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The Ultimate Guide to KDP: How to Succeed on Kindle Direct Publishing

Posted in: Understanding Publishing on July 22, 2019 1 Comment đź’¬

The Ultimate Guide to KDP: How to Succeed on Kindle Direct Publishing

What do Andy Weir and Luke Jennings have in common? Not much — at least until self-publishing through Amazon changed their lives. Jennings, with his Booker Prize nomination, already belonged in the writerly mainstream. Weir, on the other hand, wrote code before he ever wrote novels, learning C as a teenager to work with combustion researchers.

Since then, both have released books through Amazon’s self-publishing platform, Kindle Direct Publishing. Jennings’ novella, Codename Villanelle, became the basis for the acclaimed BBC thriller Killing Eve. Weir, meanwhile, saw his first novel, The Martian, turned into a Matt Damon blockbuster by the same name.

Amazon turned a journalist and a programmer into international publishing sensations. Want to succeed on KDP like they did? Let’s take a look at everything you’d need to do to make this powerful sales platform work for you. Before we're done, we'll turn the killer book you wrote into a self-published bestseller.

How to sell ebooks on Amazon

You’re here because you want to sell as many copies of your book as possible. You might think that’s easier said than done. But truthfully, the formula behind making book sales is simple:

Traffic x Conversion = Sales.

Traffic gets eyeballs on your book, while conversion turns those gawkers into buyers. On its own, traffic does nothing for your bottom line. Every internet-user in California could find your book page in the same afternoon, but their 18 million clicks will only frustrate you if none of those virtual window-shoppers turns into an actual shopper. On the flip side, you might have a book page so bewitching that everyone who finds it compulsively mashes the orange buy button. But if only three people ever stumble on your page, your black-magic conversion rate still only nets you three sales.

Both factors go into making sales. But on Amazon specifically, conversion is more important. You see, Amazon, on top of being a search engine, is also a book recommendation tool. It makes and sends book suggestions to users based on their browsing and shopping history. Most huge Amazon success stories happened because, at some point, Amazon started marketing their book for them. So how can you get them to do the same for your book?

Well, Amazon has the same goal as you: selling books. The more books they sell to its users, the happier they'll be. So when their algorithms have a choice between promoting two books with a similar sales history, Amazon will naturally favor the one with greater on-page conversion. They know the extra traffic they send to that book page will turn into more sales than the other book.

As a result, one of the worst things that can happen to an author on Amazon is to get a lot of traffic with very poor conversion. This will immediately flag the book to Amazon's algorithms as a "loser," and it'll never get recommended.

So in short, on Amazon, conversion is even more important than traffic which is why you must, first and foremost, focus on optimizing your KDP book's Amazon product pages.

Optimizing your KDP book’s Amazon product page

Now, let’s talk about how you get the sky-scraping conversion rate of your dreams. You’ll need an Amazon product page that tempts viewers into hitting “Buy now with 1-Click.” Remember that workplace cliche about dressing for the job you want and not the job you have? While we don’t recommend aping your boss’s favorite suit, this principle does apply to maximizing conversion on your product page.

To be a bestseller, your book should look like a bestseller. That means dressing your words up in the right packaging, so they seem worthy of book club adulation and blogosphere hype. To achieve that, you’ll need to optimize your product page with three things:

  1. A polished cover;
  2. A punchy description; and
  3. Book reviews.

As a bonus, set up an author page on Amazon Central with a bio that tells your story as engagingly as possible.

1. Create a polished cover

Say I'm a bookworm shopping for my next read. As a huge fan of Ender’s Game, I want something in the same vein, so browse around the Kindle Store. Do you know how many books there are in that Military Science Fiction category? More than 20,000.

A lot of these might be self-published, but a good number of them also come from traditional publishing companies. These industry behemoths have four-figure design budgets and will producing pixel-perfect book covers.

Military Sci-Fi ebooks on Amazon

Note the preponderance of cool hues and bold typography — all-caps and sans-serif — in these Military Sci-Fi covers.

Now, say you decide to throw your book into the mix. You’re in a hurry, so you used a homemade cover featuring a stock image of a random spaceship. Be honest — no amount of cropping and filtering can hide the fact that it’s the same spaceship you’re seeing on a dozen of your competitors’ covers. As far as Amazon is concerned, your book may as well get sucked into a black hole — readers are going to zoom right past it at light-speed.

Don’t do that. To succeed, you’ll need to hold your own with the Big 5, including with your cover design. So make sure it’s strong: polished, eye-catching, and in line with genre conventions.

