Friday, July 05, 2013

Guest Post by Kevin Hardman

Joe sez: If you've missed the previous guest blogs, they've been fascinating and informative.

You can read Shantnu Tiwari talking about publishing cliches here:

You can read Mike Dennis talking about noir here:

You can read Douglas Dorow talking about the publishing game here:

You can read Iain Rob Wright's 10 self-publishing tips here:

You can read about Tracy Sharp talking about just doing it here:

You can read about AJ Abbiati's Transliterator here:

You can read G.E. Nolly's fifty year journey as a writer here:

Now here's Kevin Hardman...

Zen and The Art of Amazon rankings…Part Deux!

For those who are interested, the first "Zen" post is on my blog and can be found here.

Several years ago, I had an intern assigned to me for a few weeks at the office. I'm an easy-going guy and wasn't trying to push him too hard, so I gave him one of the easiest assignments I had available.  It was essentially a cut-and-paste job, essentially no way to mess up - and yet he did.  It was a complete no-brainer, and he screwed it up from top to bottom. The title? Wrong!  Headings? Wrong! And so on... (Oh, and just so that there's no misunderstanding, these were bits of information that I gave him, e.g., "The title should be _______.") He just didn't get it.

In that same vein, it seems like I've been struggling in some ways to find my sea legs in terms of writing.  I feel like my journey as an indie author has consisted of one boneheaded mistake after another, particularly when dealing with ebooks and the ranking system on Amazon.

For instance, my novel Sensation was released on Kindle on May 3, 2013.  I was blessed to find early success, and the book seemed to resonate with readers such that it climbed the rankings relatively quickly. (It's a superhero story for all ages, although it may have particular appeal for teens/young adults.)  Like a lot of authors, though, the rankings became like crack cocaine to me, and I found myself checking them constantly.  I was forever jonesing, needing a fix every few minutes in order for everything to be right in my world.

Thus it was in that frame of mind that I initially noticed an issue with my book's ranking. After calling Amazon to address the matter (which is noted in the first Zen post on my blog), I came away knowing a little bit more about the algorithms used to determine rank.  However, I didn't learn nearly enough.  You see, the first issue I had dealt with rankings in the "Books" category (I also publish print editions of my work on Createspace); shortly thereafter, I noticed an issue with rankings in the "Kindle" categories.

Basically, my book wasn't ranking in any Kindle categories at all.  That seemed ludicrous to me, because - based on my overall rank in the Paid Kindle Store - I should have been comfortably positioned in several areas.  That being the case, I contacted KDP Support with the intention of putting somebody in a chokehold until I got some acceptable answers.  Well, it turns out that I had apparently neglected to list a publisher for my book.  If you don't list a publisher, guess what? You don't get a ranking in any Kindle categories, no matter how well your book is selling!

Needless to say, I was somewhat nonplussed.  What the hell does selecting a publisher have to do with whether or not you rank in your chosen categories?  Regardless, when I double-checked, they were right: I hadn't chosen a publisher. (In my defense, I had first published the book via Createspace and had clicked on the "create a Kindle version" button which was supposed to transfer all relevant info over to the Kindle edition.) I quickly remedied the situation, and a short time later I began ranking in Kindle categories.

Thereafter, all was well in the Kingdom of Hardman - until another dragon reared its fearsome head.  This time, I noticed that - while I was now ranking on Kindle in my chosen categories - other books in the same genre were ranking in a different Kindle category.  In short, other superhero novels  were ranking in a category shown as:

     Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Fantasy > Superhero

Frankly speaking, I hadn't come across this when I went through the list of available categories.  Therefore, I thought that it was perhaps something automatically created by Amazon for books within a certain genre.  Moreover, I knew that time was an element of the ranking algorithm, so I hoped that after a few days my book would appear on this other list.  When that didn't happen, I contacted KDP and the conversation went something like this:

KH: I'm trying to find out why my book isn't ranking in this particular category when it's clearly part of this specific genre.

KDP:  It's not ranking in that category because you didn't select that category for it.

KH:  That's true, but I didn't select it because I went through the entire list of available categories and couldn't find it. There ain't no such animal; it just doesn't exist.

KDP:  Oh no, it exists.  You just can't see it, and you can't select it either.  We have to do it for you.

KH:  (After a long pause) Are you trying to make me angry?  You wouldn't like me when I'm angry...

