Working Amazon: Some strategies for selling in e-retail stores

Lesson #8 of the Publetariate Vault University’s Platform/Promotion Curriculum, by Zoe Winters, is called “Working Amazon.” I know it is skipping ahead, but I recently spent a good deal of time looking into what had “worked” and what hadn’t in selling my book in the large internet retailers Amazon, and I would like to tell people what I learned in the hope that others who are embarking on this wonderful journey of self-publishing will benefit from my experience.

Until recently, when an author’s book was traditionally published (or independently published in the traditional way), there were three essential steps a publisher and author took to get the book sold. The first major step was to get the book on the shelves of bookstores. The second step was to find ways to inform people about the book and convince them to come to a bookstore to buy it. A third step was to try and ensure that people would come across the book while browsing in the bookstore in the hope they would spontaneously decide to buy it.

With the emergence of large electronic retailers like Amazon, these steps still exist, but as you will see, they play out in a slightly different fashion.

Step One: Get book onto Amazon’s bookstore shelves

In the fall of 2009 when I decided to self-publish my historical mystery, Maids of Misfortune: A Victorian San Francisco Mystery, I made the decision to concentrate on getting my book into the electronic retail markets, rather than into brick and mortar bookstores. No need for sales representatives, sales catalogs, or schmoozing with booksellers at conventions. I didn’t have to convince Amazon’s Kindle store or Amazon’s bookstore to carry my book, all I had to do was upload my formatted files for the ebook through Amazon’s Digital Text Platform and the files for my print on demand version through Amazon’s CreateSpace. Step One took me less than a day to do, and within a week both the ebook and the paperback was for sale. This aspect of working Amazon was really quite easy.

Step Two: Get people to go to Amazon’s bookstores to buy the book

The next six months I concentrated my efforts on this step-and it will be an ongoing process. I set up my author website, got the word out about Maids of Misfortune on facebook, sent my books out to be reviewed, got my book listed on websites that specialize on my genre like CrimeThruTime, entered the book into book award contests, set up a blog, and wrote Dandy Detects, a short story featuring the same characters from Maids of Misfortune, to help promote the full length novel. This step is the one that deviates the least from traditional publishing. Convincing people to go to Amazon’s bookstores to look for my book isn’t really any different than convincing them to go to a physical bookstore-except it is easier. With a click of link on my author website, a blog review, or a list of historical mysteries, a customer is not just at my product page on Amazon (where my Kindle edition and print edition both show up), but they are looking at my book-and if they are buying it as an ebook-all it takes is another click of the buy button and they can be reading it.

In addition, as the author and publisher I also get almost instant sales data to see how I am doing-because each night I can check to see how many books I sold on Amazon and Kindle. I can also tell what percentage of the people who checked out my book actually bought it, and see what other kinds of books they bought. This tells me a lot about how well my advertising is working. I can even see in some cases when something I am doing has a direct effect on sales. For example, when I became a regular contributor to Publetariate, then again when I dropped my price from $4 to $2.99, my sales jumped.

Step Three: Get people who are browsing the Amazon bookstores to find and buy the book

Traditionally, publishers and authors focus on making sure the cover of the book they are selling is eye-catching and that the back cover has a good description and blurbs that will entice a buyer. In addition to ensuring that the book is shelved in the appropriate categories in the store, they will try to get the book placed in the store window, or featured on tables at the front as a new release, or bestseller, or one of the staff’s recommended books. All of this is designed to get someone who is browsing to pick up the book, check it out, and decide to buy it.

This step is only slightly different when dealing with an e-store like Amazon.

The important role of a cover remains the same-only now you need to make sure that the cover shows up well as a thumbnail (see my post on Establishing a Brand.) There is no back cover in an e-retailer, but there is the equivalent in the product description and the customer reviews. Of course, you don’t get the option of picking and choosing your reviews-I would hope that several in depth positive reviews might be at least as effective as the short one-line reviews that grace back covers.

Amazon and other e-retailers also try to duplicate the experience of browsing in a bookstore by offering “sneak peaks” or free excerpts from the book. I think I “worked” Amazon effectively in these respects as well. My cover is eye-catching as a thumbnail, my product description snappy, and I have collected a few stars and strong reviews. In turn, my use of the words Victorian and Mystery in my title and Amazon’s nifty formula that tells a customer who bought another Victorian era mystery that they might like Maids of Misfortune had meant I did have the equivalent of a staff recommendation.

What I hadn’t done very well was to make to sure that my book showed up in the right shelves of the bookstore and I really hadn’t done anything in particular to make sure it showed up on one of the equivalent of the best-seller tables. I think I simply assumed as an indie author with a first time novel that the best-selling category was completely out of my reach. Turns out that I was wrong.