Do not ignore this last point in an attempt to stand out. A memorable design is important, but not as important as connecting with your target market. After all, you’re trying to make sales, not to make it into a neo-cubist art showcase. Every genre has its own visual style and favored motifs. Don’t discount them in favor of being subversive — use them. In the end, they serve to communicate with potential buyers, showing them that they’ve found what they’re looking for in your book.

One final (but crucial) note about your cover: make sure it looks good at thumbnail sizes. On your product page, your full-scale cover image will be reduced to about 500 x 333 px. On other marketplace pages, the thumbnails can go quite a bit smaller. New releases, for instance, are 107 x 160 px, and recommendations go down to a minute 90 x 135 px. All in all, your book is likely to make first contact with potential buyers as a tiny thumbnail image. You’ll want that first peek to intrigue, not confuse.

2. Write a catchy book description

Your book description tells would-be readers what you wrote about and, more importantly, why they should care. Don’t treat it as a bare synopsis of your book, use it as an opportunity to hype it up — think sales copy, not high school book report.

Remember, your book description will be most readers’ first point of contact with your writing. If they don’t like what they see, they’ll have no reason want another several hundred pages of the same. So craft your description with the same care you put into the book itself. We’ve put together a guide to doing just that, but let’s go through the basics right here. For maximum impact, try structuring your description into these 3 sections:

A headline that hooks the reader

Your opening needs to grab attention as efficiently as possible. One foolproof way to do that is with social validation: offer proof that other people already like your work, whether that’s an impressive sales figure or a quote from a glowing review. Don’t have anything like that just yet? Not to worry — just make your headline snappy and exciting.

Amazon supports formatting for your book description, so feel free to make your headline pop with some different visual styles. You’ll want to keep your blurb relatively simple, visually speaking, but this opening is the perfect place to grab attention with one or more of the following:

  • Bolding: <b>this is the text you want in bold</b>
  • Italics: <i>this is the text you want in italics</i>
  • Blockquote: <blockquote>this is the text you want formatted as an indented quote</blockquote>

A blurb that tells them what they get

Here’s where you tell readers what your book is about — without giving away the goods before they’ve paid. Don’t overwhelm them with a blow-by-blow summary. The last thing you want is to sound like you’re trying to prove you’ve actually read your own book.

Instead, focus on high-impact keywords that play to your target market. Terms like “serial killer” for a thriller or “personal development” for a self-help book will signal to readers that they will find exactly what they’re looking for. In the end, your blurb is all about building intrigue and drumming up anticipation for the moment when buyers get to read the book in full.

A wrap up that drives the sale home

Finish strong with a snappy takeaway that explains why readers should pick up your book in particular. What do they stand to get out of it?

Draw connections to bestsellers in your genre — explain why your YA romance will tug at the heartstrings of people who cried at The Fault in Our Stars, or why your self-help book is the Gen Z-friendly update to The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. If you’ve already got some strong reviews in your back pocket, this is the perfect place to quote them! If not, highlight the value you bring to readers.

3. Bulk out your product page with reviews

Don’t discount the power of Amazon reviews as a promotional tool. For indie authors, they furnish all-important social proof, the e-commerce equivalent of street cred. Reviews provide evidence that real, live readers liked your book — and liked it so much they went out of their way to sing its praises. Just like positive word-of-mouth can prove a new coffee shop is worth dropping in on, strong reviews will show that a new book is worth picking up.

You might think that, unlike your cover and your book blurb, this one’s out of your hands. But the truth is, you can and should be actively cultivating reviews, even before you’ve launched. Want to know how? Check out our simple, 5-step guide to scoring book reviews both on and off Amazon. It all comes down to pinpointing reviewers who work in your genre and getting them to pay attention to your book.

If you’re concerned that a less-than-perfect review will tank your conversion rate, don’t worry. We’ve found that the number of reviews trumps the average review score when it comes to attracting buyers, provided your average doesn’t go below 3.5. In fact, a small slate of reviews that are all 5-star is more suspicious than anything. It makes it look like the author conscripted their extended family to shower them with artificial praise. So when you’ve done your part, let the honest reviewers you’ve tapped do theirs.

Bonus: Put up an engaging author bio through Amazon Author Central

A strong author bio humanizes you in the eyes of your readers. Write a strong one, and they’ll feel like they’re tapping into a genuine connection every time they peruse your words. The world of online advertising often feels so faceless and cold, so playing up the personal touch can boost your sales. Think of your author bio as a perfect opportunity to do just that: showing off the brain and heart behind your book.

