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Aiming at Amazon
How to Use the Top Online Bookseller to Promote Your Books

By Aaron Shepard

Printed in the SCBWI Bulletin, Mar.–Apr. 2002


For more resources, visit Aaron Shepard’s Kidwriting Page at
www.aaronshep.com/kidwriter

Copyright © 2001 by Aaron Shepard. May be freely copied and shared for any noncommercial purpose as long as no text is altered or omitted.


Making It Show
Looking Your Best
Taking Advantage
Measuring Success
Building for Bookselling
Covering the Bases

Book cover: The Business of Writing for ChildrenNowadays, most authors find it essential to maintain at least a simple Web site. But many don’t realize that there’s another Web site that can be even more important in promoting their books.

I’m talking about Amazon.com, that behemoth that accounts for most of today’s online bookselling. The jury is still out on how Amazon and its online fellows will ultimately affect bookselling, but one thing is certain: Amazon has become an institution, and a useful one for authors in many unique ways.

Even for readers who don’t actually buy books online, Amazon has become America’s primary bibliographic tool. When most people want to find out what’s available on a certain topic or from a certain author, they no longer head first for the library or the local bookstore. Their first stop is Amazon.

This benefits you as an author, because your books can now easily be discovered even if they’ve disappeared from local bookstores—or never made it there at all. What’s more, it can be better for your books to be found on Amazon than on your own Web site—because most Amazon visitors want to buy, while most home page visitors want freebies.

But whether readers actually find your book on Amazon—and buy it when they do—may be largely up to you.

Making It Show

If you do nothing else with Amazon, make sure that basic information for your books is presented accurately and in a searchable format. Errors are rampant, and even a small one can prevent your book from being found. When I first checked my own books, not one was listed fully and accurately! But usually it’s not Amazon’s fault—bad information may have come from Books in Print, a wholesaler, even the publisher.

Luckily, errors are easy to correct. At the bottom of each book’s information page is a link to an online corrections form. You can request changes in title, author, and subject, among other items. (Be careful about subject listings, though. These must conform to Library of Congress or other standard classifications, so you should know what you’re doing.) You can also email corrections to book-typos@amazon.com.

Make sure each of your books appears when you search on its title or on keywords, including subjects. Also run a search on your name. The results may surprise you. While some books may be prevented by errors from appearing, you might see other titles or editions that were planned but never published! Other books might show as available that have been out of print for years. Of course, you want to ask Amazon to change or remove false listings, so no one is misled.

By the way, don’t count on corrected listings staying correct. Information on Amazon will at times get corrupted—so check periodically.

Looking Your Best

Correcting listings is only a first step. Amazon also allows you to add many kinds of promotional material. For instructions and forms, click on the “Publisher’s Guide” link at the foot of Amazon’s Books home page, or go directly to www.amazon.com/publishers. Yes, this area is for publishers, but it’s for authors too! And once there, you’re handed a golden opportunity.

As is, the information page for a book of yours might include only basic bibliographic information, a brief description, and one or two reviews, if that. But now you can add author comments, information on yourself, a better book description, other reviews and testimonials, a table of contents, and a writing sample as long as a chapter. What was at first a bare listing becomes a way to hand sell.

You can also add a picture of the cover, by sending a scan you’ve made or else a copy of your book for Amazon to scan. Amazon itself says this is the single most important way you can help sell a book. I’ve personally supplied Amazon with scans of nearly all my book covers, even replacing scans my publishers sent that didn’t look right.

Taking Advantage

Amazon offers numerous special features for readers and for authors, and never seems to tire of adding new ones. Some, like the following, provide significant opportunities. (As in the rest of this article, specific links and locations may change.)

Amazon Reviews. Amazon itself will review many books sent to it. This is especially useful for books not reviewed elsewhere. And you don’t have to worry much about getting a bad review—if the reviewers don’t like a book, they’ll usually ignore it. Send review copies to Editorial Department, [Relevant Category], Amazon.com, P.O. Box 81226, Seattle, WA 98108.

Customer Reviews. Readers can post their own reviews, and many do. These can greatly influence potential buyers. What’s more, each reviewer’s rating contributes to the book’s “Average Customer Rating,” which is displayed prominently and also affects the book’s position in search results listings. When friends or fans send you raves, why not encourage them to post their comments on Amazon? Links for this appear on each book information page.

Listmania Lists. Anyone can create a list of favorite books on any topic, and Amazon may display a link to it when a reader searches on a related term. To promote my picture book The Maiden of Northland, a retelling of part of the Finnish Kalevala, I created “A Kalevala Booklist,” with my own title listed first. Find this feature and other possibly useful ones by clicking on “Friends & Favorites” on Amazon’s home page or going directly to www.amazon.com/community; or click on “Add Your List” on any search results page.

