Part 7: The Ultimate Guide to Book Covers, Blurbs, Categories, Keywords & Pricing (Branding & Packaging)

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Welcome back for Part 7 of the Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing! In this section, we’ll be diving deep into book covers, blurbs, pricing, and other key aspects of your branding and packaging. If you’re just stopping by and want to start from the beginning, you can find the complete series here. Each part stands alone, though, so if you’re just interested in a particular topic, feel free to jump in wherever you see fit.

Let’s revisit the Ultimate Book Marketing Formula for a moment:

We’ve spent three parts of this guide covering traffic in granular detail, from the importance of Amazon’s algorithms to the places to get it and promo sites to use. After you generate that traffic, however, comes conversion: getting people to buy. This is where the real money is made. Recall the Internet Marketing Formula, adapted from Perry Marshall’s excellent 80/20 Sales & Marketing, which states that there are only three essential steps in the marketing & sales process:

  1. Traffic: directing the right potential readers to your book page via paid ads, your mailing list, social media, Amazon’s algorithms and so forth.
  2. Conversion: convincing readers to buy your book via a stellar blurb and cover, competitive price, hook-filled first few pages and so forth.
  3. Profit: did you make money? Track your numbers, so you know if your traffic and conversion efforts have been effective. After analyzing the numbers, you have two options:
    • If you made money, you repeat the process or, if you have additional marketing funds, slowly scale up your spend to grow your business.
    • Ultimately, this can be summed up with the following rule: double down on whatever makes you money and immediately stop or fix what doesn’t.

This process usually breaks down (i.e. becomes unprofitable) at the conversion step. It is fairly straightforward to get traffic to your book’s page. Getting people to buy, however, is a tricky beast indeed. In short, you have control over the following six elements on Amazon:

  • Section 1: Covers (and titles)
  • Section 2: Blurbs
  • Section 3: Pricing
  • Section 4: Categories
  • Section 5: Keywords
  • Section 6: Reviews
  • Section 7: Front & Back Matter

If you want to skip to a specific section just search for it.

But before we hop into that, we’ll start with a reminder of why market research is so important.

Branding Starts with Market Research

The main reason most books don’t sell is simple: they were written for a market of one (e.g. the author). Attempting to create a market or demand for a product is a common mistake marketers in all disciplines make, but it’s especially common in writing, where people often write the book of their heart with little regard for what readers want.

This is totally fine, of course. Not everything is about money. But if your goal is to make money, then market research is essential to effective branding. Contrary to popular belief, it is very hard to generate demand for a product that people do not want. Thus, if you write a book with no market, even the slickest cover and best blurb will be hard pressed to sell it. On the other hand, if you write a book in a market with a voracious readership, even mediocre writing and packaging often can’t stop it from succeeding.

Of course, if you can couple a story that has significant market demand with professional packaging that grabs the attention of those voracious readers, then that is when you have the potential for real marketing magic.

Market research doesn’t stop with the writing process, though. It’ll be critical throughout the branding process, because you’ll be basing your own decisions when it comes to covers, blurbs, pricing, and more on the market at large. If you need a refresher on the subject, check out The Ultimate Guide to Market Research. Otherwise, let’s get started with a quick and dirty definition branding and packaging.

Branding and Packaging: What Are They?

I use the terms branding and packaging somewhat interchangeably. But just for clarity’s sake, here’s what each actually means:

  1. A brand is a promise of a consistent customer experience. Many authors and business owners mistakenly believe their customers want novelty. No; they want consistent quality. As Ray Croc, founder of McDonald’s said, “People don’t want the best burger in the world; they want a burger that’s just like the one they had last time.” You know exactly what you’re getting from Starbucks or McDonald’swhether it’s located in London, Tokyo, Sydney or Seattle. Such is the power of a great brand.
    • The heart of your brand is your unique selling proposition (USP). A classic USP example is Domino’s famous “30 minutes or less” guarantee. In the indie realm, a USP is something your books offer that no other author does. In other words, getting to the heart of your brand is as simple (and difficult) as answering this question: what makes your books distinct?
  2. Packaging is the brand’s visual presentation. Starbucks’ cups and logo, for example, echo the premium experience and drive home the brand.

Don’t get too hung up on granular definitions. The takeaway here is simple: your book’s packaging will make or break its chances of success. So you need to master how they work.

The reason these terms are semi-interchangeable for our purposes is simple: packaging (blurbs and covers) is the most critical parts of branding for indie authors. These two elements are the 20% that drives the 80% of results – or, in this case, more like 99% of the results. Once you have your market research and USP in place, the blurbs and covers will be responsible for broadcasting these to the correct target audience. So, far all intents and purposes, the blurb and cover will be your brand, since that’s what readers will see.