How I “worked” Amazon and achieved “best seller status”

I first reviewed where a browser might find my book if they weren’t coming to store specifically to buy the book. When you get on Amazon and click under either Kindle Books or Books there is a side bar on the right side that give you browsing categories. Skipping the various best-seller, editor’s picks, and mover’s and shakers categories (which I knew I wasn’t in) I looked for the categories I had chosen when I uploaded my Kindle and print editions.

When you upload a file into the DTP program for Kindle, or into CreateSpace, you get to pick five categories using the Book Industry Standards and Communications (BISAC) subject headings for listing your book and you also are given the option to list any tags (key words) you want to help customer’s find your book. I chose my categories and my tags, but I hadn’t followed through to see how that affected the chance a customer who was browsing either in the Kindle Book Store, or the Amazon Book Store would run across my book. When I looked into this, I was in for a few surprises.

First of all I noticed that the browsing categories were not identical to the BISAC categories I had chosen. For example, I had chosen Fiction-Mystery & Detective-Women Sleuths for the BISAC subject heading, but the browsing path on Amazon (for both Kindle and Books) was Fiction-Mystery & Thrillers-Mystery-Women Sleuths. Well that seemed sort of strange, but no big deal since they were pretty closely matched. Then I saw that there were 4,500 books under that category in the Kindle Bookstore. Another category I had chosen, Romance-Historicals, was even worse-there were 5400 listed.

Amazon does list on the product page for a book its ranking by category, but only if the book is in the top 100 books under that category, but at the time I couldn’t imagine that I would have a lot of chance competing with the likes of Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovich, and Charlene Harris in the Women Sleuth’s category to get into that top 100. (And this was the Kindle Store-in the book store on Amazon, there were nearly 9000 books listed under Mystery-Women Sleuths, and over 22,000 books under romance-historicals!)

One bright note, I noticed that on my product page I was consistently showing us a one of the top 20 books under one of the other categories I had chosen- History (ie non-fiction section)-US-State&Local-West. Why? Well, where there were less than 400 books in that category!

I was a bit puzzled, because the category I had checked on launching the book on Kindle had been fiction-history-US-etc, but the books under this browsing category were clearly non-fiction. There my historical mystery sits, next to books on the founding of Texas and Kevin Starr’s history of California. But hey, if someone wanders into that category, I figure they might enjoy a pleasant interlude of fiction. And anyway, after seven years working away to get a doctorate in history, writing 400 some pages of a dissertation about working women in the west, I am pretty darn proud of the historical accuracy of Maids of Misfortune. But, I didn’t think that the people browsing in this section would be my main target audience.

What should have been the perfect category, however, was Mystery & Thrillers-Mystery-Historicals-and on Kindle there were only 72 books listed under that category, and on Amazon’s bookstore less than 800 books were listed. Hallelujah! In that pool I had a real fighting chance of getting noticed. Except-neither Maids of Misfortune or my short story, Dandy Detects, showed up under this category in either list!

After correspondence with the dtp and CreateSpace support staffs the error was corrected, and within a day, Maids of Misfortune began to show up in the top 10 books in the Mystery-Historical category in the Kindle store, and the top 100 books in the Mystery-Historical category in the Amazon store. Even better, at the end of that week the number of books I sold was double that of the number I had been selling in the previous weeks. I even began to show up in the Kindle Store on its best seller list for the category.

My book was now shelved in the right place, it was showing up on a best-seller table as well, and I could rest assured that for those people looking for an historical mystery, there was a good chance they would find mine. Lesson learned? Be very careful about your choices of categories–try to find categories where your book will standout and have a chance at competing with traditionally published books and follow through and make sure your book shows up where you think it should.

What struck me is how much more difficult it would have been for a traditionally published author to even find out if their book had been mis-shelved, much less correct it. I read a blog post recently (can not remember where-sorry) about an author whose science fiction book kept being shelved with African-American Literature. Problem was, there weren’t any African American characters in this book, and his primary readers weren’t going to find his book under this category. He might get this corrected at a local store-but what if this was a wide spread problem throughout the bookstore chains and independent bookstores? Would his publisher even care enough to help him get this error corrected?

Once again, I was left with the satisfying knowledge that my success or failure as an indie author was in my own control. It was up to me to “work” Amazon, and I must say Amazon has worked well for me.

10 Replies to “Working Amazon: Some strategies for selling in e-retail stores”

  1. Those categories are a mystery. I picked the categories that made sense for the second novel in my series (Sedona O’Hala Mystery) yet for some unknown reason Executive Retention keeps showing up under a lawyer category…yet that is not a category I chose or even a tag…


  2. My spouse and I absolutely love your blog and find a
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    1. Hi,

      Thanks for the offer, but I just don’t have the time to schedule guest posts (I do something similar for the site I belong too–and so I know what kind of time it takes to schedule guest posts.) Maybe sometime in the future.

      Mary Louisa

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