How to Get your books into the right Categories and Sub-categories: Readers to Books/Books to Readers—Part Three

Introduction:

Two years ago, I wrote a blog piece about the importance of using categories, keywords, and tags (which no longer exist) to make your books visible in the Kindle Store. A year later I wrote an update that expanded on this and discussed how having your book in the right categories could make free and discount promotions more effective. The basic argument I made hasn’t changed––that an author needs to understand how categories work in order to use them to improve the chance their books will be found by readers who are browsing in the Kindle store.

If you aren’t convinced of the importance of categories in improving discoverability—you might want to go back and skim through those two posts or just google “discoverability and categories” to see the multiple posts on this topic. However, for most of you, it isn’t the importance of categories but how to get your books into the right categories that you are most interested in––and there have been a number of significant changes warranting a new update on this topic.

First, the number and kinds of categories and sub-categories in the Kindle Store have increased dramatically in the last year.

Second, the methods of getting a book into the correct categories and sub-categories have expanded, with keywords becoming particularly important.

Third, these changes have made the process even more confusing to authors.

Continue reading

7 Things joining KDP Select Can and Can’t do for you

I have no problem with authors deciding not to put (or keep) their books in KDP Select because there are a number of good reasons not to sell an ebook exclusively through Amazon. What does bother me is when people put a book into KDP Select with unrealistic expectations, or don’t do their homework about how KDP Select works, or blame Amazon when their books don’t sell, and then announce that KDP Select is not a good strategy to follow for independent authors.

It is my hope that this post will help educate authors about what KDP Select can and can’t do, thereby creating more realistic expectations and better decisions about whether or not KDP Select is right for their books.

However, before reading the rest of this post, I do recommend that every author read the KDP SELECT FAQ page first so that they have a basic understanding of how the program works.

Four Things KDP Select CAN NOT DO for you:

1. If there is some reason why people are not buying your book when they run across it (too few reviews, negative reviews, badly designed cover, ineffective product description, badly written or formatted free excerpt, wrong price–too low or too high), then simply being in KDP Select will not change this, and people will not start to buy or borrow your book just because it has the Amazon Prime designation.

2. If people can’t find your book when browsing in the Amazon Kindle Store because the book isn’t in the right categories, or doesn’t have the right key words or tags associated with it, simply being in KDP Select will not make it easier for people to find the book, and they will not start to buy or borrow this book. (There is no special promotion by Amazon of all KDP Select books).

3. If your book has demonstrated its salability, is in the right categories, has the right keywords and tags, but the book has not sold enough in the last 30 days to put it in the top 100 of the popularity lists for its categories (or in the last 24 hours to put it in the bestseller list of those categories), then simply being in KDP Select won’t change its discoverability, and people will be unlikely to find the book, and they will not start to buy or borrow this book.

4. If you do a free promotion of your book using the KDP Select free days, this will not automatically ensure that it gets a lot of downloads, and, even if it gets a lot of downloads, this will not always result in an increase in sales or borrows of the book.

For example, if your book fits in category one above (there are problems with the book itself in terms of why people don’t buy it), doing a free promotion won’t necessarily cause a lot of people to download it. I routinely look at the free lists of the categories I am interested in, and I routinely take a pass on free books that don’t appeal to me for a variety of reasons. In this case a book that already has problems probably won’t get enough downloads to cause a rise in visibility afterwards. And, even if a number of people decide to take a chance on a book, just because it is free, when the book goes off free it will face the same problems it had in selling that it had before the promotion.

Or, if the book is only listed in one category, and that is one of the larger categories (say it is only listed in contemporary fiction-where there are 109,000 books and where not every free book makes it to the top 100 free books in that category), then the free promotion may not gain enough attention for the book to make it visible after the promotion is over. Again, this means the promotion will not result in increased sales or downloads.

Or, if you do nothing to publicize your book’s free promotion, even if it is in the right categories and has demonstrated its ability to sell well when people find it, there is no assurance that enough people will download it (under the new algorithms) to result in increased visibility when the sales are over. This again means the promotion will not result more sales and borrows.

In fact, a failed promotion (one that generates few downloads) may hurt your book’s sales since the book will not be selling at all for the days of the promotion, lowering your average sales for those days. In this case your book will be worse off in visibility than before the promotion.

Three Things KDP Select CAN DO for you:

1. If your book is already selling well enough so that it is visible on one of the browsing category popularity lists or bestseller lists, then people who are looking for books to borrow through Amazon Prime can now borrow it. Since borrows translate as sales, KDP Select can help you maintain your visibility and add to your earnings for the book. A number of authors have mentioned that they can’t imagine that readers would bother borrowing a book unless it was a highly priced book, but this does not seem to be the case.

At $3.99, my two historical mysteries, Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits, have been borrowed 4108 times through Amazon Prime in the last year and made me $8,161 (just short of $2 per book). These borrows have also helped keep my books visible between promotions.

2.  If you do a promotion where you get enough downloads to put you on the top 100 of a popularity category list, being in KDP Select will result in at least some increase in sales and borrows after the promotion.

However, to ensure you get enough downloads, you need to make sure your book is ready (cover, description, categories, etc) and that you have done adequate marketing of the promotion. (see my Simple Steps to a Successful KDP Select Free Promotion.)