Amazon Associates. You can become an affiliate of Amazon by placing its links and buttons on your Web site. You receive a commission from any sales generated, besides making it more convenient for your visitors to order your books. Often, though, the gains are minimal, and you may risk alienating independent booksellers by favoring a feared competitor. Personally, I’ve chosen to provide links to Amazon for my self-published and professional resource books—which are found in few stores—but not for my books from trade publishers. Access this program from the foot of the Books home page or at www.amazon.com/associates.

Amazon Advantage. If you have a good stock of an out-of-print book, you can sell it through Amazon on consignment. Though Amazon claims a steep percentage, you gain the advantage of credit card acceptance, receive monthly payments without needing to bill, and get your book listed as in print and available within 24 hours. Access this program from the foot of the Books home page, or in the publishers area, or at www.amazon.com/advantage.

Measuring Success

How do you know your promotion is paying off? Amazon very considerately assigns each book its own sales rank, posted right on the book’s information page, so you can compare the book with others in popularity. The lower the number, the higher the rank. How often this number is updated varies—from once an hour for the top 10,000, to once a day for the remaining top 100,000, to once a month for all others.

On Amazon, everything hinges on sales rank. With a higher rank, a book will list higher in search results, and may even be specially featured at the top. It will also place higher in category browse lists, as well as gain more chance of appearing among personalized links for individual visitors. Greater prominence can in turn lead to more sales, which results in a higher sales rank, and so on.

But how do the ranks correspond to actual sales figures? No one outside Amazon knows exactly. But having tracked several self-published books of my own, I estimate that a rank of around 50,000 means sales on Amazon of about 25 copies a month, while a rank of around 5,000 means sales of about 100. (These figures are from 2000–2001 and fluctuated by season.)

As you can tell from these figures, sales at Amazon itself are not going to create a hit book. Still, they might help keep a book alive—and you never know what offline benefits might result from its being found there.

Of course, not every book will benefit much at all from efforts on Amazon. The books most helped will be those on topics or by authors that readers are most likely to search for. It is searchability that is online bookselling’s most compelling feature and its greatest gift to the world of books.

[Note: Amazon restructured its sales rank reporting in October 2004, so times and figures in this section are no longer accurate. For more up-to-date info, see Morris Rosenthal’s analysis at www.fonerbooks.com/surfing.htm.—Aaron]

Building for Bookselling

So far, we’ve dealt with how to promote books already published. But the best way to benefit from Amazon is to plan for online selling from the very beginning. As an example, take my self-published guide for children’s writers, The Business of Writing for Children a book conceived, written, and marketed expressly for online selling.

Though my idea for the book was to assemble it from earlier writings, I had to decide whether revising and self-publishing would be worth my time and money. My first step, then, was to search on Amazon for books on this subject. I saw that bestselling books in the field had sales ranks in the top 10,000. This told me that, if my book could make it near the top of the list, it would do very well indeed. (Print-on-demand books such as I’ve published can be profitable with only modest sales.)

Another early step was to come up with an optimum title/subtitle combination. The monster I devised was The Business of Writing for Children: An Award-Winning Author’s Tips on How to Write, Sell, and Promote Your Children’s Books.

Unwieldy? Certainly—and not much of an ad for my writing skills, either! But I knew it would well serve two purposes. First, it would tell a great deal on its own about the book and its author—as it would have to, in a bare-bones search results list. Second, and most important, it would include just about every keyword likely to be used in a search on this subject. I wanted to make sure that, no matter how a person searched, my book would turn up.

Knowing how important are reviews to online selling, I went out of my way to garner as many prepublication testimonials as I could, from editors, agents, booksellers, librarians, fellow authors, and other professionals in the field. (I wound up with 16!) When the time came, I posted as many of these on Amazon as it allowed. A few friends sent comments too late to include, but I asked them to post these themselves as “Customer Reviews.” That gave me right away an “Average Customer Rating” of 4.5 out of 5.

Of course, I loaded the book’s information page with every other kind of promotional copy Amazon would take. I also sent cover art—though not exactly the same as on the book. Since I had designed the cover myself on my computer, I now modified the design for optimal viewing at small size.

The results of all this targeting? The Business of Writing for Children became the highest ranking children’s writing guide on Amazon. It has remained almost always among the top 10,000 books, and has at times risen as high as the top thousand.

Covering the Bases

Though Amazon is dramatically ahead of its one serious U.S. competitor in online new book sales, BarnesandNoble.com still merits attention. Aside from the value of what it sells now, this online service is due to be integrated into the chain’s offline stores. If your books are listed properly, a walk-in customer will be able to find them even if they’re not carried by that store. To view a “Publisher & Author Guide,” click on the link at the foot of BarnesandNoble.com’s home page.

Nothing can replace a traditional bookstore, but online bookselling fills many needs and is here to stay. Learn its workings, and you’ll have at your command some of the simplest, cheapest, and most effective promotional tools available.

Thank you, Amazon!