Friday, June 3, 2011

Guest Post: My Novel Cracked 10 Amazon Top-100 Lists—YOURS Can Too!

by Phoenix Sullivan

That headline is true. But is it truth?

We're jaded, right? Bombarded by marketing every day, we turn a blind eye to all the "Look At Me, Me, ME" headlines. Until one pops up that hits our hot button. That promises to help us write better, attract an agent, get published or gain a huge audience. Deep in our hearts, we know better than to be reeled in by such claims.

Tenet One of good marketing is to not make false claims. There are laws against that, even if you're happy to ignore ethics. But what's the definition of "false?" As Cyrano so aptly put it: "...a lie is a sort of myth, and a myth is a sort of truth." Marketing spins its gold in shades of myth.

Readers see a headline about a book being on a list and, while they might not be persuaded to buy, it makes a favorable eyes-on impression. Being "on a list" legitimizes not just the book but the buyer's purchase of that book. It makes buying less-risky behavior. What the casual reader will never ask is: Which list? They're happy just to register the statement at face value.

But you're not a casual reader. You're reading beyond the headline. Not because you give a rat's patooty about which lists, but because you want to know how YOUR book can get on those lists, too—am I right?

You've probably read about the importance of metatagging everything you do online for better SEO—search engine optimization. Amazon in no different. When you upload your book, Amazon lets you choose two categories (genres/subgenres) out of a set of predefined tags. So even if, like mine, your novel set in the Dark Ages is a cross between women’s fiction and historical fiction and features strong romantic elements as well as war, you can only choose two pre-set categories for it. The good news is Amazon lets you input more key subject tags—these of your own making—limited only by a ceiling on the total number of characters you can use.

Input your subject tags wisely! They serve two purposes. The first is to help buyers find your book. That means a couple of the tags may just be a word that people might input into the search field when they're looking for a book like yours. I included "knights" and "Camelot."

Category tags are predefined by Amazon.
Subject tags are defined by whoever uploads the book.
They can be anything, limited only
by a predefined total character count.

The second purpose is one you can use to your marketing advantage: subgenre lists. My novel, Spoil of War, is part of the King Arthur canon. People reading historical fiction will likely use "Arthurian" as a search word, so I created these related tags: Arthurian romance, Arthurian fiction, historical fiction Arthurian. Romance readers, though, would likely refer to the time period as medieval, so I included a "medieval" tag. Include multiple ways of phrasing your subgenres if you can. Because here's a secret: Your rankings on the bestseller lists depend on EXACT phrasing of these tags—"99 cent" and "99 cents" may well return different results.

By creating areas of smaller markets for your book using subject tags, your book is no longer competing with the entire Amazon catalog but just its designated genres. That could mean anywhere from a few dozen to a few thousand books.

Now, Amazon has a nifty little filter for its book searches. The default filter for whatever term you enter is "relevance." I have no idea how relevance is determined; part of it is based on words in the title and description, of course, but it also somehow changes with number of sales. It’s good to be relevant, because few readers will ever filter the first results they get. It can only help your relevancy rankings if the title you input contains the search words. For example, I deliberately included the tagline "An Arthurian Saga" in my title.

By changing the "relevance" filter to "bestselling," the search engine will rank the books returned in your results by whatever calculations Amazon uses to determine bestselling rankings. You can also produce lists that include all books in the Amazon store or just those in the Kindle store. (Barnes and Noble has a similar search, only they use the term "top matches" instead of "relevance.")

So that’s how I manipulated Spoil's way onto 10 of Amazon's bestselling lists. And since anyone can go out and reproduce these lists for themselves, my conscience is clear in touting the book's status on them, with the caveat that these lists change hourly.

With a little planning on the front side and scrolling through search results on the hind end, no reason why you can't also spin the rankings in your favor, as well.

But this only works for books selling hundreds of copies daily, right? YOUR book that's selling only a couple of copies per day doesn't have a snowball's chance of appearing in any impressive-sounding category. *Snort* Smoke and mirrors, folks. Amazon rankings are calculated using historical and current sales. I launched Spoil of War on March 31 and sold 37 copies on the US site, 13 copies on the UK site, and 11 copies through B&N in April. For May, as of May 20, I’d sold 32 copies on Amazon US, just 3 on Amazon UK, and 10 at B&N.

I tracked my rankings from May 18 to 20, and you can see the shift in rankings that only 1 or 2 purchases per day can produce.

Now that I've got the numbers to brag with, I just need to figure out how to reach more readers to let them know that buying Spoil of War is a non-risky, community-sanctioned purchase. Everyone must be buying it. It wouldn't be in those top-100 lists otherwise, right?

True or truth? You decide.

In the corporate world, Phoenix Sullivan was a professional writer and editor for 23 years. She blogs at, a site to help writers hone their queries and synopses, and a place to show off the beasties on her small farm in North Texas.


  1. Good post! I always have a little trouble deciding the categories for my works. "Well it's X but it's also Y and Z and K..."