The hierarchy of what matters:

  1. Your book
  2. Cover
  3. Blurb
  4. Price
  5. Reviews
  6. Categories/keywords

For those with perfectionist tendencies convinced you can do everything correctly, I implore you to reconsider. Studies have shown that productivity and overall work quality both tend to drop as you burn the candle at both ends. An 80% cover + 80% keywords is far, far less effective than a 99% cover and 5% keywords.

This is particularly important for authors with limited time, but it’s a lesson we can all benefit from: focus your energy on what matters most.

In many ways, the points discussed within this guide are simply the price of entry. If your cover is off-genre, your book is DOA. If your blurb is boring, your book is toast. Put it in the wrong categories and you’re going to reach the wrong buyers—and so forth. Nailing these elements is critical, but most authors completely and utterly fail. I thought I was doing it right for the first three years. I wasn’t. This was expensive and frustrating—but you can be the beneficiary of my mistakes.

Section 1: Covers & Titles

Let’s get one thing straight right from the jump: your cover is not a piece of art, but a piece of packaging. If the reader cannot immediately identify your book’s genre and tone from the cover, the artwork has not done its job and needs to be replaced. Aside from market research, the cover is the most important part of book marketing. Getting it right is paramount.

Before we start talking about cover design, however, we need an appropriate title. Let’s talk about that.

Titles

Perhaps you have a beautiful title that you just can’t let go of—a song lyric, or a passage from your favorite book. You envision the story behind the title receiving its own sub-section on your book’s Wikipedia page.

If this sounds remotely like what you’re doing, stop immediately.

There are many questionable recommendations regarding the elements of a good title. Most of the advice on the topic tends to be fuzzy: “make it sing,” “metaphors are the best option,” or “follow your heart.” All such information is egregiously incorrect for genre fiction—I have some awful selling books to prove it—so I recommend this instead: as with the cover, the title should clearly signal to the reader what the book is about.

There are innumerable exceptions to this rule: Divergent, The Hunger Games, Red Rising, The Sound and The Fury, Infinite Jest and The Sun Also Rises are but a few of the titles that tell you little about the book prior to reading. To which I say: yes, you’re right. But we don’t have a big publisher who will put our book on the front table of Barnes & Noble and spring for a nice spread in Publisher’s Weekly. We will not be reviewed in the NYT.  We need to create our own little marketing storm.

This doesn’t mean you title your latest romance Two People Who Fall in Love and Bang at the End.

Consider the book Killing Floor. If you didn’t recognize the title, you surely aren’t surprised to learn that it’s the first book in the Jack Reacher series. It captures the genre and subject matter perfectly, without being overtly cliché or obvious.

An example from the extensive archives of personal experience: I titled my first book Only Coyotes Die Here. Kind of cute, but it does a poor job of setting any expectations. It gives the reader no indication that it’s a time-loop novel, a la Replay or the film Source Code, set in a dystopian world.

A more effective title would’ve been Rewind. Instead, when I retitled it & rebranded it three years ago—in a feeble optimization attempt—I redubbed it The Rapture. This was incredibly stupid, not only because it still gave no indication about the content, but also because the book then attracted religious readers who were offended by the bad language, drug use and other R-rated elements.

Overly clever and artistic titles tend to confuse or mislead the reader. Remember, you have seconds (milliseconds, even), to grab their attention. Make it count, and don’t make them do more work than necessary. As one book out of thousands on Amazon, you haven’t earned the benefit of their doubt yet.

Titling your book correctly isn’t a magical fix—I released a book in 2016 called Ashes of the Fall, and it sold 148 copies in its first 30 days (and 260 for the entire year). But with zero additional information, you know that it’s a dystopian/disaster/post-apocalyptic book. If you’re interested in that genre, there’s a good chance you’ll consider clicking the cover thumbnail and giving it a closer look.

Covers

Now that we have our title nailed down, we need a fantastic on-genre cover. This process entails means three key things:

  1. Research what’s already selling.
  2. Get a professional cover artist—don’t design it yourself.
  3. Don’t allow your own terrible ideas to get in the way of a good cover.

While spending a few bucks on a pro cover doesn’t guarantee sales, it makes your book dramatically more competitive in a crowded landscape. That being said, as we’ve mentioned already, the most important element of your cover is not the beauty of the design, but its effectiveness at conveying the genre at a one second glance. It’s easy to commission well-designed covers that didn’t match my sub-genre. My main concern was being unique. I suspect most other authors have similar approaches.

If your cover is super-unique in genre fiction, you are missing the point.

Case in point: my original covers for a post-apocalyptic survival novel set on an island resort. These demonstrate that competent, professional covers are not enough to sell books. The designer was not at fault here; he followed my briefs and reference covers exactly. The failure and idiocy were mine alone. The end result is a professional cover (and title) that had no chance of selling a disaster book:

The new title and cover were right on the money. As an aside, here are the free download numbers before vs. after I changed the cover:

Adjusting the cover and title to something genre-appropriate increased the number of downloads by almost 5x.