This has become particularly important because of the increase in the number of free books that are available in any given day, and the change in the algorithm for translating downloads to sales that has limited the impact of all promotions. Presently, if you don’t break through into the top 100 Kindle free book list with your free promotion, your promotion will be unlikely to bump your book up high enough afterwards to effect subsequent sales (unless your book was already doing well, and the promotion is designed to maintain that visibility.) Using sites like the Author Marketing Club, having your book picked up by a site like Pixel of Ink, or doing a paid promotion, for example through BookBub, is increasingly necessary to achieve that level of success. Here is a recent post at BookBuzzr on 7 Resources to Help with  KDP Free Days Promotions.

If your promotion is successful (you break into the 100 Free Kindle books list), and the book is saleable, and you have your book in categories where you have a fighting chance of being visible after the promotion is over, KDP Select will increase your sales and borrows.

For example, the two weeks before my recent December 28-30 KDP Select promotion, Maids of Misfortune sold an average of 25 books a day, and Uneasy Spirits sold an average of 9.8 books a day. The first 10 days of January, after the promotion, Maids of Misfortune sold an average of 43 books a day, and Uneasy Spirits sold an average of 40 books a day. In addition, in those first 10 days of January 907 people borrowed one of these books.

3.  If your book has already had positive reviews and you have a successful KDP Select promotion, you will increase your total number of reviews, which will improve the chances that people will buy the book when they see it.

Although you may garner a number of negative reviews (people who wouldn’t normally buy your type of book may give it a try if free, find it is not to their taste, and a number of them seem to enjoy telling everyone why they didn’t like it.), the increased number of positive reviews ultimately improves the overall credibility of the book.

For example, before doing my first KDP Select promotion last December, when the book had been selling for 2 years, I had 38 reviews for Maids of Misfortune, with an average 4.3 stars. A year later, after numerous free promotions, I have 191 reviews with an average of 4.2 stars. The slight slippage in stars is more than out-weighed by the positive impression of having those many positive reviews gives of the book. Probably even more importantly, Uneasy Spirits, my sequel, which had only been out 3 months before the first promotion (and only had about 8 reviews), now has 88 reviews with an average of 4.3 stars. I would never have gotten this number of reviews in just over a year without the KDP Select promotions I have done.

In summary, if your book is not selling well on Amazon (it is not at least visible on one of the one browsing categories) don’t sign that book up for KDP Select if you are not planning on putting in the work to do a successful free promotion. You will be disappointed, and you will be going exclusive to Amazon in exchange for no discernible benefits.

On the other hand, if your book has the potential to sell, it is in marketable categories, and you work hard on putting together an effective promotion, KDP Select can earn you more money in sales and borrows after the promotion, maintain a level of discoverability that will permit your book to continue to make money, and help your book accumulate a healthy number of reviews. How many sales and borrows you make a month (in comparison to what your sales are out side of Amazon), and how willing you are to continue to do promotions when those sales begin to dwindle (as they will almost inevitably), will then determine whether or not you want to keep your book in Amazon’s KDP Select.

I hope this helped clarify a little what to expect from KDP Select and what not to expect so that any decision you make as an indie author will improve the likelihood that readers will find and buy your books.

M. Louisa Locke, January 14, 2013

Authors Need to Get a Clue: How to devise the best marketing strategy for the Holidays

Everywhere the discussion is raging among indie authors: should they sign their books up for KDP Select for the holidays or not? This is an important decision because, if last holiday is any guide, the bulk of ebook sales are going to come in the ninety days after December 25, when huge numbers of new ereaders and tablets of all sorts are found gift-wrapped under the tree. On the surface the decision should be easy.

If the vast majority of a specific ebook’s sales are on Amazon, if you have enrolled the ebook in KDP Select program before and achieved a decent number of borrows (for example, more than the total number of ebooks you were selling in non-Amazon stores), and if you held free promotions that increased your sales––then probably it would be a smart move (at least financially) to enroll that book in KDP Select for the holidays. These are all the reasons I have decided to keep my books, Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits, enrolled in KDP Select.

However, I have become increasingly frustrated with how often as part of this discussion authors say they don’t have a clue why their books sell well in certain ebookstores and not on others or why their books have done well or not on KDP Select, and therefore they don’t know what to do.

I know some of the leaders in self-publishing argue that writers should just keep writing, not spend time with promotions or worrying about what sells and what does not. However, access to data and the ability to respond to that data are two of the advantages indie authors have over traditional authors, and deciding not to try to use that information to increase sales doesn’t make good business sense. It might if you have 20 books out and already have a steady income, but not if you are trying to build enough income so you can become or stay a full time writer.

(I am not going to get into the philosophical discussion of long term versus short term effects of exclusivity or using free promotions, etc, or how best to use social media to market your books because I have made my opinion  known on these issues repeatedly.) So, this post is going to detail some of the clues authors should be looking for to help them decide whether to go with KDP Select over the holidays as the best way to maximize sales.

1) Understand that not all books are the same.