Okay, that last line didn't happen, but I really was about ready to Hulk out because this was like a sharp stick in the eye.  How are authors supposed to know that certain categories exist (and are available) if they're not on the requisite list?  Long story short, KDP added the category in question for me. At this juncture, all should have been well in the Kingdom of Hardman, but then another monster invaded my lands.

This time, it related to my other book, Warden, a paranormal/horror story.  Once again, though, it related to rankings; as before, there was a category that I felt my book should be in, but it wasn't an available option during the publishing process.  The category at issue was:

Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Children's eBooks > Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror > Spine-Chilling Horror

I contacted KDP again (I know - I should be on a first-name basis with the staff there by now), and they were kind enough to add the category for me.

However, after a couple of days had gone by, I noticed that the requested category still wasn't showing up for my book.  Therefore - guess what? - I reached out to KDP again trying to ascertain what the problem was.  This time, it turns out that my keywords were preventing the category from applying to my book.  Apparently, I had chosen "teen" and "young adult" as keywords, but they are incompatible with this category.  More specifically,  KDP says that a book can't appear in both the "children" and "teen" category.  (Despite KDP's limited view of the subject, I personally feel that the children and teen categories can overlap, and that - like my other novel - Warden is a book for all ages.)

As you might suspect, I went back and deleted the offending keywords.  Now here I sit, calmly waiting to see if the proper categories will finally attach for this book. (I'm keeping my fingers crossed...)

In retrospect, I feel that being an indie author by definition involves a steep learning curve (and keep in mind that I have only discussed one issue - rankings - in this post).  Yet, despite all of my bungling, I've still managed to achieve a modicum of success.  Sensation was able to achieve a #1 ranking within a month of being published and, as I write this, has managed to pull off the literary hat trick and is currently ranked #1 in three categories:

Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,981 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
·         #1 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Comics & Graphic Novels > Graphic Novels > Fantasy
·         #1 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Fantasy > Superhero
·         #1 in Books > Comics & Graphic Novels > Graphic Novels > Fantasy

On its part, Warden has continued to perform respectably and is currently ranked as follows:

Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #18,118 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
·         #44 in Books > Children's Books > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Spine-Chilling Horror
·         #83 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Teens > Horror

In essence, I guess I'm proof that you can make mistakes and still achieve a measure of success as an author.  I'm blessed to be in the position that I'm in, and to have had so many people - readers, authors, etc. - support me and encourage my work.

Last but not least, I really have to take my hat off to the KDP Support team.  I know I made fun of them in this post to a certain extent, but they've been nothing but professional, courteous and supportive in answering my questions and helping me muddle my way through this morass that we call indie publishing.  I'm sure at this point they are sick of hearing from me (I just fired off another email to them while drafting this blog post), but they really are world class in my opinion.

Joe sez: There's a fine line to walk between being obsessive and being informed.

I think all authors at one point or another get caught up in watching their Amazon ranks. I used to do so frequently. Now I limit it to when I'm running promotions or releasing a new title. Like reading reviews, watching rank just isn't necessary, and you can drive yourself nuts trying to figure it out.

That said, paying modest attention to how your books are doing can help you catch problems if/when they arise.

I congratulate Kevin on his success, and am glad he's worked things out. But I also encourage him, and all authors, to unplug once and a while. Your books will continue to sell without you checking on them constantly.

It's also worth noting that sales rise and fall depending on too many factors to count, but there usually is a gradual decline in sales over time. This decline can be countered by doing promotions (BookBub and ebookbooster) and releasing more titles. Tweeting constantly about the one book you have for sale isn't going to make it go viral. And lapsing into panic and depression because you fell out of the Top 100 in your genre is silly. My titles have bounced around quite a bit in ranking, and have been doing so for years.

You don't have control over your ranking, or your sales, and worrying is a useless emotion. Instead, focus on what you do control. Any other path leads to madness...


Jude Hardin said...

If you don't list a publisher, guess what? You don't get a ranking in any Kindle categories, no matter how well your book is selling!

Whoever you talked to must have been misinformed. I've never listed a publisher on my self-published books, and they've all been ranked in categories at one time or another. Right now, COLT is #10 in Hard-Boiled Mystery, and #34 in Crime. No publisher listed.

Mark Terry said...

Interesting. Of course, now we're all going to obsess about the categories we're listed in.

Jill James said...

Kevin, thanks for a great post. We walk a fine line between being informed and being obsessed. So, back to writing the next book, because I can control that. :)

K said...

