Adventures in Amazon keyword padding

by Sandra Hutchison

Note: The specific keyword examples mentioned in this post are out of date now, because Amazon has changed the way keywords are input (possibly to cope with just this kind of issue). However, you might find it amusing anyway — and I suspect I could have gotten into just the same trouble using the current form. (This is also a reminder, fellow Kindle authors, to check your backlist titles to see what’s going on with the keywords.)

Authors sometimes work very hard to get keywords into their product descriptions on Amazon, but there’s actually a better way to come up in Amazon searches. It’s a technique called keyword padding that I first learned about in this helpful post by David Penny.

But you’d better be careful how you do it. I learned this the hard way.

TheAwfulMess 396 x 612 pixelsMy first novel, “The Awful Mess,” was on sale for a time in August, with a BookBub promo in the UK, Canada, and India and some other support for US and international sales as well. When I found out about keyword padding I thought, “Hey, great! Maybe I can leverage my current rank to capture a few more readers!”

A more cautious soul might suggest that I should enjoy a strong rank for a while without fiddling around.

“The Awful Mess” is in two main fiction categories: contemporary women, and literary. My seven keywords at the time of the promotion were romance, American, general humor, dating and relationships, love story, suspense, divorce.

Divorce isn’t really a strong theme in the novel (unless you count the increasingly  problematic ex-husband), so I replaced that one with a padded keyword:

“progressive Christian novel about an Episcopal or Anglican priest committing adultery in contemporary take on “The Scarlet Letter” set in a small town in New England during the time when openly gay Bishop Robinson was being elected.”

You can have up to 400 characters. What you can’t have is a comma. I could just list terms one after the other, but I’m a writer and English teacher and that felt like cheating, so I wrote it up as a (ridiculously long) keyword phrase instead.

I wanted to get “The Scarlet Letter” in without having to add it to my product description, where it would probably scare away everyone who remembered hating that book in high school. (Although a reviewer or two has noticed and mentioned the correction, that never makes it show up in Amazon searches on “The Scarlet Letter.”) EDIT: Turns out adding another title to your keyword is a violation of KDP policy. I’m not sure why this made it through. It may be because nobody would attach their book to “The Scarlet Letter” and expect to generate significant sales because of it. It’s not like putting in “Harry Potter.”

I wanted “Episcopal or Anglican” because the terms vary in the rest of the world, and the book should interest some folks who like to read fiction about Episcopal/Anglican priests (if they can stand the sex and irreverence — I’m no Jan Karon).

When I first published this book I actually used “Episcopal” as a keyword, but that’s a tiny, tiny market and thus not worth spending a whole keyword on — but here it’s just one of a whole bunch of little niches I can mention. Note also that although I have always had the words “Episcopal priest” in my product description, the book usually would not come up in searches on Amazon for that.

“Bishop Robinson” in that padded keyword phrase is a reference to the heated debate that was going on at the time and place this novel is set. Gene Robinson was the first openly-gay Episcopal priest elected a bishop in the United States — in New Hampshire. Gay rights are a sub-theme of the novel (the hero’s sister is a lesbian in a committed relationship, though her father the Evangelical doesn’t know it … yet).

And the result of this change? About 24 hours later in the UK my novel was immediately ranking in the top 100 for Christian women’s fiction and Gay & Lesbian fiction.

#9 in Christian in the UK

Unfortunately, this book is not what readers would expect in either category. AND these two markets are pretty much mutually exclusive.

In theory, this gave me added visibility. But it didn’t strike me as worth confusing and quite possibly offending my readers. My companions in the Christian women’s fiction category were largely Evangelical, and their readers might have little sympathy for my characters — sinners that they are — or, worse, the suggestion of liberal theology. Not to mention, my main character is an agnostic for 99.9 percent of the book and it’s debatable what exactly she is for the other 0.1 percent.

Meanwhile, someone looking for gay and lesbian fiction to likely to be pretty unexcited by what is predominantly (and pretty clearly described as) a heterosexual love story, though presumably the inclusive theology wouldn’t offend this audience.

Anyway, though it may be coincidental with a natural slide a month after my price promotion, sales that had been percolating along in the UK immediately slid a bit. But on the plus side, my book DID come up when I did a search on “The Scarlet Letter” and on “Episcopal priest fiction.”

I wanted to keep those, so I ran and changed my padded keyword again. I took out “progressive Christian” and “openly gay” and used something like this instead:

Episcopal or Anglican priest committing adultery in contemporary take on “The Scarlet Letter” set in small town New Hampshire in New England at time of election of Gene Robinson.