In fact, the same author may have very different patterns of success for different books they write. Non-fiction books are going to behave differently than fiction. Genre fiction is going to behave differently than literary fiction, adult from young adult, etc. So don’t compare apples to oranges. How your horror/suspense book did in KDP Select isn’t going to tell you whether or not to put your self-help book into this program or the success of another author’s tale of horror in selling on the Nook isn’t going to necessarily tell you whether your cozy mystery is going to sell well in that store. So, you very well may decide to put one book in KDP Select and not another for this holiday season.

2) Analyze what is successful

Unless your books have been out for a very short period of time, or you only have one book (or novella, or short story) out, look for clues for why one book has done better than another in selling over all, or selling in a particular estore, or gets more borrows or does better in promotions. Or, look at a book similar to your own that has been successful (we should all know our competition––the books that rank high in our categories, that have product descriptions that make them sound similar to ours, that are listed in “our customers who have bought…” lists, and that do well after a free promotion.

If you can figure out why these books are doing well (or better than others), you should be able to figure out if there is anything to do to improve the performance of your less successful books, or understand why one book should be in KDP Select and another shouldn’t. This isn’t about how to write the book so it will sell, but how to make sure it is in the best position to sell well.

For example, Maids of Misfortune, my first book, consistently sold better this year than the sequel, Uneasy Spirits, and it does better in KDP Select promotions and has more borrows. The reasons for this turn out to be pretty easy to determine (given that price, cover, product descriptions for the two books were virtually the same). In the Kindle store, Maids is in 7 categories and sub-categories, while Uneasy is in only 4, and this means that it shows up in more free browsing lists. As a result Maids breaks into the top 100 free books list during a promotion more often. Maids is the first in a series (which gives it an edge-since someone who buys it and doesn’t like it won’t buy the next book) and it has been available as a book for 2 years longer than Uneasy (having more total sales and reviews), which means the Amazon algorithms that include total sales and reviews are going to be weighted in favor of the Maids. These differences, however, aren’t something I can do anything about, so I don’t need to change my marketing strategy based on them.

Using another author’s books as an example, P.B. Ryan’s Victorian mysteries not only sell well on Amazon, but they also sell well on the Nook and other retailers. One of the reasons for this seems to be that Ryan has six books in her series, which has permitted her to make her first book a permanent loss leader (at free or 99 cents). This has resulted in persistently higher sales for all the rest of her books in all the stores. This also means that going on KDP Select for the holidays wouldn’t make sense because she would lose substantial sales for these books in the other stores. With only two books out in my series, I can’t use that strategy, but I might very well be able to do in the future.

In short, looking at whether a book is in a series, where it is in a series, how long it has been published (and the number of total sales, and total reviews), and how many categories it has, will all offer clues why that book has had success in a specific store and whether or not you can duplicate that success.

There are other clues to look for if you examine a book that is selling well in one venue or another, when compared to other books. For example, the successful book might show up in different categories (not just a different number of categories), use different key words, show up on different “customers who bought” or recommended reading lists, have a different feel to their covers, or be sold at a different price.

All of these factors are related to how well a book has been able to tap into its market and how well specific strategies (categories, keywords, price, etc.) work in the different ebookstores to make the book more visible to that market.

Again, lets look at my two books. Despite the fact that Maids sold twice the number of books as Uneasy did this year, both books have done well on overall sales––but mostly in the Kindle store. Maids sold over 21,000 books and Uneasy over 9,000 (and these figures don’t include borrows or free downloads).

I believe the reason why these books have been so successful (besides the usual caveat that I hope it is because they have good covers, good product descriptions, competitive pricing and are well written) is that I have done a good job of determining who the market for my books are and I have been able to use the tools Amazon offers independent authors to reach that market.

3) Know your potential readership for the book­­––and how best to tap into it

The success of one book versus another book in sales, borrows or promotions, or the success of a book in one store versus another, depends in part on the overall market for the book and how well you are tapping into that market. Therefore you need to consider to whom the book will appeal and why, not just who you hope will read it.

For example, you might see your book as “literary fiction,” hoping for a readership that is mainly interested in the quality of your writing, but a large number of your readers might be interested in the book because of the setting, or time period, or the profession of the protagonist, or the age of the characters, or the feeling of suspense, or the existence of explicit sex, etc. They might also be readers in other countries than your own. If you ignore these potential readers and just put your book in the category “literary fiction” (where there are over 24,000 books listed on Amazon, 13,000 listed in Kobo, and no category for this at all for the Nook), your book will have difficulty competing with the traditionally published “literary fiction” that tend to dominate this category.

This means when people are browsing for “literary fiction” your book probably won’t be high enough up on this lists to be visible, but the other readers who are looking for a book like yours––but looking in “historical fiction,” or “mystery,” or some other category, or using some other keywords, won’t find your book because you didn’t target them by using those categories or keywords. In either case, your potential readers won’t find your book.

Looking at the categories used by successful books that are like yours is one of the easiest ways to get a clue of what categories work at attracting that readership in any given ebookstore. I have written numerous posts on this, here, here, and here. But there are other clues to look for.

For example, when I published my first book, I simply thought of it as a historical mystery––and thought my market was just people who liked historical mysteries. It also had a woman sleuth, so I put it into those two categories on Amazon and Smashwords, the first two places I published. But what fans of my books said in their reviews, emails, comments on my blog, and on facebook (all places you should look to for clues) revealed much more to me about exactly who liked the book and why.

