“How Amazon.com’s genre classification system affects the discoverability and sales of novels in an online environment.”
Since the beginning of Amazon.com’s creation in the 1990’s, books have been a major component of the business. In fact books were the first items Amazon ever sold, before being joined by other items. Recently Amazon.com ventured into the publishing sector by allowing people to self-publish their works, and this has created a vast variety of books on offer for sale. Currently there are around 25 million books, and one way Amazon has attempted to alleviate the pressure of such a huge volume is to create genre categories to categorise these books. Not only that, but these genre categories even have their own sub genres, which some are then further sub-divided. This may sound like a perfect system for categorising different book genres, but the system itself is not properly designed, as it does not account for new and emerging small sub-genres, nor does it create a place where any author can be discovered. This means that for some books they are never discovered by readers, unless authors are able to manipulate both the system of discoverability inside and outside Amazon.com. Through the examination of Amazon’s book genre classification system for both printed books and e-books I will analyse how authors can increase discoverability for themselves. I will examine what the genre elements of mystery and science fiction and fantasy genres are, Both are categories on Amazon.com, this is to show what genre parameters are and where one genre ends and another begins. I will also delve into their sub-genres to show the diversity or lack thereof on offer in those two categories. I will also examine the differences in genre classification between the printed books and the Kindle eBooks. To achieve these findings I will have case studies of authors and their books to show how discoverability works within Amazon.com’s genre classification system. These case studies will involve established book series and established authors and not so established authors. These case studies will also show the internal structures of marketing programs offered by Amzon.com that can increase discoverability, like the 90 day free download trial that is only available to premium members in the Kindle section, or the buy the book for free for five days option. I will also examine the readers’ role in discoverability of books, as readers have been established as people who already know what they like in terms of genre and browsing patterns.
The amount of scholarship that surrounds the ideas mentioned in the introduction is varied. Some areas have more scholarly or academic articles than others, while other areas appear to have no scholarly articles. The majority of information has been taken from non-academic articles which have been found on various blogs, news websites, and industry websites. Due to the sparse nature of academic information available for the topics in this essay it can summarised that there has not been much research done in the areas of how genre classification on Amazon.com helps discoverability and marketability of books.
Since there is little scholarly research in this area, it has been left to the less scholarly to state their ideas. This essay is a collation of sales figures, market performance figures, various internet articles on discoverability occurring in the online and physical environments and, articles about Amazon.com. The use of case studies, whereby analysing how individual authors categorise their books and how effectively they use Amazon’s genre system to achieve discoverability, is how this essay will demonstrate how discoverability works in an online environment.
Analysis and Discussion:
There are an estimated 25 million books listed on Amazon.com, with more being added every day. This means that a vast majority of books are simply lost in the midst of all the other books. One way Amazon.com has tried to sort out this problem is to create genre categories and then further divide those into sub-genres which then can be further divided into more sub-genres. But this does not alleviate the problem of discoverability for individual books or series. In fact for some books there would be no possibility of discovery unless authors are able to manipulate Amazon.com’s genre classification system to their advantage. There are multiple ways to do this. The most obvious way is to correctly identify the book’s genre, for example David Gaughran states that most people do not understand how book categories work and do not use the system to their advantage to increase their book visibility.4 According to Gaughran self-publishers only get to chose two genre categories, and traditional publishers can get up to five,4 while eBooks are only listed in one category in the Kindle store.10 This means that choosing the right sub-genre can give your book increased discoverability. Listing a book in the fiction genre category alone is useless because every other book listed under fiction and even a sub-genre of fiction will be there. The way around this problem is to list your book under a sub-genre or even a sub-genre of a sub-genre; because it will mean you are multiplying potential discoverability,4 as the book will appear in multiple categories. The category of mystery for example is one of Amazon’s best sellers with people aged 45 and over being the ones most likely to buy,12 it means that while it is popular there is also a lot of competition in this category. Gaughran uses the example of listing a book under Fiction > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Thrillers, the book would appear under all these categories.4 But there are over 200,000 books in the mystery, thriller and suspense category and over 100,000 in the thrillers section alone. But if you were to pick a sub-genre of thriller, like medical which only has 800 titles then you would increase your chances of being discovered. Gaughran also talks about Amazon’s Kindle store eBook genre categories, and how the system is different from the print books. Genre categories that appear in the print book section do not necessarily appear in the Kindle eBook store.4 For example Fiction & Literature > Drama > Latin America exists in the print book, but not in the Kindle store.4 This can cause alot of trouble in terms of discovery, but there are ways to use the system to your advantage. There are fewer books listed in the Kindle store than compared to the print book section. Around 1.8 million eBooks are listed, a whole lot less then the number of print books. This is because authors are not as familiar with Kindle’s genre categories as they are with print books and they do not utilise it to their full potential. If they did then their books would be more discoverable because they would be in a smaller pool of books, or fewer books to compete with.
