Readers to Books/Books to Readers-Part Two: How to Sell Books in the Kindle Store with the Search Bar

In my tips for selling on Amazon, I suggested that authors should: “Think about selling from the buyer’s perspective.” In part one of this new series of posts, I addressed that issue in detail by examining the Kindle store from the reader’s perspective. Here, in part two, I describe some of the things that authors can do to make their books more visible to readers who use the Kindle store Search Bar to shop for books.

How to make the Search Box work for you

Just as authors have no control over which books vendors display in the front windows and on the display tables of their physical bookstores, so authors have little control over what books Amazon displays on the main Kindle Store Page. The one part of this first page that authors do have some influence over, however, is the search bar (found at the top of the screen.) Since many consumers have been trained by their use of Google and other web search engines to search for stuff using keywords, this is probably the most important place to start if you want to maximize a book’s discoverability.

Readers looking for a specific book or author:

For the reader who shops in the Kindle store and has a specific book or author in mind, their first step is to type in the author’s name or the book’s title into the search bar. Even when they don’t have the complete name or full title (or even the correct name or title), Amazon’s search engine is very good at finding the best possible matches. In fact, one of the things that distinguishes Amazon from other online retailers is how good its search engine is at delivering good matches even when the user searches using incomplete or inaccurate information. For example, if a reader is trying to find my book, Maids of Misfortune and puts “Maids” and “San Francisco” in the search bar, my book will show up. Or, if they put “Locke” and “Maids” into the search bar, my books will be the first match offered.

What the author can do to help ensure their books are found:

It is important for the author to realize that, as clever as Amazon’s smart search engine is, it can only work if it has good author-provided information to work with. Authors should therefore be consistent in how they provide Amazon with information when they (or their publishers or distributors) add their books to Amazon and the Kindle Store. For indie authors this means when they enter the information as part of the process of uploading a book into the Kindle Store through KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing).

It is particularly important to be consistent in how you enter your own name and the titles of your books. For example, if you use a middle initial for your author name on your book cover, use that middle initial on all of your book covers (and all editions). Make sure all editions of a book have identical titles. For example, don’t drop the subtitle from the print edition of your book, and don’t include a volume number for one book and omit the volume number for other books in the series. If you are consistent this will strengthen the chances your books will be found—and you won’t run the risk of confusing the reader—particularly if there are authors and books with similar names and titles.

You should also set up your Author page through Author Central, making sure that all of your books in all formats are listed on that page. Doing this correctly will ensure that, when a reader searches for your name, they will get a link to your Author Page as well as links to your individual books. By making sure your Author Page is complete––with a picture, short biography, and a list of all your books––you will make it easier for readers to identify that you are indeed the author they were looking for, and make it easy for them to see all your books––not just the specific books they know about.

Readers who are simply browsing for certain kinds of books:

Readers will also use the search bar to find books on specific topics or books of a particular type. Again the Amazon search capabilities are very helpful. Say, for instance, a reader is interested in a novel about the “Knights Templar”—and they put the words “Knights Templar” into the search bar. A drop down menu will come up with a list of suggestions. If they click on Knights Templar––historical fiction, they will see 147 books, all fiction.

What an author can do to ensure their books are found:

An author who has written an historical novel about the Knights Templar would obviously want to make sure that their books showed up on this list. There are two sure-fire ways to do this. First, put the words “Knights Templar” in the book’s title. Second, use “Knights Templar” as one of the 7 keywords (actually, key phrases) Amazon permits an author (or their publisher) to enter into the keywords field when uploading the book into the Kindle store through KDP.

There is also evidence that using keywords in the book’s product description helps—although using the keyword only in the description does not seem to help as much as entering it in the Keywords field. For example, I use the word “clairvoyant” in my product descriptions (but not in my titles or keyword list) and my books don’t show up if you put the word “clairvoyant” into the search bar. However, having a keyword in the product description in addition to having the same keyword in a title or among the designated keywords may push the book higher in the search-results list, which is ordered by “relevance.”

