Like it or not, we all must put focused effort and attention into selling on Amazon and understanding how it works since most book sales happen there. Many independent authors have a love-hate relationship with Amazon due to their policies and business practices that aren’t exactly friendly to publishers.
Think of Amazon as a giant search engine, which is exactly how most people use the site. For example, when you type in a search for “book about climate change” or “how to raise farm animals,” Amazon returns what it deems to be the most relevant results. And those results are based on technology called algorithms.
Though Amazon doesn’t publicly share how its algorithms calculate search results, those of us who’ve been around for a while have come to our own conclusions based on what we’ve seen and experienced. It’s widely believed that Amazon’s algorithms factor in the following:
- Recent sales history
- Click-through rates
- Conversion rates
- Number of reviews
- Keywords used in search
Recent Book Sales History
Like any retailer, Amazon wants to make money; therefore, it pays attention to what books are selling well and gives those titles higher priority over competing titles. The more book sales you generate, the more Amazon will help boost sales by cross-promoting your book with other titles and giving it a higher position in search results. Yes, this can be frustrating because it requires that you drive sales yourself. But if you’re doing the work and leading buyers to your book, Amazon will reward your efforts with increased promotion on the site.
Amazon tracks how many times a product appears in search results and how many times a shopper clicks on that product. If your book appears in search results but isn’t generating enough clicks, that can impact future search results. This means that your book cover and title need to appeal to readers and inspire them to click through to your book page.
When someone clicks on your book and then makes a purchase, that is considered a conversion. When you have a higher-than-average conversion rate for book sales, Amazon will factor this in. And when visitors to your book page don’t buy, Amazon notices this too. You can help by ensuring you have an excellent book description, professional cover design, positive reader reviews, and a compelling author bio.
Number of Book Reviews
Book reviews show Amazon that your book is popular and liked by readers, provided reviews are mostly positive. Some believe that reaching a certain number of reviews (somewhere between fifty and ninety) triggers Amazon’s algorithms and improves visibility for the book. All we know for sure is that reviews influence potential readers to buy books, so your goal should always be to generate as many reviews as possible on an ongoing basis.
Note that a review from someone who purchased your book from Amazon is denoted as a “verified purchase” and holds more weight than other reviews—not just with Amazon, but with readers too. See chapter 19 for tips on how to land book reviews.
Keywords on Amazon
When you set up your book for distribution, you will have the ability to identify specific keyword phrases that describe your book, also known as metadata. Consider what terms your target audience would use to find your book. Also, as much as possible, incorporate top keywords into your book’s title or subtitle for best results. Choose keywords carefully, as they can have a big impact on search results.
I searched Amazon for “guide to running” and these are the top results I received, in the order that they appeared:
- The Young Entrepreneur’s Guide to Starting and Running a Business: Turn Your Ideas into Money! By Steve Mariotti
- Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons by Bryon Powell, Patrick Lawlor, et al.
- The Butler’s Guide to Running the Home and Other Graces by Stanley Ager and Fiona St. Aubyn
- Running Randomized Evaluations: A Practical Guide by Rachel Glennerster and Kudzai Takavarasha
- Legal Guide for Starting and Running a Small Business by Fred S. Steingold and David Steingold
Clearly Amazon’s algorithms aren’t as precise as we’d like to believe. It’s also likely this eclectic list of search results also factored in previous search history since I read a lot of business books. But let this serve as a warning that keywords matter. Also note that you can and should incorporate keyword phrases into the description for your book.
The categories where your book is listed can have a major impact on sales. For example, if your book is about running marathons, but it isn’t listed in Amazon’s Running and Jogging category, it will miss out on purchases from people who browse that category.
When you publish a print book and distribute to Amazon, you can indicate three suggested categories for your book based on BISAC codes (Book Industry Standards and Communications), which are managed by the Book Industry Study Group (BISG). BISAC codes help libraries and bookstores know where to shelve your books. See codes here: bisg.org/page/BISACSubjectCodes.
Amazon has thousands of its own categories, well beyond standard BISAC codes. Their algorithms ultimately determine categories for your book, which may or may not align with your suggested BISAC categories. You can locate the categories assigned to any book by scrolling down a book page on Amazon and looking next to the publisher information. Following is from the paperback version of Girl Walks Out of a Bar: A Memoir by Lisa F. Smith.
The Kindle edition of Girl Walks Out of a Bar is assigned to slightly different categories:
You don’t have to let Amazon dictate your categories for you. You can ask Amazon to add your book to up to ten categories. Here’s how:
- Start by searching for similar books on Amazon and scrolling down to discover what categories they’re listed in. Make note of each category.
- Note that for any given book, Amazon may display each version (paperback, Kindle, audiobook) in different categories. Jot down as many relevant categories as you can find for each edition.
- Once your list is compiled, choose your top ten categories for each edition of your book (paperback, hardcover, Kindle, and audiobook). Make sure you include a mix of broader categories (ex: Memoir) and smaller subcategories (ex: Environmentalist Biographies).
- Login to your Author Central Account.
- Scroll down and click Contact Us.
- Choose the option to submit category requests.
- Send a simple message like this:
Greetings, please add my paperback book, <title, ISBN>, to the following categories:
And my Kindle book, <title, ASIN>, to the following categories:
- You will typically receive a response within one to two days confirming your categories have been updated.
- Monitor your book sales page in the coming days, weeks, and months to notice where your book ranks in the categories Amazon shows on each edition. Note that you won’t see all ten categories listed on the page at once, but your book should be discoverable in all the categories you chose.
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