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10 Myths and Misunderstandings about Amazon

Amazon Myths and Misunderstandings
Despite its empowerment of indie authors, Amazon remains a common source of frustration. It’s a baffling creature, bristling with mysterious algorithms, pages of written and unwritten rules, and vague policies which are inconsistently applied.

Is it any wonder that Amazon is the subject of countless misconceptions?

Although Amazon can be miserly with information about its policies, research and experimentation allow us to dispel some of the myths that surround it. We’ve collected ten common misconceptions and mistakes that torment authors and debunk them below. Have you fallen prey to any of these myths?

CLAIM: You need 20 reviews before your book will appear in Also Bought lists.
STATUS: FALSE
This myth is perpetuated in a popular meme, and it’s surprisingly persistent given how easily it’s disproved.

Also Boughts

A random sample of Also Bought listings.

Note the books with less than 10 reviews in the above image. There’s even a book with no reviews in the list. That’s a very common occurrence, and it neatly puts this misconception to rest.

So how did this myth get started?

Also Boughts are primarily (but not exclusively) determined by the number of buyers two books have in common. Books with more reviews tend to have more sales, and books with more sales are more likely to have been purchased at the same time as other books. That means that books with a high number of reviews have an advantage over books with fewer reviews.

But that’s not the only factor in play, or every book’s Also Boughts would be dominated by JK Rowling. Also Boughts will favor books purchased closer together in time, books in the same or related genres, and other factors known only to the software developers Amazon keeps chained in the basement.

CLAIM: The more reviews your book has, the higher it will appear in search results.
STATUS: FALSE
Again, this can be easily disproved with a few searches for random terms. Books with few reviews often appear in the first page of search results because the A9 algorithm weighs dozens of factors, and the number of reviews is only one small component of that formula. Titles and subtitles, series name, author name, and keyword relevance are weighted much more heavily than the number of reviews.
CLAIM: Reviews affect sales rank.
STATUS: FALSE
Sales rank is determined by purchases and downloads, weighted by recency. Reviews have no effect whatsoever on your Amazon sales rank.
CLAIM: Amazon scours social media to find connections between authors and reviewers.
STATUS: UNPROVEN
Amazon’s poorly implemented policy of deleting reviews from people it believes have a social relationship is a constant source of frustration and anger towards the corporate giant. Like most of Amazon’s fraud prevention schemes, the details of how they determine these relationships is a closely-guarded secret, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that social media platforms built on networks of relationships would be the source of Amazon’s information.

However, that’s unlikely for two reasons. First and foremost, Amazon avoids dependencies on other companies and platforms. It is unlikely that they would allow their fraud prevention to be dependent on the good will of a third party like Facebook. Secondly, there are many factors that Amazon can weigh that rely solely on data they own:

  • mutual reviews/review swaps
  • reviewer appears in author’s Amazon address book
  • author/reviewer sent packages/gifts to the same third party
  • common purchase history
  • same timestamp present in long URLs
  • review posted within 24 hours of the book’s release
  • review was left from the same IP address
  • reviewer has had other reviews deleted

That’s just scratching the surface. Amazon’s data is key to their success, and they have a lot of it. There is no need for them to venture outside their own walls to obtain information about which users might have a social connection. (Note: A possible exception to this is Goodreads, which is owned by Amazon and shares data with it.)

Consider also that the reviews which Amazon has incorrectly purged represent an infinitesimal fraction of the reviews left on Amazon each day — and countless numbers of those reviews were left by people who know the author as social media acquaintances. Friending someone on Facebook does not mean their reviews will be deleted, and locking down or deleting your social media accounts will not prevent your reviews from being removed.

CLAIM: Books which Amazon deems too explicit may be silently hidden from customers.
STATUS: TRUE
When reading Amazon’s Content Guidelines, I picture an exchange like this:

Amazon Executive #1: “What should we tell people who want to post erotica?”
Amazon Executive #2: “Nothing too explicit.”

And Executive #1, having misunderstood the directive, writes the most vague, general guideline possible: “What we deem offensive is probably about what you expect.”

Any content that wanders too close to that unhelpful guideline without actually violating Amazon’s rules may be condemned to the “erotica dungeon” (as it’s known to authors of erotica and steamy romance). The books are deemed too racy for the general public, and so they are suppressed in searches. Customers may opt to view the hidden titles, but the link to do so is easily overlooked, and that decreased visibility can be devastating to sales.

There is no indication on the book itself that it’s flagged for content, which may leave the author baffled about their poor sales. However, tech savvy individuals can view this information through the Amazon Advertising API (where the “IsAdultProduct” field indicates flagged titles), and others can view it through Aaron Shepard’s handy Sales Rank Express utility (where it’s listed as “Safe” or “Not Safe”).

Covers are nearly always the reason for a book being tossed in the oubliette, and submitting a slightly edited version and requesting a re-evaluation is often enough to lift the Adult flag. Unfortunately, Amazon’s screening is random and inconsistent, so relatively innocuous content may be flagged while covers that are clearly violative of Amazon’s rules sail through untouched.

CLAIM: KDP Select’s 90-day exclusivity applies to print books.
STATUS: FALSE
KDP Select’s exclusivity requirement applies only to ebooks, not print books. You remain free to print and distribute paperbacks through any vendor.

However, you may […] continue to distribute your book in physical format (including print on demand books), or in any format other than digital. — KDP Select Help, Exclusivity

CLAIM: You can give a book away for free to your mailing list subscribers even if you are selling it through KDP.
STATUS: TRUE
WARNING! This section applies to the basic KDP program, NOT to the KDP Select program’s exclusivity requirements.