I decided to stick New Hampshire in there, too, since New England was working, and I used “Gene Robinson” because a search on that at Amazon had turned up a bunch of books that targeted Episcopalians … so why not? Of course, if I had thought the least bit carefully, I might have predicted that this change would result (about twenty-four hours later) in this:


Yes, I was now writing science fiction about genetic engineering, thanks to Bishop “Gene” Robinson. And while Bishop Robinson may indeed have caused a revolution, it was not in human genetics.

Oops. Let’s try that again. Today, my seventh keyword reads:

“Episcopal or Anglican priest committing adultery in contemporary version of “The Scarlet Letter” set in a small town New Hampshire or small town New England at time of Bishop Robinson”

That could still use work (it’s clear I was in a bit of a panic when I wrote it). However, the categories are back to what they should be, and the book now come up in searches for “The Scarlet Letter” and “contemporary version of the Scarlet Letter.” It also comes up in searches for “Episcopal priest” and “Anglican priest.” (Faster if you add “adultery.”) It comes up in searches for “small town New England.” (Both novels do, actually.)

So, dear colleagues, I invite you to go for it. But please… be careful out there!

Update October 12: My sales at Amazon slid so abruptly after this post that I became paranoid they didn’t like me writing about keyword stuffing. But it’s probably just coincidental with me pulling back from some day-to-day marketing. So this technique is not a huge instant boon for sales, clearly, but it can help readers who are searching for something very specific find you. I would also think that if you write nonfiction, it might be absolutely invaluable.

10 ways in which fictional romantic heroes are like my cats

#1 They both sometimes have other priorities. Romantic heroes tend to prioritize important things that really need doing, like saving the ranch, putting out that fire, saving the galaxy, or finding the murderer before he kills again. Cats prioritize themselves. (Cat people can cope with that. The rest of the world prefers dogs.)

#2 They both love the chase. Romantic heroes happily chase the heroine, often exhibiting super-human persistence in the face of discouragement, competition, and other plot complications. Kitties will chase anything that moves, dangles, rolls, or looks like it wouldn’t ever think of turning around and eating a cat.

#3. They both practice good hygiene. Yes, there are women who enjoy a sweaty man reeking of testosterone. I think these women mostly exist in books and fantasies. In real life, most of us appreciate a man who bathes regularly. And nobody wants a smelly cat.

#4. They both appreciate your cooking. It’s sexy if the romantic hero helps himself to something while a woman is cooking. (It’s even sexier if he’s the one cooking.) It’s not sexy at all when your cat helps himself. At least, not to me. (Fancy Feast commercials suggest that there is a subset of women out there who might disagree.)

#5. They both like to share a glass with you now and then. This is why I can never drink a glass of water I’ve left unsupervised in my house.


#6. Neither will stay where you put them. Where’s the suspense in that? Your typical romantic hero won’t be contained. (Romantic heroines aren’t big on it, either.) Your typical cat usually doesn’t want to stay where you put him, either, unless it’s in a new box. A new box is to cats as the heroine’s ultimate warm embrace is to the romantic hero.

imported from phone 12-29-15 611

#7. Both will fight for the right to get close to you. Your basic romantic plot requires a bit of competition or conflict between suitors, or perhaps between hero and heroine, slowly and reluctantly realizing It. Was. Meant. To. Be. Cats are also willing to fight each other for your favor. At least mine do. Who will get to sit on my lap? The answer is how I know which cat is currently winning the ongoing struggle for dominance in my house.

Bo was the winner that day.

Bo was the winner that day.

#8 They have ways of letting you know when they need a little attention. Gilbert Blythe pulled Anne of Green Gable’s pigtail. Older romantic heroes give their love objects a smoldering glance, a warm touch, a good laugh, the odd rescue from certain death. My cats jump on my lap, walk across my the keyboard, jump on the dinner table, and stick their butts in my face. When things really get bad, they vomit. I’m going to give men points for more subtlety on this one.

Bo 003

#9. They want in on some of your most intimate moments.  Though if there’s no sex involved, I’d say the cats are often way more interested than the men. How many men secretly wish they could go back to the good old days of waiting in another room for the baby to be born? How many would just as soon never see a single box of tampons in their entire life? You don’t have a lot of romantic heroes coping with a woman’s pooping or cramps. (No doubt women who read romantic fiction would just as soon forget about those things, too.) But cats, like children, just love catching you in the bathroom.

002#10. They really want to share your bed. Yes, they’re waiting and hoping. I often let Penny stay because she’ll sleep through the night, curled up next to me. Bo, however, snores, licks himself loudly, and pounces on my feet under the sheets, so he’s usually shoved outside my door for the night. In real life, quite a few men and women are turning to the good sleep that comes with separate bedrooms. In romantic fiction, however, heroes and heroines spoon soundly through the night and wake up refreshed and free of resentment. That’s why my favorite scene in Train Wreck has Amy Schumer laying waste to that particular cliché. Judging from this tweet and the reaction to it, I’m not the only one who enjoyed watching that.