One of the most obvious sources of book discoverability on Amazon.com would be the bestseller lists for each print book and eBook category. This page is usually the first you see of books, but the books you see are the ones that sell the most in that category. According to Charman-Anderson 17 percent of Amazon’s book sales are influenced by the bestseller and top 100 lists.8 There are some even some sub-genres that do not have 100 books listed so any book automatically becomes a top 100.9 But with other larger categories a book would have to sell hundreds of books per day to reach a top 100. There appears to be some discrepancy over how books make it into a top 100. Amazon has a program called ‘Kindle Owner’s Lending Library’; it allows Amazon Prime Members to borrow one free book per month.9 One borrowed book actually counts as a sale and whenever a book is listed as free through Kindle Select those free sales actually count as well.9 Best seller lists are a product of whose books financially sells the most, is borrowed the most, or obtained for free the most. If you were to look at the list of best sellers, you would notice that they are books that you probably already knew from other places like bookshops or department stores. These books have already achieved considerable discoverability and are simple pre-planned purchases. Authors who have not achieved high levels of discoverability need to make the most of what Amazon.com has to offer. According to Scott Berkun to increase discoverability you need to make things discoverable.19 To increase discoverability authors need to exploit everything about their book’s cover design, the book title, keywords, book description, and price.18 One way to do it is to create a design that draws a lot of attention. The thumbnail used to display a book can be used to great effect. Berkun emphasises the use of visual graphics to draw people in.19 For authors who have multiple books, the use of form, consistency, and expectation and flow would greatly improve sales due to the nature of creating familiarity of works. If readers come to know a signature design cover that belongs to a particular author then they would come to recognise another piece work from that author. All these tricks help authors increase the discoverability of their books within Amazon.com, but there is only so much one website is able to do. Authors need to venture outside of Amazon to increase their discoverability. Or as Charman-Anderson put it, no one can search for our books if they don’t know you exist.8
Amazon.com is basically just a place where books are stored, supported by a basic categorisation system. One person stated that online discovery isn’t happening at the retailers, like it happens in the bookstore, because retailer sites aren’t set up for discovery beyond the front page.11 It is up to the author to increase the chance of being discovered. According to an article on Forbes website, half of all Amazon book sales were planned purchases.8 This was shown through the way online viewers were searching for books, they were searching by the author’s name or topic.8 This means that people already knew what they were going to buy before even going onto the website. They had discovered the book elsewhere. Forbes further states that Amazon.com is a destination for purchase, not a discovery mechanism.8 What authors need to do is self promote and create awareness of their book outside of Amazon.com, so people can find their books in Amazon.com. There are multiple ways for authors to create or manipulate discoverability for their books. These are; serendipitous discovery, social discovery, distributed discovery, data-driven discovery, and incentivised discovery.14 Serendipitous discovery is where a person discovers a book through a semi-directed way, like browsing a particular genre or topic either online or in a bookstore.14 In an article about UK bookshops, it mentioned that a third of all books purchased in 2012 were discovered as a result of browsing, plus an additional 6 percent were from the result of seeing the book in a shop window.16 Of those books bought through serendipitous discovery, just under half were found through websites, libraries, catalogues, or social media.16 Some examples of serendipitous discovery are Amazon’s recommendations list or simply browsing through the list of similar titles. But according to Charman-Anderson only 10 percent of Amazon book sales are made from the ‘bought this/also this’ recommendations list and a further three percent came from browsing through categories.8 An example of this is of the book ‘Touching the Void’ by Joe Simpson. It