4 Mistakes That Cost Books the Best Sellers List

If you understand how the category system works, you can give your book instant visibility on Amazon. —David Gaughran

In my previous post I talked about virtual co-op and how most online bookstores sell their prime real estate to the highest bidder (i.e., large publishing houses). The exception is Amazon, whose co-op is mostly based on merit. In other words, Amazon gives away most of its prime spots to those books best suited to a particular reader’s tastes. Now the question is: how can a book show Amazon that it’s the best choice to recommend?

The 4 Big Mistakes

Many authors, and even publishing houses, don’t understand Amazon’s genre categories. This naïveté is extremely detrimental for sales because Amazon uses genre categories to fill its Best Sellers lists. In short, if you don’t understand how to categorize your book, you’re almost guaranteed poor sales. 

In this post I’ll again be drawing from David Gaughran’s book Let’s Get Visible: How to Get Noticed and Sell More Books.

Mistake #1: Your Categories Are Too Broad

For each book, a self-publisher can pick two of Amazon’s genre categories (traditional publishers, on the other hand, can choose up to five, depending on their deal with Amazon). A common mistake is to choose a genre that is too broad and too competitive. 

The Fiction category, for example, has over 750,000 books. Appearing in its Top 100 would be, as Gaughran puts it, “beyond most mere mortals.”

Note: Gaughran includes in his book a Rank to Sales Estimator so you can estimate how you would fare in a respective category. 

Not only are broad categories usually too competitive for most authors, they’re also a waste. Amazon filters its categories into each other, like rivers breaking off into streams. Gaughran explains:

Even if you drill down several levels to choose something like Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Fiction > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Thrillers > Political, your book will still show in all of the top-level categories above the one you have chosen (i.e. Fiction; Mystery, Thriller & Suspense; Thrillers). In other words, when you pick something more specific like that, you are multiplying your potential visibility opportunities rather than restricting them. If your book is doing particularly well, you will appear on a number of Top 100 lists, all of which will drive further sales.

Mistake #2: You Don’t Diversify

With only two genre spots, it’s important to maximize visibility by opting for two distinct categories. Many authors unknowingly corner themselves by nesting their two choices within the same category. Here’s an example from Gaughran:

If you have written a gritty crime novel set on an army base in Iraq, the obvious category choices might be Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Mystery & Thrillers > Crime, and Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Mystery & Thrillers > Police Procedurals. However, there are two weaknesses to this approach. First of all, they are both very competitive categories, requiring around 100 sales a day to hit even the front page of the Best Seller lists.

Second, they are both roots of the same top-level category: Mystery & Thrillers. . . . You could keep Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Mystery & Thrillers & Suspense > Crime, and choose something a little less competitive for the second.

Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Action & Adventure requires around 200 sales a day to hit the front page of the Best Seller list but others are less demanding such as War (50 sales a day), and Men’s Adventure (40 sales a day).

WARNING

Don’t over-correct by choosing a category so small that it barely has any reader traffic.

Mistake #3: You Don’t Change Up Your Categories

Back when only brick-and-mortar bookstores were around, a book was typically placed on one bookshelf, and that was its permanent home. Nowadays with online bookstores, shelving is much more fluid, and a book that doesn’t explore new shelves risks stagnation.

According to Gaughran, there are a number of reasons why an author might virtually “re-shelve” her book by changing its genre category:

  1. If a book’s sales have slowed and could use more visibility by switching to a less competitive category
  2. If a book has strong sales and could do well in a more competitive category (which is, by default, seen by more readers)
  3. If a book has had a long run in a certain category and could use a fresh readership

WARNING

Switching a book’s categories requires the author to be honest about her story and aware of the expectations of each genre. “It’s a bad idea to choose any category that isn’t a good fit for your work,” Gaughran says. “The few readers who do download your book will probably be outside your target audience, and they will likely respond with poor reviews. Tread carefully. Nobody likes being hoodwinked.

Mistake #4: You Don’t Choose a Kindle Category

This mistake might sound a bit counter-intuitive. Not all available categories are actually categories within the Kindle Store. “Like virtually all e-book retailers,” Gaughran explains, “Amazon gives you numerous category choices when uploading your book or making changes. These are based on BISAC subject headings, which are industry standard. . . . While the system attempts to map your BISAC choice to a Kindle Store category, it doesn’t always work.”

This conundrum can result in one of three outcomes:

  1. Your e-book is in a book-only category (i.e., it’s categorized with print books).
  2. Your book is in an international-only category (for example, Medical Thriller, which is included in the UK Kindle Store but was only recently added to the US Kindle Store).
  3. Or you pick an ill-fitting category because you don’t realize that there are other Kindle Store categories that are not selectable when uploading.

