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.

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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

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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Categories, Key Words, and Tags, Oh My: Why should an Author Care?

Two weeks ago I published my second historical mystery, Uneasy Spirits, and in the process I was reminded of how confusing it can be to determine the best category and key words I should use on Amazon to describe my book. Since there are several other authors who have been wrestling with the same question in the Historical Fiction Authors Cooperative (HFAC) that I belong to, I decided to write this post on how to use categories and keywords to maximize ebook sales.

For the purpose of this post I am focusing on ebooks on Amazon, in part because that is where I have the most experience, but also because Amazon is definitely ahead of the other ebook stores in its sophisticated approaches to helping readers find books. My understanding of these issues is based on my experience as a self-published author using KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing). Finally, as with much of the publishing process, there is still a lot of conflicting information about how Amazon categories, keywords, and tags work, so some of what I say is more of an educated guess than documented fact.

First some definitions:

Categories: When a book is uploaded into KDP, an author (and, I assume, a traditional publisher) has the opportunity to choose two categories. It used to be that Amazon allowed you to choose five categories, which is why some books have more Kindle Store categories listed at the bottom of their product page. When you, as author, choose a category for your book, you are actually choosing a browsing-path for readers. That browsing-path/category consists of a hierarchy of 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 in under all four parts of the hierarchy:

Fiction
Fiction–Mystery&Thriller
Fiction—Mystery&Thriller—Mystery
Fiction—Mystery&Thriller—Mystery—Historical  

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 [324,671]
Fiction–Mystery&Thriller [43,629]
Fiction—Mystery&Thriller—Mystery [9,700]
Fiction—Mystery&Thriller—Mystery—Historical   [73]

By carefully choosing my category, I make it much more likely that a reader will find my book, since the pool of books is smaller with each step down the path.

The “categories” Amazon offers when you upload your book to KDP are apparently BISAC categories, a book industry standard for subject headings.  What is confusing is that the “browsing path” that Amazon generates from your choice is not always the same as the BISAC category you chose. Amazon apparently converts the BISAC categories that you pick into the Amazon browsing-path categories and subcategories that show up in the Kindle store — and the two are not always the same.

To make matters more confusing and frustrating, this conversion process does not always work accurately. You can read more about this on my blog post, “Working Amazon” and on Suzanne Adair’s blog post, which provides a hilarious description of the trouble she had with getting her wonderful new Revolutionary War thriller, Regulated for Murder, in the right category. (Suzanne is a fellow HFAC author.) To complicate issues further, the browsing categories for books and ebooks are not identical, and Amazon creates 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?

Keywords: When you publish your book with KDP, you can choose seven “key-words” 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 “key-words” are apparently used by Amazon in its own search engine — along with words in your title and subtitle and product description. This may seem very straightforward, until you get to the next definition—tags.

Tags: These are another kind of key-word or key phrase. They 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.” Readers can add tags to a product page and can indicate that an existing tag is useful. It used to be that the “key-words” that authors chose at the time of uploading a book to KDP were automatically displayed as “tags” on the book’s product page, but this evidently no longer happens. Of course, after publication, an author can add tags to a product page just like readers can.

There is contradictory information about how Amazon uses “tags” and “key-words” in its own main search engine, but I believe that “key-words” that the author has assigned to a book are searchable in Kindle store, the but “tags” are not.  For example, I did not add the word “clairvoyant” as a “key-word” when I uploaded my book Maids of Misfortune to KDP, but it has been added by customers as a tag on the Maids product page. So, if I go to the Kindle bookstore on the Kindle device (or the main search box on the Amazon website) and search for “clairvoyant,” Maids of Misfortune does not show up in the 100 books that are listed in the search result. So, apparently, Amazon does not include the customer-created “tags” in its Kindle bookstore search (available on the Kindle device) or in the standard search box on the Amazon website.