Jude: I don't know if they were right or wrong, but when I did what they said the rankings showed up. It may be a function of automatically creating a Kindle version from the Creatspace edition.

Mark: LOL! I didn't mean to sound obsessed; it's just that I could see that there was a problem. For instance, when I saw that I wasn't in the same superhero category as all the other superhero books out there, my thought was that readers of that genre would have trouble finding me, because I wasn't where I was supposed to be. Those were the kinds of things I was trying to fix; the ranking served more of a GPS function by letting me know when I was properly situated.

Jill: Thanks, and again I didn't mean to sound obsessed, just pointing out what were probably rookie mistakes on my part. In retrospect, I probably should have placed more emphasis on the fact that I was trying to get into the proper categories as opposed to fix a ranking issue.

Jill James said...

Kevin, LOL. I meant just a general being obsessed, not you personally.

K said...

Jill: Thanks for clarifying, but no offense was taken. I construed your comment as being informative and supportive.

Tabitha Maine said...

Kevin, thank you for the valuable information.

WayneThomasBatson said...

Hey, anyone know what email Joe Konrath uses. I'm trying to guest post as well, but not sure I've got the right email. Thanks!

A. J. Abbiati said...


Excellent post. Will definitely keep the info in mind as I track my work...especially the "more specific" categories you can't select yourself. Will be checking on that right away... The NORTAV Method just hit #59 in Writing, Research, and Publishing Guides (thanks to this guest blogging extravaganza), and now I'm thinking there must be a more granular category I'm missing.

Thanks for the heads up!


K said...

Tabitha: Hopefully some of what I've shared will be helpful. I know that I've personally learned from it, but - as they say - experience is the best teacher. However, if you can learn from someone else's experience, then you are an excellent pupil.

A.J.: Thanks for your kind words. As to the "unselectable" categories, I think what KDP actually said in my case was that the "category browse path" was not available for selection yet, but they are continuing to work to increase those options (and in the meantime they added it for me). Joe obviously makes a great point about not obsessing over this stuff, but I think it's worthwhile to note the categories of other books in your genre to determine whether you are in the best position for potential fans to find you.

Jude Hardin said...

Kevin, just wondering why you put your book n the graphic novel category. Is it a graphic novel?

K said...

Jude: It is in fact NOT a graphic novel, and that's actually what started me down this find-the-right-category path. The only superhero category I could see (or select) was under "graphic novel." Ergo, that's the one I chose. (Any port in a storm, as the old saying goes)

Jude Hardin said...

So isn't that confusing to readers?

I mean, there's an "Espionage" category under "True Crime," but I don't think Joe would want to put his Chandler novels in that category, even if it was the only "Espionage" slot available, because the books are not True Crime.

Have you researched the categories other superhero novels are placed in? I noticed Iron Man 3 is in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Children's eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Popular Culture.

K said...

Jude: You raise a good point, but no, I don't think it's confusing to readers. For instance, there's a preview and it is evident pretty much immediately that my book is not a graphic novel.

Unfortunately, few things in life are perfect. For me, this was much like spinning the big wheel on The Price is Right: "Whoever comes closest without going over..."

As to a category like "popular culture," I don't think my book would fit because my characters are not "popular." I see things in that category like Barbie, Dora the Explorer, Sesame Street, Mutant Ninja Turtles... Iron Man is there, but it's because he's popular, not because he's a superhero.

Jude Hardin said...

I see what you mean. They need to add a "Superhero" category under Fiction > Fantasy. You should suggest it!

Colin M said...

Hi Kevin,
Thanks for a very informative post. I can understand why this would be an important consideration in maximizing awareness. I must say that I linked to your first post, and read it and this post thoroughly, and although very intrigued by the awesome covers, I was left with the impression that they were both graphic novels. I have very little interest in graphic novels and therefore did not look into them further. I think Jude brings up a great point that you might consider.

Also, as a point of interest. On tablets (I do most of my reading on a Playbook), the "Click to Look Inside" is a bit fiddly and I rarely use it.

I'm loving your book on writing so far. Very interesting and fun read.

Mike Dennis said...

Joe sez: "Like reading reviews, watching rank just isn't necessary..."

Joe, with all due respect, I must disagree. For those of us who sweat out each individual sale, watching rank is very necessary. If, during a particular day, I sell two copies of one of my ten titles (which these days is a rarity), my ranking leaps upward and gives me cause for cheer. I've had very little to cheer about in three years of self-publishing, so believe me, I really look forward to those rare moments of excitement.