KDP’s pricing help states: “You must set your Digital Book’s List Price (and change it from time-to-time if necessary) so that it is no higher than the list price in any sales channel for any digital or physical edition of the Digital Book.”

One might interpret this to mean that ebooks may not be offered for free under any circumstances if Amazon is charging for it. However, multiple staffers at KDP have confirmed that this does not violate their rules:

Yes, you may offer your eBook for free or have it as a giveaway on your website. As long as we can see that this book is not on KDP Select, there will be no Terms & Conditions in violation. — Chantelle C., KDP Support

CLAIM: The 70% royalty tier on KDP requires exclusivity.
STATUS: FALSE
Any book within the price limits set by KDP can qualify for the 70% royalty option, even if they are not enrolled in KDP Select. This is a surprisingly common mistake, possibly due to confusion over the fact that sales in Brazil, Japan, Mexico, and India are only eligible for 70% royalties if the book is enrolled in KDP Select. But for all other regions, 70% royalties are available to any book priced between $2.99 and $9.99.

Check your books: you may be earning only half of your potential royalties.

CLAIM: Amazon no longer price matches books to match other retailers, eliminating permafree books.
STATUS: FALSE
Amazon’s price matching help page offers a blunt, one-line summary of their policy: “Amazon.com doesn’t offer price matching.”

However, this is referring to Amazon’s practice of refunding the difference when a customer finds a product elsewhere for a lower price. It does not refer to Amazon enforcing its requirement that books sold through KDP must be at or below the price of other retailers, and at least 20% below print edition costs. Looking at historical versions of that price matching help page, we see that it originally referred to televisions and cellphones, then just to televisions, and was finally abolished in 2017.

I’ve confirmed that Amazon has price matched books to permafree as recently as last week. However, this is entirely at Amazon’s discretion, and they have proven increasingly reluctant to match free books.

CLAIM: Amazon affiliate links are not permitted in email, ebooks, PDFs, or printed material.
STATUS: TRUE
The Amazon Associates program prohibits you from using affiliate links “in any offline manner”, which they define as “any printed material, mailing, SMS, MMS, email or attachment to email, or any other document.”

Essentially, Amazon wants all affiliate links to be traceable to an originating website. Affiliates that break this rule may find their accounts abruptly terminated and their commissions forefeited, as several email-based ebook discovery services found to their dismay in 2015.


OVER TO YOU

That wraps up this month’s look at Amazon myths and misunderstandings. What self-publishing myths have you encountered? Let us know in the comments below!

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13 Responses to 10 Myths and Misunderstandings about Amazon

  1. J.P. Choquette January 15, 2018 at 9:48 pm #

    Great post and myth busting, thank you! I didn’t know about the also boughts or the reviews so that was helpful information to learn.

  2. Kari Trenten December 27, 2017 at 7:01 am #

    Interesting. Thanks for sharing this information!

  3. David Gaughran December 24, 2017 at 2:07 pm #

    Thanks for targeting the remarkably persistent meme about reviews affecting sales rank.

    Re Also Boughts, I think one of the reasons for that misapprehension is that they don’t appear until you hit a certain level of sales. In the US store, that’s 50, as far as I can tell, and it used to be 10 or 20. That change really affected slower sellers as your book is kind of invisible to the recommendation engine until you get Also Boughts.

  4. Wendy Owen December 23, 2017 at 4:13 am #

    I was very (pleasantly) surprised by a couple of myths busted in this article! One I have always believed, and what a lot of “gurus” teach, is that the number of reviews affects the algorithm.

    Thanks for disposing of that one John 🙂

  5. Rhoda Baxter December 21, 2017 at 1:23 pm #

    Hi John regarding the affiliate links – Draft 2 Digital offer universal links and say they allow you to add an affiliate code to their outbound link. How does that work? You’re not putting the affiliate code out on any offline material.

    • David Gaughran December 24, 2017 at 2:08 pm #

      I think we can assume that companies who bring a huge amount of traffic to Amazon might have a different deal in place than the average indie.

  6. Barbara Lorna Hudson December 21, 2017 at 9:57 am #

    Whst is an affiliate link?

    • J.P. Choquette January 15, 2018 at 9:49 pm #

      An affiliate link is where the author or business earns a small commission via Amazon for certain products, Barbara.

  7. Shari Mahon December 19, 2017 at 10:44 pm #

    I keep reading that affiliate links are not permitted in email, but every day I get emails from both Bookbub and Ereader News Today that have affiliate links in them. How do those two companies get away with it?

  8. JJ Toner December 16, 2017 at 4:42 pm #

    Sales to Amazon customers based in Ireland, who generally buy via Amazon.co.uk, seem to generate 35% royalties, regardless of selling price and regardless of KU enrolment. I think.

  9. Kathy Steinemann December 16, 2017 at 2:31 pm #

    Great information, John. I must admit I believed some of these myths. I’ll be sharing this via social media.

  10. Keith Dixon December 16, 2017 at 9:41 am #

    Thanks, John, great stuff. An addendum to the price-matching info … Amazon US and Amazon UK seem to work differently. When I make a book free on other distributors (usually through D2D), Amazon US picks up on this pretty quickly and matches the price. Amazon UK *may* pick up the change in price but sometimes doesn’t and I have to let them know. And in reverse, taking a book *off* free, Amazon US reacts quickly, Amazon UK not. Frinstance, I did this about 10 days ago with a permafree book, changing its price to 99c/99p. Amazon US found it within 24 hours and changed the price. Amazon UK still hasn’t changed it … I haven’t told them because I’m waiting to see how long (if ever) they find the price change and match it.

    • John Doppler December 16, 2017 at 9:46 am #

      Thanks, Keith! That’s good to know. My guess? You’ll be waiting a long time for Amazon to act on their own initiative…

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