If you do choose a category that isn’t offered in your country’s Kindle Store, you are essentially wasting one of your two categories. However, with this potential trip wire, there is also an opportunity. Gaughran explains:

Those Kindle Store-only categories are sparsely populated as few authors or publishers have chosen them. As there are fewer books to compete with, you don’t need to sell very many books to appear in the charts; this gives crucial visibility opportunities to books that aren’t selling particularly well, or those that have just been released and haven’t built up a head of steam yet.

Keep these four pitfalls in mind when you’re ready to publish and you will give your book a much better chance at bestseller-dom.

If you liked this post, sign up now for more tips from a professional editor. 

Ready-to-Share Tweets

TWEET 1: 4 Mistakes That Cost Books the Best Sellers List

TWEET 2: Shelving is fluid in online bookstores. Books that don’t explore new shelves risk stagnation.

TWEET 3: If you understand Amazon’s category system, your book will get instant visibility.

Missed the first two posts in the series? Check them out here and here.

What Self-Publishers Need to Know about Virtual Co-op (Genre Categories, Pt II)

Co-op Money: The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly


In my previous post I talked about the marketing struggles of The Physics of Star Trek. In short, Barnes & Noble had decided to shelve it in the science section instead of the Star Trek section, which meant a potential huge loss in sales for B&N, the publisher, and the author.

Luckily, the book was able to recover through co-op money. As Susan Rabiner explains in Thinking Like Your Editor, co-op money is given to bookstores from publishers to help sell their book. It can be spent several ways: “for example, to pay for print advertising . . . or to obtain better placement of the book within the bookstore” (such as piled high on the “New Arrivals” table or face out on the “Recommended Reading” shelf).

But not all books have such a happy ending. If the preorders for The Physics of Star Trek had not hinted at best-seller status, its publisher most likely would not have shelled out more co-op money. And even if the publisher had opted for more money without the surety of a best seller, B&N could have disagreed:

Even if lots of co-op money were set aside, such money would still not guarantee front-of-the bookstore display . . . . That space is valuable and limited: Booksellers will not devote any part of it to a title that cannot pay its keep there, no matter how much money a publisher offers.

The Virtual Co-op v. Self-Publishers

At first glance, it might seem like this co-op has little to do with self-publishing—after all, self-published books rarely appear in brick-and-mortar bookstores (and if one does, it’s probably selling very well, so bookstores are happy to give it prime real estate). Co-op, however, has everything to do with self-publishing because it’s also used by online bookstores and can be enormously detrimental to indie authors if not understood and handled well.

David Gaughran discusses co-op at length in his book Let’s Get Visible: How to Get Noticed and Sell More Books. (At the time of this writing, he’s offering his equally excellent first book for free: Let’s Get Digital: How to Self-Publish and Why You Should.)

Gaughran talks about how online retailers such as Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Kobo sell the most visible spots on their sites to the highest bidder—i.e., to large publishing houses. Thus, self-publishers have a very difficult time building momentum for their books. These retailers also close off other avenues for indies to find a following. Gaughran explains:

There are no Top Rated lists on Barnes & Noble or Kobo, so you won’t be able to put your book front and center on the strength of reader reviews alone. The big site promos for those two retailers tend to only include books from major publishers. Search functionality is poor on both sites too . . . Categories are a mess. All of this . . . serves to focus sales on the Best Seller lists and the books sold by large publishers, which are either handpicked for promotions or sold into co-op spots. 

Well, that’s all pretty depressing. What marketing is left for the cash-strapped self-publisher?

The Egalitarian Amazon

While Amazon isn’t completely co-op free, it has a far more meritocratic method for marketing books than the backroom deals of the other online booksellers.

Amazon gives self-publishers a much more level playing field; those all-important opportunities for visibility—those digital front tables—are open to anyone.

“The system is largely agnostic,” Gaughran says. “Amazon doesn’t care if the featured title is published by you, me, them or Penguin, and it also doesn’t care if the book is 99c or $14.99.” Simply put, Amazon will show the title most likely to be purchased by each individual reader.

But of course there’s a catch: Too many publishers, both traditional and indie, don’t understand Amazon’s genre categories, and therefore, fail to capitalize on its valuable free co-op.

In my third and final post in this series we’ll discuss how to optimize Amazon’s genre category system so that your book lands prime marketing real estate for free.

If you liked this post, sign up now for more tips from a professional editor.

Missed the first post in this series? Check it out here.