It was immediately clear from these clues that my books were attracting historical fiction readers who liked the Victorian period, and readers in general who liked books about San Francisco.

I had already included the words “San Francisco” and “Victorian Mystery” in my subtitle, which I now believe was crucial in getting Maids of Misfortune noticed at the very beginning when the book was way down in the overall browsing lists (it took me 5 months to get it on the historical mystery list on Amazon so I wasn’t even tapping into that market effectively.) But I also used these terms as key words and tags when I first published––which reinforced my effectiveness in reaching this audience, and favorable comments by readers about the setting and the time period confirmed that I was reaching that market.

Over time, however, I started to notice that fans of the books also kept mentioning that they liked my books because they were “clean,” that they could recommend them to anyone, of any age, that they were a “comfort” read, that they were “gentle,” etc. It dawned on me (head slap) that these readers were saying they liked the books because they fit the format for a cozy mystery.

The common definition of a cozy mystery is that there is an amateur female sleuth with a partner––sometimes love interest––who is in police or legal profession, a community of secondary characters––including animals, and no explicit sex or violence. My series features Annie Fuller (widowed woman supplementing her income as a clairvoyant), Nate Dawson (her romantic partner and a lawyer), a cast of interesting characters (the people living in Annie’s boarding house––including Dandy the Boston Terrier), and the murders occur off-stage while the sex stays carefully within the bounds of 19th century middle class propriety.

At the same time, the few negative reviews I got mentioned the tameness of the romance, frustration that the mystery pace wasn’t fast enough––which also seemed to suggest these readers were looking for a book with either the more explicit sex of an historical romance or the tension of a thriller. Clearly I needed to make sure that the potential audience for cozy mysteries would find my books, and those who wanted something more racy or thrilling would look elsewhere.

At this point I went back and included “cozy mystery” as one of my key words and one of my tags for each book, I started using this as a hash tag when tweeting about the books, and using it as a descriptor when talking about them on facebook, and I got my books listed on key cozy mystery sites. And, while the evidence is anecdotal, I get even more comments that praise the books for the cozy elements and fewer that complain that the books aren’t something they were never designed to be.

So, it is important that you understand who the market for your books is, and how best to reach them, if you want to maximize your sales, but it is also crucial information if you want to look for the clues that will tell you in which ebookstores provide the best potential for reaching that market, and therefore whether or not going exclusive to Amazon in order to enroll a book in KDP Select is a good move.

4) Determine which ebookstores provide the best potential for reaching your book’s market

For example, in my experience the Amazon Kindle store has the greatest potential among the ebookstores for tapping into the historical mystery market. Why? Because on Kindle this browsing category is an easily found sub-category, and it has enough books in the category to be a place where a reader would find it useful to browse (or look for free books). In contrast, while the Nook store does have a “historical mystery” category, it is hard to find, and Kobo doesn’t have this category at all. To make matters worse, Kobo doesn’t permit the author to attach keywords to their books, which is probably why when you put the keywords “historical mystery” in the Kobo store you get 80,000 books listed, most of them mis-identified! Therefore I am not surprised I sold more books in the Kindle store than either the Nook store or the Kobo store.

But that isn’t true for all categories or keywords.

For example, Kobo actually has a young adult category with nice sub-categories under it (while Nook and Kindle call their young adult category “teen,” not as useful), and the Nook store has a number of cozy mystery sub-categories, and a 19th century sub-category under historical fiction. In fact, based on the number of categories you are permitted to sign up for (5) and the specificity of the subcategories under mystery and historical fiction, the Nook should be the easiest store for me to sell in. But, as I have written elsewhere, so far I have not been able to figure out (or get the help from tech support) to get my books into these categories. If I ever do achieve this goal, it might completely change my strategy for marketing and I could see shifting away from using KDP Select.

In short, when trying to figure out why your books sell one place or another, or why KDP Select does well for some books but not others––consider the advantages and disadvantages each of the key ebookstores provide in terms of categories, keywords, and tags. Consider as well if your book might be particularly attractive to people in certain countries, and how well the different ebookstores have tapped into those national markets. For example, Kobo is a leader in opening up non-North American ebook markets, and if your books sell well outside of the US, you might not want to go exclusive with KDP Select and miss out on those markets.

In summary, indie authors have an advantage in the kinds of data they get on their books (their sales, downloads, borrows, rankings, etc.) and the degree to which they can make decisions about their books (cover, product description, price, promotions, categories, keywords, tags, and even what ebookstores to sell in.) I am advocating strongly that as an indie author you look at your books individually, compare them to other books that are similar, analyze what seems to be working and what doesn’t, make sure you know your potential market, and evaluate the relative effectiveness of the different ebookstores in terms of reaching that potential market. If you have done this, not only should you see ways where you might improve your sales, but the decision on whether or not to enroll in KDP Select for this holiday season should also become crystal clear.

I would love to know if any of you have found these clues useful, or have additional clues to recommend, so we can all learn from each other.

And, may your holiday sales be excellent no matter where you sell your books!