Ah, romance. Ah, kitties. I love them both, even if I’d just as soon that litter box in the corner could find a way to take care of itself. As for guys? Thank goodness for indoor plumbing. I just wish all men had perfect aim. Because when romantic heroes have to pee — which they almost never do — they never, ever miss the toilet.

Scurrying back into the warm(er) embrace of Kindle Select

That’s what I’m now doing with the second novel. At least for a while, even though my inclination is against exclusivity. What changed my mind about it, at least for this book, was a recent 99-cent promotion of the earlier novel “The Awful Mess” to all the retailers. Along the way I discovered some things that surprised me.

Which retailers give you a better “sales tail”?

For the Canadian market, Kobo supported by BookBub proved a touch stronger than Amazon — but Amazon appeared to reward a strong performance better. I sold 77 copies of “Mess” at Amazon Canada during its recent 99-cent promotion (supported by BookBub to Canada). This landed me — very temporarily, of course — at #1 in literary fiction.

ingoodcompanyincanadaFor days after the promotion, I was still floating near the top. Almost a month later, it has sunk to #28,000 and my discoverability there has pretty much evaporated. But I’m still selling the occasional copy.

On Kobo during that same promotion, I sold a little more — 80+ copies in Canada. But while those sales were being racked up, my sales rank just kept worsening. Since then I’ve sold more — yes, there’s been a bit of a tail, probably from also-bought appearances. I have gotten a couple more ratings to add to what had been the solitary review there. But to this day, my sales rank has only worsened.

It’s as if sales simply don’t matter to Kobo, or maybe sales outside the U.S. don’t matter (one single sale, about a month ago, did suddenly halve my sales rank). I’ve noticed this for months now. And although I did have some promotional support across retailers for a U.S. sale (just not from BookBub), not a single copy sold in the U.S.

The truth is that without actually putting in my name or a title, I can’t browse to my book in the Kobo store no matter how hard I try — during the promotion, after the promotion, privately in the Canadian store, or here in the US store. Furthermore, browsing women’s fiction means plowing through endless public domain versions of the same Jane Austen novels. Who’s going to bother? (This is on my PC. I suppose it may be completely different on a mobile device.)

It didn’t used to be that way. There was a time when selling a few books on Kobo could push me into the Top 100 at least temporarily. People would see the book. It’s almost as if Kobo has redesigned their algorithms to punish promotions, or redesigned their store front to discourage browsing for anything but top titles.

I asked them via Twitter about this. No response. I tried to ask them on my dashboard, even though the character limit there makes it difficult. Also no response. No doubt I could try sending an email, but … meh. Maybe they’ll read this and explain what is going on.

With BookBub support I also sold more than 200 copies in the Amazon UK store, more than double my Canadian sales, although my rank didn’t get quite as impressive. (I sold four copies in the UK via Kobo.) And there have been some continuing sales, as well as a couple of reviews.

003Back home in the U.S. at, where I had some promotional support from eReader News Today, Fussy Librarian and Read Cheaply, I sold just over 160 units during the promotion. Not too exciting at a 35% royalty. However, today, three weeks later, I can do a search for humorous literary women’s fiction with four stars or more (granted, this is fairly specific), and “The Awful Mess” shows up on page two. I’ve also sold copies of my second novel there in the days since, presumably to people who wanted to move on, though it’s impossible to know for sure.

Now, none of this changes my mind about where “The Awful Mess” is — widely available. That’s backlist for me, now, and it does sell here and there without much work on my part.

But that second novel, “The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire” has sold exactly one copy at Kobo since I made it available there, despite at least one (non-BookBub) multi-retailer promotion. Last time I tried to follow my link to Ribs at “Nook” it wasn’t even available, for reasons I don’t know (my price promotion at Nook with BookBub didn’t take because they didn’t change the price fast enough.) No doubt it’s possible I screwed something up. But that’s another reason it can be preferable to keep things simple.

At iTunes (via Smashwords, since I don’t own an Apple computer), I saw some nice sales of  “The Awful Mess” during my promotion — over 80 copies sold.  Before the price promotion, I was actually seeing some fairly steady downloads of my free single on iTunes, and usually a few of the people who downloaded the freebie would move on to buying one of the novels. But since the price promotion? Crickets.

I’m probably promoting the freebie less, but clearly there’s no tail from the sales I earned. I don’t shop on iTunes myself, so I don’t know how discoverability works there. From where I sit, though, I’ve not only got none, I’m actually doing worse than I did before the promotion.

And then there’s Google Play. I sold 11 copies during the promotion. Not a single one since. Only one or two before the promotion. (Ever.) However, I spent hours trying to get my price discounted properly for the promotion, and more hours trying to get it back to where it needed to be to prevent price-matching from Kindle.

