In this episode I talk again to Alex Newton of K-Lytics about what is happening in the Amazon Kindle Store in terms of what categories are doing well and badly.
Tim Lewis: Hello, Alex. Welcome to the show.
Alex Newton: Well, hello, Tim. Great to be back here. Hello, everybody.
Biggest Trends in the Kindle Store
Tim Lewis: So, since the last time you were on the show, what is the biggest new trend in the Amazon e-books marketplace?
Alex Newton: Well, I think there are a couple, actually, both on the reader side, and on the Amazon side, and on the author side. If we start on the author side, well, I think the biggest new trend is the authors aren’t getting tired.
Alex Newton: They still write books, and plenty of them. So, since we last talked, I just looked at the numbers again. We now have about 4.2 million English speaking Kindle books right now. Just in the last 90 days another 216,000 we added, so on an annualised basis, we are seeing a supply growth of books of about 20% a year.
Alex Newton: That, to me, if I look at the early numbers, it was always double digit, and in the big high times it was even up to 25, at times 30%. Now on an annualised basis, it dropped a little bit, below 20, now we’re back to 20, so people are still going into the self-publishing business. One trend is still big growth on the supply side.
Alex Newton: I think on the reader side, the story is basically the mainstream media, to use that term, in that case, the mainstream publishers and the, I’ll say, research organisations still want to make you believe there is a big revival of print and e-book sales dropping. I think just the other day there was an article in The Guardian in the UK that the UK e-book market allegedly dropped by 17%, and I frankly don’t believe those numbers. I don’t believe them for a number of reasons.
Alex Newton: The panels they use are primarily consisting of traditional publishers, and they do not have Amazon in the sample. If you look to also other sites, such as Author Earnings, they’re latest numbers suggest that in fact the e-books have grown yet again, and there was a bit of resurgence of big publishers in e-books like last October, also that faded away, and indie publishers are still gaining share, and especially small publishing companies in the e-book world. So, I don’t believe that the demand growth is as high as the supply growth, but it’s growing, and I think that’s very good news.
Alex Newton: Well, while we’re at it, if we look at trends on the Amazon side of things, on the Kindle platform, there’s two bigger changes since we last talked, and they just happened pretty recently. The one is Amazon did two things. One is they have been opening up their, and that may be a bit technical now, but they have been opening up their category system. What does this mean? Traditionally, you could only have like two or three categories in which you could put your book, and they now opened this up, so you can basically write an e-mail to KDP support and say, “I’d like to have my book … it fits into this, this, this, and this category.” Up to 10 categories, right. In the product details it will still only show like two or three, and it will show those categories where your book ranks, but it will also be visible in all the other category, and could go into a long debate about that, whether that’s good or bad for writers, because you see also smaller categories being high-jacked by various successful books, whether it’s Harry Potter or Gender Games and these sort of things. So, that happened.
Alex Newton: I think, one other trend is Amazon actually took away some of the visibility they’ve given you on the categories. What do I mean with that? When you go onto the Amazon platform, like right now, and you type in on the Kindle platform whatever, “science fiction bestsellers or novels”, any search word, a couple of weeks ago when you clicked return, Amazon would show you books as a search result, but on the left hand side bar they would show you where do the search results come from, and how many per category. So if you typed in “romance novels”, it would show here 300,000 titles found in category Romance, but another 40,000 in the category Literature & Fiction/Women’s Fiction, and so on. So there was a big, big visibility on the size of categories, like on first side and where your search results come from, and for authors and publishers that had been very valuable. Now, Amazon took that away, so you literally have to click on each and every result on the side bar to still get to that number.
Alex Newton: There’s a little trick, and we at K-Lytics still got you covered because we do that for authors, so we still have complete visibility of the category sizes, but it seems Amazon wanted to … I don’t know why they did it. Perhaps for user interface issues, because the left side bar looked cluttered with all those numbers. I think many authors noticed that they don’t have the visibility they used to have.
Tim Lewis: Has there been any genre that is markedly increased in sales success recently?
Alex Newton: Well, there are a couple. I mean, we do measure these genres on a 12 month and 18 months basis, and if I look at what has seen a remarkable change, either up or down, then on the top of the list the ones that have grown by the most, improved their sales rank very significantly, we have things, for example, like Literature & Fiction; Mythology, Folktales, & Folklore.
Alex Newton: You go into this category and say, “Well, are people now reading folktales?” Right? Well, you then look further and say there’s another category that’s really, really growing, and it’s a Literature & Fiction: Genre Fiction: Metaphysical.
