Being an indie author rocks. No deadlines. Complete freedom to write whatever you want. Bigger share of the royalties. But it’s no fun having 70% of ten bucks, when you have bills to pay. I’ve been at this game for six years now. I published my debut novel, The Hunter Inside in 2012. Since then, I’ve been working on a science fiction trilogy called From the Sky. I finally got it finished (yay me!), and it’s now available in its individual parts, or as a boxset on Amazon.
I always thought I’d struggle to make an impact while I had one or two thirds of a trilogy published, so I neglected the ‘business’ side of things. I’m not ashamed of that. I wanted to write, not spend hours hawking myself everywhere I could think of and seeing no real results. And don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent many hours doing all the wrong things.
The idea was always in my mind that ‘when the whole trilogy is published, things will change’. I knew I’d have a much more marketable product, and also a boxset. The boxset was only published a couple of weeks ago as I write this, but I’ve really gotten the bit between my teeth now. I’ve started to tackle the business side of things, and I hope to be able to share some of the things I learn along the way as I see results.
From those years of trying to do things organically, I learned one thing. Well, I learned more than one thing, but this post will be long enough talking about building keyword lists! I learned that the people who become fans organically will be with you your whole career, and I’m so grateful to those already part of Team McGowan. With my business head on, I also learned that the best way to progress is by the old maxim:
You have to speculate to accumulate.
This always frightened me. It’s all too easy to spend a fortune on all the indie author promo sites that are out there, and I’m not saying there aren’t great ones around. The idea of spending a lot of money and not seeing much return was scary. I don’t have a lot of money to spend on marketing.
Am I waffling here?
Okay, what’s the point I’m trying to get to?
Amazon Marketing Services. Amazon is obviously the ebook retailer that rules the marketplace. Their stranglehold is seen by some as a bad thing, and it does have some serious flaws, but just lately I’ve started to experiment with AMS adverts. At this point I’d like to mention Brian Meeks. Brian is committed to figuring AMS ads out and to helping authors take their business to the next level. He has a fantastic book to help people starting out with and getting to grips with AMS ads. I highly recommend you buy and read this book, 500 times, before you even start. I also recommend you join Brian’s Facebook group – Mastering Amazon Ads.
This article will not focus on the laborious task of building your general keyword list, and why should it, when the brilliant Dave Chesson designed a free course that does this way better than I ever could! Check it out! Nope, this article is more about the things I do to find related titles that I can either use as keywords (titles and authors), or for targeted Product Display ads on Amazon. It’s my methodology, my tips and tricks kinda thing.
So, without further ado, let me get to the reason you’re here!
Anybody who’s been in this game for a while will be well aware of the also boughts row, telling you what people who buy your book also buy. It’s a great place to start. Here’s how it looks on the page for the first book in my From the Sky trilogy (which is called Arrival, and is free when you sign up to my mailing list):
Right away, I have ten sets of titles to go through to find books that are quite likely to be a good match. Books that I’ll want to target with my ads. I want people looking at those books to see my book. Makes sense, right? If you’re doing this for the first time, now’s the moment to start making a list. I use Excel to make my list. TIP – have a column for the ASIN on your spreadsheet – makes finding the titles easier when you’re searching on the AMS ad platform when creating your ‘Product Display – Interest’ ads.
Now, if you’re a thinker, you’ll probably already be realising that every one of those books also has an also boughts section, and when you click on those, each of them do too. Can you guess what my next recommended step is? Yup, go through and through and through. This takes time, but eventually you’ll get to a point where you’re not seeing many you haven’t seen before. By the time you get there, you’ll likely have several hundred titles to target.
On most product pages, you’ll also see sponsored products. Yes, this is where you’re hoping your ads will show up. Here’s an example showing the first in my trilogy in one of those places:
You can see mine third from the right there. Looks good, huh? Well, where it shows up is according to bids etc. but I’m not going to get into all the nuts and bolts. This article is just giving you tips on developing a long list of books (as keywords, but you can use them to target specific products too) to target. I want to stress something here: I would strongly suggest you don’t use the method you use when doing research from the also boughts here, because every time you click on something in the sponsored results, the author will be charged by Amazon. So, here’s where I write/type lists. I then search for them and repeat the process as I do for also boughts. See how quickly you can develop lots of titles? Great isn’t it?