    Since I have a series, I also try to include the series title in my searchable keywords. So if someone remembers only "Icarus" or "Helix" or the whole thing "Icarus Helix", all of them will come up in a search!

    YA: Cheat, Liar, Coward
    Adult: Shackled

  2. Wow. I had no idea how this worked. Thank you for a very informative post.

  3. Thanks so much for explaining this so well and for sharing your knowledge.

  4. Another way to generate a list you can use for PR purposes if you've uploaded your book in the last 90 days is to:
    * Enter your subject tag in the search
    * Click GO
    * Choose BESTSELLING from the dropdown box on the right
    * Click on New Releases > Last 30/90 Days from the choices in the left navbar.

    I've now got my book in the #1, 2 and 3 spots on several "Recently Released" lists doing just that :o)

  5. So if you can create specific enough keywords and group your book with a very small number of others, you might end up on one of these lists by default, even if you sell only one copy.

    I guess I am jaded. If somebody told me their book was on the top-10 list for some category with only ten books, I wouldn't be that impressed. Of course, that's if I didn't bother to investigate, or if the book didn't sound interesting on its own.

    Still, creating good keywords/tags is really important! So thanks for this useful lesson.

  6. It's amazing what the relevance and tags can do, if you know how to use them - and you do! Thanks for this information, Phoenix!

    I've been wondering how this would work, and I like the idea of having your book-marketing life in your OWN hands, rather than crossing your fingers and hoping 'the fates' don't do a number on you. So cool!

    I'll be interested to find out, as you mentioned, how to use the 'top 100' list on Amazon, as the NYT lists help sell novels. Don't know anything at all how to do this stuff, but it would be great to learn.

    Thanks for all of this good intel!

  7. Hi Phoenix. I looked at your directions, but I don't understand how that puts you in the #1, 2, and 3 spots? Does it remember you said it's there? Does that then show up for others?

    YA: Cheat, Liar, Coward
    Adult: Shackled

  8. Thanks Phoenix - I'm not there yet, but made notes for when I am! :)

  9. Hi J.E. These rankings only "show up" when someone does the search. The rankings don't show up on your product page(s). Just as you can call a book "award-winning" (if it is) in your marketing efforts -- such as when you tweet about your books or pop a message about them on Facebook -- you can use these rankings.

    As Kristin notes, it doesn't mean much IF your audience actually researches and finds there aren't many books in the subgenre you're claiming. But really, how many readers will do that?

    I looked at the tags for your YA books and thought "YA superhero fiction" sounded like a nice subgenre. Put that into your search. You'll see 23 books show up total. Change the Relevancy filter in the dropdown to Bestselling. You'll see Coward shows up as #5. Now click the "New Releases Last 90 Days" link. There are three books with those tags -- and they're all yours! Voila! Your books are #1, 2 and 3 in the Recently Released YA Superhero Fiction category. Does someone not believe you? They can run the same bestselling list for themselves.

    You'll note I have left the question open in the post as to whether it's the whole truth when you cite these rankings in your marketing. How you use the data is up to you and your conscience ;o)

  10. The charge always levelled at self-pubbing is that it's a sluice gate for a torrent of foul-smelling liquid that would otherwise have been disinfected at the slush stage by agents from A-Z.

    That said, I have first hand knowledge of your writing and editing skills — though I have yet to be nibbled by one of your iguanas — and it's clear why and how you're benefiting from the Good Writing Will Out + Savvily Researched Means equation of productivity.

  11. I am completely grateful for this posting. It is hitting at such a perfect time for me. I saw that area before and was a little overwhelmed. Thank you for clearing it all up.

  12. This is timely and helpful. It is so important to promote yourself anymore, to get your novel in front of as many eyes as possible in order to make those sells. I see this suggestion as one more opportunity. So again, thank you. (and I'm off to share your link)

  13. I've done the same thing with the Ghost category with my paranormal romance, Dead People. I'm often in the top ten of Gothics, too, which is cool. The category makes a huge difference.

  14. WRITING CONTEST......My blog Amish Stories is having its first ever contest this week. The First prize winner will win 2 tickets to tour the farm where the 1985 move "Witness" staring Harrison Ford and Kelly Mcgillis was made in Strasburg,Pa . This farm is now Amish owned, and the family has given permission for folks to tour their farm. This may be the last time anyone will be able to walk and see the same things that Harrison Ford and the other actors saw during the making of "Witness". The Witness tour should last about 2.5 hours. In addition to the Witness farm tour tickets, 1st prize winner will also receive 2 tickets for Jacobs choice. There will also be a 2nd place prize, which will be 2 tickets for the Amish Homestead. Please go to My blog for contest details, and more information on the prizes. Richard from the Amish settlement of Lebanon county.

  15. Bravo! Glad to hear it!.

  16. Hey thought I'd let everyone know we at Boxing With Pencils are having a weekly 100 words or less flash fiction contest with a cash prize of 5 dollars.

    So come on and check it out all you poor ass writers you know you need the money!

  17. I like the whole explanation which has been presented so well. Good job with the post!

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