As a Kindle Direct Publishing user, you’ll set up your bio through Amazon Author Central. This service, available to all authors on the site, gives you access a dashboard for tracking your sales and managing your reviews. Most importantly for our purposes, it also allows you to personalize an Amazon Author Page with a warmly engaging bio. You can learn all about how to set this up on our Amazon Author Central tutorial.

Leveraging Amazon’s algorithms to sell your Kindle Direct Publishing book

Once you’ve got your KDP book's product page polished for maximal conversion, it’s time to get as many eyeballs on it as possible. While there are plenty of ways to market your ebook off-platform, this section will focus on how to boost its Amazon discoverability — how to make it easy for relevant readers to find it on-site.

Remember, when it comes to books, Amazon is the world’s leading search engine and recommendation system. There are many ways to send readers to your book page. But what you really want is to reach the point where Amazon does the bulk of the marketing for you. We’ll talk about how to get there in this section.

Demystifying Amazon algorithms: Best Sellers Rank vs Popularity List

Amazon’s algorithms might sound like black magic, but they work according to an elementary principle: they prioritize the books they think people are most likely to buy.

What do they use to figure that out? The #1 factor, by far, is how well your book is already selling. While Amazon won’t tell you how many copies a given book is selling, you can estimate it through a figure called the Amazon Best Sellers Rank (ABSR). You can find this in any book’s product details.

Book details for Good Omens, showing its ASBR

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s fantasy collab, Good Omens, has hit an ABSR of #265.

Just take that ABSR, plug it into a “rank-to-sales” calculator, and you’ll get an idea of how many copies that book sells on a daily basis. To give you an estimation, here’s a chart taken from David Gaughran’s must-read free ebook, Amazon Decoded:

#1 to #5 = 5,000+ books a day (sometimes a lot more)
#5 to #10 = 4,000–5,000
#10 to #20 = 3,000–4,000
#20 to #50 = 2,000–3,000
#100 = 1,000+
#200 = 500
#300 = 250
#500 = 200
#1,000 = 120
#2,000 = 100
#3,000 = 80
#5,000 = 40
#10,000 = 20
#25,000 = 10
#50,000 = 5
#100,000+ = fewer than 1 a day

Does this mean that if you sell 7,000 copies in a day, your book will get to #1? It depends on the competition (e.g. if Stephen King is launching a book that same day…) But it’s likely, yes. However, unless you maintain that level of sales for a few days, your rank will immediately plummet.

More importantly, Amazon’s algorithms are suspicious of books that suddenly get a huge influx of sales before they sputter off into nothing. Instead, they favor books that achieve a high level of sales and manage to hold on to it for at least a few days. Spikes don’t make the algorithms happy — plateaus do. Here’s a visual representation:

To succeed on KDP, you want a sales plateau, not a spike

Beyond sales rank, there’s another major factor impacting discoverability: the Popularity List.

Most authors completely ignore its existence because it’s somewhat hard to find. You first need to go to the Kindle Store homepage. On the left-hand side, under “Kindle eBooks,” you’ll see a list of genres. Clicking on them will take you to the Popularity List for each one. It starts about halfway down the page, past the rows of large thumbnails for Best Sellers, New Releases, and the like.

Find the popularity list by accessing the category links on the left-hand side of the Kindle Store homepage

Why should you care about this list when it’s so hard for readers to even find? Well, because the Popularity List is the primary driver of Amazon email recommendations, especially to Kindle Unlimited subscribers. Whenever you receive an email from Amazon saying “popular space operas this week,” these recommendations are powered by the popularity list.

Now, the exciting thing about the popularity list is that its ranking algorithm is different from the one that determines ABSR. First, it’s a 30-day rolling average of sales (so it doesn’t focus on last day’s sales like the Best Seller list). Also, while Amazon’s Bestsellers list doesn’t take free downloads into account, the popularity list does. And while a $0.99 sale is worth the same as a $4.99 one for the ABSR, the popularity list is heavily weighted by price. Finally, the ABSR accounts for page-reads from Kindle Unlimited subscribers, while the popularity list only considers sales.

Differences between the ABSR and the popularity list

Bestsellers ListPopularity List
Free downloadsNot counted.Counted at approx. 1/100th of a full-price sale.
Price weightingTwo books with different prices but the same amount of sales will have a similar rank.If two books have the # number of sales, the higher price one will rank much better.
Page readsA full Kindle Unlimited borrow is equal to a sale.Kindle Unlimited borrows are not counted.

 

You can take advantage of all this to cause a chain effect. If tens of thousands of users download your book when it’s free, it’ll shoot up in the Popularity List. This will boost its discoverability, leading to more sales, resulting in a higher Best Sellers Rank… which further drives up discoverability for even more sales.