“Tags” are available for a different kind of searching, though. The “tags” themselves are clickable links. Readers can click on any “Tag” on a product page and find other books that have the same “tag.”  For example, if, on the Maids of Misfortune product page, I click on the tag “clairvoyant” (which 19 people checked as useful), the result is 152 books, including Maids of Misfortune. Also, in the “Tag” section of the product page there is a special search box labeled “Search Products Tagged with.”  By entering terms in that special search box, you are searching only “tags.”  Searching “clairvoyant” using the special tag search box finds those same 152 books. Note that “tags” are typed in by users so you will see misspelled tags!

Why Should an Author Care?

Categories, keywords, and 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. (Although I know one author who always turned their books and books of their friends so that the full cover showed whenever they found them in a bookstore!)

However, self-published 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 a category (browsing path) that ends up with a small number of books at the end of the path.

For example, I could have chosen as one of my two categories, the browsing path of Fiction—Historical Fiction for my newest historical mystery, Uneasy Spirits, which is most certainly a work of historical fiction. However, this would have placed this book in a final pool of over 15,000 books in the Kindle store. Maybe some day I will be such a successful author that I can compete in a pool of that size, but right now as an indie author without a big promotional campaign behind me it would be easy for me to get lost in that pool. Few people are going to scroll down through hundreds if not thousands of books to find mine.

So, I chose to place both of my books, Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits in the Fiction—Mystery&Thrillers—Mystery—Historical category/browsing-path. Not only does this more accurately define the sub-genre of these two books, but there are fewer than 100 books in this subcategory. It took me six months to reach the top ten books in that subcategory with my first book, Maids of Misfortune, but once I did, my sales went up exponentially. In May 2010, I sold 55 copies of Maids in Kindle and in August, after the book hit the top 10 in this category, I sold 249.

I did a fair number of things to help Maids of Misfortune achieve that top ten status (price changes, reviews, short story, etc.) but I could have done all those things and it still wouldn’t have gotten me into the top 10 in the category of Historical Fiction—it is just too big a pool of books. With the publication of Uneasy Spirits, I had the benefit of now being a better known author, with an already existing fan base, which explains why it took only 24 hours for this book to hit the top ten in the historical mystery subcategory. Even so, as an independent author without a whole publicity machine behind me, I still would not have achieved this within the “Historical Fiction” category.

This strategy (getting your book into the smallest possible pool of books) is also why I chose to put Uneasy Spirits into the browsing path Fiction—Romance—Romantic Suspense (4,800), rather than into the Historical Fiction (15,000 books) or the Historical Romance (8,800 books) subcategories. Again, this was in part because this subcategory accurately describes the book, but also because the pool of books in this subcategory is smaller than in these other two. This is also why, when I had 5 choices of categories when I uploaded Maids of Misfortune, I chose History—United States—state and local—west as one browsing path. I not only figured that people looking for books about the western US would be interested in my book, based as it was on solid historical research, but this was also a pool of less than 500 books, and Maids of Misfortune has been at the top of this list for most of the last year.

The second strategy is to use key-words and tags that will help users find my book in a small pool of potential books.

Let’s take the example of a work of historical fiction that is not a mystery and that, therefore, doesn’t have a lot of options apart from being placed in the historical fiction category with those 15,000 other books in the Kindle store. Here the application of key-words (or tags for people who are doing a tag search) is the appropriate strategy for narrowing the pool to a reasonable level, giving your book a better chance to compete. For example, when I was giving advice to a fellow HFAC author, Elisabeth Storrs, who has written a well-reviewed work of historical fiction, The Wedding Shroud, which has not yet found the readership that it deserves, I investigated what key words she could use.

I discovered that a user who is browsing in the historical fiction subcategory and looking for books about Rome will narrow that list from 15,000 books to 221 books if they put in the search term “Rome.” If they search for “Ancient Rome” they will find a list of just 88 books. And, if they searched for “Early Rome” while browsing in the historical fiction subcategory, they would find just two books.

My recommendation was that she use “Rome” and “Ancient Rome” for two of her seven “key-words” because readers using this browse-then-search strategy would be more likely to find her book in these smaller lists of books that match. This would enable her to compete more successfully in an otherwise broad category. And, of course, these terms more accurately describe the historical fiction she has written!

