Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Book Marketing 101: Amazon.com

This is the second in a series of posts called "Book Marketing 101," about various things marketers like me do to promote books as well as about the things authors (and even other interested parties) can do to promote their own books. The first post in the series focused on the various ways books can be sold, this one looks at Amazon.com (and, to a lesser extent, other online booksellers), and the next one, I think, will be about the brick & mortar bookstore chains. Please feel free to leave comments or questions here, or to send suggestions for further topics to me via e-mail.

I'm just going to say "Amazon" from here on out: most of the things I mention will be essentially the same for .com and .co.uk and .ca, and probably applicable to .jp and .fr, and some of them apply as well to BN.com and Borders.com and Chapters.Indigo.ca. Some terminology and specifics may be different, though: you have been warned.

Amazon has turned into a massive emporium for selling nearly every consumer good imaginable, but it started as a bookstore, and many of us still think of it primarily as a bookstore. I'm going to be talking about it purely as a bookstore here, though I'm sure many of these marketing opportunities are available to other products as well.

Co-Op, or, What Your Publisher Might Be Able to Buy
If you're not in the business, you probably don't know -- or care -- much about co-op, and you have no reason to. Co-Op is short for "Co-Operative," as in advertising. The supposed purpose of co-op is for the retailer and the manufacturer to share the costs of advertising -- and it does work that way, some of the time -- but it's mostly used to refer to in-store placements of books, which (as you might guess) costs the retailer nothing but lost opportunity and can cost the manufacturer quite a lot.

For real-world stores, co-op is pretty straightforward: it buys placement of a particular book on a table at the front of the store, or on an end-of-aisle display, or in other promotions, posters, flyers, brochures, dedicated bays, and so on. Generally, it's money spent by the publisher to put a book in a particular, eye-catching, point in a store.

Online, there are no physical books, but the "eye-catching" aspect still applies. Amazon has a huge array of lists and feature boxes, a subset of which load with every pageview. Now, many of those are clearly driven directly by consumer behavior -- either in aggregate, like their bestseller lists, or individually, like the pieces that keep track of the last few books you looked at -- but some of them are available for purchase.

Co-op programs are big and complicated; your publisher runs them, and they're not likely to accept much input from the author on the subject. (They're also mostly run by the sales department, which is another degree of separation from you.) So please take this as explanation, and not as an invitation to jump in.

But here's the Amazon Books home page as of about 7:45 PM (EDT) on June 30th, 2009:

The red band near the top is a "site stripe," and that's co-op. So are the two boxes in the right-hand column. And the letter from Peter Workman about Workman Publishing is something similar as well (though that might not be quite as bought-and-paid-for as the more obvious advertising pieces).

Co-op is driven by the retailer: in this case, Amazon will tell the appropriate publishers what placements are available for some particular period of time in the future, and what they'll cost. The publishers then look at their lists, and at their budgets, and decide what they'll nominate for those promotions. Amazon gets in all of the nominations from all of the publishers, collates them, decides which ones they'll run (particularly if there are more nominations than slots), and then moves forward with those promotions.

Again, authors will have little or no direct influence here. But if you see your book in an obvious co-op slot, you should thank your marketer.

Data Mining, or, What Amazon Does All By Itself
And here's another Amazon screen shot, with some categories clearly driven by my recent browsing:
All of those sections -- even "Get Yourself a Little Something," which runs off the page and pulled in items from my Wish List -- are clearly dynamic and driven by an individual browser's history. Similar sections are on individual product pages, under headings like "Frequently Bought Together" and "What Do Customers Ultimately Buy After Viewing This Item?" So Amazon's engines will show your book -- we all hope -- even when browsers are looking at something else, as long as previous browsers' behavior links the two.

(Please don't try to game this by clicking back and forth between your new novel and Twilight a dozen times; I suspect it takes a lot of people with a lot of different IP addresses to make a link.)

But the good news here is that Amazon is actively trying to sell more books, and it might well be yours that they'll sell. Later on, I'll tell you some things you can do directly to help Amazon's secret search/display algorithms bring up your book in the appropriate contexts.

Search Engine Optimization
Others have called Amazon a database business with a commerce engine bolted onto the front of it, and that's not far from the truth. Amazon does sell physical objects, but that's only one of their core competencies -- they're also very, very good at the business of the Internet. I routinely tell my authors that, unless they already have a robust web presence, the Amazon page for their book will quickly become their de facto homepage.

I note this not to tell you how to do your own SEO, but just to mention that Amazon has excellent SEO, and your book is tagging along with that. Google your book's name, or your own name, and the Amazon page will almost always be on the first page. (Unless you have the ill luck to be John Smith, and your book is The Thing.)