Okay then, I can almost hear a lot of you screaming at your screens by now that you already know all this. Tell me something that ain’t obvious, you cry. Well, here goes with the proper tips!
Top 100 charts
I’m sure you have a main category. The one that absolutely fits your work. Mine is ‘alien invasion’ where my trilogy, From the Sky, is concerned. My bestsellers rank looks like this as I type this:
Not great, I know, but there are lots that are worse than that. It’ll get better! But see how I’m #642 in alien invasion? Well, if I click on that I’m taken to the alien invasion bestsellers.
You can see it has ‘Top 100 Paid’ and ‘Top 100 Free’. Here’s another place for you to start writing things down, or typing them up, and looking at the also boughts and sponsored ads. But wait a minute, look there, on the right. See where it has three little thumbnails, and New Releases, and ‘See Top 100?’
A list of new releases? Don’t mind if I do. When you click on this, it takes you to a list of ‘Amazon Hot New Releases’, and the list-making continues. I like to order the new releases list by publication date. This gives me advance notice of all the titles scheduled to come out for months and even years to come, ensuring my lists are up-to-date for gaining exposure on pre-order product pages, something a lot of other people don’t think to target.
Next place to look? See the menu along the top of the page? Above where it says ‘Amazon Hot New Releases’? Count along six and you’ll see these two next:
When you click on ‘Best Sellers & More’, you are taken to a page that has these categories: Amazon Charts Most Read, Amazon Charts Most Sold, New York Times Best Sellers, Kindle Select 25, Best Books of the Month, Amazon First Reads, and Print, Kindle and Audio best sellers. Your list should get longer here with some exploration of the various categories, and these titles are getting lots of exposure, so should be great to target. Of course, everybody else thinks that too, so competition will be fierce for a sponsored product spot on these titles! This isn’t a page to just look at once, of course. This is a page to consult regularly, to ensure you keep on top of what’s hot (or not) and to help spot new releases you might have missed. When you click the tab next to it (‘Kindle Book Deals’), you’re taken to a page that looks a lot like this:
From here you can select a category from the thumbnails, or you can click on one of the categories in the left-hand menu. Remember that left-hand menu. It will be getting another mention in a little while!
Also, if you scroll down on this page, you’ll see other categories, as well as ‘Kindle Exclusive Deals’. Remember to continually look at the also boughts and sponsored products on each title you look at. I tend to right click on any I want to look at and the click to open them in a new tab, so I keep the original page open, and can just close the other page when I’m done with it. This saves going back and forward lots of times!
You should also regularly look at the Movers & Shakers page too. And, of course, the Kindle Store homepage is a good place to browse for links to deals – titles that are, again, getting lots of exposure. There’s also a ‘node’ for Hotly Anticipated Kindle Books.
Now, I don’t know how accurate what I’m going to say next is (help me out in the comments if I’m wrong). I think the ads that appear on the product page for my trilogy are ‘Product Display – Interest’ ads. Here’s what I mean:
See the ad on the right, and the one in the centre at the bottom? Well, this is probably completely wrong, but I was under the impression that people have literally targeted your product specifically to get these ads to show up on your product’s page. Like I say, I could very well be wrong, but if I’m right, these people have most probably done this for a reason, so check them out (don’t click on them though, just search for them to save the author a few cents!). If I’m wrong I’m wrong, but this is only a small tip!
I think many authors make a mistake when compiling a list of other titles and authors to target, by trying to match too closely to the exact nature of the title they’re trying to promote. I see books that are similar without being bang on the money, and books that I know are quite different but might be looked at by people who will like my work. I mean, I write sci-fi, but I don’t just read sci-fi, and obviously the majority of people read other subjects as well. I’m currently reading Affinity by Sarah Waters (and it’s fabulous), but it’s pretty darn far from sci-fi, huh?