Alex Newton: When you go into these categories, what we noticed, these books are primarily Urban Fiction type of books, like supernatural mystery, these types of things, and I think good news for urban fantasy authors, because after, I think, the big peak of the genre was like three years ago, and we’re clearly seeing here a resurgence of that one.
Alex Newton: Another one that has been growing quite dramatically is a number of teen and young adult categories, such as Romantic, Mystery, and Thriller. That has been primarily driven by Bella Forest and lookalikes, who after her hugely successful Shade of Vampire series, which like completely dominated these bestseller lists in teen and young adult fiction, she now successfully launched this new series around this Gender Games series, where first of all, she really struck a chord with this whole gender discussion that’s been going on in the mainstream media the past couple of years.
Alex Newton: Then the other thing is she has a reader base, and she’s really leveraging that reader base into this new series, right, and to the British, also the category Literature & Fiction: British, I haven’t looked at what’s really in it, driving it, but that’s been growing quite a bit. Also, short stories have seen a bit of a revival. Not short reads, so not necessarily less than 100 pages, but short stories.
Tim Lewis: Okay. Last time we talked a lot about non-fiction. In terms of fiction, which categories are the best to write in from a market perspective? Not much supply, but a lot of demand?
Alex Newton: Well the ranking on Amazon is very clear. On a high level, Romance is the uncontested number one genre on Kindle, and the main reason for that is also the Kindle owner demographics, and because many of the Kindle owners are women, say age 30, 35 and up, so that is a prime driver.
Alex Newton: It’s followed by Mystery, Thriller, Suspense, and it’s followed by Science Fiction & Fantasy. Within those, we obviously have many, many subgenres, and if we go onto the subgenre level, we see that, for example, in Romance, you have Military Romance with still sky high demand. You have now in summer, and with the upcoming football season, Sports Romance is doing extremely well, so it’s these types of things that are going well.
Alex Newton: In Mystery, Thriller, & Suspense, if we had a look into that one, we just actually launched our last Mystery, Thriller, & Suspense special report. Now one has to also be always aware of, well, what is really behind the growth of certain categories, because there can also be false positives. There is very prominent example where you think, “Oh my god. This Mystery, Thriller, Suspense genre is growing again.” Then you go in it, and it’s again, Romance behind it.
Alex Newton: So, one very interesting example was in Mystery, Thriller, Suspense, you have a subcategory, Crime Fiction, and within that, you have Organised Crime and we’ve seen a 54% improvement in sales rank of that genre, and so I went in and had a very close look, and what are really the books behinds this, and guess what? There is a Romance subgenre which is basically called like Bad Boy romance or MC, Motorcycle Club romance, so these romance novels often involve gangs, or bad boys, mafia guys, you name it, and it seems that all these Bad Boy Romance authors, started putting their books into Mystery, Thriller, Suspense: Crime Fiction: Organised Crime, because organised crime is a big part of the, I wouldn’t say the romance plot, but the side plot, of that romance novel. That’s a bit what’s happening there.
Tim Lewis: On the last time we talked about the Flooring: Tiling category, which was a category that you could sell one book, and you would get to the top of the charts in. Is that still the most ridiculously easy category to chart in on the Kindle store?
Alex Newton: Well, I’m actually looking here right now in our numbers databases as we speak, and yes, the Floor: Tiling’s still there, but it’s highly contested by other extremely attractive Kindle categories. I see here a whole number of categories where the average sales rank of the top 20 titles in the category is less than like 700,000 or worse than a million. The very worst one right now if you want to have a number one bestseller with selling less than a copy in two weeks or something would be Reference Book: Atlases & Maps of the World. You could also do a practical law guide on living wills, which would get you to the number one.
Alex Newton: There are couple of funny ones out there. Ah, this one. If you are an expert in historical military uniforms, there is a whole Amazon category for that, and yeah, I think you only have to hit sales rank 2,071,000 on average. The number one bestseller of the category has a sales rank of 800,000, so that’s something you should be able to beat.
Alex Newton: If you have a kid and you are into Crafts, Hobbies, & Homes; and Crafts: Hobbies: Ribbons, into how to make ribbons, here you can be a number one bestseller tomorrow.
Tim Lewis: Yes. Is that the very easiest category, or is it still Floor: Tiling?
Alex Newton: Floor: Tiling right now, if I look at it, is like the 25th easiest one out of 3,000 roughly.
