"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

Half of Amazon Book Sales are Planned Purchases

The Media Briefing’s Digital Media Strategies conference is going on in London this week. Although I couldn’t go, I’ve been able to follow along via Twitter and a couple of tweets have really stood out.

The speaker was Douglas McCabe, COO of Enders Analysis, who had other interesting points to make yesterday about the use of data, online market demographics and measuring success. But this single statistic, that nearly half of Amazon’s book sales come from people who already know what they want and are simply using Amazon as a way to get it, has huge implications.

 After conducting more than 250,000 interviews about reading behavior since 2004, Codex has found that a major shift has taken place in discovery in the past two years, as digital books have become a significant part of the book world.

Two years ago, 35% of book purchases were made because readers found out about a book in bricks-and-mortar bookstores, the single-largest site of discovery. This year, that figure has dropped to 17%, a reflection both of the closing of Borders and the rise of e-readers. In the same period, personal recommendations grew the most, to 22% from 14%. Some three-quarters of personal recommendations are made in person, while the rest come by e-mail (8%), phone (7%), Facebook (4%) and other social networks (3%).

Even though it’s not news that more and more readers are becoming “hybrid” readers, meaning they read and learn about books both online and off, the Codex study shows us that despite the hubbub, digital discovery does not carry as much weight as personal recommendations.

I’d recommend reading both links for more details on the Codex Group report that I, sadly, don’t have access to. They makes for fascinating reading!

It’s well known that book lovers are quite happy to spend time in a bricks-and-mortar bookshop to see what sort of interesting titles they find and then go home to buy on Amazon where the prices are often cheaper. Indeed, it’s been identified as such a significant problem that HarperCollins CEO Victoria Barnsley recently made the interesting suggestion that bookshops ought to charge people to come in and browse, an idea that has had a somewhat chilly reception.
48 percent of Amazon book choices are pre-planned

Self-publishers often think themselves unaffected by ‘planned search and purchase’, not least because for most of us the idea of having our books in a bookshop feels like a distant dream. The assumption that self-publishers work to is that the key to cracking Amazon is to rank highly in their recommendation algorithm and many pixels are spilt by self-publishing bloggers telling us how to do exactly that.

But McCabe’s statistics show that only a piddling 10 percent of Amazon book choices are made because of its ‘bought this/also bought’ recommendation engine. Bestseller and top 100 lists influence 17 percent of book choices, with 12 percent down to promotions, deals, or low prices. Only 3 percent came through browsing categories. Planned search by author or topic, however, makes up a whopping 48 percent of all book choices.

The title of McCabe’s slide is “Amazon – only the end of the funnel, so far?”, and it’s an important point for self-publishers to take to heart. Amazon is a destination for purchase, the place you funnel your fans to, not a discovery mechanism in and of itself. People are simply not browsing for books based on Amazon’s recommendations, not in any significant numbers.

Self-published authors have limited resources for promotion and these figures show that you should focus not on trying to woo Amazon’s algorithm, but on building awareness outside of Amazon. Rather than hoping to gain traction within that 10 percent of people who pay attention to Amazon’s recommendations, or trying to crowbar your title into bestseller or top 100 lists, you should be focusing on building an independent fan base. No one can search for your books if they don’t know you exist.

I’ve written before about how self-publishers, and traditional publishers for that matter, should refocus on direct sales in order to collect valuable customer data. These stats bolster that position — if the majority of Amazon’s sales come from planned search, that indicates a clear intention to buy on the part of the searcher. That intention has been formed outside of Amazon, perhaps due to reviews, social media or word of mouth. And once your readers have formed an intention to buy, you can take action to funnel them to your own shop. For those of a rebellious nature who’d like to give Amazon the two fingers, that’s reassuring.


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