The thing about doing this is: you might not want to bid 0.20c or even 0.30c per click for a subject that doesn’t closely match yours. So, here’s how I work it. I grade the titles I’m targeting. I’m constantly looking for, and writing down other titles, using all the methods I already listed. I write a list by hand, and regularly update my master keyword list when this list gets to be quite long (I currently have 4 pages of books to add!).
Here’s how I grade it. As I’ve already said a few times, I write sci-fi. To be more specific, I’ll use the boxset of my trilogy, From the Sky, as the example here, as that’s what I’m marketing and compiling my keyword list for right now (I also market for the first book in the series, Arrival). It’s an alien invasion trilogy. In the first book, UFOs arrive, strange things happen, beams come down, most of the people and the town itself vanish. There are around half a dozen survivors. Some good, some bad. In the second book, they set out across America, looking for answers, trying to survive. A second wave of aliens arrive, and they start to wonder if they are in the middle of two sets of aliens fighting over the planet. Then the little boy who’s part of their group, Tucker Turner, reveals a secret, and this brings up a whole heap of other questions and scenarios. Book two has a big shocking twist to end it. Book three sees things getting fraught as they figure out where they need to go and why, but face a race against time to get there, with lots more twist and turns, peril and self-examination along the way, until ultimately the big meeting point between the aliens and the group, the big reveals, and the conclusion. It’s like a Steven Spielberg movie. You know the type.
Anyway, why did I tell you all that? So the grading system I use makes sense. First I have grade 0. This is books that I think are interesting and might crossover, books that are kind of close but not a match to my other categories, or books that are doing well that I want to target, but that don’t crossover. Then there’s grade 1. These are books that are space opera. A lot of the alien invasion top 100 are these types of books, and they dominate the genre. But there’s a place for my trilogy, I feel, in there. Okay, it’s not a big ‘pew pew’ trilogy, it’s more an action and adventure story, a story that’s as much about coming of age as it is about surviving the invasion, about characters gaining deep self-insight and growing as people. So the grade 1 books won’t get as high bids as grade 3 and 4, but I’ll still market to this reader group (I might use copy like ‘Do all alien invasion stories have to be about hostile aliens and war? Might some of them turn out to be friendly and surprise us?’) to try and tempt some people to give it a try who might not normally. Then there are grade 2 books. These are post-apocalyptic books. A big genre, and they’re a pretty good fit for From the Sky, as my characters are travelling a land devoid of people – a typical post-apocalyptic scenario. These titles are more likely to get crossover sales than the grade 1 titles, even though the grade 1 titles are in my category as far as Amazon is concerned. So they’ll get slightly higher bids. Then we get to the good stuff! Grade 3 titles are titles that have aliens on earth, but aren’t an ‘exact’ match for the type of thing I’m targeting. They might be openly hostile aliens (in my story you’re left guessing for half the trilogy), or they might be aliens that are here for a different reason, but they’ll be typically post-apocalyptic titles, including aliens. Grade 4 books are what I consider to be the absolute best fit. These are titles that I think will be the absolute most likely to get me more or less automatic sales when seen by people who enjoy those titles, as long as my ad copy and book description are good enough (sigh, that’s a whole other piece, isn’t it?). Therefore, I will bid higher on grade 3 and 4 titles than on grade 2 titles, higher on grade 2 titles than on grade 1 titles, and I’ll test the water with grade 0 titles and see how they perform, then refine. It’s all about continual refinement, as I’m sure you know, about adapting new lists from those you already have, watching how much the bids are costing you and which are performing well, which you get clicks but no conversions on that end up not being sustainable. The other benefit of grading the titles you’re targeting is that you naturally end up with a much more targeted list of books that you’re willing to bid higher on, and larger lists of those you want to target that will get you sales over time, but might not get you lots of sales. See how my mind is working? From the broader scattergun approach of targeting movies, directors, actors and series titles, I have a ‘gold standard’ that I’m willing to pay more per click, in the likelihood it’ll get me more sales, and KU page reads. Mustn’t forget those!