was about Simpson’s near death experience in the Peruvian Andes. When it was released in 1988 it was only moderately successful before being forgotten.13 But then Jon Krakauer’s ‘Into Thin Air’, a book about another mountain-climbing tragedy, was published and it became a sensation.13 According to Anderson when Krakauer’s book came out, Simpson’s was almost out of print.13 But at the height of sales, ‘Touching the Void’ outsold ‘Into Thin Air’ by 2-to-1.13 This was because of Amazon’s ability to list the two books together and create serendipitous discovery. Another example of serendipitous discovery is Amazon’s Search Inside The Book or SITB, it is a program that allows readers to see inside portions of a book to see if they like it. Schmittman states that SITB is more of a merchandising program over a discovery program, because it does not reach out into the internet and bring readers in.17 But if a person was randomly searching a genre and came across a particular book that was part of SITB then it would aid to its discoverability. Social discovery is where books are recommended to you by a friend or through word of mouth. These recommendations can also come from social networking sites or other social networks.14 An example of social discovery is Amazon’s use of facebook being integrated with Amazon’s Author Pages. Every author on Amazon has an author page. They are designed to increase discoverability on and off Amazon.com through the use of twitter, videos, and up to date and relevant information.15 Author pages appear when someone searches your name.15 Another example is Goodreads, the internet’s largest book recommendation website. Goodreads is a social networking site with the aim of helping people find and share books they love.23 Amazon recently acquired Goodreads and it plans to integrate it with Kindle so that readers have the ability to easily share it with others.24 Distributed discovery is where books are discovered by either reading a review in a newspaper or blog, or is reference by another book.14 Data-driven discovery is simply best seller lists, where sales figures show us the most popular books.14 Incentivised discovery is where a book is given discoverability though promotions, giveaways, or for free.14 An example of this is Annabel Candy’s book ‘The Intuition Principle: How to Attract the Life You Dream Of’.18 Candy enrolled her book in an Amazon.com program called Kindle Select, this program allowed Amazon Prime members that ability to ‘borrow’ that book during a 90 day period and during that period you have the option of allowing you book to be sold for free for five days.18 According to Candy free does sell because her book ‘sold’ 464 copies over two days, and became number one in the Free books category18. This is further backed up by the data from that states 12 percent of sales came from promotions, deals or low prices.8
Readers generally know what to expect of a certain genre, which in turn makes them have preferred and non-preferred interests. According to Card genre boundaries were once fluid, but are now more defined because publishing categories have reinforced them.21 Publishers Weekly states that the most books bought in 2011-2012 were mystery/detective novels.12 These books were the most bought in the 45-54, 55-64, and 65+ age groups.12 In The Elements of Mystery Fiction: Writing the Modern Whodunit, William Tapply states that mystery fiction began with Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, as it was essentially the first story ever where the central plot question was ‘Who did it?’.20 The genre of contemporary mystery fiction and its sub-genres all contain elements of; the puzzle, detection, the sleuth as hero, the worthy villain, fair play, and realism and logic.20 Tapply states on page 5 that if a story’s main question is not a ‘Who did it’, then it would not be considered a mystery.20 In Amazon.com’s genre categories, mystery is its own genre with detective novels spread over multiple sub-genres. Amazon book categories somewhat follow the Book Industry Study Group or BISG subject headings list, 11 but there are many instances where it varies. This detracts from discoverability because the ten different BISG mystery and detective sub-genres22 are completely different to Amazon’s nine mystery sub-genres. In fact Amazon completely ignores some and puts others in different genre groups. Amazon.com does not have international mystery and crime, private investigators or cozy sub-genres, but they do have police procedural – as a separate genre under the Mystery, Thriller, and Suspense category, not under the mystery sub-genre. Another genre category found on Amazon is science fiction and fantasy. It currently has around 225,000 books listed.7 Genre elements that make up science fiction are a love of gadgets, mystical adventures in strange and mysterious places and rigorous extrapolation.21 But this is not the be all and end all of science fiction. Many books that are now considered science fiction classics were not necessarily published with that genre in mind. Like Kurt Vonnegut, he always insisted that his novels were not science fiction, but according to Card there is not a definition of science fiction writing that does not include his novels.21
