How to Make the Bestseller Lists: Why Categories and Keywords Matter

...and how to use them effectively

by Ruth Harris

Fiction or non-fiction?

Thriller or sci-fi/fantasy?

Romance or mystery?

Young adult or self-help?

Readers know what they like and what they want. Categories help them find what they’re looking for whether it’s the latest in steamy romance, a classic, time-tested bestseller or a gardener’s guide to growing petunias in Petaluma.

Basically, what the category does is indicate where a particular book should be shelved (as in a library or bookstore) or, in the digital world, searched for.

For indie authors, selecting categories that will make it easy for readers to find your book is an essential part of your job.

For writers going the trad route, you still need a firm idea of your categories to make it clear in your query letter what you've got on offer. Nothing gets rejected faster than a "kind of mainstream/literary new adult paranormal urban fantasy post-apocalyptic thriller romance with chick lit elements".

How do you avoid that? Learn the ways the retailers categorize books.

Each of the major vendors—Kindle, Apple, GooglePlay, Kobo and Nook— allow authors and publishers to choose categories and sub-categories from a list of 2,800 subjects and subject codes called BISAC (The Book Industry Standards Advisory Committee). In addition, the main BISAC categories are further divided and subdivided into genres and sub-genres.

Here is the complete BISAC list of categories.

BIC, the UK version of BISAC, will shelf your book appropriately in English-speaking countries like the UK and Australia. The BIC list is similar to BISAC but can vary slightly. Here's the BIC list of categories. Germany and France also support book-and-author categories and are available to authors at GooglePlay.

Each vendor has a slightly different approach to categories. Nook permits a writer to choose five. Kobo permits three as does iBooks. GooglePlay offers five categories including BISAC, BIC and their equivalents in France and Germany.

Kindle, despite its seemingly stingy two-category choice, offers a much wider choice of categories, sub-categories, genres, and sub-genres. Getting into the correct niche is an important element of the discoverability you’re looking for. A skillful use of categories plus keywords (you can have seven) can get your book on more than two lists.

If you have a series and choose different combinations of categories and keywords for each book, you can expand your reach even further. You can choose six different categories if you have a three-book series. (Two times three.) A four-book series can get you into eight categories (two times four).

Your first step is to choose your two main categories. Your initial thought will probably be the overall category that most accurately describes your book—thriller, horror, sci-fi, romance, mystery and so on. Your second choice might be another relevant—and smaller, therefore easier to rank in—sub-category (historical romance, cozy mystery or whatever best describes your book).

If your book blends genres, choose two relevant categories: for example, if your book is a thriller with an significant romance element, you might want to choose romance and thriller as your two categories. Amazon offers an excellent guide to choosing your main book categories.

The problem? In a huge category like romance, unless you’re a top bestseller, your book will get lost and sink from view.

The fix? Keywords. Especially what Amazon calls “required keywords.” Required keywords will help place your book in appropriate sub-categories which tend to be much smaller, thus giving your book a better chance of being seen by the readers you are looking for. Here are links to Kindle’s required keywords broken down by category:


Science Fiction & Fantasy.


Teen & Young Adult.

Mystery, Thriller & Suspense.

Comics & Graphic Novels.

Literature & Fiction.


3 Keys To Kindle

1) Small, niche categories can get your book into the categorie
s that lead down to it. For example: Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Sports will place your book in the Sports category but also in Genre Fiction, Literature & Fiction and so on.

2) If you’re not sure where to start, look at bottom of the Kindle page of a book similar to yours. This list is called Look for Similar Items by Category and will give you ideas about what categories might fit your book and how and where to start.

3) Nothing is set in stone.
If you think your categories and keywords aren’t working well for you, go to your KDP dashboard and change them. Do your research first and then experiment to see whether other choices make your book more visible.

Keyword Gurus Tell All

Jason Matthews, author of How to Make, Market and Sell Ebooks and new adult novels, posted a comprehensive and easy-to-understand post plus video about choosing and using keywords. Jason explains how to test keywords at Amazon and at Google and tells why sometimes what seem to be trivial differences can make a difference. Jason also shares insights and valuable advice about important keyword dos and don’ts.

M. Louisa Locke, the bestselling author of Victorian mysteries set in San Francisco, has posted an excellent guide to de-mystifying the keyword/category duo. Ms. Locke’s advice is titled How to Get your books into the right Categories and Sub-categories: Readers to Books/Books to Readers. Part Three of her analysis includes links to the first two articles in her valuable series.

Swords and sorcery, anyone? Lindsay Buroker, bestselling author of Fantasy, lays out her approach to combining categories with keywords in order to rank in more lists and increase the odds that more readers will see your books.

In Let's Get Visible: How To Get Noticed And Sell More Books by award-winning bestseller David Gaughran details strategies and techniques to help you understand the inner workings of Amazon’s powerful recommendation engine and position your books to maximum advantage on other vendors.

At the Indie Chicks Café, Award-winning romance author, Donna Fasano, points out that keywords are not just for customer browsing purposes. Donna explains how she uses sub-categories such as Contemporary Romance, Drama and Multi Cultural to increase discoverability of her book, Reclaim My Heart.

Ebook Marketing Secrets Part 5 -- The Right Categories Can Make You A Bestseller points out that “keywords are not just search terms for people on Amazon's products show up on Google, Bing, and Yahoo searches as well.” This article also delves into the correlation between ranking and bestseller lists and offers a shrewd approach to selecting categories with less competition and thus offering a better chance of appearing on a list.

Liliana Hart, bestselling author of the MacKenzie series, thinks keywords are more important than categories. She details her approach in a chapter called Navigating Algorithms, Categories and Keywords in The Naked Truth About Self-Publishing.

The self-publishing roundtable recommends experimenting with new categories/keywords and tells why branching out into various keyword-category combinations can help expand your audience. This article also suggests moving already-published books into new categories and adding the necessary keywords to gain extra exposure.

David Masters, author of The Prolific Writer's Toolbox, discusses categories and keywords in terms of “browsing” and “searching” and explains the difference. He offers a useful guide about how to cross-check keywords between Amazon and Google and tells how to identify obscure and niche categories with less-intense competition.

Finally: a bit of perspective

Finding the right “recipe” for Categories and Keywords require four qualities writers have in abundance.

The good news is that you can—and should—change any category or keyword that isn’t working and that periodically refreshing your categories and keywords is just part of the job. 

What about you, Scriveners? Did you know all this stuff about categories? Amazing how powerful a carefully chosen keyword can be, isn't it? Those hoping to go the traditional route: does this help you understand why categories are so important in your query? Self-publishers, have you changed categories and had positive results?  


A hilarious, fast-paced read from Ruth Harris!  Buying an e-reader or tablet for Mom for Mother's Day? Pre-load it with this fun "Chick Lit for Chicks who weren't born yesterday"

The Chanel Caper is $2.99 on Amazon US, Amazon UK and Nook | Kobo | iBooks

THE CHANEL CAPER Nora Ephron meets James Bond...or is it the other way around? Blake Weston is a smart, savvy, no BS, 56-year-old Nora Ephron-like New Yorker. Her DH, Ralph Marino, is a très James Bond ex-cop & head of security for a large international corporation. At a tense time in their relationship, Blake & Ralph are forced to work together to solve a murder in Shanghai & break up an international piracy ring.

Ruth Harris is a 1,000,000 copy New York Times and Amazon bestselling author and a Romantic Times award winner for "best contemporary." Critics have called Ruth's fiction "brilliant," "steamy," "stylishly written," "richly plotted," "first-class entertainment" and "a sure thing."


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