Amazon Makes Life Easier For Authors of Historical & Literary Fiction

visible1000pxThere are lots of reasons why self-publishing success stories tend to concentrate around writers of “genre” fiction, but it’s a mistake to assume that success is impossible if you write literary fiction or historical fiction (which tends to get lumped in with literary fiction, even though it’s just another genre… like literary fiction!).

The first is demographics: romance and erotica readers were the first to switch to digital, followed by mystery and thriller fans, leading to the success stories of Amanda Hocking, Joe Konrath, and John Locke.

I remember SF/F authors complaining (back in 2011) that their readers hadn’t switched to e-books yet, casting jealous eyes at the outsized romance audience. But as readers did move across, we saw people like David Dalglish and BV Larson breaking out, and the rest of “genre” fiction soon followed.

The rise of “genre” self-publishing was also aided by the mistreatment of the midlist by large publishers: falling advances, worsening terms, and the shifting of the marketing burden onto the author’s shoulders. With bigger names jumping ship and striking out on their own, the increasing selection of quality self-published books at very low prices (and often exclusively available as e-books) acted as a strong pull factor for readers of genre fiction to switch to digital.

Non-fiction has been slower to go digital for a few reasons. First, technical limitations of e-book formats and the devices themselves have made the digitization of anything other than straight narrative text troublesome – even the minor technical challenge posed by something like footnotes has yet to be resolved in a satisfactory way.

On top of that, non-fiction authors tend to be treated a little better by publishers, especially in terms of advances – so there’s less of a push factor encouraging authors to self-publish. This means less big name authors dragging print readers to digital with low prices and digital exclusivity, and, thus, a smaller reader pool for non-fiction self-publishers.

The case of historical fiction and literary fiction is a little different. Weak digital sales from large publishers, and the relative lack of self-publishing success in these genres, has led some to worry about the future. But I think something else is going on here.

While literary fiction is a small genre compared to something like romance, and while historical fiction is a smaller genre (in relative terms) than it is in the UK, and while readers of both have been slower to move to digital, there is a large market there. It’s just tricky to reach.

Historical fiction and literary fiction don’t have the same book blog ecostructure as other genres. As far as I’m aware, there aren’t any influential reviewers on Goodreads whose rating will lead to a sales spike. And many ad sites will warn that their audiences don’t go for those books in the same numbers.

But the market is there, as proved by the ability of BookBub to shift huge numbers of literary and historical novels. Even more striking is the effect of Amazon’s spotlight. Last summer, a backlist book from Iris Murdoch – not the most commercial of writers – hit #5 in the overall Kindle Store, on the back of a price promotion by its publisher (Open Road) allied with a Kindle Daily Deal.

What does this prove? There are less discoverability pathways for readers in those genres, but the readers are there, as proved by how the (very) few venues for visibility tend to outperform expectations.

This situation was greatly exacerbated by the very structure of the Amazon store. Popular genres like thrillers or romance are broken down into further sub-categories leading to granular classifications like Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Thrillers > Conspiracies or Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Romance > Paranormal > Werewolves & Shifters.

The reason why this is important is that each of those granular sub-categories has its own Top 100 list, Hot New Releases list, Popularity list and Top Rated list.

Each of those lists are both visibility opportunities for authors and discoverability pathways for readers. Those lists allow authors to gain momentum on a less competitive chart, and then bootstrap themselves up to play with the bigger names. They allow authors to grow and they allow readers to discover books they otherwise wouldn’t.

The problem with historical and literary fiction was that, until recently, there were no sub-categories for those genres. This meant that authors had to be selling 50 or 60 copies a day to even hit the back of the respective Top 100 – which most authors might be able to achieve during a promotion or new release, but would struggle to maintain outside of that on a single title.

Sub-categories can also act as a parachute after a sales spike, slowing the inevitable decay, and perhaps giving you a chance to catch a second wind from readers who stalk the lists looking for new books. And, of course, it’s not just about Best Seller lists. Hot New Releases lists for each sub-category give new books great visibility opportunities. Top Rated lists afford readers’ favorites free advertising. And Popularity lists can (or at least did) turn successful free runs into paid sales.