One final note: a good cover and title can’t save a book that readers don’t like. While the packaging for Paradise is now on point, it never sold. It was my second novel, which is about all we need to say about that.

How to Commission a Kick Ass Cover

To avoid purchasing a beautiful piece of art that will not sell any books, here’s a repeatable process for commissioning an appropriate genre cover:

  1. Find 3 – 5 covers that you like on your sub-genre’s Amazon Top 100 bestseller list. Identify a mix of traditionally published books and indie titles. Readers have voted with their dollars that they prefer these covers in this genre. Maybe you’re getting sick of me mentioning the bestseller charts; too bad. These charts are like the ultimate focus group that definitively answers the question “what do readers want?” totally free.
  2. Find a cover artist with a portfolio matching your desired style & book genre. Visit my resources (nicholaserik.com/resources) if you’re stuck. I only list designers that I’ve personally worked with and recommend.
  3. Send your 3 – 5 sample covers to the designer and tell them to MAKE IT LOOK SIMILAR TO THE EXAMPLES. It is crucial to provide your designer with clear visual expectations, as text can be easily misinterpreted. Be specific regarding the design elements you do or do not want. The more clearly you communicate expectations, the better your final cover will be.
  4. Ensure that the typography is consistent in terms of font/placement across your series. This is critical for branding and to signal that books are in the same series.

This has been repeated almost ad naseum, but you are not commissioning a piece of artwork. Unfortunately, this is exactly what I see many authors doing. Your cover art is your book’s packaging. Its only purpose is to signal what’s inside. Do not package a Snickers bar in a Starburst wrapper. This will only attract the wrong customers, and make them very angry.

You will eventually get to the point in your author career where you’ll want to stand out from the crowd and really signal your author brand. This is smart, but you need a firm foundational understanding of why your readership responds to certain cover tropes/elements before “zagging” off on your own. Even slight deviations from the sub-genre formula tend to spell disaster for less experienced authors, as their “minor” deviation removes a key trope without replacing it with another element that triggers the same underlying psychological “feel.”

In other words, understand what the glowy hands on urban fantasy covers (or the naked man torso on steamy romances) is signaling before you reinvent the branding wheel. Once you have the basics down, feel free to subvert, lampshade and omit tropes – just as you do in your novels. But this freedom to improvise is earned through a deep mastery of the fundamentals.

Covers in Practice: Covers From a USA Today Bestselling Series

Using text to explain these principles is all well and good, but as the old saying goes about pictures and words:

I want to highlight two things here: one, consistent typography is one of the most critical factors for tying books together at a glance. If you take a closer look at this series, the prequel novella (on the left) and the box set cover (on the right) are visually different from the others. The former is a close-up of a woman’s face; the latter is hand-illustrated. Yet they feel like they’re part of the same series. Why?

The fonts are all the same. There’s also a little “badge” on each one (shaped like a shield) that ties the books together. Finally, the typography placement itself is consistent, taking up the bottom third of the cover (save for the box set, where the author name couldn’t fit).

Two, other subtle touches maintain the branding. The close-up model on the left? Same one as featured on the three individual books. The shotgun makes an appearance on all five covers. Even though the hand-illustrated cover doesn’t use the model as a reference, the broad strokes of the character’s appearance remain the same. At a thumbnail, they fit in cohesively.

Section 2: Blurbs

Your cover is the most important piece of your marketing arsenal. A truly great one can sell a book on its own with minimal advertising. A crappy one will scuttle your book’s conversion.

But your book description—usually referred to as the “blurb” (or “jacket copy” in traditional publishing)—shouldn’t be given short shrift. Covers have steadily risen in quality over the past few years, making it much harder to close the sale with shiny packaging alone. An excellent blurb is crucial to convert browsers into buyers. That’s because the general evaluation process goes something like this:

  1. Click on book because of cool, relevant cover.
  2. Scroll down and read the tagline/first few words of the blurb.
  3. Leave, click buy, read sample, or read a few reviews.

In other words, a strong cover and blurb can sell your book without the reader scrolling any further. This is key: we want our presentation to be so good that the reader immediately clicks buy. Unfortunately, authors have a tendency to write blurbs that transform fascinating books into ones that sound unreadable, boring and terrible.

Authors often note that penning the blurb is more difficult than writing the actual novel. That’s not a surprise, since the blurb is a piece of sales copy that requires a different set of writing skills: copywriting.

What follows are the common elements underpinning effective book descriptions. Actually writing an effective blurb of your own is a matter of practice and repeated revision—unfortunately, there are no shortcuts.

And yes, it is challenging.