However, I did not recommend the use of “Early Rome” (although it equally described the period of the book) because it produced such a small pool of books that readers probably wouldn’t return to that search. The other two key-words bring up enough books to make them search terms that readers would be likely to use the next time they were ready to look for a new book.

These two strategies can boost your sales in two additional ways.

First, they will help you get on an Amazon “Top 100 Best Seller List.” Second, they will help ensure that people who find your book will have found books similar to yours — and that improves the chances of your book showing up on the Amazon “Customers who bought this book also bought” recommendation system.

The best-seller lists: Amazon has a computer algorithm that updates the “best-seller lists” in each category and subcategory every hour. While secret, the algorithm evidently takes into consideration “all-time sales, as well as recent sales that are weighted more heavily than older sales…” according to an Amazon spokesperson quoted in this article. Needless to say, no matter how good your sales are in a given hour, or day, your chances of getting into a top 100 best-sellers list and staying there are pretty slim if you are competing against 15,000 other books.

If, however, you are in a group like Horror-Dark Fantasy (227 books), or Science Fiction—Series (169 books), or Fantasy—Authurian (27 books), or Mystery—Historical (73 books), your chances of being ranked in the top 100 in these categories increases (or becomes 100%). Since many customers start their searches for book in the best-seller lists, this heightens your visibility and cachet and increases your sales, which in turn helps you stay on and move up the best seller lists. The increase in sales may, in time, help your book rise in the other categories or key-word searches where your book is listed. Very briefly after Christmas of last year, when my sales were high (700 books in the 3 days after December 25), I actually made the top 100 of the category Mystery—Women sleuths (6,222 books). Heady days!

Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought: Amazon uses an algorithm that identifies other books that people who have bought your book have bought. You have to have a certain number of sales for this to kick in (Uneasy Spirits had enough Kindle sales so this section appeared within a day—my print edition came out a week later and has had fewer sales, so its product page does not yet have this feature.) In addition, it appears that for a book to appear in this list, a certain number of your customers must have bought the book. For example, nearly 15,000 people have bought Maids of Misfortune, yet there are only 100 books that show up in the “Customers Who Bought” list, and I know that those 15,000 people bought more than 100 books altogether. It also appears that there might be some other limitations; I haven’t seen more than 100 “also-bought” books listed, even for popular books like Amanda Hocking’s ebooks.

You’ll want to do more than just sell enough books to trigger this feature, however. You’ll want to make sure that the books that show up are similar to your book – and you can do that by using the right categories, key-words, and tags. For example, I could certainly have put my books into the category of Romance—Historical, but then the books that would show up in this “Customer who Bought” list would be dominated by books that tend to put the romance before the history and have explicit sexual themes. While there is nothing wrong with these books, a customer who bought my book, based on the expectation it would be like these historical romances, might be very disappointed by the rather chaste nature of my protagonists’ relationship.

Since my books are in the Mystery—Historical category, it is not surprising that the list of books in the “Customer who Bought” feature is filled with historical fiction (usually in the Victorian era) and mysteries. This adds to the chance that the customer who is checking out my book will think, “Hey, I read those books and liked them, I will probably like this one.” And if they buy my book, there is less chance they will be disappointed —  thinking, “Where was the sex?” — and give my book a bad review. And finally, it will also mean that my book will show up on “customers who bought” lists for books that are in my sub-genre. You can imagine how pleased I was when I discovered that Maids of Misfortune had started showing up on a “customers who bought” list for Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight Mystery Series! That meant my book was being seen by exactly the readership I want to attract.

In Summary:

As an author, you need to carefully choose categories and key-words when you publish and add your own “tags” after publishing. You need to take into consideration not only what best describes your books but also what will maximize the chances that a reader who is browsing through the Kindle store 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 key-words and tags can also increase your chance of getting on one of the best-seller lists and showing up on one of the “Customers who bought” lists, 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.