Reviewing for Robots

This weekend, I happened to visit with quite a lot of good friends and family, and conversation turned (as it does) to Andrea's New Book, and how closely I'm watching my reviews. Why, they wondered, did I care about it so much? And lo I discovered that there is a common misapprehension about the nature and purpose of reviews on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Goodreads.

It's intuitively obvious that leaving a good review is helpful to a book and its author. If someone should find the book, the logic goes, all of those reviews will give a reader confidence and incentive to buy, right?

And that's true, to some extent... but that's not actually the big, valuable service you're performing for an author when you leave a review for their book. You're not reviewing for the benefit of other readers. The pivotal core audience for your review is computer algorithms.

Bookstore Time Machine

Back in the old-fashioned days, when you wanted to read a book, you'd hit a bookstore. You'd be tempted by various methods a book might have for spreading its fancy tail feathers and strutting its stuff: end caps filled with the new hotness, displays curated by the store's employees (if you like this, you'll also like...), standing displays and window displays and table displays. The books with the most prominent placement tended to sell the best. That's because visibility is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You buy the books you see and know about. ...We'll get back to that.

And then the shelving system itself would also guide you toward books you'd probably like. You'd make your way to the section of books similar to the books you already tended to enjoy reading, and make choices (consciously or not) based on the cover's color scheme, art style, and font choices. These all signal even today what to expect from a book, to help you decide if you'd be a happy reader or not. When you found some likely contenders, you'd pick up the book, read the back or inside flap copy, and decide whether it might be worth your time and money.

I daresay most book-buying doesn't happen like that anymore. I rely almost entirely on word of mouth from my internets. And I sell books that way, too -- not mine! But I've nudged many a friend into taking a close look at Naomi Alderman's Liar's Gospel, or Max Gladstone's Craft books, or Chuck Wendig's Atlanta Burns, or NK Jemisin's Inheritance series. I'm talking about The Grace of Kings so much I'll probably have sold a dozen copies for Ken Liu before I even finish it myself.

But that's not the only way books are sold. Not by a long shot.

Amazon's Algorithms

Today, the biggest obstacle any author has is obscurity. I can't sell you my book if you never, never see it or hear of it. And who decides whether a reader sees a book? Amazon, mostly. More specifically, the mysterious computer mind that is Amazon's recommendations engine. Goodreads, too; people do go there to find recommendations. But it's my understanding that there is some synchronization of reviews, since Goodreads was purchased by Amazon a few years back. And Barnes & Noble surely uses many of the same tricks.

But for an indie book or a small press, Amazon is the name of the game. That's 80% of your sales. So if nobody sees you on Amazon... basically nobody sees you.

I'm going to speculate here about the nature of Amazon's secret sauce. I don't know, of course; only people who work at Amazon specifically on the recommendation engine can know this, and they're at pains not to talk about it or lose their jobs and quite possibly be sued into oblivion for revealing trade secrets. But given what I know about information systems, metadata, and about how books sell and behave online, I think I can make a few really solid guesses.

So readers, think of it this way: when you leave a review, you are training Amazon as to what kind of book it is. And my guess is that it takes into consideration not just the stars you award, but your own buying and reviewing history, and keywords left in the review itself. Even a bad review is, I suspect, helpful to the book overall, because it means it's more likely to be shown to would-be readers who might enjoy it going forward, and less likely to be shown to readers with a history very much like the unhappy reviewer's.

I further speculate that none of this does much until the book reaches a critical mass of reviews -- there have to be enough data points for the algorithm to reach a solid conclusion. The system couldn't have much confidence in two five-star reviews from people with a history of only buying books from the one author, right? Even beyond that, there's a good shot that it's got some secret metric of reviewer credibility. We know Amazon prunes reviews left by authors writing in the same genre to prevent gaming for good or evil; so reviewer credibility is definitely on the Amazon radar. 

We also know for a fact that it tracks other books bought by the same readers. Right now, Revision has been bought by readers also interested in Myke Cole books, Jews vs. Zombies, and Vermilion. That's great news for those books, but the flip side is crucial, here -- it doesn't mean my book is being shown on those pages as an also-liked. And that is why books like mine need reviews: so they show up on the shelves next to the books kinda like it, so to speak, so that readers who enjoy that kind of thing know it even exists. It works. It really, really works. When my book A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling was paired with Spreadable Media, sales skyrocketed back to launch week levels for a while! 

