Amazon algorithms: if you can't beat them, try to game them

Book publishers are falling out with Amazon

The current dispute – between publishing titans Hachette and Amazon – is, when you get beneath the posturing, really a struggle about technology.

The success of 99p (or free) eBook pricing is an attempt to exploit Amazon's recommendation algorithms. The harsh reality is that when it comes to marketing muscle, all publishers – not just Hachette – are virtually impotent against the burgeoning power of these Amazon algorithms. Like the ingredients that give Coca-Cola its distinctive taste, the algorithm details are a closely guarded secret, but this secret sauce is a key reasons for Amazon's dominant market share and huge book sales revenues.

Simply put, these algorithms determine how often a given book is shown to potential customers. If a book's sales start to increase, its rank goes up and it will get shown to more readers. The faster the climb, the more attention it receives. If the climb stops or slows, the algorithms soon lose interest.

Looked at this way, Hachette isn't fighting for authors, book pricing, or product quality, but for survival against a set of computational rules that don't care who you are or how long you've been in the business.

Get your game on

While we await the outcome of this possibly existential contest for publishing power and control, brand new business models are emerging including book promotion websites. By gaming the algorithms in their favour, such book promo sites help authors and publishers gain audience share while helping readers find the best deals on the books they crave.

The more advanced sites match the reader's detailed reading preferences to similarly granular book classifications, and help readers navigate Amazon's huge unending supply of free and discount books

Ultimately however, these sites – just like the authors, publishers and every other business within the publishing ecosystem – will live or die by their use and mastery of the technology, and right now, the most potent technological force in this struggle for survival is the Amazon algorithms.