M. Louisa Locke

Update on Categories and Keywords: Why authors should still care

A year ago (October 2011), I wrote a piece entitled Categories, Key words, and Tags, Oh My!: Why Should an Author Care?, which has become the most frequently viewed post on my blog. It has been reposted numerous times, and I still get comments on it weekly. There is a reason for this. The subject is complicated, confusing, and yet crucial to selling a book successfully online. While most of the original post is still relevant, it seemed time to update it, with the special addition of a section on how categories play a role in KDP Select promotions. For those of you who never read the original, I hope this helps. For those of you who did, I hope I have clarified a few sections and added some useful information.

This post focuses on ebooks on Amazon (although the main points work for print books as well) because that is where I have the most experience and because Amazon is definitely (still) ahead of the other ebook stores in its sophisticated approaches to helping readers find books. As with much of the publishing process, there is a lot of conflicting information about how Amazon’s categories, keywords, and tags work, so some of what I say is more of an educated guess than documented fact, but I will link back to Amazon’s information pages whenever possible.

First some definitions:

Categories:

When a book is uploaded into KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing), an author (or traditional publisher) has the opportunity to choose two categories for that book. It used to be that Amazon allowed you to choose five categories, which is why some books, like my first historical mystery, Maids of Misfortune, have more Kindle Store categories listed at the bottom of their product page. (If you want to know what a book’s categories are­­––look under Look for Similar Items by Category) When you, as author, choose a category for your book, you are actually choosing a browsing path for customers. That browsing path consists of a hierarchy of categories and sub-categories and your book is available for readers to discover under each of the parts of that hierarchy. For example, in the case of my most recent book, Uneasy Spirits, one of the two browsing path/categories I chose was:   Fiction—Mystery&Thriller—Mystery—Historical 

If you browse for Uneasy Spirits in the Kindle store, you will find it under all four parts of the hierarchy. Note that each time a reader goes one step further down the hierarchical browsing path there are fewer books to browse. For example, as I write this, here are the numbers of books in each of these four areas:

Fiction [570,230]; Fiction––Mystery&Thriller [74,482]; Fiction—Mystery&Thriller—Mystery [15,240]; Fiction—Mystery&Thriller—Mystery—Historical [2,587]

The “categories” Amazon offers when you upload your book to KDP are based on BISAC categories, a book industry standard for subject headings. What authors find confusing is that Amazon converts the BISAC categories into the Amazon browsing-path categories and subcategories that show up in the Kindle store––and the two are not always identical.

To complicate issues further, the browsing categories for print books and ebooks are not identical, and Amazon creates additional browsing categories like “newly released” and “best sellers” and “editors’ pick”––some of which are separate from the browsing-path/categories and some of which are available as additional qualifiers to the browsing-paths. Are you lost yet?

Finally, to make matters even more difficult, this conversion process does not always work accurately (for a long time the historical mystery category had less than 100 books in it because of a computer glitch). However, the KDP Support system has improved in the past year in helping authors resolve these problems. If you click on the Contact Us link at the bottom of the KDP page, the menu leads to an option to email the support staff to change your categories, and if you use the Author Central Contact Us link, you can even ask for a telephone consultation.

Keywords:

When you publish your book with KDP, you can choose seven keywords in addition to the two categories. These are really key phrases since they can be more than one word. For example I used terms like “Victorian Mystery” and “cozy mystery.” These keywords are used by Amazon in its own search engine––along with words in your title and subtitle and product description. Because I used those keywords and also have Victorian and Mystery in my subtitle, when Maids of Misfortune was first published, it immediately showed up near the top of the list of book when a customer put in the key search words “Victorian Mystery.”

Tags:

These are another kind of keyword or key phrase, but many authors get confused and think that they also help a book get found using the search box at the top of the Amazon page or on their Kindle device, but they don’t work this way. Tags are listed on a book’s product page under the heading Tag this product and were designed by Amazon to help customers describe and find products using key words called “tags.” Because this is so confusing, I am going to address the question of tags in a separate post.

Why Should an Author Care?

Categories, keywords, and (to a much more limited degree) tags can be used to help readers find your books, and these are methods that are generally not available to authors of print books that are sold in brick and mortar stores. As authors of ebooks, we need to learn how readers find books in estores like the Kindle store and use the tools that are available to us to maximize our sales.

When you sell a book to a traditional publisher, who then distributes that book to bookstores, you, as author, really don’t have much to say about how readers find your books. You hope that the bookstores will shelve your book on the right shelf (and that they have separate shelves for your genre) and you hope your publisher can convince the seller (or pay them) to put your book in special places like “newly released” tables, or “best seller” tables, or under “staff recommendations.” Beyond that, there isn’t much authors can do besides cultivating booksellers at conventions and through book signings, hoping this will convince them to feature their books––a time consuming and expensive proposition.

However, authors, by their choice of categories, keywords, and tags, can increase the chances that a reader will find their books in an ebook store. I am going to discuss two strategies an author can use to achieve that end.

The first strategy is to choose, at least for one of your two categories, a browsing path that ends up with a relatively small number of books at the end of the path.

For example, when I first published my second historical mystery, Uneasy Spirits, I could have chosen as one of its two categories, the browsing path of Fiction—Historical Fiction. However, this would have placed this book in a final pool of over 24,000 books in the Kindle store. As an indie author without a big promotional campaign behind me, it would be easy for this new book to get lost in that pool. Few people are going to scroll down through hundreds if not thousands of books of historical fiction books to find mine.