Tags and Tagging
Let's have another Amazon screenshot, from an individual product page:

(Click that to make it bigger.)

As I said, Amazon's algorithms are secret; no one on the outside knows exactly how they work. But we can observe how Amazon's searches behave, and, from that, it's clear that Amazon's searches are mostly driven by categories of customer behavior: what books customers are buying, what books they're clicking on, what books have the most and best reviews, and what books have the appropriate tags.

And the great thing about tags is that the author -- or agent, or marketer, or publicist, or significant other, or whoever -- can put them in as well. Every book starts out with a selection of potential tags with tick boxes: either tags others have already given this particular product, or tags from other, similar products. I strongly, strongly urge authors to type in as many appropriate tags as Amazon will allow, particularly with nonfiction. (Though, if you've written a fantasy novel with dragons and faeries and unicorns and wizards in it, those would be some darn good tags as well.)

You can also search by tags, look up the most popular tags, and quickly see how many people have given a book with a particular tag. They've very useful, so make sure you use them.

Reviews
I'm not going to give you a screenshot here; you all should know by now that Amazon allows customer reviews -- a reviewer only needs to have bought at least one product from Amazon once in your life, which is not an onerous requirement fifteen years in -- and that those reviews drive star ratings that appear right up at the top of a product page.

It's also clear that reviews drive much of the search algorithms; better-reviewed books do better in search. So it's in an author's best interest to keep an eye on the Amazon reviews.

However, Amazon also takes a very dim look on review fraud, and they try to get rid of it wherever they find it. (And no one can blame them; it's in everyone's interests for the reviews to be honest.) That means, to the author's benefit, that it's sometimes possible to petition Amazon to have egregiously personal or nasty reviews removed. But it also means that authors should not post reviews of their own books, or directly cause good reviews to be posted.

On the other hand, asking people who have already said nice things about your book to post an Amazon review is perfectly OK. What matters is that the reviews are honest, so, if at all possible, try to encourage people who really liked your book to say so, in public.

Categories and Lists
Besides the one big "Amazon Sales Rank" -- which you should all ignore, since it's no better than reading tea-leaves -- Amazon also often lists a book's rank in more specific categories. Those are worth keeping an eye on, since they show how your book is performing against other very similar books. (It's also worth checking out the books outselling yours in those categories and seeing if there any tags you can use, or other ideas you can adapt.)

I don't know if creating "Listmanias" and "So You'd Like To" guides are helpful for a book's sales, but I'm trying to do more of them myself. They certainly can't hurt.

Other Media
If there's an opportunity to put video or audio on your book's page, jump on it. And the more interesting that bit of "content" can be, the better. (Do you want to sit and watch someone read twenty pages from a book on a tiny screen? No? Then think of something more inventive for your book.) This will usually depend on your publisher, and will often be rolled up in "co-op" (above) -- but, if they come asking, it's a good idea to find a way to do it.

Amazon Connect
If I'd written this post three months ago, I probably would have led with Amazon Connect; now, I'm burying it near the end and including it mostly for the sake of completeness. Amazon Connect is a program that allows authors (after a quick sign-up and ID check through their publishers) to post blog-like content directly to Amazon.

That content can include videos, "why I wrote this book" ruminations, lists of upcoming speaking events or tour stops, or just about anything else. It can also be automated through an RSS feed if you already blog somewhere else. It was an amazing, wonderful program, and the posts used to appear on the book's page -- right where all of the traffic went.

Used to, unfortunately.

A few weeks ago, Amazon pulled the Connect blogs from the books' pages, and stuck them only on their new Author Central area. (Posts were previously appearing in both places -- really together authors could have had their Connect blogs appearing on all of their books and on their Author Central page.) Amazon doesn't release traffic figures, but we all have to assume that the Connect blogs are getting far less traffic than they used to. And so the marketers I know are no longer urging authors to sign up for this program. It's still useful, or can be, but it used to be great.

Those are some of the ways you and your publisher can affect book sales on Amazon; any questions or thoughts?

3 comments:

Kerry said...

question: can I quote you in my dissertation? thnx.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Kerry: Absolutely. I don't know what the convention is for citing blog posts, but please do.

steve davidson said...

2nd excellent post on the subject - and thanks for the previous input.

the specialty distributor and I (and the publisher) have agreed to go ahead and list the book with Ingram's, which will mean appearance on Amazon & etc in a week or so - and yes, publisher will be adding info, I'll be doing an author page, amazon vine review is in (good+) and will be posted, etc., etc.
good chance to watch theories in action!

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