The same day I posted about the March 19 and May 3 changes to Amazon’s popularity lists, I summarized those changes on Kindleboards as well. One of the questions asked repeatedly there and elsewhere was, Why? Why is Amazon switching things up? Why would they make changes that would deliberately harm authors in their Select program?

The short answer is: We don’t know.

The long answer is: Well, we just really don’t have any way to know. But they probably didn’t change things with the goal of hurting Select. That was probably a casualty of pursuing other goals. Maybe they have found that so many free books have hurt their overall sales. Maybe having a constant churn of free-driven books was preventing bestsellers from taking root. Maybe these changes had nothing whatsoever to do with Select. Phoenix Sullivan thinks they’re in anticipation of the fall of the agency model, and I’m looking forward to her more detailed explanation. Maybe, as several people on KB suggested, there were just too many poor-quality books being rewarded through the free process, and customers weren’t happy with the books that were often most visible to them.

I don’t know. I still don’t. And the thing is, I didn’t make any assumptions about Amazon’s motives when I was looking at the data we used to draw our conclusions about the mechanics of Amazon’s lists. Data first, then theories. Entering with a theory is a good way to misinterpret what you’re looking at to fit that theory.

After all, we have no clue what Amazon’s goals are. Assumedly, they are trying to make as much money as possible, but even that–our safest and best assumption–isn’t a certainty, and in any event can be heavily qualified. They’ve already shown a willingness to take losses in the short-term to try to build the long-term. Their original Kindle strategy wasn’t to immediately profit from Kindle sales, but to get enough ereaders out there that the ebook market could flourish. Hell, maybe Jeff Bezos doesn’t ultimately care about money at all! Perhaps Amazon is his stab at creating an AI capable of guiding us through and settling us in space! Like he’s been dreaming about since he was a child!

So we don’t know their goals. And whatever their unknown goals may be, we don’t know whether they’re using rational methods to achieve those goals. Amazon’s smart, but they’re not infallible. Any attempt to deduce their motives through a process of figuring out what’s logical is faulty by virtue of assuming the new algorithm wasn’t put in place by madmen, or by a guy with a gnarly champagne hangover, or by a team of very smart people who, just once, reached a faulty conclusion about how to sell books. Or by someone who personally hates us all.

Speculating about Amazon’s motives is fun. In its way, it is more fun than looking at one number and comparing it to another number, and then repeating that comparison five hundred times until you have a strong enough pattern of results to be confident in. (I know. Hard to believe anything could be more fun.) But unless Bezos himself comes forth to announce what they’re up to, and is meanwhile attached to a device that can flawlessly detect whether the wearer is telling the truth, all our speculation is just an assumption built on a foundation of other assumptions.

So: I don’t know why Amazon changed things. I can make guesses. But all I can tell you for certain is they made a set of changes. Does the why matter? What will understanding Amazon’s motives help?

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