The Indie Author’s Zen Guide To Tracking Book Sales

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

Like most independent authors, I keep fairly close tabs on my book sales. I know my average daily e-book, paperback, and hardcover book transactions. I understand how cycles like days of the week and seasons of the year  play into those numbers. Another huge factor in the fluctuation of book sales is the type of promotional activities I’ve got going on. Sometimes those promos beat my expectations. Sometimes they’re disappointing. Either way, their effect is clearly visible and fairly expected.

Friday Sales: Oh No!

Recently, however, something unusual happened. On a recent Friday, my book sales went down to zero in the paperback and hardcover formats. The e-book format didn’t go down to zero, but those sales there were minimal, too.

I chalked it up a daily anomaly. Emotionally, however, I was all over the place.

Zero?

I had a million questions but didn’t have the data to answer them.

A Dearth of Data

In the past, I have worked as a digital marketer for online stores. When an organization builds and runs its own online store, it can track all kinds of information about the people who visit the site, how long they shopped, where they came from, what information they consumed during the decision-making process, and the discounts and promotions that helped nudge them to a purchase. Google Analytics is a great tool for doing this. Digital marketers who sell from a web stores that they control can measure almost every element on the site so they can understand the behavior of the customers. Then, they use that information to make adjustments to help increase sales.

When you’re an indie author selling a book on someone else’s online store, however, the information that you get is very limited. Questions a web store owner can answer with a quick Google Analytics query go unanswered for an indie author.

Daily Fluctuations And the Monkey Mind

In Zen, there’s a term called monkey mind. Our thoughts are like monkeys, jumping around, screeching, bouncing from branch to branch.

I knew I was plunging into monkey mind thinking,

Generally, an indie author wants to see sales trending up or at least keeping the sales rate steady. I have a long-term, thought-out promotional plan, but should I quickly generate a new, mini-promotion? What about that online advertising? Is there something going on there? Have we accidentally used up our advertising budget?

Not knowing what to do other than try to reduce my stress level, I laced up my sneakers and went for a walk

Beneficiary of Complimentary Promotions

As I ambled along under tall pine trees, my mind expanded a little. The monkeys seemed calmer. I began to recognize and appreciate the ways my online stores have been silently helping me with all kinds of merchandising techniques.

FIrst, pricing discounts. In my experience, I have observed that Amazon is, on its own, giving visitors a $1.38 discount on my Createspace book. I set the price at $21.95, and low and behold, it shows up on Amazon for $20.57.

Then there’s retargeting. I know that Amazon engages in retargeting. How do I know? I am one of the customers who receives its retargeting emails. Retargeting is a term for the technique that digital marketers use when a customer visits an online store and doesn’t make a purchase. The digital marketer creates an ad based on the abandoned product and delivers it to that person later on via email, or on another website or platform such as Facebook. I visit my book’s Amazon sales page quite often but I don’t buy my own book. This behavior surely triggers Amazon’s algorithm and puts me in the category of an undecided shopper.

Discounting and retargeting are some things that I don’t control or pay for. Amazon does them to help improve my sales, and of course, enrich itself (as well as me).

More monkeys

Then, out of nowhere,  the monkeys in my mind started swinging. They started screeching. What if one of those “complementary” promos had changed, or (gasp) stopped! I don’t pay for those extra promotions, so I can’t control them. They’re lucky breaks. Still, I’ve come to rely on them and definitely don’t want them to end.

It may seem unfair that indie authors don’t have insight into the behavior of the shoppers and they don’t have control over these digital marketing techniques.

Calm down, I said to the monkeys. It’s important to remember that an indie author is a supplier, not a retailer. Only retailer has control over, and insight into, the customer behavior data.

The thing is, without access to that data, an indie author has few ways to answer questions that arise when sales rates change. What caused the change? Is it something easily fixed by tweaking the metadata? Are there simply not enough people landing on the sales page? Can I buy an advertisement to fix it? Did the audience think the price was too high? Should we change the price to lower? Is my sales message losing it’s impact? Should we change some of the information on the sales page?

Weekend: More of the Same

The next day came. Again, no improvement in sales.

Now the monkeys in my mind were swinging from limb to limb. Has the book run its course already? All books have a lifetime. One source tells me that the average book has a five-year life cycle. The Hunger Games and Gone Girl were two of the top selling books five years ago. They’re still great books, but by now, their sales wave has probably peaked, too. Maybe my book has peaked already.

It wasn’t a holiday, was it? What about a major power outage across the US, or maybe online hacker attack! Could it just be the weather? Would a nice Spring weekend draw everyone outside and keep them from thinking about books? I looked out the window. Rain and wind. Then again, I live in the Pacific Northwest, where rain and wind actually define “nice spring weather.” And who knows what the weather is like on the East Coast or in California, or wherever most of my sales are coming from. (Geographical location is another point of data that Google Analytics gives a web retailer who is in control of his own data.)

An Almost-Empty Yoga Studio

What does one do when one wants to settle the monkey mind? Yoga. I decided to go to a small independent yoga studio in my area. The place is hidden in the back of an office building. Still, people flock to it. Participants cram their mats into the small room. Often, the corners of the mats are mere inches away each other.

But this day, only two other participants were in the room with me.

The place was practically empty.

Just like my book sales.

I wondered if the instructor-owner was looking at the bare floor and listening to her voice echo off the empty walls and thinking the kinds of thoughts I’d been thinking about my book.

It didn’t seem so.

She calmly coached us through downward dogs and meditative breathing.

I wondered if her monkey mind thinking, “Where is everybody? Should I buy an advertisement to fix it? Did the audience think the price was too high? Should we change the price to lower? Is my sales message losing it’s impact? I wish I had more data!”

I’ll never know. But I felt better after an hour of stretching.

What Can We Do?

You would think this session in calmness would break my cycle of worry. But it did not. As soon as I got back in the car, I checked my sales on my phone.

No change. But it had been 75 minutes!  Maybe the universe has just gotten tired of my book. Maybe my book is not as funny as customers claim, or suddenly the visitors have stopped believing all of those heartfelt 5-star customer reviews.

My book is for children who don’t like to read. The school year is coming to an end. Have all reluctant readers suddenly started loving to read? Have America’s teachers made my book irrelevant?

When I got home I discussed the sales problems with my husband who, with his analytical mind, is also my online sales advisor.

“Wait a day,” he advised. “Plus, what can we do?”

He was right. We had no proof of what was causing the change, so we had no insights into what actions could counteract it. If we did anything different, it would be a stab in the dark. It could make things worse.

So I waited.

Plus, on that second day of no-paper-book-sales, non-book-related commitments for the rest of the day kept me away from my computer. That alone prevented me from making any changes.

Monday: A New Cycle

And then, Monday dawned.

Sales popped back to normal again.

What? Normal?

Then the next day, Tuesday, sales were not just normal—they were better than normal.

The hardcover book got a nice fat order from someone, maybe a library system or a school that made an order so big it represented about a half-a-month’s worth of sales. In a single day.

Zen Thinking

An idea slowly arose in my mind.

Sometimes there just really is no known reason for a sudden drop in book sales. Maybe there’s a normal ebb and flow of human behavior.

My monkey brain calmed.

Sometimes just waiting is the most appropriate way of responding to a sales anomaly. Sure, indie authors, need to watch their stats and to know how their sales are  trending. But as any Zen master can tell you, the sustainable way is to make a solid long term plan and strive for calm through the volatility.