So, do what writers do best: chose your words wisely as you devise your title, write your product descriptions, and pick what 7 keywords you attach to your book when it is uploaded into the Kindle store. But, in the Kindle store context, this means doing some work to determine which keywords will most effectively match how your target audience will search for your book.

To do that, experiment by doing your own searches. Search for the keywords you think a reader might use if they were looking for a book like yours or books on a similar topic to your book. As you type in the search box, notice that Amazon provides “search suggestions” just below the search box. Look at those suggestions in the drop down menu below the Search Box and try clicking on options to see what you find.  Does your book show up? Are the books that do show up similar to yours?

For example, if I search for the phrase Victorian mysteries (words that are in my title, keyword list, and product description), my books show up in the top 25 books in the search results list. But, perhaps more importantly, the other books that show up near the top of list are very much like my own. They are also the books that usually show up in my “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” list of books (and my books show up in their “Customers Who Bought” lists as well). Since over 500 books show up in the search results for “Victorian mysteries,” readers who like Victorian era mysteries will find this a productive set of keywords to use each time they look for a new book or a new author to try, and I can feel confident that the keyword, “Victorian mysteries” is effectively targeting my audience.

Contrast this with the phrase “Gilded Age mysteries.” While this is an historically accurate term for the late Victorian era in the U. S., when you search the Amazon store using that phrase, the search results in a list of only 10 books, and a reader probably won’t bother to reuse that search. Therefore, I wouldn’t want to waste any of my 7 author-supplied “keywords” on that term.

Another example of the importance of testing keywords is what I discovered when I searched for the phrase  San Francisco mysteries. My books show up in the search results for that phrase because all three of my novels use the subtitle “A Victorian San Francisco Mystery.” So, even though I didn’t use “San Francisco” as one of my 7 keywords, my consistent use of the same phrase as a subtitle does mean that readers interested mysteries in that setting will find my books in this search.

However, most of the other books in the search results for “San Francisco Mysteries” are contemporary mysteries. And none of the books at the top of that search results list ever show up in my “Customers Who Bought” lists (nor do my books show up in theirs). This means that it doesn’t make sense to designate San Francisco as one of my precious 7 keywords. Does it mean I should get rid of San Francisco in my title? No, because I know from my reviews that the setting of the book is one of the things that attract readers once they see my book listed among the other historical mysteries.

A final piece of evidence for the importance of keywords is revealed by what books are missing from the Victorian mysteries search results list.

Anne Perry is the founding mother of Victorian mysteries with her Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series and her William Monk series. She is still publishing books, she is still selling well, (four of her books are currently on the historical mystery bestseller list) but only two of her books (out of her more than 60 Victorian mysteries) show up on the list that comes from putting “Victorian mysteries” into the search bar. Those two books are Christmas books that have “Victorian” and “mysteries” in their titles. Apparently, her publishers didn’t attach the keywords Victorian mystery to her books. When I discovered this, I then tried searching for “Victorian Crime” and “Victorian London” (terms that are used in some of her product descriptions), and “19th century mysteries” and “historical mysteries” to see if her books would show up in the search results, but none did. You can find her books if you search for the names of her protagonist—but that is because those names are in the books’ titles.

Now one could argue that an author like Anne Perry (whose books are publicized by her publishers, show up in the front of physical bookstores in the New Release tables, and are recommended by store clerks) doesn’t need to worry about whether or not her books show up when a reader puts “Victorian mystery” into the search bar on Amazon. But as more people do their shopping online, as more of the younger generation of readers get used to “browsing” online by using the search functions of Google or Amazon, then Anne Perry will be losing potential new readers because her publisher hasn’t bothered to attach the most obvious keywords to her books.

And what if you aren’t Anne Perry? Can you afford not to care if your books don’t show up when a reader looks for books like yours using keywords and the search bar? I wouldn’t think so.

As indie authors we may not have the clout of a publisher behind us to get our books listed in the Daily Deal and we may not have easy access to physical bookstores, but we do have the power to ensure that readers find our books when they put keywords into the search bar.

We also can use those keywords to help get our books into the right categories, which is the other main way readers discover books in the Kindle store. But that will be the subject for Part Three of this series on how to get readers to books and books to readers.

M. Louisa Locke, November 21, 2013

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