Tim Lewis: And you said the Bonsai Tree category was always popular for bestsellers, as well.
Alex Newton: Absolutely. Now, you’re laughing at it, but I think one topic we also could very briefly talk about it the whole scamming thing. There’s like two things happening.
Alex Newton: The one thing is we have here the data, but we do not promote abusing the system, but what you do see people do is they identify these categories that are ridiculously easy to rank in. Now, I have no problem with people putting a book that vaguely fits the category, put it in that category, I mean, fair enough. That’s tactics.
Alex Newton: There can always be a debate, but I think where a line is crossed, for example, the other day there, I saw there are 233 Children’s Book related categories on Kindle. Amazon’s putting a huge emphasis on kids again right now.
Alex Newton: They just updated, gave a face-lift to the Kindle Fire device for kids, and it comes with content and they have parental controls on those devices so the parents can basically configure what type of content people get.
Alex Newton: Now, where I saw a line crossed is the other day there is a kids book category which is like Westerns so whatever the nine year old boy has this device and he’s browsing whatever Amazon wants to have buy a book about cowboys, and what you see there, you all of a sudden see all sorts of mail order bride type of western romance novels in there, because it’s so easy to rank in kids’ books, in these types of kids’ books category, and I think that’s really where a line is crossed.
Tim Lewis: Yeah. I mean, it should at least have some kind of resemblance to the category. Even if you a cut and pasted a load of blog articles about bonsai trees, that’s going to be way better than putting your romance book that happens to be set in a bonsai garden in the Bonsai Tree category.
Alex Newton: Exactly, and the other thing, people who do this type of thing, I mean, there is a reason why you do it, if you say, there was one example, say a paleo cookbook or glycemic diet, whatever it was. So it was a specific diet book that had all sorts of keywords related to that type of diet in the book title, so you could see it was like a real search engine optimised type of book.
Alex Newton: I wouldn’t comment now on the content, but the SEO part of it was really well done. They put this book into my very favourite category. It’s actually not Bonsai or the Floor: Tilings. My favourite one is Rodeos, Outdoor Sports: Rodeos, so all of a sudden you find this paleo diet book in Rodeos.
Alex Newton: Now, what does this do? Is there any benefit for the author? Well, there is, because the trick is, if now a person puts in a search term on say paleo cookbooks, a search word that actually matches this book, Amazon will move results up that are bestsellers and that have that bestseller badge.
Alex Newton: So, I made the test. I clicked a part of the title as a search word into the Kindle search bar, and the number one search result was that paleo diet book, and it had the orange bestseller book right next to it. On that search result page, you don’t see where the bestseller badge comes from, only when the customer clicks on the book and scrolls all the way down to the product information that the customer would actually see, well it is a number one bestseller, but not in paleo diets, but in Outdoor Sports: Rodeos.
Alex Newton: So, there is a bit of a deceit type of thing going on. That’s why people do this.
Tim Lewis: Yeah. The term number one Amazon bestseller has been more abused than I think any other term in the English language in the last couple of years.
Alex Newton: That’s true.
Tim Lewis: In fact, someone who is number one for piano tuning in the Garden or whatever it is category doesn’t make them necessarily a world authority on self-publishing, right.
Alex Newton: And especially it won’t make people be able to pay their bills, which is the other big thing.
Tim Lewis: Yeah. Okay, so we’ve talked a bit about fiction. What is your best tip for somebody’s who’s looking for a category to write a non-fiction book in at the moment?
Alex Newton: Right. Well, first of all, the bigger picture on non-fiction is an interesting one right now, because non-fiction has never sold as well as fiction. We know that on Kindle, but it has always been pretty stable and moving in parallel to fiction. Over the last couple of months, we saw non-fiction, as a whole category, take, dive is perhaps too strong a word, but a significant decline over the past like four, five months, and it was not the typical seasonal phenomena that you have all the people read non-fiction and self-help book when it comes to New Year’s resolution, and before you go into the summer season. It was not the seasonal factor, so there was a bit of a systematic factor that non-fiction as a whole has seen a decline.
Alex Newton: Now, what is interesting, though, for non-fiction authors, is that within non-fiction we also have all sorts of categories, and there are a couple ones that have been growing against the trend. These ones are an interesting. So, for example, the category Self-Help, which is a fairly broad category, has grown again over the last 12 months pretty continuously, and that’s good news because the last time we did a special analysis of this whole Self-Help, Motivational, Self Transformation type of market, it was pretty bleak. Right now, it’s doing pretty well. We’re going to do a special on it soon, so all these things like Self-Help: Motivational, Self-Help: Personal Transformation, Self-Help: Happiness, Self-Help: Self-Esteem, these types of categories have seen a very positive development in the last 12 months.
