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Friday, November 28, 2014

Writing Wibbles: Search Engine 101 for Authors

Monday night, I saw this tweet:

Being the diplomatic soul that I am, I responded “I call BS” before even reading the article. Then, I thought I should expand on that statement. Which meant I had to read the article.

In summary: Stephan Eirik Clark (the author) wrote a literary novel he called Sweetness #9. In the article (written in March), he complained about the search engine first not finding his novel at all in the early pre-order phase, then burying it under Sweet Valley High and artificial sweetener products. (Or maybe writing the article was a clever way to boost his book—Salon will always run a “bash Amazon” article, and click-throughs and sales are always good ways to push a page up Amazon's search rankings.)

Clark goes on to quote a New Yorker article by George Packer, in which he claims that publishers can pay Amazon to push books up the search rankings. Oh, the horror!

Um, wait a minute. Actually, I’ll wait an hour or so. Go to your nearest bookstore. Check out those tables at the front. Why are those books there, and not the ones you might want to see? If you answered “the publishers paid the bookstore for favorable placement,” you get a gold star!

But hey, I’ve not paid Amazon a dime for search engine placement. And yet, if you type “Accidental Sorcerers” into Amazon’s search, guess what comes up #1? (and #2 through #5?) Someone else’s book, The Accidental Sorcerer, appears a little farther down.

One of the things that +Angela Kulig taught me, early on when I joined the co-op, is that titles matter. If you pick a generic title, your book will flounder in a sea of other books (and in the case of Amazon, other products) with similar names. Just like in poor Mr. Clark’s case. A little closer to home, I once titled a book in progress Chasing a Rainbow. Angela suggested I search that title on Goodreads. Ouch. We came up with the replacement title, The Crossover, only after much banging of heads on tables (at least on my part) late at night. There are other titles that show up in a search for that, and mine still doesn't make the first page.

So, in a nutshell, this is Search 101 for authors: pick a title that’s as unique as possible. If you have a generic-sounding title like “Sweetness,” you need a lot of sales to get your ranking pushed to the top. Or your publisher can pay the online bookstore for placement, just like they do for brick-and-mortar stores. One is a little more work, but cheaper and more effective. Or, just bash Amazon and let Salon do the rest. Doesn’t matter if you prove yourself clueless in the process, eh?


  1. Pretty much any title with "Blood " is already taken.

  2. See, this is the sort of thing they ought to be publishing in Salon.

    It's a good point, though -- one of those things that ought to be bleeding obvious, but it's bleeding obvious that it isn't to a lot of people (or, at least, to people who write Salon articles).

    Just for fun, I typed the working title of the novella I'm currently editing into Amazon's search, and it only got five hits -- for totally different books. Maybe it will wind up being the final title after all.

  3. There are a couple of other books called 'The Necromancer's Apprentice' but it's useful having a pen name like Icy...

  4. Yep! It's also helps to keep the poor reader from being confused - just exactly which book did I want to read?

  5. Tony, you mean I can't call my next book "Blood Rainbows"? I'm crushed. Crushed!

    Thanks, Katherine. Five hits isn't bad, you'll get that all-important page-1 placement.

    Icy, that's a good point. Except for maybe Tony, I think most of us commenting aren't too crowded in the author name-space.

    Sonia, good point. I sometimes wonder if the returns I've had on Accidental Sorcerers are because of that other book. Click that first title, go "oops," return. Maybe some people keep it and read it… and I hope they enjoyed it if they did.

  6. This makes me want to compare my two titles. One is pretty generic, Snapshots. The other has the same name as a TV show, Being Human.


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