Instead, I chose to put Uneasy Spirits into the Romance–Suspense category [8,000 books] and, more importantly, I chose to place both of my books, Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits in the Fiction—Mystery&Thrillers—Mystery—Historical category/browsing path. There are only 2600 books in the historical mystery category, and with a category this size I have been able to keep my books continuously on the list of top 100 bestselling books. This means both books are always visible when someone browses, which means both books sell well day-after-day. To date, I have sold 35,000 copies of Maids of Misfortune and 10,000 copies of Uneasy Spirits.

Obviously you don’t want to put your book in a list just because it is small. It has to make sense to the reader.  My books are cozy mysteries, and if I chose the hardboiled mystery sub-category just because of its size, I would end up with either few sales or nasty reviews. However, you should take the time to learn what categories are available that might fit your book. For example, look at the categories successful books like yours are found in, and then think about how to use your 2 category choices wisely.

The second strategy is to use keywords in combination with categories to help when the category is too large to be effective under the first strategy.

Take, for example, that large category, Fiction––Historical Fiction. Since this is really a more accurate description of both of my books than Romantic Suspense, once Uneasy Spirits got enough sales to be more competitive (helped along by its placement in the Historical Mystery category) I changed its second category to Historical Fiction. However, on a day-to-day basis, neither Uneasy Spirits or Maids of Misfortune show up high enough in this large category to be visible. This is where your choice of keywords can help.

When I was coming up with keywords for Maids of Misfortune and then later for Uneasy Spirits, I could have used the term Gilded Age as one of my 7 choices. It is actually a very precise definition of the time (1877-1880) and place (U.S) where my series of books are set. However, if someone was in the Historical Fiction category and put in the term Gilded Age, only 28 books come up. While I am sure if I had used this as a keyword, that my books would have been near the top of this category and search list, how often would a customer bother to check a list so small? But if you put in the term Victorian (which is used for the entire 19th century in England, Europe, and the U. S.) you get 367 books. This is a list of books that is large enough for a customer to find it a useful place to browse, but small enough for my books to do well in. Therefore, I chose the term Victorian and made sure I put this keyword in my subtitle as well. Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits are at the top of that list of 367 books.

A third strategy for using categories includes considering what category you want your books to be in if you do a KDP Select free promotion (something that didn’t exist when I wrote my original piece.) While it is good to have your book listed in at least one relatively small category, where it is visible to the casual browser, if the category is too small, or has no sub-categories, it can limit your exposure when you make the book temporarily free.

Let’s take, for example, Of Moths and Butterflies, a book by a V. R. Christensen, a fellow member of the Historical Fiction Authors Cooperative.

Of Moths and Butterflies is currently in the two categories, Fiction­­––Historical Fiction [24,000 books] and Fiction––Drama––British & Irish [2500 books]. The choice of the second category makes a good deal of sense since it is a much smaller category. As a result, the book is currently listed as #21 in the bestseller list for this category and is much more visible to browsers.

However, when Christensen does a KDP Select promotion, I would recommend that she try shifting the book temporarily from British & Irish Drama to Historical Romance. The reason for this is that the British & Irish Drama free list is filled with public domain books that are always free, and this means it isn’t a list where people would regularly go to find free books. Historical Romance, on the other hand, both because of its subject matter and robust free list, will be a place that people routinely look for free books to download. In addition, the book would show up on the Romance Free list as well (since a book shows up on all the stages of a browsing path), which is an even more robust free list.

This means Of Moths and Butterflies would be seen, and possibly chosen, by a much broader pool of potential customers. More downloads means a better ranking when the book comes off of the free promotion. Christensen could then keep Moths and Butterflies in this category if her sales are strong enough to keep her in the top 100 Historical Romance bestseller list, or she could shift it back to British & Irish Drama. I have followed this pattern with Uneasy Spirits, shifting it between Historical Romance, Romantic Suspense, and Historical Fiction, to good effect.

In Summary:

As an author, you need to choose categories and keywords carefully when you publish or promote. Social media and traditional marketing can only do so much to drive potential customers to find your book. You need to make sure that the person who is just browsing in the Amazon or Kindle store has a good chance of finding your book (and then your cover, description, reviews, and excerpt will hopefully do the rest). You need to take into consideration not only what best categories describe your books, but also what will maximize the chances that a reader who is browsing will find your books. You also want to make sure that readers who find your book are the ones who would be most likely to buy it and enjoy it. Careful uses of categories and keywords can also increase your chance of having a successful free promotion, which in turn will help boost your sales. Carelessness in using these strategies can condemn even the best work to the backwaters of the Kindle store––undiscovered, unbought, and unread––and that would be a shame.

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My brief experiment going off KDP Select: At least I got this nifty blog piece out of it!

So…

I lasted only a month off of KDP Select. It was an eye-opening experience. I knew that I would lose sales on Amazon without the borrows and KDP free days to keep my books visible on the historical mystery bestseller lists, but my hope was that I would be building enough sales on Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and the Smashwords affiliates, to make up for these lost sales. I even told myself I was willing to accept lower overall sales for 2-3 months in order to test the idea that having my book on multiple sites (even if the sales on those sites were lower, on average, than on Kindle) was a workable alternative to exclusivity on Amazon, which is what KDP Select requires.

