Asking Friends and Family to Buy Your Book Can Slash Potential Sales

  • Home >>
  • NEWS >>

The fatal mistake new authors keep makingTunnel painting by Amethyst Qu based on a photograph by Amethyst Qu

In 2013, Kelly Osbourne tweeted a selfie of a pretty bad sunburn. I wrote a brief item about it, added a little SEO, and got over 100,000 page views. No wonder Google got disgusted and ran so many updates. Writers were making too much money for nothing.

Try those stale SEO tricks today, and see how many page views you get. Probably none. But let’s say you get two or three. Maybe five if you count the four who bounced as soon as the page loaded.

Pity the poor writer scrabbling for traffic. Advice from eight years ago might as well be advice from Epsilon Eridani, because it sure doesn’t work anymore on planet Earth. We all know and accept that when it comes to writing short online items. Move with the times, or get left behind.

And yet, when it comes to their precious novel, so many new authors follow years-old advice that can really tank their sales. They talk up the book to their friends and family. Get them all excited (or at least tired of hearing about it) so they’ll buy the book the minute it hits the virtual shelves.

These baby authors may not enjoy pressuring their contacts to buy the book, but they’ve always heard you should — and they figure it’s pretty harmless. After all, how can it hurt? And yet it does. Stick around, and I’ll explain why this weird old trick might slash your book’s chances of being seen on Amazon.

There’s always advice out there that ‘usedta’ work

One of the first ebooks I ever bought outlined the cool plan that worked so well in the early days of the Kindle Gold Rush. If I recall correctly, the author himself used it to move half a million books back in the day. Problem: his day was almost a decade ago.

The tired old plan in a nutshell (don’t do this!)

Publish your book at a “new release” sales price of 99 cents. Contact all your family and friends. Beg, borrow, cry, or out-and-out bribe them to buy and download the bleepin’ book. Sure, you’ve made yourself look like an angle-shooting creep to everyone you know. But you figure it’s worth it, because the Amazon algos will see your book is selling, and now they’re going to start recommending your book to other people.

No, no, no. Head in hands. Bleep, no. In 2014, sure, you could do a few cool tricks and sell a hundred thousand copies. Alas, we’ve come a very long way from the Gold Rush era. Machine learning is the enemy of the angle-shooter with a mere mortal brain. You haven’t been able to fool Amazon with this cheesy trick for quite a few years now.

It’s 2021. Amazon knows if it’s your mom, brother, in-laws with a different last name, and assorted coworkers who bought the book. If they see your book is selling only or mostly to close contacts, they can dismiss that book as a vanity publication of not much interest to the readers who don’t know you. What do you suppose that does to your chances of being seen in the flood of self-published books?

How we know Amazon knows who your close contacts are

For me, this is a feature, not a bug. I have zero interest in being read by people I know in real life. But the majority of new writers aren’t me. Most of them get a little upset when I gently suggest they hold back on sharing their work with family and friends.

“The Amazon algos are proprietary,” they say. “You don’t know they can figure this stuff out. You’re just guessing.”

Actually, I do know they can figure this stuff out. We all know it. See, a few years back, Amazon got into hot water for hosting so many bogus and sock-puppet reviews on their sales pages, and they were forced to clean up their act. Amazon algos began to sweep through reviews, removing the ones written by people’s family and friends.

That’s pretty good evidence they know who you are — and also who your friends are. Some authors even complained that reviews from their Facebook friends got removed! But, if you still harbor nagging little doubts, take it from Amazon themselves:

“[W]e use a number of techniques, including advanced machine learning, to try to detect groups of connected entities — customer accounts, selling accounts, products, brands, and more.”The goal

Some books look more profitable to the algos than other books, and the algos push those more profitable books in front of potential buyers. So how do you persuade the algo to push your book?

Well, sad to say, before Amazon will start promoting you, they want to see some evidence the book is worth promoting. They want to see sales. So you’ve got to do all the things any other successful publisher does. Buy ads. Buy promotional slots in newsletters. Maybe do podcasts or other publicity. Do social media. Pay somebody a few thousand bucks for a viral TikTok. (I’m just kidding about that one, although some people claim to be doing well with the tactic.)

The point is, you’ve got to start by selling the book to actual strangers who like your kind of book. Sell enough so the algo can figure out who buys your book. Then, when similar people browse on Amazon, the algo can slide your book in front of them. Do this wrong, and you screw up everything. I probably can’t put it better than the author of Amazon Decoded, David Gaughran:

“A common mistake that authors make is getting a lot of friends or family or colleagues to purchase their first book… if your brother Steve usually reads sword and sorcery fantasy, but buys your debut romance novel to support you, that’s going to confuse Amazon’s system… Worse than that, if there are enough Steves in the mix, Amazon will think you have written a sword and sorcery fantasy, and will proceed to recommend your book to all the wrong people.And if there is one thing Amazon doesn’t like, it’s recommendations which don’t convert into sales. So it will recommend your book less frequently in the future.”A final data point to ponder

Years ago, against all advice and at great expense, a friend published a book to Amazon via a vanity press. The book sold four copies, one to her, three to her three living relatives. Asked to investigate, I quickly discovered a serious problem.

As most of you know, whenever you shop on Amazon, they generate custom pages targeted to you that include things like new books in the same genre you often read or a new release in a series you’ve read. It’s inarguable that your page is made new for you each time you shop.

In the case of my friend’s book, you could easily find it in Amazon’s catalog if you searched for it from my friend’s computer. However, when I searched for it on devices not related to her or her relatives, I couldn’t get the book to come up in the first few pages of results. Not even when I used her exact name and book title. Doesn’t that suggest to you that Amazon wants to bury vanity books of interest only to the author’s close contacts?

As we’ve seen from their battle against bogus reviews, Amazon keeps getting more aggressive about identifying an author’s contacts. Of course, Amazon also knows who’s buying your book. If your buyers are your family and friends, the algo can put two and two together — and then quickly dismiss the book as a vanity effort not worth showing to the wider world.

Speculation? Sure. Speculation is all we’ve got when we’re trying to reverse engineer proprietary software. It’s experience-based informed speculation, though. Besides, wouldn’t you like to have a solid business-based reason to stop hassling your friends to buy your book? You’re an author, not an Amway distributor.

So here’s my advice. Stop asking your family and friends to buy your book. Sell the durn thing to actual readers, make some money, and then — if you really think your close contacts are interested — gift them an author’s copy. And if any of them ask you to buy their book, feel free to show them this article.

Thanks to Dave Eldergill MA for suggesting I expand on the topic of how buys from family and friends may impact the Amazon algos.

More practical writing/marketing advice you might like:

You Can Earn a Full-Time Living Writing FictionHow Do You Know When to Stop Rewriting?

Asking Friends and Family to Buy Your Book Can Slash Potential Sales was originally published in The Writing Cooperative on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Read more:

  • August 28, 2021
  • NEWS