Thursday, April 1, 2010

Beyond Amazon--Tracking Your Novel's Sales—by Amy Dawson Robertson

miles to go I’d like to welcome guest blogger Amy Dawson Robertson to Mystery Writing is Murder today. Amy is a native Virginian and graduated from St. John’s College in Annapolis. She lives in the Washington DC area and her writing interests include genre fiction, short stories and graphic novels. She creates strong female characters in action-packed stories drawn on current events. Miles to Go is Amy’s first novel.

In the old days, before the internet was a twinkle in eye of Leonard Kleinrock, writers were condemned to worry and wonder. Say you published a book. And it’s 1888. Or 1942. Or even 1994. Congratulations! You have a contract with your publisher for, maybe, a 15% royalty rate on hardcover sales. Your book is slated for release just before Christmas. Perfect. The book comes out, you get a few reviews – some good, some so-so. Sometimes you go visit your book at the bookstore around the corner and you wonder how it's selling. You know you won't have an inkling (unless you're one of the very lucky few to hit the NYT bestseller list) until you get your first royalty statement.

In. The. Mail.

The mail that will be known in the as yet unknowable future as snail mail.

Writers, tending to be a thoughtful bunch, can’t help but fixate on the notion that this thing that they are driven to do might have value. And not just some esoteric notion of value but quantifiable value. Dollars and cents value. And ultimately, that accumulation of dollars and cents is indicative of individual minds that each made the decision to buy your book.

That’s right. Buy. Your. Book.

Which means there’s a good possibility that same said mind might read your book.

Read. Your. Book.

And that’s really what the writer cares about. We want people to read our books. Everyone single one of us remembers “coming out” as a writer to our friends and their raised eyebrows. It’s hubristic after all. It means you think you have something so worth saying that it not only deserves to be printed on a page and bound between two covers, but also to be cataloged and entered into libraries. Which means of course that it might live for eternity. And it means you believe that it is a reasonable proposition for people, real people, to spend the hard-earned fruits of their labor on your book. If anything’s hubristic that is, right? It’s still hard to know who is buying your book but it is getting easier to know if anyone actually is.

The internet, thankfully, is all about minutia, quantification and immediate satisfaction and nowadays our friendly author is now a member of a coterie of

“twitchy neurotic messes who obsess about their sales, a fact which Amazon should be well aware of because we check our Amazon numbers four hundred times a day, and a one-star Amazon review causes us to crush up six Zoloft and snort them into our nasal cavities, because waiting for the pills to digest would just take too long.”

Maybe this sounds familiar, right? Unless you have endless time to stalk your book in all of the places it sells, you really don’t have a notion if anyone is buying it. So whether you’re in it for the money or that special satisfaction of envisioning your words coursing through another human being’s brain, now there are a few tracking tools that can help you take the edge off until your royalty statement turns up.

Each of these tools captures Amazon sales rank information (admittedly only one piece of the pie). There are other paid tracking sources such as Publisher Alley that pulls their data from Baker & Taylor and the mythic BookScan that grabs data from bookstores everywhere. But if you're looking for free, here's a peek at the four that I have found since my book was published.

First there was Titlez . Titlez was my first Amazon sales tracker. I was still naive then.

Titlez, which is still in beta, allows you to track as many books as you'd like. Then it arranges the books you're tracking into an actively ranked list. If you expand a title, you can see how it has performed over time. Each dot represents the sales rank for a single instance in a day. Sales rank is captured once a day. Note that when the line goes flat that means you are having a sale or more likely multiples sales every day or mostly every day. By hovering over each dot you can see what the sales ranks was for that day and what time it was captured. It’s important to note that Amazon rankings fluctuate wildly (I won’t even get into the mathematical speculation that surrounds it) so it’s best to look at your rank over time. Titlez is especially useful to see how your book is doing in comparison to similar books in its genre.


Next, Metric Junkie swept in on a big noisy motorcycle and stole my attention. Catching my fickle eye with sexy pie charts, bar graphs, and best of all, a thing of their own invention: Cha-chingers™. Yes, Cha. Chingers. (™) And we know what that means.

While the biggest limitation to Titlez is that it only captures data once a day, Metric Junkie solves that problem by capturing data hourly. The image below shows an eight hour time span when five books were purchased.


Metric Junkie only allows you to track ten titles (per account) but you can see the sales of those titles across any time period you choose. The pie chart also shows how the ten titles rate against each other by percentage. The bar chart allows you to see how you're doing week to week, month to month, etc., graphically.


After my experiences with Titlez and Metric Junkie, I'd been through a lot and I was more mature. So when a subtle, handsome application called NovelRank came along I was ready to jump on board. Most appealingly, it could capture multiple sales in a hour. Did you hear me? Multiple sales in an hour. Yeah, seriously, I was blown away.

Though NovelRank doesn't have as many graphical ways to display your data, it has an RSS feed feature that will show you those multiple sales in an hour. For instance, from the time period of 11AM-7PM where Metric Junkie shows five sales, NovelRank shows seven including three in one hour. This is what showed up in my RSS reader:


NovelRank is cosmopolitan too. It captures international Amazon sales data -- this is how it displays:

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NovelRank can also download your hourly sales rank into an Excel file making it easier to pinpoint fluctuations in your sales. (You may find you need pocket protection if you go this far.)

Another application that only recently caught my eye is Rankforest. Rankforest allows you one title to track for free -- I don't see much value to this service except that it is the only sales tracking application I've found that also tracks Barnes and Noble. It is mostly useful as an application on the side.

How accurate are any of these tools? It's hard to say. I haven't seen my first royalty statement yet and I don't know how analyzed it will be. I have found that these tools take the edge off the wait a bit. But I also believe that such applications can offer a snapshot of how your book is doing which can influence how you strategize your own marketing. Mondays tend to be very good sales days for book buying so maybe you'll want to post to your blog or otherwise remind people of your existence sometime Monday morning. Businesses are investing more and more in data mining and accessing valuable results. Likewise, the more data a writer has, the more she can understand her audience and the market. Unfortunately, none of these tools will write your next book for you, so quit fooling around on the internet and get to work!

Amy Dawson Robertson

Author of Miles To Go: A Rennie Vogel Intrigue