I always visited a bookstore before I booked a flight to a new destination. I made my way through the aisles to the back corner of the store, where, next to the “spirituality” and “philosophy” shelves, I found the lonely “travel” section waiting for me. I ran my finger across the book spines until I arrived at my destination: Ireland.
Conveniently, all the travel guides for Ireland were next to each other. Fodor’s guides were next to Lonely Planet’s, which were next to Rick Steves’s and Bradt’s and DK Eyewitness’s. I grabbed a copy of each and schlepped my stack of guides to a nearby table, where I’d flip through the books, trying to settle on one that worked for me. I probably left my discarded stack of books on the table (I’m that guy, sorry!) before I left the store with my purchase.
Those were the good ol’ days. Now, Amazon is usually the first stop. And the experience is much different.
If I want to download a travel guide on my Kindle, or just browse books on Amazon, I will click on Books and hunt for the Travel category. Once there, I will drill down into the subcategories Europe > Ireland > General. But once I’m there, browsing in the “General Ireland Travel Guides” category, I will find strange titles. Currently, the top two titles in the “General Ireland Travel Guides” category are The Last Days of Us: An unputdownable, emotional Irish family drama for 2021 and Life After You: A heart-warming Irish story of love, loss and family. Number three is Rick Steves Ireland.
Have you ever wondered why a “cozy mystery” or a romance title appears in list when you’re searching for books on knitting? Why do Monthly Bill Organizer and The Imperial Alchemist: A page-turning epic adventure with a stunning twist appear in the top two positions of “Taiwan Travel Guides”? Do you ever wonder why these seemingly random titles appear in the Kindle store when you’re browsing titles on Amazon?
Here’s the short answer: publishers and self-published authors intentionally mis-categorize their books in low-volume categories to get a coveted “#1 Best Seller” badge for their books.
What’s worse, some in the indie-author community widely encourage this “hack.” But nobody thinks about the negative impact this practice has on the authors who genuinely fit into the hijacked categories.
The problem is not just the deceptive, unethical, and harmful practices of authors and publishers. The problem is also an apathetic company called Amazon.
Part 1 – Deceptive practices
For a long time, some self-published authors and publishers have gamed the system to get noticed on Amazon and to get the coveted “#1 Best Seller” badge next to their books. The strategy is straightforward: when you publish your book, ensure that you assign your book to a subcategory that doesn’t typically sell many copies. Why? Because it is easier to “conquer” the category and rise to the top.
Unfortunately, the “conquered” categories are often inappropriate or unrelated to the book itself.
For example, the top titles in the romance category sell many copies each day. In order for a new romance book to get a “#1 Best Seller” badge, it needs to compete against other high-selling romance titles. That is, unless it competes in a category that doesn’t move many copies. Books that more appropriately belong in better-selling categories (more competition) can more easily get the “#1 Best Seller” badge in categories that don’t sell as many copies (less competition). This is why you see romance novellas dominating categories like “Ireland Travel Guides,” “Taiwan Travel Guides,” and Travel > Specialty Travel > Religious:
Of course, defenders might say that these novels have a “religious” and a “travel” component to them. “They’re similar enough.” And maybe this is true, but this argument has some problems.
Any glance at the Travel > Specialty Travel category will reveal subcategories like “Amusement & Theme Parks,” “Ecotourism Travel,” “Hikes & Walks,” and “Travel & Disability.” What do these categories imply in terms of the kinds of books you will find within them? Certainly not wholesome novellas about summer beach romances. And seeing titles like Rome in a Weekend with Two Kids and Clued in Vencie: The Concise and Opinionated Guide to the City outranking accessible travel authors like Sylvia Longmire and Cory Lee in the Travel & Disability subcategory leaves me disgusted and outraged.
What’s worse, some websites, webinars, and “gurus” in the broader author community actually embrace this nefarious practice. One well-known website states:
How many ebook sales you need to hit number one depends on the category. And it can vary a lot. […] Remember: to get the orange flag, you don’t have to be a bestseller in the whole Kindle store. You just have to be the best-selling book in any one category. […] So if the top book in a given category is only selling around 5 copies a day, selling 10 copies in a day will get you the bestselling flag in that category. But in a category where the top book is selling 4,000 or 5,000 copies a day, that’s going to be a lot harder to beat. […] It’s okay if these categories are only tangentially related to your book. The important thing is the ranking of the top book.1
To be sure, not every mention of this practice is a tacit recommendation to lie and deceive. For example, Dave Chesson of Kindlepreneur advises writers to consider this practice, but with low competition categories “that best represent your book.”2 And ProWritingAid’s website gives away the tip, but also advises caution: “Naturally, less popular categories are easier to conquer, as there are not that many competitors. But don’t be tempted to put your book in a niche category that doesn’t suit it just to rise to the top.”3
Yet, despite these more levelheaded (if muted) approaches to categorize sensibly and ethically, many authors and publishers apparently find it hard to plug their ears with beeswax and resist the temptation.
Not a new problem
A few years back, Brent Underwood “hacked” Amazon to show how hollow a claim to being a “#1 Best Seller” on the platform can be. After Underwood self-published his book Putting My Foot Down: A Book Featuring My Foot on Kindle in the Medical Books > Psychology > Movements > Transpersonal category, it didn’t take long for his book to stomp its competition.4 Despite his bold statement on the nature of best-selling authorship in the age of Amazon, the practice continues.5
While some prudent websites like Reedsy, Kindlepreneur, and others advise for a “sensible” approach to assigning Amazon categories, they don’t articulate why. Moreover, they don’t discuss the ethical issues in deceptive mis-categorizing. In short, they don’t detail how harmful this practice can be for the careers of other authors.