Writing Your Blurb: Guidelines

The blurb’s job is to grab your reader’s attention and pique their curiosity in a condensed space. For a $5 eBook, the only question/objection you must answer is simple: as a fan of genre x, will this book satisfy my expectations and entertain me? This does not require that much text, just the right text.

Some guidelines to help you make that happen:

  1. TONE: this should reflect the tone of the book/reading experience.
  2. STYLE: short sentences. Fragments are okay and can help the rhythm.
  3. FORMATTING: a splash of bold (particularly for the tagline) can give a professional flair. Don’t be afraid of the return key—white space is your friend, since most people will skim.
  4. READABILITY: write the blurb at a reasonable reading level. I aim for fifth to seventh grade.
  5. CONFLICT AND TENSION: these are the heartbeat of fiction, so you want to make sure your blurb overflows with these. If your blurb is boring, usually it doesn’t have enough conflict.
  6. PROPER NAMES/NOUNS: avoid unfamiliar ones. Only mention the protagonist and antagonist—or the male/female leads in a romance.
  7. SETTING: try to seamlessly incorporate it within the first or second sentence, especially if your book is in a genre (e.g. fantasy/sci-fi) heavily reliant on setting.
  8. LENGTH: typically no longer than 200 – 250 words.
  9. SPECIFIC: show what makes your story/characters strong + unique. Note that this is not the fancy names you came up with for your fictional fantasy realm. It’s about the feeling and emotional experience you’re going to provide. Don’t be overly general. Be clear about the stakes.
  10. AUDIENCE: you can select the audience by including the genre, or similar authors—this can be done via a statement like “an adrenaline-packed treasure hunt for fans of Dan Brown.” Usually used as the tagline/hook at the top of the blurb.

The General Structure

  1. Hook/tagline: the most important part of your blurb. Must pique serious curiosity in a very brief time frame. A hook is a high-concept idea that can be summed up in 15 words or less. Most books don’t have them. Thus, you’ll often rely on a snappy tagline (Only a demon can save the world from burning) that hits precisely the right genre notes. Not all good blurbs have taglines, but it’s worth coming up with a few anyway.
  2. 80 – 90 word lead: the lead is the first few sentences of your blurb. A pithy lead combined with a strong tagline or hook can sell the book on its own. The area “above the fold” (before readers have to click read more) on Amazon totals less than 90 words (30 on mobile). Most readers will only see this, so make it engaging. Browse your genre’s bestseller lists to find effective examples. You’ll see how good taglines and leads not only make you want to read the book, but also quickly communicate the underlying flavor, tone, style, and experience a reader can expect.
  3. Body: this is where you talk establish the book’s core conflict.
  4. Snapper/cliffhanger: end with a “snapper” —a rhythmic, pithy line that establishes the stakes, hooks the reader’s attention, and forces them to either purchase or check out a sample. Alternative is a simple cliffhanger, which works the same way as it does within the book. Please don’t write “scroll up and grab a copy.” This is a direct-response hard-sell call-to-action (CTA) that is out of place in fiction.

That’s it: tagline, lead, body, snapper. Four parts. It’s helpful to consider that a blurb is just a fractal story. A fractal is a part that resembles the whole: e.g. a puddle has the same characteristics of a lake, just on a smaller scale. The same idea applies here: a blurb is, in effect, a miniature story with a beginning, middle, and end. If you can use your storytelling chops, then you can write an effective blurb.

Blurb Formulas

Here are two formulas. I keep an updated, printable cheat sheet of blurb formulas here, which also includes ideas for ads. The two formulas below should cover most books; exploring them should be your first priority.

Standard

For a standard book, start with a (1) hook/tagline (e.g. “The world’s burning. And only a demon can save it.”), a hooky review quote/award/bestseller accolade, or a comparison (e.g. “A razor-snark, sun-soaked urban fantasy trilogy for fans of Jim Butcher and Ilona Andrews.”) Then (2) introduce the main character/plot hook (e.g. he’s a demon with a conscience). This should be powerful enough to sell the book on its own—one sentence, or maybe two short ones. It must be above the fold. (3) Follow that up with the stakes/main story question. This should be a “snapper” or a cliffhanger a la what you would have at the end of a chapter. The reader should be so curious at this point that they have no choice but to buy the book to find out the answer. (4) Then end with a sell (e.g. “For fans of Sookie Stackhouse and Anita Blake” or “A pulse-pounding international thriller, Spies & Lies will keep you on the edge of your seat.”). Sprinkle in the tropes/themes to flesh out everything with details. The selling line/section is a great place to clearly state the genre, or allude to it (“full of bloodthirsty vampires and brooding alpha werewolves”).

Hero’s Journey

Here’s a useful framework if you write books using the hero’s journey structure (think The Odyssey, Harry Potter and so forth). This is a summary of Libbie Hawker’s two-part video series, which details a five-step blurb writing formula:

Your protagonist (1) wants something (2) but an obstacle is in the way (3) causing the character to struggle against that force (4) and either succeed or fail (5 – e.g. the stakes/risk). Then add enough details to make it unique, without overloading your reader with world-building info.