Authors who stay within the same genre category are at risk of their book sales slowing down and their book becoming obscure. But at the same time book series are usually best sellers as shown in Publishing Weekly’s bestselling books of 2012. The Hunger Games trilogy and 50 Shades trilogy all occupy in the top eight spaces on both Amazon Kindle, Amazon Print and the Nielson Bookscan’s top 20.5 The Guardian also lists these books within the top seven places in their top 100 books of 2012.6 But these books have already achieved huge levels of success and been discovered long ago. Lesser known authors have more trouble with this and need to devise ways of increasing and maintaining discoverability. One author, Monique Martin, often changes the categories her books are listed under to entice new readers; these are usually done during promotional offers like a free run or add spot.4 Martin’s ‘Out of Time’ series can easily fit into multiple genre categories, like time travel romance, historical fiction, historical romance, historical fantasy, mystery and romantic suspense.4 By switching categories Martin gains a larger audience and increased and prolonged sales. But there are only so many categories a single book can fit in. Author Isaac Marion, who wrote Warm Bodies, a book that was recently converted into a movie, is currently listed in three categories; Teens > Literature and fiction, Mystery, Thrillers, Suspense > Thrillers > spy stories and tales of intrigue, and Literature and fiction > Genre fiction > Horror. While the third category fits in with the story, the first two not so much, and given how it also has elements of romance and action then it should be listed in other categories. But due to it being made into a movie the book has already got a huge amount of discoverability as people know the author’s name and title of the book.3 So the categories the book is listed under does not matter so much as readers know the author’s name and book title. Another author that has notoriety is John Marsden; he is the author of the well known Australian series the ‘Tomorrow series’ and its sequel ‘The Ellie Chronicles’. One could say that the books already have significant levels of discoverability, because there is already a movie and the books have been around since the 1990’s. But at the same time because the book has been around for so long it is at risk of becoming lost in obscurity and this is not helped by where they are listed. All of Marsden’s ‘Tomorrow series’ and ‘Ellie Chronicles’ paper books appear in the teens section, but some are placed in historical fiction, others in literature and fiction. But mostly they are located in the general teens section where they compete against 204,000 other teen books.2 The eBook versions are a little different, they appear under literature and fiction > children’s fiction, as there is no teen or young adult category. It appears that John Marsden’s books are not using the system to their advantage and this will be detrimental to their discoverability. Charlaine Harris, most known for The Southern Vampire Mysteries or True Blood series, is an author who has a lot of discoverability. On Amazcon.com Harris is the 35th most popular author and she is currently in the top ten places in the categories she is listed under.1 Her books have been made into a successful TV series called True Blood and the covers of some of her re-printed books have been done in the style of the DVD covers of the series. This creates awareness of her books outside of Amazon.com which in turn flows back into Amazon.com. Currently the 13 books in the series are listed under various categories. Most common are Books > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Mystery > Women Sleuths, Books > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Fantasy > Contemporary, and Books > Literature & Fiction > United States. These books are for the most part listed in two or three categories, with the exception of one, which is located in only one category.
