Algorithm What?: When “Front of Store” Placement Goes Digital

“Front of store” placement used to be the sought-after positioning in the publishing world.

Every author wanted their book to be on an end-cap or on a “new release” display, on the front “bestsellers” table, or–at the very least–be positioned on the shelf with cover facing out, rather than just spine.

It was all about physical placement with the brick-and-mortar store–and for good reason. Physical bookstores were the market, and consumers came to browse and could only purchase what they saw.

Placement within a certain store was somewhat subjective and often varied store to store and region to region. Prime positioning could be paid for through advertising dollars or “earned” through big sales.

The same is true today–that physical placement in bookstores can be bought or earned, is often subjective, and varies by region.

But what does not stand true today is the impact of that sort of placement. It used to mean everything, the difference between a book selling and a book tanking. Now, it’s just one tiny piece in a much bigger equation–a highly digital equation.

What used to carry oomph in stores now carries oomph online.

With the vast majority of book buyers now shopping online, the idea of prime placement has changed tremendously.

Now, prime placement means online placement.

The old highly-sought “front of store” positioning is now digital positioning on retailer websites, most significantly on Amazon. And it’s a different ballgame to win this new prime placement for your book; it’s not subjective, not regional, and cannot be bought.

More than 50% of all traditionally published book sales of any format in the US now happen on, not to mention an even higher percentage of eBooks. As the industry giant, what Amazon highlights tends to win. Its “prime positioning” is more powerful than any brick-and-mortar’s might have been.

The big difference with Amazon is that its equivalent of “front-of-store” placement is algorithm-based. It’s mainly about numbers and very little about human preferences.

While marketing strategies and dollars used to focus on how to get that special placement in Barnes & Noble, for example, strategy and dollars no longer get you too far. This new algorithm-based placement is generally based on the success of your book on Amazon. Sales fuel placement, which fuels sales, which fuels continued placement.

Whether it’s in the general lists featured on Amazon for all viewers to see (such as “Top 20,” “Deals in Books,” or “Award Winners”), or in the more used-based/preferences-based lists that Amazon presents to unique viewers based on past purchases, placement of books featured can change daily, and even hourly.

This leads, inevitably, to a few questions that you’re surely asking:

How do these Amazon algorithms work? There’s no special, explicit equation that Amazon shares. We know it’s based on sales (the books that sell well are often the books featured), and therefore often creates somewhat of a snowball effect for books. In general, across all internet giants, algorithms tend to change all the time.

How can an author get strong “prime placement”? Amazon–like all retailers, really–does its own thing, regardless of an author’s or a publisher’s desires. There are certain tactics that are often considered by marketing strategists, as well as Amazon buyers–such as downpricing an eBook in order to spur sales that will potentially up the book’s exposure in other places on Amazon–but there is no single formula that will guarantee prime placement. It cannot be bought.

Does brick-and-mortar store positioning matter anymore? Yes and no. First, no. Brick-and-mortar is continually shrinking in regard to market share, at least for books. (More and more, people go into these stores to buy non-book nick nacks.) Focusing on promotion within this narrowing piece of the pie graph is generally not effective. However, the yes is that these stores are continually seeking ways to stay alive and bring traffic through their doors. Studies show that serious book-buyers will often browse in brick-and-mortar stores, even if they then go make the actual purchase online.

Only with our finger on the pulse of the book world will we be able to market effectively. Click To Tweet

The point is that the publishing industry is changing. It’s always changing, in fact–but perhaps faster in the past ten years than in the decades prior. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll say it again… smart marketers and smart authors have to be aware of shifts within the industry. Only with our finger on the pulse of the book world will we be able to market innovatively and effectively.