Alex Newton: We also will have another look at business books and what’s in there, and always, if you do non-fiction, my tip would be really do look at the top 100 bestseller list. I think, in many other genres, the top 100 bestseller list is not that useful if you want to look at it strategically, because you have so many books going in and out.
Alex Newton: What is interesting on the Self-Help category, we just made an analysis of the top 100, and compared it to what the top 100 looked like six months ago, and guess what. I think it was like 30% of the books that were in the top 100 six months ago are still in there. So, that gives you a pretty reliable picture, and you see things like evergreen topics such as habits, and all these habit type books, like our friend Steve Scott has been big in that niche. So, have a look at these. That would be my hint to non-fiction authors.
Alex Newton: The final hint for non-fiction authors do not get into these super, super micro niches. You know, do not go into, as we just discussed, Gardening Horticulture: Growing Bonsais. These type of very small non-fiction niches, they are just not financially viable. It won’t work. You do have to go for the bigger topics and strike a chord with people there, and have good SEO, or have good marketing, and then you have a good chance of also succeeding in non-fiction.
Tim Lewis: I suppose the ideal is though if you can find one of those small categories that your book actually does apply to and a bigger category, then you can kind of have the best of both worlds either way, but it’s obviously going to be a bit difficult with the bonsai tree example.
Alex Newton: Exactly. I mean, the tactical placement of the book in categories, I always tell authors, that’s one thing. That’s tactical, but the meat to the bone, the book itself, the topic, that has to be popular, and what I mean with that is it cannot be addressed to too small a niche, because then if you want to earn money with it, Kindle is just not the right channel.
Alex Newton: If you have the leading website for whatever, ribbon making, or the leading YouTube channel, and you monetise it, I think that’ll work. Kindle often does not work, because people are not aware of what the actual demographics are of people who own Kindles or e-reader devices, right.
Alex Newton: Let’s for example when it comes to kids’s book, we just did a special on kids’s e-books, and it’s a very interesting market, because it’s now being heavily pushed by Amazon, but you have to wait until a certain amount of kids have a Kindle Fire device, because otherwise where should they read the books that you publish on the Kindle platform.
Non-Fiction sales collapse
Tim Lewis: You talked about, obviously, the categories which were doing well against the falling in non-fiction sales. What categories in non-fiction are falling then much more severely? What isn’t working in non-fiction that’s dragging the whole market down?
Alex Newton: We saw quite a decline in things like, especially Crafts, Hobbies, & Home. My opinion is the reason is probably two-fold. It’s partly seasonal because in summer you don’t have many people buying books like How To Cut A Christmas Tree, but it also seems the Kindle book is not the first port of call when you have a certain craft hobby or whatever home appliance thing that you want to solve. You go on YouTube, you go on Pinterest and Google search for that matter, but it’s not like, “Oh, now I go Amazon, and I now want to find a Kindle book, and then I download it onto my black and white Kindle device and try to decipher a narrative on something.”
Alex Newton: So, that’s where I just find Kindle is absolutely the wrong platform to convey the message, and I think after a certain hype, because we had so many authors during the Amazon Kindle gold rush going to Crafts, Hobbies, & Home, I think every grandma was starting to upload the Kindle book “How To Make the Best Strawberry Jam”, that’s what happened. Obviously if then the son does a big Facebook promotion on it, perhaps a couple of books were sold, but then they soon noticed, well, that doesn’t make sense. So, we see probably also the enthusiasm by the authors of these books to market the books and incur the expense associated with it, we see this fading.
Alex gets the crystal ball out
Tim Lewis: So on a wider point, what are your predictions for the future of the Kindle store?
Alex Newton: First of all, I think it’s there to stay, all right. I mean, Amazon continues to, although not with lightning speed as if they wanted to travel to Mars, but they’re still giving face lifts to the Kindle devices. I think there has been quite some debate on is it still hip to have a Kindle device because when they came out 10 years ago, it was like really hip to have one of these devices.
