Technical Book Sales Insight Through Real-Time Amazon Rankings Analytics
As a published author, I have a product available to the masses. The obvious question that comes to mind after the product is released is "How well is my product selling?". If you are a technical author, you receive a statement every quarter for the previous three quarters. For example, my publisher which is Apress sent me a summary at the end of March 2010 for Q4 2009. Essentially, you are getting data that is 3-6 months behind.
Average technical books usually sell somewhere in the range of 2,000-3,000 copies during their lifetime. Really popular books can sell up to 6,000-8,000 copies. Furthermore, these books tend to have a short shelf life of about 1-2 years where 90%+ of the sales come from. This is especially true for a technology like Silverlight which is on a 9 month cadence. Technical books also have limited marketing budgets. Even authors like Pretzold don't have commercials on TV for their books :) This makes it very important to make sure you can get as many sales as possible quickly before your book becomes "old news". Waiting three months for a quaterly statement can dramatically limit your recourse to improve sales. What can a technical author do?
Using Amazon's Domination to Your Advantage
Amazon is one of the world's largest online retailers specializing in many items especially books. Since a very large percentage of sales go through Amazon, we take advantage of this. This is especially true for technical resources. If you are a technical author, chances are, your book is not being carried by a brick and mortar bookstore (unless it is ultra popular or covers a broad topic). Obviously, this is not the same for authors of fiction books like Dan Brown (DaVinci Code fame). After talking to my publisher, the estimate is that about 50%-75% of the book sales will come from Amazon. Using this information, I can start to get a good idea of how my sales are doing now. This topic is a lot more interesting to me because I wrote a book about Business Intelligence and Silverlight. In Business Intelligence software, you want to have a tool that can provide you insight that you can make wise decisions from quickly.
Amazon Sales Rankings
Amazon receives tremendous sales volume. Amazon publicly provides some sales information on sales on its site. While you will never get detailed information as how many books have been sold over time, Amazon does provide a sales rank system. Amazon's formula is secret. However, you will find a lot of guesstimates on the web from people who have tried to reverse engineer it.
The Amazon Sales rankings are a ranking (lower is better) over a rolling time frame (a year?). The sales rankings are updated hourly on Amazon's site and displayed on the book's Product Details section. Notice the screen shot below and the description explicitly say amazon.com not Amazon. The reason is that Amazon has multiple domains that tailor the site specific to the locale. For example, other popular Amazon sites include: Amazon.ca (Canada), Amazon.jp (Japan), Amazon.de (Germany), Amazon.fr (France). Each of these domains tracks sales seperately.
Amazon.com Sales Rank of my book for April 8th 2010
Every time you sell a book, your ranking drops lower (which is good). If you don't sell a book, your ranking starts to creep up every hour. If you don't sell a book in several months, you will quickly be looking at a sales rank of millions.
Knowing this information, we can manually track our sales and see how well we are doing. Luckily, Amazon includes public APIs that can be used to track this as well.
Amazon Sales Rankings - What they Mean
What does a ranking of 1,000 or 100,000 mean? How many books does that translate to per month? Based on the data I have seen, this is how I grouped the sales numbers into sales ranking buckets. (Note: The focus of this article is technical books. Therefore, I am skipping buckets like Top 50). The rankings are based on a logarithmic scale. So as you go into further lower ranking, you are selling exponentially more than rankings that are higher.
Logarithmic scale of book sales (source: www.fornerbooks.com). Data is from 2007.
- Consistent ranking 200 - 1,000: You are selling extremely well. Well over 1,000 per month on Amazon domains! Example: The Design of Design: Essays from a Computer Scientist.
- Consistent ranking 1,001 - 10,000: Your book is doing very very well. You are selling between 400-900 per month on Amazon domains. Example: Pro Silverlight 3 in C# or C# 4.0 In a NutShell
- Consistent ranking 10,001 - 50,000: Your book is selling well. You are selling between 80-350 per month on Amazon domains. Example: (my book) Next-Generation Business Intelligence Software with Silverlight 3 or Programming WCF Services
- Consistent ranking 50,0001 - 125,000: Your book is doing OK. You are selling between 40-70 per month on Amazon domains. Example: ASP.NET MVC In Action
- Consistent ranking 125,001 - 300,000: Your book is doing below average. You are selling between 10-35 books on Amazon domains.
- Consistent ranking 500,000 - 1,250,000: You are selling a very small amount of books. You are selling between 1 - 9 books on Amazon domains.