Kindle Unlimited currently makes up half my income. I’m not going to get into the debate about whether it’s better to be in KU, or to be wide. If it works for you, it works. It certainly works for me (as I write this, I’ve had around 45,000 page reads in the past 6 weeks). By following a lot of the steps I’ve already mentioned, you should see a rise in your KENP totals. I’ve seen a large increase since I started running AMS ads. The following little section has nothing to do with building your keyword list, but I wanted to include it as I think it’s relevant. Call it a Ninja Tip!
There are lots of groups on Facebook where people go to find KU books to read. Different people find things in different ways, so it’s good to cast your net wide. I’ve had plenty of times on Amazon when the variety in front of me makes it difficult for me to choose. I get Zon-blindness. These Facebook groups might not get you to the top of the bestseller lists, but they’re another free way of increasing visibility every now and again. Don’t spend all your time posting to them at the expense of other things like making your description or copy better, but do drop in from time to time and remind people about your title. Also, I’d vary what you post. Don’t just copy and paste the same post with the Amazon link. Use some of that great copy you’ve written, make little graphics rather than just having the same old standard Amazon screenshot, and people might take more notice. You’ll look more credible. Here’s an example of what I mean (I just knocked this up in five minutes, so forgive me if it’s not that good!):
And here’s a list of the KU facebook groups I’ve posted in before:
There are others. Run a search on Facebook to track down more, and feel free to link them in the comments. Make sure you ALWAYS read the terms of these groups and abide by them. No one likes a shameless spammer!
There are many of them out there. You’ll already know lots of them, might even be signed up to them. I’m thinking of sites like Bookbub, Reading Deals, Awesome Gang, ebooklister, Bookbasset, Bargain ebook hunter, Pixelscroll, to name but a few. Sign up to as many of these as you can find (and feel free to list the many I’ve left out in the comments). Once you’re signed up you’ll receive an email each day with promos. Don’t just delete them, even though they’ll fill up your inbox. Make twenty minutes at the end of each day to look through them and find titles. The benefit of doing this is that they might be doing well with their current promos, and you might just get a boost from targeting those titles. On Amazon, it’s all about visibility. If people can see your book, you’ll get more sales. If you’re ranked 2 million, no one ever sees your book and you don’t get many sales, if any at all.
Okay, what’s next? Newsletters! Of course! I’ve already talked about signing up to newsletters that tell you about books that are on promotion. But I’m also signed up to Goodreads sci-fi lists, Kirkus Reviews, Amazon (Top Charts, and New Releases) etc. This means I get emails with interesting titles I might want to target, delivered to me, without having to go looking for them. This is especially good for new releases, I feel, and titles causing a stir in my category. Search out the big sites for your genre and sign up to their mailing lists to receive emails about new releases and deals in your genre.
I mentioned Goodreads. Goodreads is obviously a great place to look:
The shot on the left shows the drop-down menu on the homepage. You can see categories for recommendations, deals, choice awards, giveaways, new releases, lists (more about these soon!). All great places to look.
Then there’s the tab next to it: ‘Community’, where you can find groups and discussions and find out what people are talking about and reading.
On to Goodreads lists, or Listopia!
If you type your genre into Google and add ‘Goodreads lists’, you should find your way to a list of lists (!) for your genre.
The image below shows a snippet of the first screen for sci-fi lists. There are thirty lists on a page, and there are thirty-two pages of lists for sci-fi alone! Some of them have thousands of books listed in them, and they’re created by readers, not publishers. You’ll find some gems you didn’t know existed in these lists! You can see on the right of the image below a list of other categories/genres you can search for by tag, so as you can see, it’s easy to find your way around to the type of list you’re looking for.
