Climbing The bestseller list by optimizing my Amazon keywords

My novel is climbing Amazon’s bestseller lists! Now at # 6.

Amazon Bestselling novel Vietnam WarTo be clear, this is the “Kindle –> History –> Military –> Vietnam War” list, but it’s still sweet. Sales are erratic, but — after a bit of a slow down at the start of the month — averaging about 5 copies a day again.

I’ve also made it to number 9 on Amazon’s “Short Reads” list for history.

Amazons Bestsellers for short history


I published my novella in March after putting it through a review cycled at CritiqueCircle, and having my editor mark it up. I published via Amazon, and at the time I did so, I loaded seven keywords as they allow you to do to help potential customers find your book. I was simple-minded in my process and quickly picked seven words/phrases that I had thought would guide buyers to my book.

My book has bumped along slowly and erratically, ramping to roughly 3.5 copies a day. There have been other variables in play — for a week, I raised the price to $2.99, three times I’ve spent $10 on advertising (I know, big spender), etc.

Nothing has really had much of an impact other than the price increase. The day I did it I sold five books, then sales tapered off, so I went back to $.99.

About 10 days ago I decided to rigorously review the keywords I had loaded into Amazon for my novella. I set out to unequivocally convince myself that I had the best seven words to help drive sales.

The first thing I did was search on my keywords to see how far down the list my book showed up.

Ugh. It was bleak. Really bleak. My novel was six or more pages deep for all but one of my keywords.

Amazon Key words, Vietnam War novels

I decided to start over.

To start over I first created a table in Excel in which I loaded all the relevant keywords I could think of. To be clear on these keywords: They had to be really relevant to my topic. It is a fine balance between picking words with high volume but words for which you will not rank, and for word for which you might rank well but will not attract many people who will buy your book. More on this below…

Then I loaded them into Google’s keyword planner tool and checked on their search volume. Of course, search volume on Google does not necessarily match search vol on Amazon, but it was a good starting point.

After that I used a tool that reports average monthly sales for books on Amazon  for a given search word. This gave me insight into how many books are being sold that include a given search word. I loaded this info in beside the Google search vol. From there I ranked them: The ones with the highest sales volume at the top. The volume reported by Google’s tool mattered, but it was a distant second in my ranking process.

Then I began experimenting. I’m after one of the top four spots for each of my Amazon keywords because the top four books are “above the fold” (in SEO speak). That is, the top four titles you can see on your computer screen without scrolling. They are the ones that get far more sales volume than any other book lower on the page. This is both cause and effect: they are there because their sales are relatively high. Their sales are relatively high because they are in the top four of what Amazon presents.

Yes, it is tough because you have to break in somehow. And for that, I have no easy answers. All I can suggest is keep tinkering and testing as you find keywords for which you rank, and keep elbowing your way up the list.

When I got ready to change out my keywords, I actually started near the bottom of my list. That is, I first used words for which I was sure I was going to be the only (or one of a very few) books that would come up when potential buyers searched on, that keyword. I preferred to load keywords that I was sure (that I thought I was sure) were going to land me in one of the top four spots and were going to drive traffic to my site.

When you load new keywords in Amazon, it takes about six hours for them to process. So I generally check my progress twice a day, and I carefully tally the results as I go.

As an aside, one of my daughters was watching over my shoulder last night as I manipulated the data in Excel. She watched the cells automatically change colors as I worked, which she found intriguing. After a while, though, she said, “I thought you were writing. That’s not even English.”  So goes the “writer’s” life.

After the first four days, I had managed to land at or near the top of a few pages. I was rocking the world. …sort of… The downside was that I was coming in at or near the top of pages for which the average monthly volume is 20  books or less. Hmm… That is a start and better than where I was, but still not so good. I had, though, proven to myself that I was learning how to control outcomes, which is important.

If the total monthly volume is less than 500 units, and I was not in the top four books listed, I would replace that keyword and try a word higher up my list. This has gone on for over a week now, and I’ve found a few keywords for which I can land in the top four or at least on the first page for pages/keywords that have materially volume.

As a result of this exercise, my weekly sales have climbed steadily. There is a very obvious spike that occurred the day after I started this exercise, so I’m sure this is having an impact. That said, you can’t judge your progress on the sales from one day; sales are too erratic.

Obviously, the words I had loaded initially were a bust.  It is frustrating thinking about the sales I have already lost, but I have no one to blame but myself. Hopefully, what I’ve shared here will help you start faster with your book than I did with mine.

Some of the words I’ve migrated to as I’ve climbed my list have been bad misses. For instance, though the total vol might have been huge, my novel was two or more pages deep. Again, if I did not come in among the top four Amazon presents, I will drop that word and try a new one.

Two other points:

  • Words in your title and subtitle also act like keywords for search purposes on Amazon. So don’t duplicate those in your keyword list. So if you have not yet published your book, think very carefully about your title and subtitle for these reasons. I encourage you to do some testing before you settle on both.