Alex Newton: Now they, especially the older ones, look clunky and you don’t want to be seen with one. I think as long as they do a little bit of technology development, Kindle is there to stay. Just in the Amazon Prime Day they did a huge promotion on Kindle Unlimited. I think an annual subscription was discounted from $120 to $90, or even less, so they are promoting it. They are promoting it also to teens, to children, because they just know that people who have a Kindle device, people who have any of their subscriptions, whether it’s Prime or Unlimited, just have a higher propensity to buy other stuff on Amazon, so it’s a big marketing channel for them. I think it’s here to stay, and with the complementary offering of Audible, I think it will be there.
Alex Newton: What I do think they really have to get their arms around is probably two, three things, because the user experience is deteriorating on Kindle. The user experience is deteriorating because they are still treating the Kindle platform as a Library of Congress, which is to stay shelf space doesn’t cost really.
Alex Newton: You can upload your book, and whether it’s sold or not, it’s there to stay. Well, that is great, but if you are now, as a user, going to start looking for a book on any kind, and let’s stick with our bonsai tree example, and you now type in “bonsai trees how to grow” and you all of a sudden get 23,000 search results for that, because over a course of 10 years you had so many people publish a book in the category, you’re completely lost.
Alex Newton: So, I have the very representative market sample of one, who is my wife, she’s owning a Kindle and she just started putting it down, because many of the really good books aren’t available on Kindle Unlimited, so I think one has to distinguish between Kindle and Kindle Unlimited. The device, she still likes, but the user experience I think is much to be improved.
Alex Newton: These are all technical things, but they have to work on this whole thing of “Well, do I want to have a Library of Congress?” Because when you want to have a book, you go into a little bookstore, if it was a print book on the airport there is bestseller, you want to buy something. You don’t want to go into the Library of Congress and spend a day researching until you find what you’re actually looking for. That they have to solve.
Alex Newton: The other big thing, to my mind, is the scams, because if you Google Amazon movers and shakers, which shows all which works across products, not just Kindle, which shows all the items that have seen a huge surge in sales rank, if you do it right now, you find like two, three romance titles up there where you just know …
Alex Newton: I mean, the author is unknown, has only a handful of reviews, and there it is like number five on the Kindle store overall, right next to Harry Potter and Stephen King. You say, “How the heck can that be?” Well, if you have your PC there, just Google “inside a Chinese click farm.” There were just a number of interesting videos uploaded and shared like thousands, thousands of times by a Russian guy who went and filmed how these click farms look like, and that’s a shame.
Alex Newton: Since Amazon support, they have only X many people. I think they are not staffed up either technology wise or sheer head count wise to handle the challenge of all these scams going on that harm all the other authors who try to make a living legitimately.
Tim Lewis: Yeah. I know that David Gaughran’s done a post on one particular book where it went from like 2 million in the Amazon category to number one briefly in about a day, and he was like, “Well, how can this possibly not be some sort of click fraud?”
Alex Newton: I saw that post, and I think it was an excellent post because it really put some research in it, and if I followed it correctly, he also approached Amazon and really confronted them with the issue, and was very tenacious and persistent in approaching them, so I think other authors should support these types of posts, share them with others so that Amazon just cannot close its eyes on it, but that they finally do something about it.
About Alex Newton and K-Lytics
Tim Lewis: Anyway, so I think that’s just about completed our latest recap of the market. For people who haven’t maybe listened to the previous interviews or for people who’ve forgotten, can you take us through about Alex Newton and K-Lytics and all the things you do, and where people can find you.
Alex Newton: Well, of course. Very briefly, I started in a publishing career some 20 years back, worked in publishing. Then went, however, out of publishing, and worked in the corporate consulting world, where I basically every day solve problems using data, and about three years ago, we started the company K-Lytics, which comes from Kindle plus analytics, where we basically monitor on a monthly basis books’ categories, etc.
Alex Newton: We have a database about 3,000 book categories, so we measure price levels, sales ranks, level of competition, all the things that you need to assess to make a strategic decision as a publisher about your book portfolio or jar a portfolio, or as a writer, my personal mission is to basically help writers who have a passion to write something for a certain topic, for a certain genre, and match that passion with the market side of things.
Alex Newton: I try to avoid the term “write to market”, because I think it gets used in a derogatory way, because if you only write for the money that’s also not sustainable, but if you match your passion with what’s really happening in the market I think you can make a career as an author, and we try to help people do that.
Alex Newton: If you want to check us out, please do so. It’s K-Lytics.com. If you have any questions, you can also always reach me by e-mail at support@K-Lytics.com.
Tim Lewis: Well, thank you very much for being on the show again, Alex.
Alex Newton: Thank you very much for having me. Have a great day everybody.
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