I’ve been pressing Amazon (along with 1,000 other authors I’m sure) to expand the list of sub-categories, particularly for historical fiction, which was a mess of 25,000 wildly different books, with fairly obvious dividing lines.

Well, Amazon has delivered. Historical fiction now has twenty-five subcategories and literary fiction has sixteen (see the left-hand sidebar). On top of that, they have added additional filters for the Popularity list (left-hand sidebar, scroll down), where readers can segregate books based on time period.

Authors can put their books in the respective sub-categories by selecting the top-level category in KDP (i.e. historical fiction or literary fiction) then adding keywords from this list for the respective sub-category. (Note: that list is incomplete, and you may have to do a little experimenting with keyword choices to get into the sub-category you need.)

This is fantastic news for authors and readers. If you write literary fiction or historical fiction, life just got a hell of a lot easier. And it’s a big boon to readers too, who have sub-categories that reflect their interests, and who will, as a result, see a lot more churn on those lists, introducing them to new books instead of the same old stuff.

I re-categorized my historical novel last week, and I’ve already seen an uptick in sales (from moribund to signs of life). But the real test will be when I run a promo this coming weekend. What I hope to see is that the wider category footprint the book now has will both add to the sales spike on the way up, and slow it’s descent on the way down – but I’ll let you know how it goes.

For writers of other genres, keep an eye on your categories. Amazon seems to be in the middle of a revamp of the whole system. I noticed new sub-categories in other genres too, like Women’s Fiction and Contemporary Fiction as well as additional sub-categories in already well-served genres like Thrillers.

Check your genres, and make sure you are in the most granular (suitable!) sub-category for each title. And kudos to Amazon for listening.

Let’s Get Visible Paperback Release

If you want to know more about the importance of categories, how these various lists work, how you can position your book to take advantage of the Amazon algorithms, and how to put together a marketing plan to maximize your sales, I’ve written a whole book on the topic – Let’s Get Visible: How To Get Noticed And Sell More Books.

I know some of you have been waiting for the paperback, and the good news is that it is now on sale at Amazon. UK peeps can grab a copy here, and it should appear on other retailers (like Barnes & Noble and The Book Depository) pretty soon.

And apologies for the delay.

About davidgaughran

David Gaughran is an Irish writer, living in London, the author of "Mercenary" and "A Storm Hits Valparaiso" as well as "Let's Get Digital" and "Let's Get Visible."
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47 Responses to Amazon Makes Life Easier For Authors of Historical & Literary Fiction

  1. Sam says:

    I’m glad that Amazon has realized that those of us who read Historical Fiction may like specific time periods or geographical areas! For example, I like 1910-1950 US historical fiction and Renaissance Europe. Very different eras!
    As a note, the link to your historical fiction novel didn’t work for me.

    • Hi Sam, thanks for catching that broken link. Should be fixed now.

      I think readers of historical fiction in particular were badly served by the old system. As that genre was less competitive than romance, you often had romance authors listing their books there. This meant that a reader of standard historical fiction would have to wade through lots of romance books on the list – which they probably had little interest in. Same goes for any thriller/mystery/adventure with a quasi-historical setting or angle.

      But as you point out, readers of historical fiction can be even more particular than that. Some will only read books set in the Tudor Era or the Civil War. I tend to like unusual settings, but avoid anything medieval or Egyptian, and avoid the more plowed furrows in general. Most HF readers I talk to are similar in having particular periods they prefer and avoid.

  2. Mary Burns says:

    David, This IS encouraging. Perhaps the changes at Amazon will make a difference for books such as mine, which fall into a general literary fiction category, if category is not overstating it.Just as, if not more encouraging, were your observations about the difficulties writers of literary and historical fiction face. After six conventionally published books, I turned to indie epublsihing this summer, for many of the reasons other authors do, ie, frustration with the literary and academic presses that had published my work before. But I feel as if I am still wandering the streets, looking for a home in this wide world, where authors of sci-fi, romance, thrillers, etc are already well settled. When I say as much to my techie friends, they say, just work harder at it. Practical advice that actually applies to the kind of work I do is hard to come by, though I spend a fair amount of time each day reading posts and discovering more sources. So thanks.

