The importance of Amazon categories

Amazon categories are tricky but essential. They’re tricky because for some inexplicable reason Amazon makes them very complicated, but they’re of the utmost importance because they give your book visibility, which is, in these days of abundant self-publishing, the single best marketing tool you can get your hands on. (Note: this post is about our experience with Amazon US. The European Amazon stores seem to handle categories differently.)

Say, you’re a beginning author with no extensive mailing list, nor a very big author platform. In other words, you don’t have much of an audience yet. How on earth do you get your book out there? How do you get it noticed amongst the other hundreds of books published that day? Here’s how we managed to get Harper Bliss’ Learning Curve into Amazon’s Lesbian Fiction Top 20. (Note: this blog post will specifically deal with lesbian erotica/romance but the same principles apply to other categories.)

First off, Amazon Best Sellers lists are a rare (and probably the best) gift to self-publishers. Your book can be listed alongside titles by well-established authors, giving you enormous exposure. And, in the end, that’s what it’s all about. While the lists may be great and all that, they’re quite complex to figure out.

Let’s take Learning Curve as an example. We published it on 25th July, starting with five free days on KDP Select. Essentially, it’s a lesbian erotic story, and for the free days we picked the categories ‘Lesbian’ and ‘Erotica’. (Amazon allows you to choose two categories when you publish your book.)

Amazon is not overly fond of erotica as a genre (but that’s a whole other post) and it doesn’t offer any sub-genres. This means that when you publish a book in this category it has to compete with all other books in that genre, and there are a lot of those. Nevertheless, on free days, with a bit of promotion and a lot of luck, you can hope to graze the edges of the Free Erotica Top 100, which does wonders for free downloads (and that’s what it’s all about on those days).

What about that other category? Is it not easier to get into the Lesbian Fiction Free Top 100? Well, it would be, if only there were one. There is, however, a Free Gay & Lesbian Top 100 (Lee Harlem Robinson’s Dirty Pleasure has been hanging out near the top 20 for a while now), but this list doesn’t mix well with the Erotica category. In other words, once you catalogue your book as ‘Erotica’ and e.g. ‘Lesbian’, you’re only eligible for the Free Erotica Top 100, which, due to humongous competition, is very hard to get into.

So, moving on to non-free days. Despite the expected boost in sales after its free run, we realised that keeping Learning Curve in the Erotica category wouldn’t make much sense. It would have to sell too many copies to even reach the outskirts of the Paid Top 100. But, we had another trump card to play. We diversified and focused on the other category. We wanted Learning Curve to get noticed by lesbians, who are still our prime audience, and fortunately, the Amazon’s Romance category has an ‘Adult’ section. We updated Learning Curve and kept it at the lowest price possible and this is what happened:

Amazon categories

No, I’m not seeing the ‘Adult’ bit reflected in that either. You see, to confuse us even more, the categories you choose when publishing (from the KDP dashboard) do NOT correspond with the ones consumers get to see. And instead of popping up in Books > Gay & Lesbian > Lit & Fiction > Fiction > Romance > Adult (which you would expect after choosing your category), it pops up in ‘LGBT Romance’, where again, the competition is much stiffer.

This is what you get when you publish a book in the ‘Lesbian’ and ‘Romance > Adult’ categories (and the case for Learning Curve):

More categories

Out of these, Amazon magically distills Best Seller Lists (based on ever-changing algorithms). This is also the reason why so many erotica titles appear in the general LGBT lists, despite being catalogued as ‘Adult’.

Anyway, this post is not about criticising the lists (although making them more transparent and easier to use would make a lot of self-publishers’ lives a lot easier), but about stressing the importance of getting into them.

To summarise:

  • When publishing, narrow down your category as much as possible and don’t be afraid to change it. (But be careful not to switch once you’ve hit a list!)
  • Experiment and see in which category you can score the highest (the more drilled down, the better.)
  • Once you make it onto a Best Sellers List, sales will jump. People love lists and they’re an excellent browsing tool.
  • Breaking your head over Amazon categories is well worth it, and once you figure it out, you’ll know what to do for subsequent books.
  • (But hey, it is a bit of a Learning Curve.)

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