Many people still go for the biggest bang on the first day. They'll take out ads, email their lists, post on their blogs -- sometimes weeks in advance -- in an attempt to gin up some interest in a book that may not be available yet. Launch day comes, everybody buys the book, sales rank climbs straight up like a rocket. Our erstwhile author sits there, refreshing the sales screen every few minutes, unable to look away.
Then there's the next day. And the next. And the next. There's a very, very long line of "the next" in this book's future but there's a nasty surprise in store for those who aren't aware of how this book actually gets into orbit.
Up like a rocket?
Down like a rock.
The problem is the way sales ranks get calculated. It's a black box as far as precise details go, but there are some models we can use that approximate the algorithm's behavior.
Your book's sales rank marks your place on the bestseller list in Amazon.
Example: Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #16,810 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
That means there are 16,809 books selling better than you in the last hour and a few million selling worse.
So how does Amazon calculate that? It's not based on the number of books you sold in the last hour. It's a weighted average based on a rolling window that counts current sales more than past sales.
Here's what a hard launch looks like after 20 days.
That first day is great with 500 sales. It might get you up above #300 in terms of sales rank. The red line marks the weighted average ("Sales points") per day as that big chunk rolls off. By the end of the first week, you're at the bottom of the Great Amazonian Sea unless you can maintain a level of sales. For the first time author, getting a big first day is much easier than getting a good first two weeks.
Here's what a soft launch looks like after 20 days.
Note the difference in scale. Everything here happens under the 100 level on the hard launch graph, but the important thing is that your consistent sales yield a persistent position on the best seller lists. It's worth noting how the graph falls off when sales start tapering down after 14 days. If you can maintain that modest level of sale, your sales rank will stay more or less level.
Both graphs represent about 625 sales. As an author, you'll make the same amount with either launch. As a publisher, your sales rank performance will be better with the soft launch because those sales ranks feed into other metrics like the Popularity list, giving your book better visibility there even when the bestseller lists start to fade.
Here's what an actual soft launch looks like after eleven months.
Note that this title stayed above #1,000 for a month and above #10,000 for four months. My launch consisted of one email to my list, one post on my blog, one tweet, and a note to my Facebook fan group - each separated by a day to try to spread the notice out. I don't have a hard launched book to show you. I've been doing soft launches since I started publishing my own books in 2012.
The soft launch gives you a chance to ask your network to share the news while the book is still visible. It's a window where some small amounts of promotion can actually make a difference, even on a first book. The advantages for the second and third and fourth books just multiply if - and this is a big if - you can keep your messaging low key so everybody doesn't buy on the first day.
If you can keep your book from going up like a rocket, you might be able to keep it from coming down like a rock.
Disclaimer: The launch pattern graphs do NOT represent the actual bestseller algorithm on Amazon. Only Amazon knows the exact mathematics involved. Things like "how much weight to apply to aging sales" and "how long is the window" are only approximated here based on observed performances. While the actual levels of those curves might vary, the general shapes have proven to be reliable. The third graph is from my Author Central reporting for the last book I released.