But this was predicated on being able to figure out how to get my books, Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits, discovered on these other sites, because my experience is that if readers find my books, they will buy them.

But I was not able to figure out how to do this for Barnes and Noble or Kobo and I didn’t see any evidence that this was something I would be able to solve in a short period of time.

As I have written about before, there are primarily two ways a person ends up buying a book (from a brick and mortar store or estore).

They either:

1) come to the store looking for that book (or books by a certain author) or

2) find the books in the store while browsing.

For authors who are independently published and who sell most of their books in on-line stores, social media (blogs, twitter, facebook, pinterest, etc) can play an important role in getting people to go looking for their books. When a potential reader discovers the title of a book through reading a review or an interview with an author on a blog, or reading a tweet or a facebook post from a friend, they may decide to go looking for this book. The more frequently they run across that author’s name or the title of the book, the more likely they are to do so. In addition, social media usually provides direct links to the product pages of estores so that the impulse to look for the book can lead immediately to the decision to buy the book, which increases the effectiveness of this form of marketing.

Social media also has the benefit of costing less money and requiring less clout than the methods traditionally used by authors to market (reviews in print media, book signings, talks at conventions, interviews on radio or tv, mass mailings, etc).

While I don’t believe that the majority of sales I have made have come through my social media activities, I did understand that I might have to work harder to drive people to look for my books in the Barnes and Noble and Kobo stores because they initially wouldn’t have much visibility in these stores. What I didn’t expect was to have difficulty finding places on the internet that specifically targeted Nook or Kobo owners. If an author wants to connect with Kindle owners there are the Kindle Boards, literally dozens of Kindle oriented facebook pages, book blogs and websites that target Kindle owners, providing free and paid methods of promoting your book. I couldn’t find any similar sites that focused on Kobo beyond their official facebook/websites, and the small number of sites that focused on Nook ebooks generally didn’t have many followers. So beyond tweeting using the #kobo or #nook hashtags, I discovered few ways of reaching out and alerting these specific readers that my books were available on their devices.

Which brings me to the other way people find books–browsing. Whether it was in the libraries of my youth, the bookstores of my middle years, or Amazon in my senior years, I discover new authors primarily by looking on the “shelves,” being intrigued by the cover picture and the title, looking at the short description of the book and blurbs, maybe scanning the first pages, and then deciding to take a chance. This is what I want to have happen with my books, and while Amazon’s browsing experience isn’t perfect, for my books, it turns out Amazon is much better than the other two major ebook stores at helping potential customers find my books on their shelves.

I had some hopes for Barnes and Noble because my books had been in this store before and had done moderately well. While I had been disappointed in the total number of my Nook sales, I thought that if I could figure out how to get my books visible in the right browsing categories I could increase these sales. I was particularly encouraged by the fact that Barnes and Noble gives you 5 categories to put your books in (Amazon now only gives you 2), and that they had some smaller sub-categories that Amazon didn’t have where I knew my historical mysteries would shine (like historical romances in the Victorian/Gilded Age, or American Cozy mysteries.) I also know a number of people who sell well on the Nook, although most of them have at least 5 books for sale, usually in a series, and they have been able to take advantage of either the NookFirst program or have used the first book in their series as their loss leader by making the book 99 cents or free (through price matching.) But they also seemed to have their books in the right categories.

However, my plan to make my books be more visible through better category placement in the Nook store failed completely when I couldn’t even figure out where my books were showing up after I uploaded them through ePubit, much less how to get them into the right categories.

Side note: all the Kindle/Nook/Kobo self-publishing systems have the same problem in that the categories you get to choose from when uploading your book aren’t identical to the categories that show up when browsing. See my discussion of this in my post on Categories.

Both the Amazon and Kobo product pages lists a book’s browsing categories, not so Barnes and Noble. When I went to the categories and subcategories I thought my books might be in and scrolled through, looking for my books, either my book would be missing or the pages would freeze before I got through the hundreds of pages, so I could never determine if they were there. Arggh. (And of course this means a potential customer wasn’t going to find them either.)

So, I did what I had done to get my books properly in the right categories on Amazon when I was first figuring out how browsing worked in that store, I wrote the Barnes and Noble/Nook support staff, first asking what 5 categories my books were in and next asking how I could get them into the 5 categories I wanted.

And got no reply. Not even an automated, “we have received your email and we are working on an answer.” Nothing. So I resent my request a week later (mentioning that this was the second request and that I would appreciate some response.) Nothing. So then I wrote the Director of Digital Content, asking if she could direct me to where I could find out the answers to my questions and asking if she could give me advice on how to better market my books for the Nook. No reply.

Bangs head.

I do believe that if I got my books into the right categories that I would begin to have decent sales on the Nook. I am assuming the books I did sell were primarily to those people who went into the bookstore looking for them (based on my tweets and facebook postings), but I don’t think it makes sense to go another month or two hoping I will finally get an answer, and that my books will finally start showing up where I want them to be. I am leaving my short stories up in this store, and maybe I will eventually get these stories into the right categories and begin to get more sales. If this happens and my sales of these stories increase enough on the Nook, I may try again with the full-length novels.