Facebook is obviously a major player in the online advertising market. By selecting your ‘Likes’ in line with your book marketing aims, you’ll see other author’s marketing in your news feed. Again, a good way of seeing who’s promoting. I also ‘like’ pages that will provide me with titles, and articles that I can share/target. Things like Amazon Kindle, Publisher’s Weekly etc. Search using the search bar at the top and ‘Like’/’Follow’ pages that resonate with you, and you’ll see their updates in your news feed regularly. These updates will likely lead you to articles that help you identify yet more books for your list.
I used the word ‘scattergun’ earlier, and I also said to remember the left-hand category tables on Amazon. Here’s why! The scattergun approach is a method I use where I bid low on very large lists of various things (examples to come). It’s a way of creating many ad sets that you can bid very low on and just let them run and see what happens. Click on the link for your category in your book description’s best seller rank. Look down the left-hand column.
On the left you can see an image showing ‘Book Series’.
See where it says ‘See more’ (in your Amazon results). Click on it and prepare to smile!
Doing that on this category gave me around 15,000 series titles. That’s fifteen ad sets, each with 1000 keywords, all related to my genre. It’s not a focussed approach, hence the term ‘scattergun’, but it’s a good way of targeting a vast amount of keywords without sitting going through every author and every series.
You can do this for any genre. Copy the lists into Excel, highlight the whole column, right-click and click ‘Remove hyperlinks’ and, once you get rid of the numbers after each entry, you have a fabulously long list. I do this by using the ‘Find and Replace’ function. You can enter numbers 0 through 9 one after another, put nothing in the ‘Replace’ field, and hit ‘Replace all’. You can also do this for open and close parentheses, but be careful you’re not removing numbers from series titles!
Further down the page, you’ll see ‘Authors’. For me, that was another 15,000 or so keywords. Or another fifteen ad sets.
I took this approach further, by searching in all departments for ‘alien invasion’, then selecting ‘Movies & TV’ from the ‘Departments’. I then had the option of sci-fi actors, and directors. This was around 18,000 more keywords. Play around with this approach, see what you can find!
Another scattergun approach of this kind is IMDB. I Googled ‘science fiction movies IMDB’. Here’s an example of my results:
There are various things you can explore to gather keywords in the Google results. I like the first one, as it shows movies, TV movies, shorts, TV episodes etc. Here’s a look at the first page of results (using ‘Compact’ mode):
As you can see, it states there are 125,014 titles. It won’t show you past 10,000 though! But you can order it differently. See the options next to ‘sort by’? Well, you can change things around to gather more results once you’ve copied the first 10,000, put them all into Excel, and removed the hyperlinks. Then you get another 10,000 for each method of sorting, and remove the duplicates, giving you a nice long scattergun list of titles to target. Sci-fi is a large genre, but you can try this whatever genre you write in.
Again, it’s something you can create multiple ad sets on AMS ads with, set a low bid, and let it tick over. I get sales on bids as low as 0.02c using this method!
Well, I’m just about typed-out!
I’d just like to add a disclaimer. I’m not claiming to be a bestseller. I’m not! I’m just a normal everyday person who’s trying to get to the point where I can quit my 20 hours per week day job and write to pay my bills. I’m not trying to get famous, just to get a footing. I also want to say that you need to be prepared to put a LOT of time into this marketing thing! It’s not something you can spend an hour a week on once and then sit back and reap the rewards. No, you have to be prepared to work hard, work lots of hours, and stick at it.
You also have to find the best ways to monitor and assess the performance of your ads. I’m not going to write about that here. What I do want to do is remind you to go back to the beginning of this article and buy Brian Meeks’s book and join his Facebook group, if you haven’t already. Just to be clear – I don’t earn a cent from linking you to Brian’s book, or Dave Chesson’s free course. I just want to help you get to the places I’ve arrived at, share my thinking to prompt you to more success, and I encourage and welcome you to post ideas I haven’t had, methods I haven’t outlined, or share links to your own articles or resources you use that help you. By talking and sharing and being a community, we can all do better together.
Thanks for reading, and I can’t wait to read all your comments!
Good luck with your list-building, and with your ads. When you hit the bestseller lists, be sure to share the news in the comments below!