That's because visibility is a self-fulfilling prophecy. So if you've read a book in the last couple of years that left you with a strong impression, tell people -- and leave reviews about it on the retailer of your choice. (But let's be honest, mostly Amazon). It's not just a nice thing that makes a writer feel good (or terrible).

A book lives or dies by the algorithm. And the algorithm can only know what it's been told.

Children of Rouwen

Most of the news around here lately is about that book, but meanwhile Fireside Magazine published a new piece of short fiction from me on Monday: Children of Rouwen. I'd be delighted if you would read it and tell me what you think!

I'd like to talk a bit about where that story comes from -- and this is incredibly spoilery, so if you care about that sort of thing, please, read the story before you continue. Children of Rouwen is very directly inspired by and in conversation with Ursula Vernon's Elegant and Fine, a breathtaking work about Narnia, and about Susan, and the realistic emotional consequences of living a life in Narnia and then... coming home again, into a child's life and a child's body. It's a fine piece of writing, and Ursula Vernon is a genius.

This got me to thinking about the nature of portal fantasy as a whole, and about the ones who get left behind. If you think on it, the adults of Narnia, living through wartime and reconstruction, arguably need a little magic even more than the children do. The idea of being left behind, of being the one not chosen, of having missed your chance -- I think that speaks to a deep human fear. And there's another layer here, especially for parents: even once those children come back, the parents have still been left behind by the passage of time, haven't they? So Children of Rouwen is also, as many of my works are, about the inevitable sorrow of seeing your children grow up and away from you.

When my first daughter was a few days old and I was home alone with her for the first time, I was suddenly overcome with waterfalls of tears in the middle of a diaper change because it struck me all at once that one day, she would be a teenager and she would hate me; or at the very least, one day, she would be an adult, and she wouldn't really need me anymore. This was mostly a crazy rush of weird postpartum hormones. It's not really a rational train of thought, as such.

But parenting is, for me, full of something opposite to nostalgia; I think maybe the aesthetic called mono no aware in Japanese. It's the sadness of knowing that something beautiful is ephemeral; of missing something that brings you joy before it's even gone. 

Revision's First Week

Over at Chuck Wendig's place, last week I wrote a piece about how great it is to work with a small press. But there are two more benefits to my relationship with Fireside that didn't make it into that piece. They are: sales numbers more or less on request; and the freedom to share those numbers if I so choose. So let's you and me talk about Revision's first week in the wild.

Let's set the stage. Remember, I got a star in Publisher's Weekly. A great review in NPR Books. I've been on Rocket Talk, and several other reviewers and bloggers have said kind and thoughtful things. (A running list of reviews are linked from here.)  Now that the book is out, I have seven reviews averaging 4.7 stars on Amazon, and 19 ratings averaging 3.79 on Goodreads. (Wow, that... took a dive overnight, it was 4.16 yesterday. Easy come, easy go, I guess.) By and large, critical reception has been superb, far better than I could possibly have expected.

But what does all of that actually mean in cash money and books sold?

In total, we've sold 292 copies of Revision. Of that, 70 books were preorders on Amazon, and 3 were preorders on iTunes. Wait, let's make a nice visual for this:

Note Amazon's total domination of the market. Note how Kobo basically sucks, more's the pity. For my part, I'm amazed at how many people went all-in for the print version, since it costs so much more money. But the allure of paper is still strong, I guess. (And on Amazon, if you buy the print edition, you get the book for free through the Matchbook program, which is a nice draw.)

Remember back when I posted sales projections? I figured my baseline number of sales was... about 300, as that's about the combined number of people who will buy a copy because they are related to me, have a collegial professional relationship with me, are super good friends with me, or who really love my prior work. Actually, I suspect a majority of that 300 fall into more than one of those categories. It looks like that guess was spot on. I hadn't put a time frame on it, but I suppose it's "copies sold until the book more or less stops selling entirely," whether that takes a week, a month, a year.

The real question, is what happens from here?

So this is an overview of the print version of Revision's sales rank history over on Amazon. There are a few early spikes because the print edition was actually available for a week or so ahead of launch, and then on May 5, it hit a new high and sort of stayed there for a few days. And now it's starting to gradually drop.

The ebook edition's curve looks very similar, with more and bigger preorder spikes. The Kindle edition even hovered in the mid-5000s sales ranks for a while, which in my case works out to mean we were moving, mmm, 30 or so copies in a day.

