My Online Date with the Almighty Amazon Algorithm (Part 2): Don’t Be Ugly By Accident

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.


You’re not supposed to find the [Amazon] sales rankings informative or helpful. You’re supposed to find them interesting.
-Brent Sampson,Navigating the Amazon Sales Ranking,” WebProNews, June 15, 2006

…a hot woman receives roughly 4x the messages an average-looking woman gets, and 25x as many as an ugly one.
-Christian Rudder, The Mathematics of Beauty,” OkTrends, January 10, 2011

 

(Note: If you haven’t already done so, I would recommend that you first read Part 1 of this series “My Online Date Using the Almighty Amazon Algorithm: Say Hello to My Ugly Friend.”)

Finding the perfect book to date.
(Or the perfect date to read.)

An online dating  profile is no different than your book’s Product Page on Amazon.

To better understand, as an author and a businessperson, how readers find your book on Amazon, all you have to do is consider how someone finds you on an online dating site, because the steps to each are startlingly similar:

1. Create an account.
2. Upload eye-catching  visuals.
3. Write an interesting description.
4. Set the locations so that interested parties can find you.
5. Wait for people to find you.

So there you sit, waiting for those “interested parties”—suitors or readers—to come calling. Now, you’re probably wondering “How will they find me in an ocean of millions of others?” right? Because as an author, what you really want isn’t just for people to find you and think you’re “hot”—no! You’re looking for a date, right? In other words: you want readers not only to find your Product Page and be delighted by what they see there, you want them to buy your book.

The method by which you get a date or a reader is this: The Almighty Algorithm. Like I wrote in Part 1, The Algorithm is that elusive, mysterious and proprietary formula both OkCupid and Amazon use not only to bring two things together (one person to another, a reader to a book), it uses it to determine how “desirable” you (or your book) are. On OkCupid, high desirability comes in the form of the “Ugly Friend” email. On Amazon, being desirable translates into a low Kindle Store ranking, ideally a number less than 10,000.

What fuels the Almighty Algorithm? Well, to understand that we need to shift gears for a moment and consider the online dating site. When you create a profile on OkCupid, for example, you’re acting as an “author” would in creating a Product Page for their book. And on a dating site you also act as a “reader” would—actively browsing for “something to read.” In other words, you’re trolling the site yourself looking for a date, right?

You’d better be, because on OkCupid if you’re not doing enough of the latter—if you’re not acting and interacting on the site—you’ll eventually get a tongue lashing from them that looks like this:

Now, when they refer to “a matching system that learns as you play,” they’re referring to The Algorithm; they’re telling you as frankly as they can that by acting and interacting with the site—answering questions, rating photographs, answering or not answering certain emails, accepting or rejecting suggested matches—you will essentially jump start their algorithm and generate better “matches.”

In my case on OkCupid, “matches” are men the mathematical formula deems are a good fit for me based on how I act and interact (or not) on the site. On Amazon, a “match” is made when Amazon suggests my book to a reader that they are likely to buy and enjoy based on how the reader has acted and interacted on the site before—reviewing books, browsing certain genres, responding (or not) to targeted emails from Amazon itself, “clicking-thru” on suggested books (or ignoring those suggestions).

Building the perfect date.

When I got the email scolding from OkCupid, I’d just about given up on online dating (again). That email made me consider that perhaps I was partially responsible for my lack of success, so I decided to “feed the algorithm” as a reader on Amazon would. From that point forward, no matter what ridiculous-sounding exercise OkCupid served up, I would fall-in with the enthusiasm of a boot camp recruit. And I did, answering hundreds of their “matching questions,” accepting or declining profiles the site emailed to me, using “Quickmatch” to view potential matches. Hell, after a few minutes of cringing at the inhumanity of it all, I even spent about an hour rating profile photos from 1-5 stars, a meat market-y enterprise that I became anesthetized to as dozens of pictures flashed by.

Of course, while you’re doing that to potential matches on OkCupid, they’re also doing it to you—rating your photos and reading your full profile (or not).  As Strata’s Ciara Byrne explains in her piece “Dating with Data,” OkCupid follows your every move as you explore their site, not only tracking your “click-thrus”—the act of clicking on a link or a thumbnail image on a website in order to view the full page—but paying special attention to what you don’t do. A guy emails you and you think he’s too short so you don’t respond, for example? Well, the Almighty Algorithm will take your “non-action” into consideration as well, gathering data and identifying patterns and preferences specific to you.

From “No, thank you” to “Yes, please.”

What can I say? A few days after scoring profiles and answering hundreds of absurd questions (my favorite: “In a certain light, wouldn’t nuclear war be exciting?”), I received the infamous “Ugly Friend” email which reads in part, “We’ve tracked click-thrus on your photo and analyzed other people’s reactions to you.” Further, it declared, “You will now see more attractive people in your match results.”

Did it work?

Well, of course it did! Once the algorithm crunched all the data I was feeding it, I went from seeing a lot less Mr. No Thank Yous and a lot more Mr. Yes Pleases.*

In fact, sometimes the algorithm would spot someone it calculated would be so irresistible to me that it would email me an alert like the one you see on the left—all the while reminding me that I would have to keep “feeding the algorithm” by browsing the site, ranking photos, answering questions, and responding to emails (or not).