There are more details in her book Gotta Read It, which I recommend. It can work for other plot structures, but I’ve found it’s easiest to apply to those using the hero’s journey (or at least character-centric). If your book is plot-driven or high-concept, use an alternative framework.

How to Practice

Okay, so it’s great to have basic principles and formulas. Be readable, be interesting. Find out what your readers want, and then highlight those elements in your description. Be prepared to write a bunch of blurbs to get something remotely good. Position your book correctly. But how does one actually do that?

Here’s how you can find out what to put in your blurb and practice your copywriting chops, step-by-step.

  1. Find 5 blurbs in your sub-genre’s top 20 lists that make you want to read the actual book. As with the covers, make sure they’re not discounted $0.99 books enjoying a temporary promo surge. Try to locate indie books priced above $2.99. Read + copy them over to a document. This is known in copywriting as a “swipe file.
  2. Find 5 more blurbs—not necessarily in your genre—from NYT Bestsellers. These are usually written by pro copywriters. Read them and copy them to your swipe file.
  3. Skim the reviews of popular books in your genre. What did readers consistently hate/like the most? Does the blurb reference these elements? These are the tropes readers will expect to see mentioned in your blurb (and in your book)
  4. For professionally written (and split-tested) copy, subscribe to BookBub’s newsletter in your genre(s) of choice. Add good ones to your swipe file.
  5. Copy one blurb from your swipe file out word-for-word by hand per day. I’d stick with one or two, otherwise your hand becomes kind of grouchy. This is a classic copywriting technique and works wonders to get the feeling in your bones. Analyze what tropes they’re using, how the language flows, what encourages people to buy. Why did the writer use a certain word? Why did they leave another detail out?
  6. Set a timer for 15m and write one blurb a day. Don’t focus on making things good, just write it and put it in a document on your computer.
  7.  Bonus: you can test your blurbs/taglines on Facebook, Amazon, or BookBub Ads to get direct feedback on what’s working with your target audience (and what isn’t). Judge their quality according to CPC and CTR.

Repeat for thirty days.

Section 3: Pricing

There are two key questions to answer when pricing:

  1. Is my main goal revenue or visibility?
    • What is the optimal price for my goal given my specific book/series?
    • General rule of thumb: lower price = more visibility/less revenue; higher price = less visibility/more revenue. Sometimes this is thrown out of whack, i.e. where a book sells better at a higher price.
  2. Look at the indie bestsellers in your genre—what do readers expect to pay?

A good baseline if you have no idea what to charge is to simply price your book around what indie authors in the Top 100 of your sub-genre are successfully charging. In romance, there’s generally a cap of around $4.99; in other genres, it might be higher or lower. And if you have a name brand or a big fanbase, you can generally command more dollars.

Finding an Optimal Price Point

Nailing down the exact optimal price point for a specific book requires testing. Start with the “baseline” genre price above, and track sales for two to four weeks. Once you have that data (or if you already have it), adjust to a new price, changing no other elements. Track sales for the same amount of time, then compare the average sales per day.

This type of testing typically requires that you’re running PPC ads or have a book that is selling well on its own, since you need a steady amount of traffic to ensure a large enough sample size.

Here’s what happened when I price-tested an adventure book (in KU) with revenue as the goal:

You should try to make the comparison periods identical. But this back of the envelope type of analysis easily tells me that $4.99 is the best price for my goal. Interestingly, the book also sold slightly better at $4.99 versus $3.99, thus increasing my visibility, as well. This is not an unusual occurrence, because some readers use price as a signal for quality and ignore lower priced books. If you’re in a genre that expects premium prices, keeping your books priced low might be reducing revenue and visibility.

I decided not to test $5.99, as most of the indie books in the adventure genre cap out at around $3.99 – $4.99. Page reads also increased with the price increase—readers are more likely to buy a book at $0.99 and borrow it when the price is higher. Note that if you have a series (the numbers above are for only one book), you should look at the money generated daily by the series. The increased sales volume on Book 1 at $0.99 might produce less immediate revenue, but you might sell more copies of Books 2, 3, 4 and so forth, thus making more total revenue.

Section 4: Categories & Keywords

Ah, keywords.

How much time you’ve wasted me.

I’ve tried most of the techniques suggested in books and courses, and used most of the popular keyword tools—Publisher Rocket, Merchant Words, Keyword Inspector, Kindle Spy, Kindle Samurai, as well as the basic “enter the first letter in the Amazon search box” technique.

