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This is Part Three of a five-part series on self-publishing your first book on Amazon. You can start here, or head back to Part One: What I Learned from Writing & Self-Publishing My First Book or hop back to Part Two: Three Reasons Why You Should Write a Book (And Two Reasons Why You Shouldn’t).
Today we’re talking about how people find your book on Amazon, the Amazon algorithm, and how you can use them all to your advantage.
Algorithms control Amazon’s search results (and a whole host of other techy things we won’t dive into) and when you make the algorithm happy, more potential customers can see your book.
Let’s start off with the two factors you can control.
Keywords and Categories
When you set up your book in KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing), you will choose two categories and seven keywords for your book. I always lump these two together when talking about them because, well, the boxes to fill them out are right next to each other in KDP.
Let’s talk about keywords first.
Keywords are so hard for me. I have to choose up to seven—and no more than seven—words to describe my 35,000-word book. The word RV comes to mind…but does that count as a word, or is it just an acronym? These are thoughts that keep me up at night.
So I asked Kelsey, who has done work with Amazon keywords before, to help me with this.
There are two ways to choose keywords:
- Guess based on your knowledge of the book
- Research Amazon search terms
One of these is better (and easier!) than the other.
Kelsey showed me a software called Merchant Words where you can download Amazon search terms. So we can tell Merchant Words the general type of product we’re selling—so for my book, we would say travel—and they will give us a huge list of all the related search terms. You can download this list via CSV and even see how often these terms are searched on Amazon each month. From this list of 300 keywords, we chose our seven! (I’d like to say this was easy, but this whole process took around two hours and lots more research into what keywords were being used by competing books, etc.)
When it comes to doing something you’ve never done before—i.e. publishing a book—I’m all for using tools that will save me time and headache. Merchant Words costs $60/month, which is crazy expensive if you’re just selling one product. But if you think about how much time and stress it can save you, I’d say it’s worth it…if you immediately cancel your account after one month.
Okay, onto categories!
Your categories will be how you classify your book. Unlike keywords, you choose your categories from a list provided by Amazon.
On your book page, categories look like these:
As we discussed in the podcast, these categories do NOT look like this in KDP. Here on the actual book page, they look so clear and easy to read.
For whatever reason, they are SO CONFUSING in KDP. I did choose camping and road travel as two of my categories, but apparent categories like “Food, Lodging, & Transportation” and “Auto & RV Travel” aren’t options! Outdoors & Nature and Hiking & Camping weren’t options either.
Very weird, I know. I wish I knew why Amazon does this, but they do.
I chose my categories by looking at the categories of multiple books similar to mine. I went through the first three pages of results on Amazon taking notes. I spent hours choosing my categories because as you can see in the screenshot above, you want to be classified in the right categories so you can sell more books! If you’re in the wrong category, you’re in the wrong competition.
Because I’ve been number one in my categories, I now have that handy #1 Best Seller banner that Amazon adds to your book page. This gives more social proof to your book for potential customers and makes your book stick out among other search results.
Be sure to select categories that are as niche to your content as possible. I could’ve just chosen “Travel” as my category, but that’s too broad and there’s a TON of competition in all of travel. The smaller and more specific the niche, the better off you’ll be and the more likely you’ll be able to that coveted best-seller banner from hitting #1 in your category.
Your Amazon Sales Rank
Your sales rank tells you exactly where you stand among the millions of books sold on Amazon. At this exact moment (now that my book is seven months old), my rank is at #4,505. But as you saw in the screenshot above, I’m also #1 in Auto & RV travel and Camping and #2 in Road Travel.
When I first got my book live on Amazon, I focused on the sales rank in my categories. The big number meant nothing to me, because who cares about being in 4,000th place? Plus I wasn’t sure how it was calculated or how it affected anything, until someone in my launch team (a fellow published author) said this:
This was from back when I had just gotten my book like on Amazon for pre-orders. I wasn’t sure if #7,700 was good, but I was happy it meant at least someone was buying my book!
Then a friend who did retail arbitrage on Amazon—where you buy stuff and then re-sell it on Amazon for more than what you paid for it—said that book re-sellers look at books in the top 10,000 to choose which ones are worth buying to be re-sold. So that’s how I’ve come to decide that if your book is in the top 10,000, you’re killing it.
Sales rank is aptly determined by how many books you’ve sold. We talked back in part one about how I made my book available for free to increase my sales. Each free book “sold” counts as a sale toward your sales rank, HOWEVER, when your book is free, you’re ranked in the Kindle free store, not the Kindle store.
A quick note on the distinction here
Kindle Free Store = you’re competing with all the books available on Amazon for free. It is my greatest achievement in life to know I once outsold a book called “Get Lucky”.
Kindle Store = You’re competing with all the paid ebooks available on Amazon. That means you’re competing with fiction books, books that have been turned into TV shows, ebook versions of NYT best-sellers, books by presidents, and everything James Patterson has ever written.
In either store, the higher the rank, the better. You’ll get more visibility when your book is free plus can get a much higher sales rank than you can get in the Kindle Store. It’s a good reminder to Amazon that your book is selling like hot cakes.
I’ve always found that after free book days, my paid sales are through the roof. For my most recent free book day, I gave away over 1,000 free books and then sold 66 paid books the next day. 66! That’s my best day of book sales ever. (Another reason to take advantage of those free book days people!)
These paid sales boosted my Kindle Store sales rank higher than normal, plus since my book is selling more post-promotion, I am making more. (In fact looking at the numbers, I made more on the free day + the day after than I would on any two normal days of sales.) One clarification someone reminded me to include here: the free promotions are available to authors who enroll their book in the Kindle Unlimited program.
Okay every time I talk about sales rank, I basically end up rambling about how to game your rank by free ebook promotions. Let’s get back on track!
To sum up, the higher the sales rank, the better off you are—regardless of store.
Now the above factors (sales rank, keywords, categories) make Amazon’s algorithm happy, and reviews do to, but reviews are your most important asset for convincing future customers to buy your book too. You want as many reviews as possible (100+) and if your book is any good, there should mostly 4- and 5-star reviews!
To get reviews, all you have to do is ask.
You can do this by adding a page to your book at the beginning and/or end of your book asking readers to leave a review on Amazon. (I actually don’t have one of these pages, but most books I read do!) This is easy for asking for reviews in a passive way.
The other way to get reviews is to ask people one-by-one. This is the approach I went for because I’m a glutton for feeling awkward apparently.
I created a launch team of 50 people and asked each of them individually if they would be willing to review the book. Then I emailed them and asked them via a private Facebook group to leave reviews during launch week. This led to 55 reviews in the first week of launch.
Now, Amazon has strict rules about asking for reviews. For instance, you can’t reward people for giving you a review. You’re not even supposed to give them advance copies of your book in exchange for a review. This was incredibly common a few years ago, and Amazon has been cracking down on it more and more. So it’s important that if you do assemble a team of reviewers, you can’t do this type of exchange for a review. The key here is the exchange—if you just ask that person for a review, that seems to be okay.
Amazon also will not allow reviews by friends or family. My friends Kevin and Mandy both left reviews for my book, and their reviews were removed by Amazon instantly. I don’t know how Amazon knows all this information about my life, but they do! So be aware of this when assembling your launch team.
Note: You can pay a service to leave reviews for your book. Don’t do this. Not only is this lazy and scammy, those reviews will mean nothing to you because they aren’t real! Hustle for real reviews.
Phew. I could talk about Amazon all day and book strategies and KDP all day but that’s all for part 3! Up next: writing strategies and tips for writing tens of thousands of words.