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:
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.