches the book from “free” to “paid,” the book appears with an inflated sales rank (and probably in the Paid Best Seller lists). This is because Amazon calculates the paid Amazon Sales Ranking not just on current sales, but the sales and downloads made in the previous hours or days.

If a Free Amazon Sales Rank is extremely high, at the time Amazon switches the book to the “Paid” Amazon Sales Ranking, its algorithm will factor in the previously high sales rank, so that the new ranking is far higher than it should be (based on the actual paid sales of your book).

However, this does NOT stay so. This false reading always rights itself, and goes away in a few hours. The haters have taken screengrabs in this little window of so-called “scammer” books, but in reality, these authors are falsely ranking for a while during the changeover, not making money, nobody died.

That leads us onto the next myth.

MYTH: Indie Authors using these techniques are sophisticated scammers making thousands of dollars, stealing money from the KDP Global Fund pot!

Truth: The KDP Global Fund pays out very little to most authors anyway. So if you are humpty about one of these “scammers” taking your money, bear in mind you need around 25,000 KENP page reads to make around $150 on average. If you are not getting borrowed anyway, and if you are not in the Top #50 of your category at least, you probably made $3 or $4 this month on a few random flicks. It wasn’t you that was going to make the big bucks. So let’s be real.

This technique above is only used by these kinds of promoters as a sweetener to their desperate clients who have little understanding of what it means to rank. They can promise very high ranking for a relatively cheap price, because they are grabbing the ranking screenshots at the exact moment before Amazon changes over to the correct reading of that book. That means while it might appear that these authors at #1 in Paid have made thousands of dollars, they actually make little more than the sales and true page reads they have. So in a way, Amazon is righting this naturally, and that’s probably why it’s not a big emergency issue.

This is also why the Global Fund won’t change much even if these kinds of promoters go away.

It should be said that the KENPs gained in that time will be paid out, but will not usually be very high due to the short amount of time it’s possible for the clickfarms to deal with it.

So is Amazon broken? Not really. Numbers seem to be calculated properly for payouts, judging by the evidence I examined in Kayl’s case (see the interview). What the issue is, is maybe one of rapid growth for Amazon’s business. The algorithm updates in real time, but if there’s a mountain of data to be calculated, i.e. many new books uploaded, released, and sold, there is a lag, and that’s where these promoters are stepping in to make use of that lag for these precious screengrabs.

I figured out with Kayl’s case, the amount of money an author would have to spend to really make money with KENP only, and it’s just nigh impossible — it runs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed in the first place. For a part-time Target sales clerk like Kayl, it’s ludicrous to suggest that was his method. But for just $600, it appears it is possible to catch a glimpse of #1, if you’ve had your book clicked enough times in “Free.” Which is pretty weird.  This is a strange glitch, but not of much concern to Amazon, who are chasing after the heavy repeat offenders rather than authors that make a mistake buying a dodgy package.

So should you use this technique to get Paid ranking? A resounding NO. It’s just not worth it, when many genuine methods such as mailing list services (like ours and Bookbub) can get you into the Top #20 category rank, or in the Top #2000 rank just by working at it, and promoting responsibly. After all, Amazon holds the author responsible for book promotion, and you are going to be the one who suffers for it, not the promotion service.

Should we be bullying authors who naively bought these promotions from shady companies? Obviously not. So while I agree with the idea that Amazon is indeed in need of tightening to stop all these horrible misunderstandings of data by author forums, authors who make mistakes with their choice of book promotion should not be subject to a witch hunt, and these sorts of articles should not be a call to arms.

This is a community of struggling writers, and we need to, above all else, help each other learn.

This is why we write these free resources for authors.

Other parts of this series: I  II III

  • My big problem with the fuss has been: I trust Amazon. Naive? If it were in their best interest to make indie authors fail while they do… what?, I think we’d know by now. Instead, they have millions of books (including mine) available for anyone to buy, easily and freely.

    I’m reallly enjoying your myth/truth series, because it is seems to be based on data and experience. It makes sense.

    Now, I just have to figure out how to make it work for ME.

    • Cate Baum

      I agree. Amazon is your best bet. It’s just that people don’t read the T and Cs. Any product that doesn’t meet quality guidelines, books or otherwise, are always left out. Authors must be professional and follow best practices, and unfortunately, a lot don’t.

  • The technique of going Free, getting lots of downloads (not always a given), and then hoping some of that rank sticks when moving to Paid, is practically a mantra for indies. But it has always seemed improbable for it to succeed unless you are writing in a highly distinctive niche, possibly one where readers read lots of similar books, and don’t run each one through a careful analysis before plunking down a few dollars.

    Not knocking it – if it works for you, great.

    But at some point it depends on those books getting read, free OR paid, and a reasonable percentage of the reads leading to reviews and more sales, so that once it settles down from the promotion, the writer has gained new READERS – the point of the whole exercise.

    It isn’t going to work as a technique for one-of-a-kind mainstream novels.

    This writer got caught in the crossfire – but as you said, no one died, and no great amount of money was made illegally by the writer.

    Thanks for talking with him, and publishing this – an eye-opener.

    But now I don’t feel so bad about NOT using these marketers. It seems like such an easy thing to do, so I’ve always wondered.

    It must be a real irritant to legitimate services. The scams and scandals and witch-hunts tarnish all self-publishers with guilt by association.

    • Cate Baum

      It’s really irritating, yes! When uneducated author groups start tarnishing everyone with the same brush, it affects lives. I hope to keep revealing the truth – and not the “internet truth.” And of course, Amazon is a private company, and they provide a free platform for sellers. Really, using them is the only option.