I think we can all agree that assigning an inappropriate category to a book to get the “#1 Best Seller” banner is deceptive at best, but is it ethically wrong? I think so, and here’s why.
The ethical dilemma
You might ask yourself, what’s the harm in gaming the system? Sure, stumbling upon seemingly unrelated titles might annoy readers who are browsing categories, but surely this isn’t an ethical issue, right? Especially when Amazon doesn’t prevent us from doing this, right?
The truth of the matter is that this practice, when employed to deceive, is extremely harmful for other authors who genuinely write and publish in the hijacked subcategory.
Generally speaking, romance titles sell more copies than travel books and travel guides. They are heavyweights when it comes to book sales. To be sure, the competition amongst romance titles is fierce, but because of the competition in their natural categories is high, they “conquer” less competitive categories and muscle-out titles that genuinely belong there. This tactic actually increases the competition for the titles that genuinely belong in the category. It makes it harder for those genuine titles to achieve the attention boost that becoming a “best seller” in the category provides.
Who suffers? Writers, publishers, and colleagues who are trying to make an honest living in their own categories and genres. When you boil it down, this practice is harming the book-selling businesses of our colleagues.
It is as if a heavyweight boxer gets to pick which weight class to fight in for the championship belt, and he chooses to fight a featherweight. No matter that the featherweight couldn’t possibly compete for the belt. And let’s forget about the inconvenient truth that in the mandatory bout with the heavyweight, the featherweight will miss out on earnings opportunities and the glory that comes with being the legitimate champion at the top of his own class. The worst part about it is that the heavyweight and the referee (Amazon) don’t care at all.
Part 2 – Apathetic Amazon
Amazon is the largest e-commerce search engine in the world. Two of the matrices upon which search engines operate are relevancy and search intent. If someone searches for “Ireland Travel Guides,” search engines offer up the most relevant results that align with what it thinks the user’s intent is. But when online retailers like Amazon offer up An unputdownable, emotional Irish family drama for 2021 when users browse for “Ireland Travel Guides,” they violate the logical categorical matrix upon which online retailers are built.
The category system in a physical bookstore works intuitively. If you’re looking for romance titles, walk to the romance section. Voilà. In the travel section, you’ll find travel guides and travel books. Boom. The bookstore understands that organizing titles according to their most logical category will benefit customers and will result in sales.
The category system works differently on Amazon. Amazon lets the publisher or the author set categories themselves, sometimes resulting in random books with keyword-stuffed subtitles like “a foodie holiday novella,” an “age gap mafia romance novel,” and a “historical romantic thriller” in the top ten results within categories like Travel > LGTBQ+. You’d be mistaken if you thought you’d find an endless supply of travel narratives and travel guides about LGBTQ+ travel experiences here.
Sure, this isn’t entirely Amazon’s fault. Most of the fault lies with the authors and publishers who do this. But Amazon could do something about this, could it not? Couldn’t it at least monitor titles using keywords and an algorithm? Couldn’t it allow users to flag unrelated titles for further investigation? Couldn’t it, I don’t know, care a little more about the user experience on its platform? Couldn’t it care more for the authors that this is hurting?
Authors in low-volume categories have a hard enough time as it is selling books that rightfully belong in these unpopular categories. But because Amazon doesn’t care about the user experience on its platform, they are complicit in the collective subversion of authors in the lower-competition categories.
To make matters worse, there is some anecdotal evidence that suggests that Amazon is not asleep at the wheel; it is actively using keywords, metadata, or some other method to place titles into categories without author consent. Of course, this can yield random results like “dark erotica” titles appearing in the “math” category.
How and why Amazon does this is still a mystery. But this doesn’t absolve some indie-author websites, webinars, and “gurus” that actively promote the strategy as a “hack.”
Towards a more ethical approach
I’m not trying to throw shade on indie publishers; big publishers do this too. And I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with these intentionally mis-categorized books in and of themselves. Based on their reviews and sales numbers, they are probably fine books.
But what I am saying here is that authors and publishers who engage in this unethical, deceptive, and harmful practice should step into the ring and compete against their own weight class. Of course, misrepresenting categories is against Amazon’s guidelines anyway, as Yna Davis noted in a Facebook post:
How do we fix the problem?
Getting Amazon to change their auto categorization “feature” is probably beyond anyone’s power. But there are steps the author community can take to crack down on this nefarious practice. Perhaps dialogue is a good start.
We first need to highlight the ethical hazards when we discuss category and subcategory strategy. Next, we need to encourage our colleagues to take the ethical approach when assigning categories and subcategories. If authors know how much they are harming their colleagues, the hope is that some will abandon the practice. Finally, and at last resort, we need to call out authors, publishers, websites, and “gurus” who continue to promote a “hack” that harms their colleagues’s businesses by intentionally mis-categorizing their own books for prestige and profit.
In the end, it might not matter.
As Joanna Penn notes, “As a reader I don’t [browse categories] anymore. As recommendation algorithms improve, I think categories will become less important.”
And, anyway, authors probably shouldn’t rely on Amazon or “like-minded” author-colleagues to play fair when it comes to business decisions. Instead, authors should hope for the best while planning the worst: they should work hard at building their own author platforms. With strong author platforms and email lists, and perhaps by subverting Amazon as much as possible by selling direct, “going wide,” and offering limited edition print runs, the deceitful practices on one platform won’t hurt as much.Notes:
- Emphasis mine. https://scribemedia.com/how-to-become-amazon-bestseller/
- By the way, the book is still available on Amazon. But its category has since been changed: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01CGVG6RQ/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0