Just Another Conspiracy Theory?


Writer’s blog: Stardate: 14.06.2013

I am yet to try Dan Brown. I have not given over time in my life to wonder about who was really behind the assassination of JFK. I’ve not felt the need to dwell on how come I look nothing like my father but a lot like our old milkman. I have no personal history of wanting to uncover ‘truth’. So, why am I thinking like I am? Where has the idea come from? I’m not a trouble-maker by nature.

I’ve not seen anything even suggested about it on the Internet and I’ve looked. Not a hint or a whiff regarding my wonderings. No mention in a blog-post, a tweet, a forum or an online article. I think that I could be alone, potentially joining the ranks of Felt, Tripp, Manning, Snowden. But more famous. (Is this just a cheap attempt to raise my sagging author profile and fuel downloads of my books?)

Should my worst fears be confirmed then I can only imagine that the publishing/self-publishing world will not be the same place again for a lot of people. And I don’t just mean authors. Such is my unease at the possible repercussions both personal and for Mankind of my theory turning out to having an element of ‘truth’ that I don’t even want to be associated with it. I want nothing to do with it. I don’t want to be the one remembered as bringing down ‘mother’. In…fact…I…am…using…all…my…willpower…to…stop…typing…but…I…can’t…help…myself.

I have written before about being my own worst enema.

In the film ‘The Matrix’ there is a scene where the code of the ‘fake’ world is broken and the screen of the monitor displays columns of numbers and symbols like falling green rain as ‘their’ lies are exposed and the ‘real’ world is unlocked. Sort of.

(Someone just tweeted me to, ‘Get on with it!’)

It’s about Amazon and download figures. I’m not talking about the algorithms that they employ to shuffle the runners and riders in the various charts. Although, if I’m half-right it would go some way to explaining why Amazon are so secretive about these algorithms and so reluctant to provide information surrounding sales numbers generally.

Below, I’m going to share my download figures for my book Rope Enough for the period since it became free to download. When I noticed that the book had been price-matched by Amazon to zero and downloads started mounting each other (?), I thought that it might be amusing to check and record them every day when I get up. Bloody sad too. I’ve been doing this since April 12th, which is only a day or so after things changed and approximately two months ago.

My first question that goes along with these figures is something like this: Do I find it an acceptable coincidence that the numbers of downloads per day are so similar for so long when there are literally millions of ebook readers out there regularly downloading books onto reading devices? That’s quite a long question.

My second question based on me giving the short answer ‘no’ to question one goes like this: If it is not an acceptable coincidence, is Amazon controlling and manipulating the download numbers? More on what I don’t know what I’m talking about after the figures.

(My ‘argument’ becomes slightly more valid late May onwards.)

April 12th – 784

April 13th – 971

April 14th – 1271

April 15th – 1041

April 16th – 1244

April 17th – 1522

April 18th – 1741

April 19th – 1452

April 20th – 1392

April 21st – 1952

April 22nd – 1311

April 23rd – 1093

April 24th – 966

April 25th – 1037

April 26th – 879

April 27th – 1046

April 28th – 1060

April 29th – 793

April 30th – 761

May 1st – 705

May 2nd – 705 (really)

May 3rd – 562

May 4th – 672

May 5th – 720

May 6th – 683

May 7th – 581

May 8th – 718

May 9th – 685

May 10th – 592

May 11th – 673

May 12th – 741

May 13th – 520

May 14th – 618

May 15th – 548

May 16th – 491

May 17th – 523

May 18th – 569

May 19th – 610

May 20th – 538

May 21st – 467

May 22nd – 421

May 23rd – 470

May 24th – 482

May 25th – 387

May 26th – 466

May 27th – 503

May 28th – 471

May 29th – 487

May 30th – 460

May 31st – 401

June 1st – 445

June 2nd – 538

June 3rd – 478

June 4th – 468

June 5th – 554

June 6th – 467

June 7th – 410

June 8th – 411

June 9th – 587

June 10th – 487

June 11th – 470

June 12th – 501

June 13th – 418

Okay, initially there isn’t much to get excited about, but from May 20th to now generally speaking there just doesn’t seem to be the fluctuation in daily download figures that I would expect when I consider the number of people out there with ebook reading devices. Am I wrong?

If Amazon were to be controlling and manipulating download figures, why?

Does my experience resemble the experiences of others?

Am I reading too much into these figures?

Have I become unhealthily paranoid as opposed to healthily paranoid?

Is there enough reliability and validity in the figures to make them worthy of consideration?

It’s not simply these similar figures of mine that cause me to wonder about things. As a self-publisher I look at the charts about as often as an alcoholic thinks about a quick snifter. The Amazon chart that I look at most often is the Crime, Thrillers & Mystery > Police Procedurals, which is where my books are featured. There are authors that have been lingering around the top ten of this chart like flies around a turd on a hot day for months.

Now, I am not saying that they don’t deserve to be there and I do. This is not that kind of blog-post. My point is that some of these authors have been there a long time and they are not household names and they don’t have huge numbers of positive reviews for their writing, or necessarily huge numbers of reviews. Some of them are self-publishers and some of them I’ve never heard of. All of which means nothing, of course, but I can’t help wondering why any of us are where we are.

Maybe the answer is simple. Perhaps they just get enough downloads on a daily basis to keep them there whereas I get enough downloads on a daily basis to keep me where I am.

