How much does being “out-of-stock” on Amazon affect book sales?
Thursday, February 12, 2015 at 4:46PM
Z Elwood in Amazon, Ingram, LightningSource, POD, Publishing, self-publishing

I’ve been using LightningSource since I self-published my first book in early 2012. In the first year, my book sold well and it was consistently listed as ‘available’ on Amazon. Because it was print-on-demand and drop-shipped directly from Ingram/LightningSource when Amazon customers ordered it, it makes sense that it would be listed continuously as Available. Sometimes it would say ‘2 left’ or something, but this seemed like a sales tactic on Amazon’s part because as soon as that number went down to 0 it would say it was Available again.

That changed at some point about 2 years ago. I (and other small publishers) noticed that books were being regularly shown as ‘temporarily out-of-stock’. It’s assumed that this is a tactic by Amazon to essentially “punish” small print-on-demand publishers who are not using Amazon’s CreateSpace. Because being out-of-stock hurts sales, it’s assumed this is a way to strong-arm small publishers to use CreateSpace.

The recommended strategy for small publishers in my position has been to use both LS and CS: setting LS at a 55% discount to target normal brick-and-mortar bookstores and using CS to target Amazon sales (which are the bulk of online sales).

I’d been putting off doing this for a while, just because switching to CreateSpace would be a significant drop in profit per book. I currently am focused on online sales with my LightningSource set-up, which means I have a 20% discount set. The lowest discount you can set for CS is 40%, which is a significant drop in profit for book. The costs for producing the book are also higher. I won’t get into the math but let’s just say it’s a significant drop in per-book profit.

So I was curious as to trying to quantify exactly how much being ‘temporarily out-of-stock’ on Amazon negatively impacts sales. Obviously if it was a huge impact on sales, I have to bite the bullet and switch to CS. But if it was perhaps only a slight decrease in sales, perhaps it’s logical to leave things as they are.

I myself, if I wanted to buy a book and saw it as out-of-stock on Amazon, would not be deterred from buying it. I’d either buy it (and let it ship when it’s available) or I’d find another way to purchase it. This was one reason I found it hard to believe that this factor was hugely hurting sales. But apparently, from what I’ve learned, I’m much in the minority on this one. 

First, I started by trying to find detailed case studies or examples that publishers or authors had done, but I couldn’t find any. I found many blog posts saying it was a factor but couldn’t find specifics.

I then started a thread on a LinkedIn Group about it with a few people chiming in. One guy, a self-described ‘book publishing consultant,’ estimated that it cut sales by 50%. Then again, I didn’t ask whether he thought his estimate would apply to fiction and non-fiction. It’s easy to imagine fiction and novels being much more heavily impacted by being ‘out-of-stock’ than non-fiction, instructional books would be. 

Then I conducted an informal poll on my social media channels asking people how a book being out-of-stock affected their purchase decisions. Around 70% of maybe 30 replies said it would negatively impact them and hurt the sales process. A few comments:

Now this doesn’t address how they’d react if it was a book that really interested them, but the point is clear that it does impact sales in a big, negative way. If most book buyers are buying books in an impulsive, casual way (which I believe is true even for non-fiction titles), you’re setting up a big obstacle for them. This might be kind of obvious but it’s good to hear the reasoning straight from people’s mouths.

For the people who were more like me, and unlikely to be dissuaded by an ‘out-of-stock’ message, here were some of their comments:

This mentality might help explain why the 'out-of-stock' message doesn’t hurt sales too much and might help explain why my sales still are decent despite the obvious negative impact.

All of this doesn’t really get into the specific numbers or help me make a logical, numbers-oriented decision. Nevertheless, I've been seeing that most small publishers are saying that publishing with CreateSpace (while simultaneously using LightningSource) is the necessary way to go these days. So I think I will move ahead and set that in motion. At the very least, I think my books will make an interesting case study to see the before and after of the transition process, and I'll write about that process later. 


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