About also-boughts, or how I ruined everything
In what I expect will be a common practice for quite a few of my fellow writers in the coming years, last week I republished four novels after the publisher (who is closing shop) released the rights.
In other words: welcome to the first day of the rest of my writing career!
I am very excited.
Sorry, let me try again.
I AM VERY EXCITED!
My enthusiasm is a tiny bit tempered, because it’s been a weird few days.
Why? Well, as much as you might expect all of the various online retailers of electronic books to have this sort of thing down—this sort of thing being the collective shifting of a product’s online footprint from one listing to another listing—they mostly don’t.
This is annoying for four particular reasons: also-boughts, reviews, back-matter hyperlinks, and historical sales rank.
Let me explain.
I had about six months of advance notice of the rights reversion, which means I spent the summer re-editing and reformatting the four novels. (While we’re here, the four are Immortal, Hellenic Immortal, Immortal at the Edge of the World, and Fixer, and yes, please do go buy them.) I also commissioned four new covers, and then set up everything so when the time came all I had to do was go hit Publish four times in six places: Amazon, Nook, Apple, Kobo, Google Play, and Createspace.
Then I assembled a letter for each merchant who had an electronic version of the publisher’s edition. (Amazon, Nook, Apple and Kobo, but not Google Play, which the publisher never used, and not Createspace because they’re a print edition company.) The letter said, essentially, that I’ve gotten the rights back to the books I just published, I can provide proof if they want it, and can they also please
- set up a redirect from the old edition links to the new edition links so people following outdated hyperlinks will find the books
- link up the reviews associated with the old editions to the new editions.
Then I provided links to the old editions, and waited until September first.
Meanwhile, sales were doing just great for the publisher’s editions of the books. Back in May, I ran a promotion (via BookBub) for a novel I already own outright: The Spaceship Next Door. The sales from that book had a positive impact on my entire catalog, and that was great. Yes, the sales were going to editions I knew were going to get replaced by the end of the summer, but sales are sales and readers are readers, and besides, that history wouldn’t go away. It would shift to the new books once they replaced the old ones.
Or so I thought.
Here’s what all those things I listed above mean.
Also-boughts: this is the list at the bottom of a product page that rather literally states “people who bought this also bought these other things.” Also-boughts are important, especially on Amazon, where at least some of that information is used to recommend other books to readers.
Reviews: I think you know this one.
Back-matter hyperlinks: back-matter is what we call the stuff at the end of an ebook that isn’t part of the novel itself, and hyperlinks you should be familiar with. The idea is, once someone has read one of your books, they find themselves on an “also by this author” page, with summary descriptions of other books and, importantly, links to buy those books. This is a very simple yet very complicated thing, because the links have to go to books sold by the same vendor, i.e., a book bought on the Nook should have links to other Nook editions at the back.
Historical sales rank: to be honest, sales rank is something writers dwell on way more than readers do. I’ve never heard of a reader saying they thought about buying book A until they saw it was lower ranked than book B, so they got book B instead. However, sales rank impacts the book’s visibility (to varying degrees, depending on the retailer): if a book is ranked high enough it’s more likely to be seen by a potential reader.
What all this means is that the sales history of a book matters, and why it was so important to me to get that history shifted to the new editions as quickly and as efficiently as possible. I honestly assumed this would just happen, and that reviews and links were the only thing I had to worry about.
The vendors didn’t quite feel the same way.
Here are the responses I got from the letters:
Amazon: sending this to us as soon as you hit publish was cute, but we can’t help you until the new books are set up. Thanks, tho.
(I’ll pause here, to explain that I had to wait 24 hours after hitting publish to see the books online, because I had to prove ownership to their satisfaction. I told them in advance—in the letter I sent prematurely—that I had the rights back and had proof that I had the rights back if they wanted it, but the way to go about this appears to be to try and publish and wait for them to challenge your ownership and then send them proof. Being proactive literally does you no good.)
Amazon again, after that 24 hours: We will be happy to redirect the links! We’ve also moved the reviews! Yay us!
Kobo: Reviews—someday we’ll be able to do this but not now, sorry! Links—we don’t understand the question. Can’t you go update your own links?
(I explained that I can’t update a link in the back of a book someone already bought, which is why I need redirects. I didn’t get a second reply.)
Nook: …actually, I didn’t send them the letter. I hit published on 8/31 on books set up ahead of time with a publication date of 9/1, and since Barnes & Noble doesn’t allow preordering (by the way, this is inexplicable) they also don’t allow you to hit publish early like this.