My conclusion: Keywords on Amazon do very little, unless they’re in the title or subtitle. If you have a specific term you want to show up high in Amazon’s search results for, it needs to be in the title or subtitle. People have abused this to the point where it’s basically useless in fiction (the subtitle will be something like “A Supernatural Suspense Novel of the Paranormal Witches Wizards Fantasy Thriller”). But if you’re publishing non-fiction, consider using a title that incorporates a popular keyword phrase or two.

By the way, to bust a myth you might have seen floating around: Amazon descriptions aren’t searchable, so don’t try to pad your blurb with a bunch of additional keywords and categories. I added the nonsense word “dgrzprseamp” to one of my descriptions, then searched for it over a six week period. My book didn’t show up.

But let’s say you don’t believe me and want to enter keywords anyway. I’ll show you how to perform that research so you can generate more than you’ll ever need.

Finding Keywords

While generating keywords isn’t useful for Amazon KDP, it is useful for their ads platform. Thus, the techniques below have value, albeit not for boosting your position in organic search results.

A few technical notes for entering keywords on Amazon KDP:

  • Amazon gives you seven keyword boxes; each box has a 50 character limit.
  • Repeating keywords is unnecessary. E.g. vampire love story and vampire paranormal romance. You can just have “vampire love story paranormal romance” and Amazon will spit out your book when someone searches for either term.
  • Use the full 50 characters. Don’t repeat the same word twice (e.g. paranormal romance vampire romance – second romance not necessary). Plurals don’t seem to matter—e.g. the search engine treats “books” and “book” the same way.
  • Don’t use words like “free,” “best-selling,” other authors’ names or Kindle Unlimited unless you want Amazon to get angry with you.

After you’ve gathered your organic keywords, enter them until you max out each 50 character string. Simple, although it’s also time-consuming.

Tools you can use to generate keywords:

  • OneLook (onelook.com) is actually the most useful tool I’ve found for generating keyword ideas. It’s basically a super-thesaurus that will return all terms related to a word. So if you put in “island,” you’ll get stuff like “archipelago” along with six degrees type stuff a la “cove,” “plantation,” and “reef.”
  • Google Keyword Planner tool. Just type in a phrase like “science fiction” or “aliens” etc. and write down all the relevant phrases that have decent search volume. Alternatively, plug in a competitor’s book page into the “landing page” box and get keywords from there.
  • Keywordtool.io (keywordtool.io) generates suggested keywords from a number of different search engines – including Google and Amazon.

Amazon Ads only:

You can’t use author & book names for the keywords you enter on the KDP Dashboard; it’s against the TOS. But they’re usable – and quite useful – when you’re using Amazon’s pay-per-click platform, AMS. Here are the best sources:

  • Look at the also boughts and sponsored products for popular books and authors in your genre.
  • Look at the Top 100 charts in your sub-genre.
  • Find book titles at bookseriesinorder.com, which is exactly what the name suggests.

So that means keywords are completely useless, right?

Not quite.

Special Google Play Note

Keywords are critical on Google Play, since your book’s blurb is indexed. There’s no specific place to add keywords—so insert them at the end of the description.

Results (Jan 1 – March 31 data is with no keywords; April data is with keywords at bottom)

Not a massive boost, but we’ll take what we can get.

Let’s talk about the other use for keywords: getting into specific categories.

Keywording Into Categories

On Amazon, the main (small) benefit of using keywords at all is to get into specific sub-categories.

Speaking of categories: you can have up to 10. It’s worth putting your book in as many relevant categories as possible, as this maximizes your visibility across the store—as an example, one of my urban fantasy series is set in the future and has sci-fi elements. Thus, I put it into both sci-fi and fantasy related categories.

When it’s riding high on the charts, it’ll show up on both bestseller lists and be recommended to both genre readers. Which is fine; it’ll appeal to both.

My basic recommendation for dealing with categories and keywords: place your book in the correct categories on the KDP dashboard (e.g. if it’s an urban fantasy book, place it in that category), select any relevant keywords from Amazon’s official list (nicholaserik.com/keywords) to get into a few additional relevant sub-categories, fill out the remaining keywords with relevant generic terms (e.g. “urban fantasy”) and call it a day.

Note that there are “secret” keywords not on Amazon lists that also enter into additional categories. You can randomly enter keywords to try to gain access to these sub-categories, use the name of the category itself, or just email KDP support and request that it be added.

The category strings look like this, and are located right below the book’s sales rank:

Requesting additional categories is refreshingly easy: just email KDP and post the full strings in the request. Here’s a basic template:

Please place my book [TITLE] (ASIN: XX) into the following categories:

Dark Fantasy Horror

[category 2]

Thanks!

This isn’t some sort of magic. I had a book ranked 19k in the free store in four categories. But it takes five minutes and can help maximize your visibility, particularly during a promo when you hit high enough on various genre lists.