Action and interaction: that’s what drives the OkCupid and the Amazon algorithms. That’s how a person finds a date on the former, a book they’ll enjoy on the latter.

Dating your book

Of course, on OkCupid, you are both the “author with the Product Page” as well as the “reader looking for a book.” By that I mean that you can put yourself out there as a potential date while you explore the site actively searching for a match yourself. On Amazon, while you can be an author selling books and be a reader looking for books, you can’t operate in both capacities at the same time, right?

Wrong. (Sort of.)

I mention the following only to show you that even though you may believe that you’re behaving in an authorial capacity on the Amazon website, the Almighty Algorithm never forgets that you’re a potential consumer, ready to buy at the slightest suggestion.

If you’re already self-published, you may have had the shock of receiving an email** from Amazon suggesting your own book as a potential “match.” It’s a surreal (and not uncommon) experience that’s happened to many authors who have books for sale on Amazon!

The Amazon algorithm doing its (frighteningly accurate) job.

Now, obviously authors shouldn’t be reviewing their own books, but they often purchase copies of their books for reviewers and bloggers (as I have; this is standard industry practice). And most authors (including me) do “click-thru” to their various pages at least once every day or so to read reader reviews, check their book rankings, or to confirm that a price or book description change they’ve made is reflected on the Product Page.

Of course, in the case of the example email above, the Almighty Amazon Algorithm doesn’t know (or care) that I’m the author of Alice in Wonderland. It’s just doing its job, and it would naturally assume that based on the number of times I’ve purchased Elle Lothlorien’s  novels (combined with my apparent obsession with each of her book pages) that I’m Elle Lothlorien’s Number One Fan. Its calculations have determined that it’s likely that I will find this new release “hot”—so hot, in fact, that it is driven to email me directly to share the news of my “perfect match!”

Don’t do it.

Now, while this example demonstrates that you actually can operate in both the role of an author and a reader on Amazon in a way that could technically “feed the Almighty Algorithm” by buying your own books or writing and posting reviews for your own novel, this is plainly a terrible idea (as the recent sock-puppetry scandal proves). Frankly, just like on a dating site, as an author there’s a much easier way to jump-start the Almighty Algorithm on Amazon, and that is simply: don’t be ugly.

How Not To Be Ugly

As OkCupid’s Christian Rudder explains in “The Mathematics of Beauty” on OkTrends, “…a hot woman receives roughly 4x the messages an average-looking woman gets, and 25x as many as an ugly one.” Extrapolating from that finding, it makes sense that a “hot book” will have many, many more sales than an “ugly book” on Amazon doesn’t it? And whether you’re on OkCupid hoping to attract a date or creating a Product Page you’re hoping will attract readers, the most important thing you can do is upload eye-catching visuals.

On OkCupid, that means attractive photos of yourself. On Amazon, that means a kick-ass book cover. 

As I stated in Part 1 of this series, when I self-published The Frog Prince in 2010 I didn’t do any marketing whatsoever; I simply created a “dating profile” for the book, uploaded a book cover I designed, and sat back and waited for the “suitors” to swarm. Now, this is not the recommended method for book marketing and discoverability, but it just goes to prove:

Designing a kick-ass book cover for the Kindle Store is one of the most valuable marketing and discoverability opportunities your self-published book is likely to have.

An irresistible book cover is your fastest and most assured way to that “first date”—a purchase of your book—with the reader, so don’t blow it! Unfortunately, “blowing it” is easy to do unless you understand some very basic things about cover design and the fundamental differences between marketing an e-book vs. marketing a hardcopy book.

What are some tricks for book cover design that will get you that “first date?” How do you entice readers to your Product Page on Amazon in the first place so they’ll read your book description and buy your book?

Short answer: You never have a second chance to make a first impression.

Longer answer: “My Online Date Using the Almighty Amazon Algorithm (Part 3): Beauty Is Only Thumb(nail) Deep.”

Related Posts:

As always, thanks for reading, and happy holidays!

I still design all my own book covers–sometimes (as in the case of Rapunzel) before the book is even finished.

*Note: All photographs featured in these mock-ups (except mine) are stock photos obtained for this DBW blog from Shutterstock.com. They are NOT the actual profiles for real people on OkCupid or any other dating site.
**Although it is based on the actual email that Amazon sends out to customers to suggest a particular book, this “email” is a mock-up and not a screen shot of an actual email I received.
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Elle Lothlorien

About Elle Lothlorien

A “military brat,” Elle Lothlorien was born in Germany and spent her childhood in such far-flung places as Puerto Rico, Charleston, S.C., Italy, and Washington D.C. Sadly, the only language she ever became semi-fluent in is English. Elle’s first two self-published romantic comedies, THE FROG PRINCE and SLEEPING BEAUTY went on to become Amazon bestsellers. She is considered a “reluctant expert” on the business of electronic, independent publishing (also called “indie-publishing”), and frequently writes and speaks on the topic. Elle lives in Denver, Colorado. She keeps two dachshunds around the house to provide comic relief. Find out more about her and her books by going to her website, or by following her on Facebook and Twitter.

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