In conclusion this essay has analysed how Amazon.com’s genre classification system affects discoverability and sales of novel in an online environment. It was found that authors need to take control and manipulate both the Amazon.com genre classification system and their presence outside of Amazon.com. As Amazon.com is more of a destination for purchase over a mechanism for discoverability, with around half of purchases made on Amazon.com pre-planned. Though there are some levels of discoverability within the website, it is not a significant as one might think. With the right amount of genre classification manipulation and outside influence, authors are able to achieve high levels of discoverability. Some examples being Monique Martin with her manipulation of genre categories, by constantly changing what categories they are under, Martin is able to draw new readers into her books and maintain a high level of discoverability. Another example is Annabel Candy who took advantage of Amazon.com’s Kindle Select program. She enrolled her book ‘The Intuition Principle: How to Attract the Life You Dream Of’ and during the 90 day borrowing period and the five days of free downloads saw her book sell hundreds of copies within days. This essay covered how authors like John Marsden and Isaac Marion are not fully utilising genre categories, by not putting them in the right genre or simply in the wrong genre, but at the same time they both have had their books made into movies and this would compensate by increasing discoverability outside of Amazon. Charlaine Harris’s books have significant levels of discoverability. This is because she uses genre categories to her advantage and has the covers of re-printed copies of her book similar to the DVD covers of the TV series True Blood, which is based on her books. The use of these three factors has created huge amounts of discoverability for Harris’ books. This essay also demonstrated that there were multiple different types of discoverability, each having their own impact on authors. These types of discovery were; serendipitous discovery, social discovery, distributed discovery, data-driven discovery, and incentivised discovery; and each had their own effect on authors and their books. Serendipitous discovery was discovery by chance like finding a book in a bookstore or on Amazon.com books were discovered by the listing of similar title together. The example being Joe Simpson’s ‘Touching the Void’, which gained influenced when Jon Krakauer’s ‘Into Thin Air’ was published. Social discovery is pretty much word of mouth either by actually people or through social networking sites like Goodreads. Distributed discovery are books that are found through either reviews in newspapers or blogs or referenced by other books. Data-driven discovery is simply books displayed on bestseller lists or top 100 book lists, they are books that sell the most number of copies. The last type of discovery is incentivised discovery, where people are offered discounts or free books to read. These types of discoverability and the author’s need to create discovery outside of Amazon.com all help to create awareness and increase the marketability and sales of books in an online environment.
 Amazon.com. Dead And Gone (Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood, Book 9) [Internet]. Amazon.com; 2013 [cited 2013 June 15]. Available from: http://www.amazon.com/DeadGoneSookieStackhouseBlood/dp/0441020941/ref=sr_1_24?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1371260962&sr=1-24&keywords=charlaine+harris
 Amazon.com. Books [Internet]. Amazon.com; 2013 [cited 2013 June 15]. Available from: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=lp_28_ex_n_1?rh=n%3A283155&bbn=283155&ie=UTF8&qid=1371262995
 Amazon.com. Warm Bodies: A Novel [Internet]. Amazon.com; 2013 [cited 2012 June 15]. Available from: http://www.amazon.com/Warm-Bodies-Novel-Isaac-Marion/dp/147671746X/ref=sr_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1371021670&sr=1-7
 The Alliance of Independent Authors. ALLi: Using Categories to Drive Sales [Internet]. David Gaughran; 2013 [cited 2013 June 15]. Available from: http://selfpublishingadvice.org/blog/self-publishers-use-amazon-categories-to-drive-more-sales-50-ways-to-reach-your-reader-10/
 Publishers Weekly. The Bestselling Books of 2012 [Internet]. Gabe Habash; 2013 [cited 2013 June 15]. Available from: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industrynews/bookselling/article/55383-the-bestselling-books-of-2012.html