    • Literary fiction is a smaller genre. It always has been, despite the column inches it gets over other genres. But it’s not impossible to make money writing literary stuff. In fact, the process is much the same:

      1. Get reviews.
      2. Get the word out (most effective way right now is probably to run a sale along with an ad).
      3. Write another book.
      4. Repeat.

  3. This is great news – but when I went into my Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing bookshelf and tried to reclassify my work, it wouldn’t allow me any of the subcategories under ‘literary.’ I’m obviously doing something wrong. Any advice?

  4. smclaugh1 says:

    Excellent info. Thanks

  5. coleman3442 says:

    Muy interesante David. I recently released my first book (historical fiction) via a small publisher in Southern California. Thanks to the “sub-genre” thing, my book spent nearly a week in the top 100 of the “Sea Adventure” category (quite granular, wouldn’t you say). I thought this was awesome, but as far as numbers go, I think it equated to somewhere around two sales a day! Next time I write my first book, it won’t be historical fiction :)

  6. Pingback: Amazon Makes Life Easier For Authors of Historical & Literary Fiction | David Gaughran -

  7. christine swinson says:

    Thanks for a terrific post, David. I’m really glad to know about the expanded categories. And thanks, too, for pushing Amazon to do this.
    One last thanks for the heads-up for the print Visible; I just picked up a couple of copies. Btw, I just noticed earlier this morning that Amazon has increased the minimum for its free shipping from $25 to $35. Actually I think that’s pretty smart, and I’m not complaining. It’s still a good deal. Just passing the word along for others who may not have noticed it.

  8. This is excellent news, David. Thank you. I’ve re-posted this on my site.

  9. fastfishforward says:

    I was SO excited when I saw the new categories, and even more excited when my keywords swiftly enteredy book into some of those categories and I was hitting lists with very modest sales. It’s about time!

  10. Hugely informative post, David — as usual. A couple of questions: 1.) What was the turn-around time between changing your category/keywords and having the title recategorized? 2.) Under this new system do you suppose it’s better to stick with the KDP-suggested keywords rather than spaghetti-shoot the maximum allotment and risk being placed in a sub-category you didn’t intend? Finally, 3.) Does this mark the end of contacting KDP directly for category changes?

    Thanks!

  11. David,
    Jane Friedman (at the Frankfurt Book Fair) and I exchanged tweets recently:

    Jane Friedman @JaneFriedman
    Agent Kristin Nelson says she can only think of genre fiction really taking off & succeeding w/self-pub. Not literary authors. #contec13

    John Mountford @johnmountford
    @JaneFriedman Why? Snobbishness again. Dumbing-down internet users! Self-pub writers and editors just as good.

    Good to see Amazon agrees with me…and you.

  12. i write a lot of family orientated fiction and am finding more and more subcategories for that; Amazon is doing a really good thing here, very glad ;-) thanks for the update david!

  13. phil1861 says:

    I’m also running a month of promotions in November and am waiting to see what the change brings. I noticed you were able to get Storm into the United States sub cat, both of my civil war titles are stuck in the 19th Century filter but not in the US sub filter. United States is in my search terms. I just resubmitted both and capitalized the terms wondering if that might not do something. I do like the short story sub cat, my one civil war short is in a pretty small list now.

  14. Progress may be slow, but sure. The opportunity to publish and have it on kindle or any of those e-platform was a dream. It’s now real, technology has doubled the market for writers. Let us embrace this and continue striding on. I may want to write a historical fiction one of these days, and of course have my novel available in e-book so we have to trudge on. Fellow writers keep on keeping on. We will get there. Good information, thank you.

  15. Awesome, David. Thanks for posting this.

  16. Reblogged this on Ruth Nestvold – Indie Adventures and commented:
    Great news regarding historical fiction sub-categories! I will have to investigate further, and see what options are available for my own books.

  17. prue batten says:

    Timely post David. And I may be proof that subcategories and keywords work – on .co.UK at any rate. My historical fiction novels were categorised along all the areas suggested and within days of publishing, both began to rank in the Top 100 Paid for Biographical Fiction and have remained there since the beginning of July – unbroken. Likewise my historical fantasies – all four were reclassified and they too hit their straps and have ranked in the Top 100 Paid in English, Welsh and Celtic Legend since July unbroken.