The Hot New Releases list

As we’ve mentioned above, Amazon gives some extra exposure to new releases — books in the first 30 days of their launches. You might actually have heard of “the Amazon 30-day cliff”: an term authors use to describe how their sales suddenly plummet a month after the release.

What’s responsible for the extra exposure given to new books? Mostly, the “Hot New Releases” list. The list itself isn’t that easy to find while browsing Amazon— it’s hidden in the sidebar. But it is often featured on the main Kindle Store homepage, and it’s also a primary driver of email recommendations. Whenever you receive an email from Amazon promoting “the best new releases in Self-Help,” you know where that email is coming from.

The “Hot New Releases” list functions just like the bestseller list, except it only accounts for books that were released less than a month ago. Just like for the Bestsellers List and the Popularity List, there’s a Hot New Releases list for every Kindle category, which brings us to…

Making Amazon categories work for you

The first thing to know about Amazon categories? There are a lot of them, more than 10,000. Dive into the Kindle store, and you’ll find categories upon sub-categories nested like Russian dolls, from vanilla genre terms (like Nonfiction) to hyper-elaborate niches (like Weights & Measures, several levels deep within Nonfiction).

You’re prompted to select up to 2 categories when you go to publish your book through the Kindle Direct Publishing dashboard. But you can also add up to 8 additional categories post-publication, by contacting Amazon directly through your KDP account. You should absolutely take this step. Not all of the sub-categories are available through the publication dashboard. Some can only be added post facto, or by using a specific keyword as part of your seven keywords — more on this in this newsletter.

Note: if you’d like to receive a weekly newsletter with exclusive marketing tips like this one, you can subscribe for it — for free — here.

Categories are important because some are more competitive than others. If you can, try to slot your book into niche ones — sub-categories with under 10,000 books. These are like wide-open plains ripe for settlement, compared densely packed cities choked by rising rents and crowded streets. In one of these niches, you’ll have a much easier time climbing up the Best Sellers List and the Popular List. And hitting #1 on the Best Sellers List especially, will get you an orange “Best Seller” badge, which is great for conversion. Compare that to staying in, say, the 20,000-strong Sword & Sorcery category trying to duke it out with G.R.R. Martin.

Jeff Wheeler's Mirror Gate is the #1 Best Seller in Gaslamp Fantasy

Jeff Wheeler’s Mirror Gate is the #1 Best Seller in Gaslamp, a Fantasy sub-category with fewer than 200 books.

Of course, it’s a bit of a balancing act. You don’t necessarily want to target the smallest sub-category possible — some are in the low triple-digits — because those tend to have very few buyers. You’ll want to find the sweet spot: categories that aren’t cutthroat-competitive or hopelessly obscure.

If you’re new to Kindle categories and are unsure how to pick the right ones, don’t worry! We have a full 10-day course that goes in-depth into category and keyword selection.

Free Course: How To Validate Your Book Idea

Enter your email below and then select 'Marketing - How To Validate Your Book Idea' in the drop-down menu of the next popup.

The importance of KDP keywords

When you pick your two categories in the Kindle Direct Publishing dashboard, you’ll have to select seven keywords to tag your book with. You’ll want to pay as much attention to these keywords as you do to the categories.

Amazon uses these keywords to index your book for related searches. For example, you can be certain that all these books featured in the screenshot below have some variation of “15th century” and “mystery” among their chosen keywords.

Search results for "18th century mystery"

The logic for choosing keywords is the same as that of choosing categories. You want to include keywords or phrases that have a high search potential, but not so high that they’re too competitive. Again, we have a free course on selecting the right Kindle categories and keywords to help you out with this crucial step in ensuring your book’s success.

Understanding Amazon Also Boughts

There’s one final factor you’ll have to grapple with when you’re directing traffic to your book, and it might be the most important one: Also Boughts.

Every product on Amazon will have its own Also Boughts. These are — as their name indicates — the other Amazon products that customers purchased before or after that product. More often than not, Amazon will actually display these “Also Boughts” directly below a book’s description on its Amazon Kindle page.

Also Boughts for What the Wind Knows

Also Boughts on the product page for Amy Harmon’s magical realism novel, What the Wind Knows.

Also Boughts are central to Amazon’s recommendation system. If Amazon notices that most readers who buy book X also buy book Y, then its algorithms will be tempted to recommend book Y to all book X readers who haven’t purchased it already.

This is both awesome and very dangerous. Let’s illustrate why: say you have a popular knitting blog, and you’ve published dozens of knitting manuals on Amazon.  Now you’re looking to branch out into a new passion: crime fiction.