Some will be tempted to abuse this—hell, some already are—and cram their book into as many categories as possible. I think this is a poor practice, as it annoys readers and doesn’t get your work in front of the right eyeballs. Also, category stuffing doesn’t generate any visibility boosts for books already languishing in the ranks. Note the repetition of the word relevant when it comes to categories. You don’t want to shotgun into as many categories as possible; you want to be in the right ones. If that’s three categories, don’t add more for the heck of it. That will screw with the algorithm’s recommendation targeting. Which, as we covered back in Part 4, would be bad.

Section 6: Reviews

New authors tend to focus far too much on reviews. When you’re not selling, they can seem like the skeleton key to success. They are far less important than you think; reviews are not a driver of sales, but a byproduct of them. Popular books have sold more copies, ergo they have far more readers who can potentially leave you a review.

That being said, some promo sites have review requirements, and social proof is a factor in getting people to buy. A book with no reviews or an assortment of poor ones might receive a wary eyebrow from a prospective buyer. Especially if they can find a similar-looking book that has far better reviews.

Thus, a few guidelines for generating quality reviews:

  • Don’t get them from friends/family. This is against the Amazon TOS. Don’t freak out if your mom leaves you a review, however; this won’t get you banned. Amazon is just likely to remove it.
  • You can ask for reviews in the back matter of your book. This is generally not advised when you have more than ten (see the next section on optimizing sellthrough for why). But when you have no reviews, this can get the ball rolling—particularly in conjunction with a free run. If you promote your free book with the link in the back matter and generate a few thousand downloads, you can expect a few reviews to come in.
  • Start your own ARC (advance review copy) team. These people receive an early review copy of the book. They often will then review it for you come launch day. Note that you can’t demand or force them to leave a review (or a positive one, either). But they tend to be willing if you remind them on launch day. You can include a message in your newsletter autoresponder inviting people to the ARC team, or simply send out a regular newsletter announcing that you’re looking for ARC readers for your next release. You should get at least a few takers if you have 500+ people on your mailing list.

For more on getting reviews, check out my free Mini Guide to Getting Reviews.

Section 7: Front & Back Matter

The front and back matter are both invaluable marketing real estate. Too many authors waste them – either by not putting anything there at all, or polluting each with hundreds of links. A substantial portion of your income will come from your backlist. Effective front and back matter helps sell this (and also get people on your mailing list, so they buy your upcoming releases).

It’s critical to understand a few basic principles of conversion before we go ahead. First and foremost, the more actions/choices you offer a person, the less likely they are to take any action. You want to cut down the number of CTAs to a minimum. Make sure you’re only asking folks to take actions that will move the needle. Once you have someone on your mailing list, for example, you can send them other links: social media, backlist and so forth.

Two, you need to make a specific ask. The easier and clearer you make this (e.g. by including a link with phrasing like “TAP HERE TO BUY BOOK 2”), the more action readers will take.

In the front matter, you’ll want to include a link to your newsletter on its own page. This can increase subscribers by 2x or more. In practice, this looks like:

While the image-based options look appealing, they increase the delivery fees, so I’d generally go with text only.

In the back matter, we want to limit our CTAs to two (newsletter and an upsell to Book 2):

The back matter on the left was already optimized—it had three links, otherwise known as calls-to-action (CTA). A CTA asks the reader to do something specific. In this instance, the CTAs were a link to my mailing list, a review request, and a link to buy the next book.

I recommended this back matter for years.

It produced 3.4% sellthrough to Book 2.

The one on the right stripped all the other CTAs away other than the link to Book 2.

It produced 4.8% sellthrough to Book 2—an almost 1.5x increase. That’s massive.

The most important thing to me is selling the book. That’s how I make money. Newsletter subscribers are great, and a close second, but if I have to choose, I want the sale.

You might be different. Run your own numbers and organize your back matter accordingly.

Just remember the principle: limit your CTAs. I’d include no more than two—a newsletter link and a link to the next book.

And don’t phone in the CTA text! As writers, we often forget that words matter when it comes to things like blurbs or CTAs. A little copywriting goes a long way.

The specific words you use (e.g. “free,” “download” and “get” are all effective CTA components) significantly influence how many people will bother to click on the offer link. Telling people specifically what to do helps a surprising amount (e.g. a link with the text “tap here to get the next book now” is better than a link that just says “get the next book”).

Finally, a note on excerpts: they don’t seem to increase sellthrough for books within the same series (e.g. from Book 1 > Book 2) in Kindle Unlimited. But they do help when you’re wide.

And they can increase sellthrough to unconnected books (e.g. one standalone > another standalone in the same genre, or Book 5 of Series A > Book 1 of Series B) regardless if you’re exclusive or wide. As such, including an unrelated excerpt can be a clever way to introduce readers to a new series—or plug a standalone that’s not getting much sales love.