    But curiously none of the six books published are ranking at all on .com. Or at least only very spasmodically. Does this prove that hist.fict and hist. fantasy are lesser read genres outside of the UK catchment or that .com is a saturated market in both genres? I’d be interested in your thoughts.

  18. josois says:

    Thanks for the timely post! I’m in the midst of getting my book ready to be published in November and my book happens to fall under historical fiction. This discussion reminds me of a recent post I did on categorizing your story but I really appreciate your insight on subcategories and how they work to help authors gain greater exposure for their work. I will definitely reconsider classifying my work on Amazon so I can better reach my target audience.

  19. Great information. Sharing in a number of places.

  20. What about historical creative non-fiction? I’m trying to work out what’s best for me because I wasn’t happy with the categories. Thanks for always sharing great info.

  21. Josephine Wade says:

    I just saw a life hack video by TED talks about marketing and the power of more categories. More catagories make people feel more in control of the choices they are making :) . Also, I agree that being able to market your 1400 era historical separate from a World War I historical has to improve sales.

    Good article.

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  23. A very encouraging move, but the new categories do not seem to apply in the UK (yet?) and beyond. Any idea about that?

    It will help when they show up for a reader searching, too. Right now once has to scroll all the way to the bottom of the page to see the categories.

    I think they missed the mark with literary. I think it should have been Literary: mystery; Literary: historical; Literary: contemporary etc., instead of the subject of the novel.

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  25. Cora Buhlert says:

    This is great news for readers and writers of historical and literary fiction.

    I’ve already seen an uptick in sales for my two historical novellas since the new subcategories were introduced. One of them went up to No. 8 on the (small) category Top 100 list, which is as high as any book of mine has ever been on an Amazon.com subcategory list.

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  29. It’s a very roundabout way they are offering to get yourself into some of these sub-categories by making sure that you add keywords from the list you mentioned. It would seem more logical just to offer all these sub-categories as options to select from when you publish. The list offered there is much shorter. For instance, there is no “Contemporary Fiction” choice.
    I got quite excited when I went to the keyword list and found a sub-category “Themes/Career & Workplace,” only to find it was under “Women’s Fiction,” not “Literary Fiction.” As someone who writes humorous contemporary/literary fiction centered on the workplace, it seems that I will continue to languish in the much broader humorous fiction category.

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  31. Thanks very much for this David, and all the other great information you’ve provided to the indie writers’ community. Using this information, I actually found a great little “trick” to get your book into more than just the 2 categories that Amazon normally lets you choose. My book fits in both the Thrillers and the Science fiction categories, and instead of choosing 2 specific sub-categories, I chose the “general” category under each of these. Then I went ahead and chose 7 keywords that are related to different sub-categories (Amazon provides a list of these keywords: just google “keywords for categories amazon”) You can also just put in the actual sub category names as keywords (eg. I put in dystopian and post apocalyptic as well as genetic engineering and conspiracy). Voila – I’m now in a whole bunch of different categories, not just 2 (I managed to get into 5). You can’t get into every category this way, but it’s worth experimenting with as it greatly expands your visibility.

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  33. D.G.Kaye says:

    I will just re-iterate…”Let’s Get Visibile” is one of the most valuable books I have read to help with my marketing plan for my soon to be published memoir! Thank you David for your sharing your wisdom and pioneering the path for us all. :)

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  35. Julia Simpson-Urrutia says:

    I just bought Let’s Get Visible and I am delighted. However, as many times as I try to change the category of my book on Amazon, I find there is no way to opt out of the already chosen categories.

  36. Janet Oakley says:

    Just found your post today. I looked for subcategories beyond country (USA) but didn’t find eras. Did I missed something? I’m going to be changing my categories on my historical novel. I also saw that your novel had a literary category too. Suggestions?

  37. danielfbowman says:

    Good news. This simple step gives us more chance of success.
    What about other timeperiods, like Greek, Roman, or Medieval? How can an author try to sell from such inlisted subgenres?
    Thanks David

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