 The Guardian. Top 100 bestselling books of 2012 [Internet]. Simon Rogers; 2012 [cited 2013 June 15]. Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2012/dec/28/top-100-bestselling-books-2012
 Amazon.com. Science Fiction and Fantasy [Internet]. Amazon.com; 2013 [cited 2013 June 15]. Available from: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=lp_283155_nr_n_25?rh=n%3A283155%2Cn%3A!1000%2Cn%3A25&bbn=1000&ie=UTF8&qid=1371185912&rnid=1000
 Forbes.com. Half of Amazon Book Sales are Planned Purchases [Internet]. Suw Charman Anderson; 2013 [cited June 15]. Available from: http://www.forbes.com/site/suwcharmananderson/2013/02/20/half-of-amazon-book-sales-are-planned-purchases/
 davidgaughran.wordpress.com. Amazon & The Importance of Popularity [Internet]. David Gaughran; 2012 [cite 2013 June 15]. Available from: http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/ 2012/03/01/amazon-the-importance-of-popularity
 Tivnan, T. Measuring the Amazon. Bookseller [internet]. 2011 September [cited 2013 June 15]; issue 5496: 22-23. Available from: https://web-ebscohost-com.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/ehost/ detail?vid=3&sid=33c7dd40-8c7e-497e-8d26-823f78f4bba8%40sessionmgr104&hid=114&bdata= JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=hlh&AN=66458992
 Dear Author. Discovery of eBooks Will Never Improve Until Retailers and Publishers Learn to Speak Like Customers [Internet]. “Jane”; 2013 [cited 2013 June 15]. Available from: http://dearauthor. com /ebooks/discovery-of-ebooks-will-never-improve-until-retailers-and-publishers-learn-to-speak-like-customers/
 Miliot, J. Mystery Winners. Publishers Weekly [Internet]. 2012 November [cited 2013 June 15]; 259(47): 29-30. Available from: https://ehis-ebscohost-com.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/eds/detail?vid=28&sid=7afde260-5741-4435-a7da-8cf8fa9c9cd5%40sessionmgr112&hid=109bdata=JnNjb3BlPXNpdGU%3d#db=f5h&AN=83871749
 Wired. The Long tail [Internet]. Chris Anderson; 2004 [cited 2013 June 15]. Available from: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/tail.html
 The Literary Platform. Five Types of Online Book Discovery [Internet]. Andrew Rhomberg; 2013 [cited 2013 June 15]. Available from: http://www.theliteraryplatform.com/2013/04/five-types-of-online-book-discovery-a-new-approach-to-the-challenge/
 PDMI Publishing. Facebook Coming to Amazon Author Pages [Internet]. PDMI Publishing; 2012 [cited 2013 June 15]. Available from: http://pdmidirect.com/newspost/facebook-coming-to-amazon-author-pages/
 McCabe D, Jo H. Why Bookshops Matter. Bookseller [Internet]. 2013 March [cited 2013 June 15]; Issue 5568: 13. Available from: https://web-ebscohost-com.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/ehost/detail?vid=11&sid=33c7dd40-8c7e-497e-8d26-823f78f4bba8%40sessionmgr104&hid=114&bdata= JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=hlh&AN=86637278
 Schnittman, E. Discoverability and Access in Book Publishing: Longtail Marketing and Content Access Models Explored. Springer [Internet]. 2008 [cited 2013 June 15]; 24(2): [139-142]. Available from: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12109-008-9058-y DOI: 10.1007/s12109-008-9058-y
 Successful blogging: for consultants, freelancers and business owners. How I Became an Amazon Best Seller Author and How You Can Too [Internet]. Annabel Candy; 2012 [cited 2013 June 15]. Available from: http://www.successfulblogging.com/how-to- become-an-amazon-best-selling-author/
 Scott Berkun. #26 – The Myth of Discoverability [Internet]. Scott Berkun; 2003 [cited 2013 June 15]. Available from: http://scottberkun.com/essays/26-the-myth-of-discoverability/
 Tapply WG. The Elements of Mystery Fiction: Writing the Modern Whodunit. 2nd ed. Scottsdale (United States of America): Poisoned Pen Press; 1995.
 Card OS. How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. Cincinnati (United States of America): Writer’s Digest Books; 1990.
 BISG Book Industry Study Group. BISAC Subjet Heading List, Fiction [Internet]. Book Industry Study Group, Inc.; 2012 [cited 2013 June 15]. Available from: http://www.bisg.org/what-we-do-0-100-bisac-subject-headings-list-fiction.php
 Wikipeadia. Goodreads [Internet]. Wikipeadia; 2013 [cited 2013 June 16]. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goodreads
 Retailwire. What Will the Goodreads Acquisition Mean for Amazon? [Internet]. Tom Ryan; 2013 [cited 2013 June 16]. Available from: http://www.retailwire.com/ discussion/16676/what-will-the-goodreads-acquisition-mean-for-amazon