Just two more questions:

Why is my monitor screen displaying incomprehensible code that looks like falling green rain?

Who is that banging on my front door?

The following is a transcript of the conversation overhead by the missing author’s mother and not to be bothered with by anyone with a life.

Agent Smith: We meet at last.

Mr Tidy: And you are?

Agent Smith: A Smith. Agent Smith.

Mr Tidy: Bit weird.

Agent Smith: Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: the peak of your civilization.

Mr Tidy: I think that you must be looking for Neo. He lives at number fourteen. This is number twelve.

Agent Smith: I hate this place. This zoo. This prison. This reality, whatever you want to call it, I can’t stand it any longer. It’s the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I’ve somehow been infected by it.

Mr Tidy: Hang on a minute. That’s a bit strong. You can hardly hold me responsible for the bin-men being late.

Agent Smith: I’m going to enjoy watching you die.

Mr Tidy: I really think that you should leave now. MUM!

5 thoughts on “Just Another Conspiracy Theory?

  1. I’m reading and replying to this over the time it takes me to make a sandwich, so I might have missed something or be talking gibberish, but those figures don’t look too suspicious to me. In fact, the repeated number goes a long way toward making me think they’re just real numbers wobbling round a trend.

    I don’t know how much maths you do, but if it’s not much, you may just be colliding with the weird fact that huge numbers of people behave reasonably predictably. As you yourself say, there are millions of people with eReaders. These numbers (while impressive!) are a tiny percent of the whole sample space.

    I think you’re probably expecting too much fluctuation. Every day isn’t a new spin on the random number generator, it’s people seeing links and either following or ignoring them. What sort of numbers were you expecting? If you run a restaurant on the highstreet, you don’t come home on a Sunday and say “Gawd, Maureen, what a week! We had only 2 customers yesterday, but 14 to the power of 10 came in for pies on Friday! We may need more toilet paper.” You have your average number of customers and then a fairly small standard deviation around it. I think that’s what’s going on here.

    More depressingly, it might just represent automated systems. I could believe that there are several hundred automated systems sweeping the internet for anything and everything they can grab. Governments and corporations with more harddrive space than sense. Copyright libraries. People doing academic research into word count densities who need free samples. Scammers who need fodder for there “10,000 free crime eBooks + absolutely no trojans whatsoever” torrent downloads. etc. etc. These may not be real people, so even a small expectation of randomness goes out the window.

    Because you asked the most important question yourself. If these figures do represent some kind of influence at Amazon’s end, why bother? They’re making a bazillion pounds and laughing about the fact that they don’t have to pay any tax on it. What would be so valuable that it was worth diverting someone’s attention from that noble endeavour?

    • Hmm. Maybe that seems like I’ve missed the smackingly obvious point that no-one wants the same eBook twice, but you might go back everyday for a pie. The fact that those figures each (ostensibly) represent a day of UNIQUE people might be what’s giving you pause.

      But you have to remember that Amazon do have a lot of control over who they’re parading past your window. They record downloads, and sites and browsers have extraordinarily clever cookies. Once you’ve bought a book, it’s much less likely you’ll be linked to it again. So you’re guaranteed a fresh stream of people everyday.

      So what you’re seeing is the interesting fact that of (say) 10,000 new random(-ish, links are selected by habits) people each day, a few hundred will consistently be tempted to download a free book with a snappy name and an interesting cover.

    • Love it! I don’t know what went into that sandwich but I bet it was good (or at least full) if you can come up with a reply like that over making it.

      95% of me agrees with you entirely. You make too much sense. I just don’t expect commercial business to play straight.

      Of course, Amazon are in the win/win seat. Why would they bother about strands of their business in this way with no ‘obvious’ gain to be made? For fun, perhaps. Bored deities trifling with the mortals. Like shit, it happens. Doesn’t it.

      Enjoy your lunch.

  2. Hi Oliver, some top of the head suggestions:
    Presumably Amazon’s algorithms are based not just on plain numbers of downloads in any one day, but also have some kind of weighting for number of positive reviews generated, number of stars and probably some weighting for cumulative numbers of downloads. This would explain why some books linger around the top spots. If at some point they gained a mass of downloads, then the weighting gained from this would continue to support a highish place – for a while at least. (This is guesswork, by the way…. )
    Are your download numbers for all amazon sites? If total downloads across all amazon sites worldwide contribute to the ranking algorithm, then possibly some of these high ranking books are popular in other parts of the English speaking world. The US is obviously the biggest market. I had a quick look and on amazon.uk you are no 3 in the top 100 free police procedurals, and amazon.com you are no 22. So possibly some US-facing marketing would help you.

    • Hi Sarah,
      You have some very interesting and valid points there. (That’s not meant to come across as patronising.) Your suggestions make sense to me.

      Rope Enough, which is free in the UK and the US, is doing really well for me over here, but in the US the take up for the free book has not generated much interest. That position of 22 you cite is out of a total of 40 not like in the UK where there seem to be a lot more in that category.

      I would dearly love to be doing better ‘over there’ for obvious reasons, but I have no idea of a way forward. I do have to wonder whether British police procedurals are just not popular in the US. I have no idea. It’s something that I have to find time for along with everything else.
      Best wishes.

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