Whether you choose to publish your ebooks exclusively to Amazon, and so join their KDP Select and make your books available through Kindle Unlimited, or you decide to make you ebooks available wide across multiple retailers, you need to learn how Amazon works.

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Amazon is a search engine, which people visit when they are looking to buy. Originally it only offered books, but now it has almost everything you might need. And it has over 50% of the print book market in the US and a much much higher proportion of the ebook publishing. Though, of course, those values change in every territory.

The key thing about Amazon, that differs from pretty much every other bookstore, online, or physical, is that Amazon personalises what it shows the customer, to try and give you what they think you are most likely to buy. As an indie author this is revolutionary, because we don’t need to buy table space at the front of the shop like in a bricks and mortar store – yes, those books are chosen because publishers pay for the booksellers to put them there. Those piles are not a sign that the workers like them or that they are the best recent books, it is purely which ones the publishers have chosen to push in that way. Though increasingly indie authors are paying to advertise with Amazon, as well as other online stores.

Now, if you’re looking on Amazon to find a book to buy there are a few ways you can go about it. The first is the search bar in the top of the screen. You can also browse through the different categories, or you can look through the Amazon bestseller lists for each category. All of these are controlled by the algorithm behind the site. Now, the exact details of that algorithm is a secret, but we can work out some things about it.

One of which is that the value of a sale/borrow decays over time. So that a sale today is worth more in the rankings today than a sale yesterday. And a sale from three months ago is worth even less. This is why many people talk about the “30 day cliff” in Amazon rankings, where your rank jumps down thirty days after your book was published, and then 60 days, and 90 days. This is because the algorithm favours newer books.

Bestseller lists

Amazon updates these hourly, and they are, as the name suggests a list of the best selling books in each category and sub-category and sub-sub-sub category. If Amazon separated it out then you can find a list of the best selling books in that sub-sub category. There is also a list of Hot New Releases – these are just the books on preorder and those published in the last three months. These are both available for print books (though that does include many ebooks and audio), ebooks, and audio books.

If your book reaches the number one spot in a sub-category bestseller list, or new release list, then your Amazon book page, and search results, will show the orange flag saying it is a bestseller, or hot new release. And when you look on the details of a book on Amazon it will tell you the book’s overall rank against all books on Amazon, and also the best ranks it has in three sub-sub categories.

Given that the different categories and sub-categories and sub-sub-categories contain differing numbers of books some of these are more competitive than others. So when you are setting up your book it is important to research which categories and sub-sub-categories are relevant and also have less books in, or books with higher ranks (and so less sales). When you upload your book to sell on Amazon there are a limited number of categories that you can choose, and these don’t always correspond to the ones that are shown to consumers. There are also some categories that only get added when you have a certain keywords in your book details, for example But once your book is uploaded you can contact the customer services and ask for them to add up to ten categories.

Browse lists

These are accessed by clicking through the different categories, or clicking on the category breadcrumbs when viewing a book. And this is where Amazon tries to put in front of you books that it thinks you will like. At the higher levels of category, as well as the Bestseller and New Release headers, there are Recommended for You and then

Search results

This is what you get back after searching in the top bar. You can search within a category, or sub-sub-category, or just the site as a whole. The search results seem to favour newer books with more sales. Often even if you search for the exact title of an older book it doesn’t rank highly. If you want your book to be listed higher in the search results then you can pay for advertising. Books that are being promoted have a Sponsored tag in the results listing so you can identify them.

International view

Now, as each Amazon store operates independently, they all have their own bestseller lists and differing search results. In fact they also have their own categories, as not all of the US ones are copied across to the other sites. So you do need to go through all the different Amazon sites that matter to you and optimise your categories etc for that site. If you are primarily based in the US and have a primarily US audience then this doesn’t make much of a difference to you. For me, I feel the US, and UK sites are definitely worth making the effort for. Possibly the Dutch and German sites too. Though I have made sales on all the sites except Mexico and Italy.


In order for your book to reach more people you want it to be listed as high up all of these listings in every store as you can. In order to do that you need to have recent sales. But needing sales so that your book is more visible and therefore will be sold more is a bit of a catch-22, or a chicken and the egg situation. Without a known name it is difficult to get traction, especially on a first book. I have no answers for bow to best do this, as I am still working on it myself.

Whole books have been written on how Amazon works and what the best way is to boost your book up the rankings without abusing the system, or placing your books where they don’t belong. So, this is barely an overview. If you’re interested in the technicalities of what you can do and how to learn more about how your book is positioned and how to improve that then I recommend you read more from David Gaughran, Dave Chesson at Kindlepreneur, and K-lytics. (I am not affiliated with any of these sites, but I have learnt from all of them. Any inaccuracies here are all from me and are no reflection of their depth of knowledge!) You can also spend time poking round the different Amazon sites, but watch out that you don’t spend too long doing that!

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