I have a little more publicity lined up, so that high plateau may well continue for another week or two. But if the book were going to debut big and get onto an Amazon Top-100 or even Top-1000 list, that would've happened last week. I won't lie, I'm a little disappointed the book didn't go so high and get the sales boost that comes with that. From past experience, daily sales from here will continue to slide until they settle into either a modest few books sold in a typical week, or bupkis. The book will probably continue to see some modest sales spikes around signings, talks, and panels. Our chance to game the system for added visibility, however, is pretty much over.

Unless, unless. This is the point where we've done basically everything we can do for the book. It's in the hands of the readers now. And maybe some good word of mouth will kick in, who can say. Hugh Howey released Wool in July of 2011, and didn't break 1000 sales in a month until October. Not to say the Hugh Howey trajectory is where I'm headed, but it does mean it's at least possible that sales will remain stable or maybe even climb over an extended period... if the book is good enough, if it strikes enough people in the right way in the right moment, if people tell their friends, if people leave reviews.  

We've had a good, solid start. I'd hazard a guess that there are books even from major houses that have had worse first weeks than this; Kameron Hurley has been painfully honest about God's War selling 300 UK copies over several months. I figure lack of brick and mortar distribution on my end and UK-only numbers on hers make it a decent comparison, if you squint a little.

But will Revision have a tail from here? I don't know. I can't know. I think it's a good book and a lot of people seem to like it, so maybe it'll have legs. Maybe I will sell my benchmark of 1500 copies in the coming weeks or months. Maybe I'll even go full Hugh Howey, hey, you never know. But it's equally possible that this book is just about tapped and we're already on the last hill of the roller coaster.

Guess we'll find out, huh?

And We Have Liftoff

So remember that thing that was going to happen? IT IS HAPPENING. OMG.

REVISION: On sale right now. Did I say OMG yet?

If you find my ideas intriguing and you would like to buy my book, let me tell you how to do this thing! There is a paperback available for $14.99, or you can buy the ebook for $6.99 at these fine ebook retailers: KindleNookiTunesKobo! AW YISS.

I have also done a growing number of interviews and I have REVIEWS and such that you can read if a) you need more information before making a purchasing or not-purchasing decision, or b) you just want to know all the things about the book because you like me so much. There's a complete list over there at Fireside Fiction

One last thing: a number of people have asked me what they can do to help support the book. Is there a best format or location to buy from? Eh, not really. It's a balance between higher revenue vs. more visibility, and in the end there's no clear best way. So just do what is most convenient for you.

But there is one thing you can do. Leave a review of the book? Either where you bought it or on GoodReads, I'm not particular. It helps tremendously, believe it or not. The mysterious algorithms that Amazon et al use to decide when to recommend a book include reviews information, so even a short review -- even a BAD review -- can help lift me out of obscurity. Good times! 

And that's all for now. You are all wonderful. Thanks for coming this far with me.

30 Days and Counting

...Technically it's 29 days until REVISION COMES OUT YOU GUYS. That means the next several weeks are going to be full of links to podcasts and guest posts and me flailing my hands in the air and freaking out.

This in particular is a milestone day for me and this book, because today brought me a starred review in Publishers Weekly! "Terrific SF debut," they say! "Her fresh voice will be very welcome in the SF world," they say! 

But you don't have to take their word for it. You can read the first three chapters at Fireside Magazine today! I am full of all kinds of emotions right now. Full. There is no room in me for anything else.

And yet it's hard to say what this will mean in terms of actual sales. Publishers Weekly is primarily a resource for bookstores and librarians, and the fact that our print version is POD will probably soften or maybe even (alas) eliminate any bump we might have had. I was never getting distribution at Barnes & Noble to begin with, right? But I feel like this is a marker of credibility; more people are likely to take a chance on me with that floating around out there. And so that 1,500 books sold benchmark seems more attainable now, though 30,000 still seems laughably remote. Hey, you never know?

That said... the needle hasn't moved on my Amazon sales rank since this morning, so there hasn't been an immediate sales boost. So let me sweeten the pot: You trust a PW reviewer to know what they're talking about? Like what you see in those first three chapters? Think it's a book for you? Preorder for Kindle or Kobo (aw yeah affiliate links!) and then send me an email with the order confirmation, and I'll send you a signed postcard as a thank-you.

Four weeks, give or take, and then we'll see how much fuel this rocket's got in the tank. Four weeks. If ever there were a time to take up nail-biting...