Now, if I were selling in large quantities, assuring me of high rankings, I could breeze through each day knowing my books were holding stable in a relatively high ranking. I would know the money is flowing in, and I would know my daily sales were sufficient to prop up those rankings, so I wouldn't have to be obsessively checking them.

Unfortunately, I'm not in that position, so I'm consumed with checking for that next sale to see what it does with my ranking.

Hollis Shiloh said...

Must admit I check my sales ranks a few times a day. I'm trying to wean myself off, but it's not as easy as it sounds....

Intellectually, I know if I applied all that energy to another story, I could get more written faster, but there is still that siren call of wanting to know how my 'babies' are doing! :)

JA Konrath said...

I'm consumed with checking for that next sale to see what it does with my ranking.

I'd suggest that every time you want to check for a sale, instead you work on your next story.

Amber Jaeger said...

Great post but... I still do not understand the rankings! I have three books out and rank on four lists. I make enough to pay the rent plus some (never thought that would happen!) but my less than stellar first book ranks way higher than my much better third book. It has been a year so I am at a point that I don't obsess anymore but when I do check Amazon,I am always confused by the numbers. Gah, back to writing.

Alistair McIntyre said...

Mike Dennis:
I see where you're coming from on the motivation boost that a few sales can provide when sales have slumped. At the same time, don't totally dismiss Joe's (and others') opinion.

Throttling back so that you're not dependent upon that boost could benefit you in the long run. When you're not consumed by the need for a sale, you can focus more heavily on creating and improving elsewhere.

I love to see a sale, any sale. Hell, I got a buzz the other day off a 4-star rating on Goodreads. The key for me is to harness that buzz and dive into my next work and not worry about what's going on beyond my control.

Just my 2c. YMMV.

ajabbiati said...

Colin....glad you're enjoying it! Hope you find it helpful... -jim

Rob Walker said...

It would appear we are all under the control and influence of the BOTS...

It is almost as insidious as having a social security number.

It can drive you KARAZY....

I suggest everyone do as I have done this calendar year - write a new collection of short stories, add a 12th book to your crime series, create a 3rd book so large it must be sliced into 3 books with option to buy the boxed set. That adds SIX new titles so far this year to my bookshelf. Try that.

Robert W. Walker (Rob) is the designation or destination on Facebook where I spew forth Tips on Craft and publishing. KDP kindle forums under voice of the author find the largest thread on these forums - nearly a half million views/reads under "What Mioves Kindle books off the Shelf" with moves misspelled for character.

Rob Walker

C E said...

Thanks to Kevin Hardman
Robert W. Walker !

C E said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
M.F. Soriano said...

I had the same "category" problem with my fantasy book Blood Brothers. I thought it best qualified as "sword and sorcery", like the old Conan stories, because it didn't have a plot that focused on massive, world-changing events (which is what the "epic fantasy" category best describes). But "sword and sorcery" wasn't a category I could pick, so I ended up choosing "epic" instead. And then I saw that "sword and sorcery" was a category on Amazon, it just wasn't one you could pick when you published the book. So I added "sword and sorcery" as a search word, and now it shows up there too.

Another thing worth mentioning, I think, is that I also put my book in the "metaphysical fantasy" category. Why is that worth mentioning? Because the "metaphysical fantasy" category has a fraction of the number of titles that are listed in the "epic" category. My book often makes the top 5 for metaphysical fantasy, which gives it (I hope) more visibility, but it rarely makes the top 100 for "epic."

One last thing I'd like to mention is that I recently used ebookbooster (which Joe recommends), and I personally didn't think it was worth the $40. I'm planning on writing about why on my blog.

K said...

M.F.: I'm glad things worked out for you - especially in terms of being able to get categorized based on a keyword (assuming that's what you meant by "search word"). Unfortunately, that didn't work for me.

The other thing is - and I had assumed this was common knowledge but maybe it isn't - you can't NOT pick a category. In other words, you have to pick SOMETHING or it won't let you publish. (In my case, I don't even think it let me advance to the next page.) Thus, I ended up picking the single superhero category they had available.

It wasn't perfect, but again, few things in life are. As they often told us when I was in the military, not everything we do can classified as right or wrong; sometimes there's just good and bad judgment - and not everyone will agree on which is which.