To their credit, even though I hit publish on 9/1 and didn’t see the books available until 9/2, when they did become available the reviews moved with them. I didn’t bother to ask about link redirects because I’m sure the guy who updates their website is very busy.
The merchant I really want to focus on is Amazon, because that’s where most of my sales live, and also where I expect the most tech-forward thinking to be found.
I think at this point the folks in Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing support team know me by name. Probably, every time I send a new email the recipient stands up in whatever cubicle farm they all work out of in whatever country Amazon outsources to, and says, “He’s sent another one, everybody,” and then they huddle up and read it. I like to imagine that when this happens, they aren’t also laughing, but I don’t know. (Actual lead sentence in my last help ticket to them: “hi, it’s me again.”)
Amazon was able to link up the reviews pretty fast, which was great. The redirects were kind of a crapshoot. The links that worked sent me to the buy page for print editions rather than kindle editions, and it was the wrong print editions.
(Long story. Short version: distributors for the publisher still have copies to sell, and their edition is less expensive than mine, so it’s displayed first. This is still unresolved.)
The two things I became preoccupied with were the sales rank history and the also-boughts.
As it turns out, Amazon can’t update these in a way that works in my favor. New editions have to build their own sales history, and also-boughts have to build from zero.
I was both surprised and disappointed by this news. But, after they took some time to explain, I understand.
Here’s how it was explained after my last inquiry:
Please note, the Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought and Frequently Bought Together features automatically determines what titles are displayed based on a careful evaluation of our customers’ shopping patterns.
Since this feature is updated based on customer shopping habits and change frequently to reflect current buying patterns, I’m not able to manually adjust the titles shown in this feature.
Basically, this also-boughts are dynamic, and can’t be manipulated manually without screwing things up on their end.
This never occurred to me, and I’m glad they concerned themselves enough to explain it thoroughly.
There was also this:
[…]one of my colleague has already forwarded this to our business team as a feature request.
I don’t think this is a line, I think they probably actually did this.
The issue with also-boughts isn’t really that Amazon can’t do it, it’s that I mistakenly assumed it was something that was possible to do. So that’s on me. It seems like something that should happen, but that’s because I don’t fully appreciate how dynamic their recommendations engine is.
Once the books were available for sale on all the sites, I updated the back-matter for everything—this was twelve books total—and republished each of them so the links are current.
More or less.
If you follow me in social media you’ve probably heard this before, but Apple is the worst. They’re not allowing an update to any of the editions, and their help desk is like the evil-Spock version of Amazon’s team of clean-shaven Vulcans.
Here was their response to my query, which I sent after five successive book updates failed:
You were not able to successfully submit your book because the version number included in this submission is not greater than the previous version of your book, 2.0, which is currently live on the iBooks Store.
To correct this upload error, you will need to open your book’s .iba file in iBooks Author and click Publish. When you go through the publish workflow, select “This is an update to a previously published book” then use a version number that is greater than the previous version number, which is 2.0.
I’m not using Ibooks Author to format my books, so I can’t do this.
I told them that, but their response time is 24 hours or more. In the same time span, I spoke to Amazon enough times to swap astrological signs with the staff. Throw in the fact that Apple is the only merchant to require a separate program in order to even upload a book (iTunes Publisher) and they win the award for Worst Everything in the self-publishing marketplace.
Anyway, I’m digressing, but as I said it’s been a weird few days. On the other side of it, I can say that I’ve done everything currently within my power to update the books.
More importantly, this was a thing that I needed to get done in order to move forward, and I’m glad it’s done. Just that it’s been a tiny bit more painful than I expected.
Like what you’ve read? Join my mailing list!
Hey, Gene, is there anything your readers can do from our end? Would it help if we wrote new reviews for your new editions?
Good question, Sue! But nah, it’ll sort itself in time. I don’t think reviews will get the print editions to flip, because Amazon consolidates all the reviews.
Oh goodness sakes! I am so glad you are getting your power back!
I am one of those new customers from the BookBub promo for The Spaceship Next Door. I am also an audiobook crazy person, so when I saw the sale price for the audio version, I snapped it up and devoured it for dinner. Mmmmm. Yum! More please!
thanks, Felicia this made my day
The immortal books you wrote are awesome and hope you can sort this problem out soon and write more books . I keep checking your blogs every now and again hoping you going to get a new immortal book on the shelf well fingers crossed for you .
Thanks for saying so! I actually feel really bad about this. I expected to have a new book out by now, but this year has become all about the other stuff. I’m 90,000 words in on the first draft of Immortal book 4, and I hope to have it out by the end of the year.