As you’ve seen, I’ve made it to 6 on one of Amazon’s bestseller lists, and when I got up this morning and checked my sales, I’ve already sold five books today. Clearly getting my keywords right has had a huge impact on my sales, more so than any other promotional activity I’ve undertaken. And though five sales a day won’t land me on the New York Times bestseller list, it is about 50% more than what I was doing. All it took was some time and thought. I assume I’ll have to tweak them once every few months, but otherwise they’ll be quietly working for me as I’m working on my next novel.

Hope this helps! And please share any other tricks you have learned about Amazon’s keywords.

Update 3 Jan 2016: I have continued to tinker since I first wrote this article. You might think I’m going to tell you that I’m selling 100 copies a day due to what I’ve learned and my ongoing testing. I am not selling 100 copies a day. I’ve gotten to about 5.9 copies a day on average, which is pretty consistent. The standard deviation over the last 2 months is 2.5, so daily sales are pretty consistent. The good news is that sales are nice and steady. But I’ve learned a lot more too… 

I also have learned to track my sales in the “Vietnam War” category of books. Though I did not explain it above, all of my keywords included “Vietnam War” because my novella is set in that conflict. There is no value to me to have a  keyword such as “combat” without “Vietnam War”. Yes, if people search on “combat” my book will be included in their results, but it would probably be very low, and odds are low that they will buy my book. They could have actually been looking for “hand to hand combat” or “virtual combat” or “combat boots”. So I only care about results that include “Vietnam War” + “[keyword]”. And to be clear, I do not include “Vietnam War” with every keyword/phrase because it is in the title. Again, I’m only interested in potential buyers who are interested in a story about Combat in the Vietnam War.

Why does this matter? Because “Vietnam War” is very much the category of books my buyers are after. And it is a big category. Obviously, it is far bigger than any subcategory of “Vietnam War [Keyword]”. So… 

In addition to tracking the performance of my specific keywords when coupled with “Vietnam War”, I also track just “Vietnam War”. Here is the punchline and the great news: As I have fine-tuned my keywords to climb the sales charts for each of my seven keywords/phrases, I have also climbed positions for the overall category of “Vietnam War”. 

For a while, I was #1 for “Vietnam War”. During that period of time, what do you think was happening with my sales? Yes, those days I was selling about 10 copies a day. Of course, being #1 — and “above the fold” — is part of that virtuous cycle which keeps you at or near #1. Or it should. 

I’ve since fallen back down. In fact, I fell way back down to about #20. I’m not sure exactly why, but I think part of it was that as I continued to tinker with my keywords, I picked some words that were not driving as many sales.

Amazon is also a dynamic place: Every day about 3K new books are published. That is a lot! Of course, there are lots of categories, so you are not competing with all of them. You can go to this Amazon site and drill down to get some insight into how many books are being published in each category. For instance, if I drill down into the category for which I got to #6, there is about one book being published a day in “Kindle–>History–>Military–>Vietnam War”. And I think Amazon rankings have a bias toward new books for a short time; I’ve seen new titles with few sales and no reviews bump my book down in the rankings for a few days. After a week, though, they are gone. In any event, you can use this method to see just how many titles are being published in various categories to plan your own keyword strategy. 

Over the last three weeks I’ve actually worked my way back to some of the keywords I had in place when my sales were doing better, and I’ve managed to get back to #4 in the “Vietnam War” category. 

Lastly, another conclusion I am drawing from all of this is that unless my short novel breaks out in the ‘general interest’ category, my daily sales are about as high as they are going to get. Being #1 for “Vietnam War” and having steady sales of about 6 copies with a standard deviation of about 2.5 tells me that I’ve probably tapped into about as much vol as I’m going to get unless the reading population at large latches onto my book, which I think extremely unlikely for a number of obvious reasons.  

On the other hand, it seems to be an “evergreen” book that will continue to sell over time. This is great news because as I write more books, I’ve got one that will keep selling and showing up in Amazon in various ways, which will provide visibility to my subsequent books, which will help with sales of those books. 

…I hope this update helps. I’ve still got much more to learn but wanted to give you some insight as to how things are progressing and what I’ve learned to this point. Good luck with your own sales!

Climbing The bestseller list by optimizing my Amazon keywords
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Climbing The bestseller list by optimizing my Amazon keywords
Critical to ramping your sales on Amazon is knowing how to optimize your keywords. It has worked for me. A well-prepared story, strong reviews and optimizing my keywords have gotten my first book into the top 10 of five Amazon bestseller lists. That is, after I fixed everything I had wrong with my keywords. Let me explain...
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Tiffany Writing
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2 thoughts on “Climbing The bestseller list by optimizing my Amazon keywords”

  1. I enjoyed this article because you laid out exactly what you did with each new step and how you checked your results. If at first you don’t succeed, try something different. It’s like tweaking a recipe till you get something really good. I learned from this post. Thanks!!!

    1. Thanks, Shirley! 🙂 You are exactly right — it is like creating a recipe. And to be honest, if you are thoughtful and patient, you can piece together how to do well on Amazon, much as I have. Glad it was helpful.

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