I also had high hopes for Kobo, after reading about their new self-publishing initiative, WritingLife. What was particularly attractive was that they are letting indies price their books at free, without an exclusivity requirement or time limit. But, despite the promise that they had been consulting with indie authors in beta testing, Kobo’s WritingLife is not yet ready for prime time when it comes to browsing categories or free promotions.

I was pleased with the ability to designate three categories on Kobo and my books actually showed up in the categories I put them in. The problem was that these categories are currently very limited. Most distressing from my perspective, there is no historical mystery category (which is the subgenre that is most aligned with my books). Also, if you put “historical mystery” in as a keyword search there were 51,000 books (many which didn’t appear to be historical mysteries), which says to me the search function isn’t very useful as an alternative way for readers to find this kind of book.

The categories my books do show up in the Kobo store (mystery-women sleuths, historical fiction and historical romance) contain a lot of books, with none of the sub-categories that the Nook has, which also makes it difficult for a book by a relative unknown such as myself to become visible in them. I was facing the old chicken and the egg problem (how do you get a book up high enough in a category for people to find it without sales, but how do you get sales if no one ever sees your book?) This is where I hoped Kobo’s free option would help––as it has helped so many authors who have used the KDP Select free promotion option.

However, when I put my short story, Dandy Detects,up as free on Kobo, I found that Kobo has a very ineffective method of making free books visible. While I don’t know how the Kobo ereader itself works, if you are using the Kobo ap there is no way to find free books because there is no way of finding out what books within a category or subcategory are free. This is true for the on-line Kobo bookstore as well.

For example, in Barnes and Noble’s Nook ebook store, if you click on the mystery-women sleuth category, you find 2338 books, and you can order these books by price, with the free books showing up first (15 of them). By the way, my short story Dandy Detect, which should be in this category as a 99 cent book, isn’t there (sigh).

For Kindle, if you look on the device at the best seller list under the “mysteries-women sleuths” you can look at the free list separately for this subcategory, and in the online store you can see the paid list to the left and the free list to the right in this category. Today the free list for this category is 53 books––so it is easy to have your book visible if it is in the midst of a free promotion. Visible not just to people who are looking for free books, but visible to people who are looking at books that are for sale––maybe the newest Anne Perry––and just glance over to the right and notice a free book that looks intriguing.

In the Kobo store, the mystery-women sleuth category (3303 books) can be sorted by price, but the lowest price is 99 cents, so no free books are visible. Instead, you have to click on the free books link on the home page of the estore, a link that is not available on the ap (I don’t know if it is on the Nook itself). Then there are two options. The most straightforward––on the surface––is a link to one of 6 categories, one that is called “Free Mysteries.” But when you click this link only 20 books show up, most of them public domain, and none of them Dandy Detects. Dead end, and frankly if I was a consumer I would try this category once, and never again.

The second option Kobo gives you is to follow these 3 Step instructions

Step 1: Perform a search using any keyword

Step 2: Filter your results by “Free Only” from the pull-down menu

Step 3: Select your download from the search results

This does work, and Dandy Detects did show up under key words like mystery, historical mystery, fiction historical, but the separation from paid books and the browsing categories means that this method isn’t going to produce the traffic that it would get in either the Kindle or Nook stores where there is a connection between the paid and the free listings. In addition, the Kobo method depends on the consumer to come up with the right key words.

I suspect that these problems (no way to find free books through the Nook ap, limited free books under the Free Mystery link, and the lack of connection between paid and free books) have meant that Kobo readers aren’t accustomed to looking for free promotions the way Kindle readers have become since the introduction of KDP Select.  Even more frustrating, when I downloaded a free copy of Dandy to my Nook ap I discovered that the dashboard for WritingLife doesn’t report free book downloads so I had no way of knowing if anyone is finding it.

The only evidence I have that a few people eventually found the story (probably because I have been tweeting about Dandy being free) is after a few days a small number of other books started to show up in the “You Might Like” listing on Dandy’s product page. But I don’t know how many copies have been downloaded, I don’t know when they were downloaded (so I can’t connect up with my marketing), and, so far, putting Dandy up for free hasn’t translated into anyone buying either of my full-length novels or even the other short story. I also haven’t seen any movement in the total ranking of Dandy in the categories––so I don’t know if I put it back to paid if it would show up any higher in these categories. In short, at this point the Kobo option of putting a book up for free doesn’t seem to help sell books.

While I imagine that the Kobo techs, who have responded to my questions (unlike Barnes and Noble), will try to solve some of these problems, until they do and Kobo readers get used to looking for free books, I don’t anticipate free promotions being as successful as they are currently on Kindle.

Again, as with the Nook, I will keep my short stories in the Kobo store, keep Dandy free, and see if over the next few months some of these problems are resolved. But I don’t want to continue to let my sales on Kindle stagnate on the promise that the conditions for selling in either the Barnes and Noble or the Kobo stores will improve dramatically in the short term.

So…Back I will go to KDP Select next week, when my books have been successfully unpublished in the other stores, and then I can get back to writing and doing an occasional KDP promotion.

Obviously, I would love to hear if any of you have tips on how to get books in the right categories for the Nook, or have had better success with selling on Kobo. But meanwhile, if any of you are Nook or Kobo owners, my novels will be available for these devices until Sunday, August 12, and my short stories will continue to be there indefinitely.