For some in publishing it may be a curiosity, for others a point of contention—Amazon’s practice of including free downloads in its list of most popular Kindle titles. It will soon no longer be an issue. A representative at the e-tailer has confirmed that the company will be splitting its Kindle bestseller list, creating one list for paid books and another for free titles. The date for the switch is vague—the rep would only say it will happen in “a few weeks”—but the switch will certainly be noticed.
Currently the top ten bestselling titles on Amazon’s Kindle bestseller list are free downloads, a fact that speaks to how publishers are testing the free model to get attention for certain authors. In a January 23 piece in The New York Times, the paper's former publishing reporter Motoko Rich explored the phenomenon. In the piece, Rich noted that over half of the most popular titles on Amazon's Kindle bestseller list were free downloads. Now, with the list to be split up, one has to wonder if publishers will find free giveaways as valuable a promotion tool.
The Kindle bestseller list has been used by publishers to gauge consumer behavior towards e-books, as well by consumers use to point them to titles. An executive at HarperCollins said she thinks Amazon is certainly doing the right thing by splitting the list, noting that consumers “want to know what books everyone is reading, and buying, ” and that a list which combines free downloads and books for sale doesn’t deliver this information. When asked if she thought the separation of the lists might make promotional e-book giveaways less effective, she said it might.
Even when Amazon does divide its Kindle bestseller list into free titles and those for sale, the question of price point still looms. The HC exec said people will still be looking to these lists with a number of questions about what is driving sales. Is it price point? Promotions in the Amazon storefront? Merchandising?
Richard Curtis, founder of Richard Curtis Associates, was more pragmatic about Amazon’s current list, and will even miss the fact that it’s a unique collection of free and pay-for content. He said he still believes that promotions drive Kindle sales more than price, and that the list as it is now doesn’t do any disservice to customers looking for popular titles. “Amazon has decided to measure the velocity of e-books passing through its store without distinguishing which are free and which are for sale. That information is still very revealing,” he said, noting that what people buy versus what people download may not be a distinction the industry should be concerned about right now.
Certainly, despite its unique combination of free and for-pay titles, many industry members interviewed said Amazon’s Kindle bestseller list remains the one they examine to get a feel for what e-books are selling. While Fictionwise was also cited as a strong indicator of popular e-books, it was acknowledged that Barnes & Noble and Apple are not go-to places for this information.
After Amazon splits its lists, writers may soon find more competition—and potentially less payoff—for getting to the top of the free downloads list. Then again, maybe not. Getting to the top of any heap, as author Brandilyn Collins told Rich in the Times, is a good thing. “When you push to No. 1 of any bestseller list, that in it itself seems to beget publicity.”