- Consistent ranking > 1,250,000: You are not selling anything at all. Maybe 1-2 books per month.
When I was researching this for the last several months, I found most sites to be wrong or have outdated information. For example, some sites only report sales from Amazon.com. While the core Amazon.com has the bulk of the sales, a very large percentage of sales come from international domains; in some cases, almost half the sales! A lot of sites that claim to have deciphered the Amazon Sales Rank formula paint only half the picture.
NovelRank.com automates tracking Amazon sales data
is a great site that is provided for FREE from Mario Lurig. Mario essentially took advantage of the fact that Amazon updates their site hourly and they provide APIs. He was able to figure out a formula that accurately can extrapolate sales information from the sales rankings. Its a fantastic feature provided for FREE.
The API provided can track sales on the 6 most popular Amazon domains and provide data visualizations for analysis. You can also create your own page to compare other book's data.
You can even export the data into Excel to use, place a sales widget on your portal, filter the graphs etc. The site also includes many valuable insights about Amazon sales information. Using this tool, I was able to come up with my own Amazon sales figures you see above. I think these paint a much more accurate picture that you are going to find. After the month's data is complete, if you multiply the number by 1.5-2.0, that is a good estimate of the amount of sales a technical book will do in a given month.
Note: The Amazon sales rank and APIs are public information. While I guess it is considered "snooping" on someone's data, I don't think it violates any privacy issues. You can add any book that is on Amazon's domains for tracking and analysis.
Insight Gained from NovelRank Analytics
Improving Book Sales
The only way you are going to improve sales is through marketing yourself and your product (which is your book). Using a real-time analytics tool like NovelRank allows you to adjust your book's marketing efforts appropriately. Here is some insight that I gained:
- At the time the MIX 2010 conference was held, my book was consitently in the 1,001-10,000 range. Technical book sales go up during related conferences.
- Make sure you have a blog. Write about content related to your book. Advertise your book prominantely on the site.
- Create a companion site for the book. For example, for my book, I created www.silverlightbusinessintelligence.com. This allows me to target readers that don't have Visual Studio installed or don't feel like compiling the demos.
- When posting on forums, add your book info to your signature. For example, I am active on the Silverlight forums and have a link to my book's Amazon listing.
- Do speaking engagements if you can. If you are a good speaker and have something interesting to say, it is a good idea to advertise yourself.
As you do these items, you should see spikes in books sales.
Thinking about writing a book in....
If you are thinking about writing a technical book to make additional income, you can improve the financial results by using NovelRank.
- General book topics usually do better. For example, a book on C#, Intro to Silverlight or WCF will do better than a highly specific book or a niche technology area. For example, my book focuses on Business Intelligence and Silverlight. This obviously has a much smaller audience than just a vanilla C# syntax book. In my case, this is mitigated by a price point that is almost 50% higher than most other books.
- Going with a technical publisher is better than going at it alone. Some sites like Lulu allow you to publish your own work. Readers usually like to stick with the big technical resource names like Manning, O'Reilly or Apress.
- You can use NovelRank to see how your competition is doing or if there is strength in particular topics. Using the tool, I can clearly see there is a ton of interest in iPhone development. There are more than several books in the top 1,000 on that topic alone.
How are Silverlight book sales?
I was curious about how Silverlight book sales are doing. This is what I saw:
- The current best selling Silverlight book is Matthew MacDonald's Pro Silverlight 3 in C#.
- The best selling books are targeted towards Silverlight version 3. I think this will change when Silverlight 4 comes out in April 2010.
- Silverlight 2 books are still selling a little. Some books like Data-Driven Services with Silverlight 2 are still selling better because a lot of the concepts will still apply to Silverlight 3 and 4.
- Silverlight 3 sales will continue to be strong for another several months. The reason I say this is because of the coupling of Silverlight 4 with Visual Studio 2010. Not all development shops are ready to move to .NET 4.0 and Visual Studio 2010. Therefore, this will keep Silverlight 3 interest for quite some time.
- Looking at the sales of the iPhone development books, authors for Windows Phone 7 development should make a killing in the next several months.
I hope you can see how an automated tool like NovelRank can help technical authors gain valuable insight into their sales, competition, make better decisions about writing a second edition, etc. Hopefully current and future authors will find this information useful. Lastly, use the self-service novelrank.com tool!
In a secondary point, I would like to say that this is a great example of Business Intelligence 2.0. By using the self-service NovelRank tool, we are able to make wise decisions from real-time data. This is a good example of a great business intelligence analytics tool that is simple and effective.