A Closing Thought

For many, my conclusions that your book, title, cover and blurb are critical won’t exactly be a revelation. However, I hope even if you’re well-versed in branding that this guide has at least provided some concrete evidence that, in fact, these are the right paths to head down. Too often we get attracted to new and shiny things, while declaring the fundamentals old hat. Or wasting hours on finding useless keywords.

And before you tweak your book until you’re seeing keywords in your alphabet soup, know this:

Most of the time, the answer to “why is my book not selling?” is because you’ve written an unsellable book.

This isn’t meant to end this guide on a discouraging note. Instead, it should be liberating: I see too many authors obsess over the Sisyphean task of propping their poorly selling books up with continued revision, promo and never-ending-tweaks. After a certain point, it’s better to marshal your resources to other ends—like studying what readers want, and then delivering a book that satisfies their expectations.

If you have a pro cover and blurb, have your price at the right level, and get some traffic on the book, and it still doesn’t sell, don’t despair. But don’t force the issue.

But before you write off a poor seller, see if there’s anything you can do to improve its chances of success. You probably won’t vault up the best-seller lists, but if you have an extensive backlist, you can generate a comfortable bump in revenue by getting the branding on point.

What’s Next?

I’ve mentioned the importance of the mailing list a number of times throughout this guide. Part 8: The Ultimate Guide to Newsletter Building shows you a step-by-step way to build your list to 1,000 subs in just 30 days. And it covers how to keep building your list, if you already have your first 1,000 subscribers.

And it covers a ton of other email related stuff, too, along the way. It’s the best piece of the series and will have the biggest impact on your career. You don’t want to miss it.

Key Takeaways

Covers

  • Cover = packaging, not artwork.
  • Make sure your title clearly signals the genre. Don’t go for metaphors or esoteric imagery.
  • You want a cover that is professional, clean, readable and instantly signals the genre/expectations at a small size.
  • Browse Amazon’s top 100 bestseller list in your sub-genre. Note the trends in terms of titles, covers and other elements (e.g. is the typography usually distressed? Is it a sans-serif or a serif?).
  • Find a designer with a portfolio that indicates they can pull your genre off well.
  • Send your 3 – 5 examples to your designer with very clear instructions.

Blurbs

  • Answers this reader question: as a fan of genre x, will this book satisfy my expectations and entertain me?
  • A blurb has just four parts: tagline, lead, body, snapper.
  • Practice blurbs by hand-copying one blurb and writing another each day.
  • Read your blurb out loud when it’s done.

Pricing

  • Determine your price by answering two key questions:
    • Is my main goal revenue or visibility?
    • What is the optimal price for my goal (either revenue/visibility) given my specific book/series?
  • General rule of thumb: lower price = more visibility/less revenue; higher price = less visibility/more revenue
    • Sometimes this is thrown out of whack, i.e. where a book sells better at a higher price.
  • Look at the indie bestsellers in your genre—what do readers expect to pay?

Keywords

  • Keywords aren’t useful on Amazon unless they’re already part of the pre-existing title & subtitle.
  • Keywords can be used to access special Amazon subcategories.
  • Keywords are very useful on Google Play.

Categories

  • Plug in keywords to get into the categories you want
  • Alternatively, email KDP support and ask them nicely to put your book in other categories.

Reviews

  • Start your own ARC team to get reviews on release day.
  • Run your book for free and have a request in the back matter (with a link directly to the review form) to get reviews

Front and Back Matter

  • Include a link to your newsletter on its own page in the front matter
  • Limit the number of CTAs in the back matter to two: newsletter and an upsell to the next book. Make sure they’re on the same page as THE END.

Action Exercises

Cover: Action Step

  1. Find 3 – 5 covers that you like on your sub-genre’s Amazon Top 100 bestseller list. Identify a mix of traditionally published books and indie titles. Readers have voted with their dollars that they prefer these covers in this genre. Maybe you’re getting sick of me mentioning the bestseller charts; too bad. These charts are like the ultimate focus group that definitively answers the question “what do readers want?” totally free.
  2. Find a cover artist with a portfolio matching your desired style & book genre. Visit my resources (nicholaserik.com/resources) if you’re stuck. I only list designers that I’ve personally worked with and recommend.
  3. Send your 3 – 5 sample covers to the designer and tell them to MAKE IT LOOK SIMILAR TO THE EXAMPLES. It is crucial to provide your designer with clear visual expectations, as text can be easily misinterpreted. Be specific regarding the design elements you do or do not want. The more clearly you communicate expectations, the better your final cover will be.
  4. Ensure that the typography is consistent in terms of font/placement across your series. This is critical for branding and to signal that books are in the same series.

Blurb: Action Step

  1. Write a new blurb based on the principles and the formula that best fits your book.

Back Matter: Action Step

  1. Reduce the number of CTAs in your back matter to two: a mailing list link and a link to your next book.