You release your first crime thriller, and since you have a pretty big audience on your blog, you decide to let your knitting fans know about it. Your fans love you, so even if they’re not huge crime readers, they’ll grab a copy. And before you know it, your crime thriller starts showing up all over the Also Boughts for knitting manuals.

The Amazon algorithms will take this as a go-ahead to hawk it to all the scarf-makers and yarn enthusiasts shopping the site, sending them emails and popping up on their feeds. When these hipsters and grannies see your book cover in their inboxes, they’re (mostly) going to pass.

Now, remember what we were saying about conversion earlier in this post? If Amazon sends your book to thousands of readers, and none of them buy it, Amazon will stop recommending your book. Forever. Or, at least until you clean up your Also Boughts. If you want to learn more about the dangers of also-bought pollution, read “Please don’t buy my book” by David Gaughran.

So, to summarize, Amazon’s ranking and recommendation algorithms care mainly about two things:

  1. Relevance; and
  2. Sales.

The key to getting Amazon to do the marketing work for you? It’s to do a lot of the marketing yourself.

Or, as some would say, “Amazon helps those who help themselves.”

So, how do you help yourself in the first place? How do you bring in those initial sales that will boost your book’s visibility on-site? Let’s take a look at that in the last section of this post.

Planning the perfect book launch

Since Amazon favors new releases, you’ll want to concentrate most of your marketing efforts around the launch. That way, you can generate enough sales to climb up the Popularity and Bestsellers lists and get your book featured in Amazon recommendation emails.

1. Create a proper launch plan

If you’ve analyzed your categories properly, you’ll know how many daily sales you’ll need to achieve to get your book to #1 (or at least page one in your category). Next comes the hard part: putting together a launch plan with all the marketing tactics you’ll use to generate those sales.

This is what it could look like:

Day 1

    • Discount your book to $0
    • Kindle Nation Daily promo
    • Facebook ads
    • Amazon ads

Day 2

    • Email to your mailing list
    • Book Gorilla promo
    • Facebook ads
    • Amazon ads

Day 3

    • Robin Reads promo
    • Facebook ads
    • Bookbub ads
    • Amazon ads

Day 4

    • Newsletter swap
    • The Fussy Librarian promo
    • Facebook ads
    • Amazon ads

Day 5

    • Freebooksy promo
    • Facebook ads
    • Bookbub ads
    • Amazon ads

Day 6

    • Book back to full-price
    • Amazon ads

To discover more places where you can promote your book, just head over to our directory of free and paid book promotion services.

2. Run a price promotion

Want a great way to score a visibility boost for a new book? Run a price promotion! That means planning a concentrated burst of marketing activity around your book when you temporarily lower the price.

Amazon offers additional visibility to lower-priced books — especially if you’re running a Kindle Countdown Deal through KDP Select. But it’s also a lot easier to market a book if it’s free or selling for $0.99. Dropping the price will act as a natural conversion booster for all your other marketing efforts.

Want to learn how to run a successful price promotion? You guessed it, we have a free course for that!

Free Course: How to Run a Price Promotion

Enter your email below and then select 'Marketing - How to run a price promotion' in the drop-down menu of the next popup.

3. Leverage your existing audience

This one’s pretty obvious. If you have an existing audience — whether that’s a sizable mailing list, thousands of Twitter followers, or a horde of disciples who follow you wherever you go — let them know about your book.

Unless, and we can’t stress this enough, your existing audience doesn’t read in your genre. Make sure you don’t t pollute your Also Boughts!

4. Cross-promote with other authors

A great way to reach new readers is to cross-promote with other authors.  Plenty of indie authors do that through newsletter swaps: you promote their new release to your mailing list, and they do the same for you when you launch your book.

Of course, this only works if you have a mailing list. So if you don’t, you know what you should do next.

5. Advertise

Another sure-fire to reach new readers? Leverage the three main advertising platforms that have proven successful for authors selling their books:

Amazon ads can be pretty effective at providing a solid baseline of sales — even at full-price. But Facebook and BookBub will work much, much better if your book is discounted (or free), and they are also a lot easier to scale.

If this is your first time publishing a book, don’t worry: you don’t need to do all these things. You just need to plan your launch well, and try at least some of these tactics.

And remember, if you want an experienced professional to help you along the way, we’ve handpicked specialist book marketers on Reedsy who do just that. So don’t hesitate to get in touch and ask them for a quote!


Have you joined the ranks of indie authors publishing through KDP? What do you wish you’d known before you started? Tell us about your experiences or drop some pearls of wisdom below!

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Judson Somerville MD

Excellent article and advice!

Continue reading

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