Which brings me back to Kindle, with its simple and responsive author interface. Sales since the promotion have been fairly steady, if not exciting. I feel I’ve been rewarded for the promotion and ongoing sales with decent discoverability (of course, I also recently discovered I’d left my royalty at 35% by accident, so I suppose they might have been more excited about promoting it because of that.). I feel the kerfuffle over Google Play’s discounting was handled in a friendly manner once I got past the vaguely threatening first warning email.

Unexpected pleasure in Kindle Unlimited

The other thing that attracts me to Kindle Select right now, though, is exactly what drove a lot of folks out of it recently: the joy I’ve taken in watching the occasional Kindle Unlimited reader finally taking on my second novel “The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire” from back when it was available that way.

I love watching that blue line. I especially enjoy watching people read the book in two or three days. I  don’t know how that translates into money, but at this point in my career, money is secondary to simply knowing that I’m being read — and, usually, being read all the way through. (As I’ve noted before, I take evil pleasure in holding readers hostage.)

Harnessing the power of free

And, finally, I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that not offering “Ribs” free while I could reduced its sales potential. Going free is still the best promotional tool for an unknown indie author short of a U.S. BookBub price promotion, which I haven’t been able to get.

Granted, my review average is undoubtedly higher now than it will be after going free (you get a few nasty folks who don’t bother to read descriptions during free days, perhaps because they enjoy being outraged). But that’s just the price I’ll have to pay. This title hasn’t had a chance to really catch on the way it might if thousands and thousands of people download it and at least a chunk of those people actually read it.

That’s assuming I can make that happen. I still don’t expect it to do as well as the first book did. It’s gotten a lot tougher out there, by all accounts. This book is less of a crowd pleaser, though some readers think it’s better (I include myself in that). But I’ll never really know until I give it a try. So,although I’m still a bit wary, I’ll be setting up a free promotion eventually, and the only easy way to set that up is through Kindle Select.

In the meantime, going to Kindle Select also lessens my product management duties and simplifies my marketing.

Now, ALL of this promotional effort is still a bit premature in the sense that I only have two novels and the third isn’t ready for pre-order yet. If you really want your promotions to work for you, you need a stable full of books that can sell along with whatever you’re promoting. But letting the few you have put out sink into oblivion doesn’t make it any easier to resuscitate them when the time comes.

So I’ll work with what I have. And at this point, Kindle Select simply looks like the best deal for a title that hasn’t found its legs yet. What do you think? Does your own recent experience match this, or vary from it?

Writing rape: Where do you draw the line?

Is it literature or romantic fantasy or voyeurism or porn when rape happens in a novel? If you’re the writer, presumably you know what you want it to be. But wanting doesn’t always make it so. I keep thinking about this as I read the Outlander books.

There was a lot of outrage recently when the Starz television show of the first book dramatized the rape of comely young hero Jamie Fraser by another man. Some thought it was just plain out of bounds.

I don’t get Starz, but perhaps because one of the strongest complaints came from a friend who also had serious difficulty with my most recent novel, I was intrigued. Just that a woman writing a romance (okay, historical/time travel/romance/adventure) novel made the rape of her leading man a plot point intrigued me. I’d never seen rape of a male addressed in fiction outside of Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” and, of course, “Deliverance.” But males do get raped. Our prisons are so notorious for it that we make nervous jokes about it. (And why isn’t that a national scandal?)

OutlandercoverSo when a copy of “Outlander” showed up under my nose while I was organizing the book section at the thrift store, I bought it. (This is perhaps an illustration that even bad publicity is good publicity.) It didn’t hurt that it had the actors on the cover and the fellow playing Jamie is rather fetching.

No doubt the TV version of this rape, which I haven’t seen, shows this actually happening in real time. Gabaldon gets away with it in her book at least partly because it is told after the fact, not happening right there in front of us. There’s a lot of that in that first novel, quite expertly done. Whenever point-of-view (POV) character Claire Randall is not on the scene for key plot turns, Jamie can be counted on to become an incredibly gifted storyteller, even about things you’d expect most traumatized young fellows to keep quiet.

(Yes, I can just hear myself in a writing group telling Gabaldon she should make Jamie another POV character so we could see these scenes happening in real time, and her smiling and quietly thinking, “No, thank you, I’ll just wait a decade or two for the TV version.” But I do notice that she is branching out in her POV as the books go along.)

But since Jamie is such an excellent storyteller, we get quite a lot of vivid detail. I found myself admiring Gabaldon’s daring. In the same situation, I backed way, way off. I’m not sure anyone who has read “The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire” even realizes that Molly and Stephen have something in common after that party at Gina’s house, because I couldn’t see Stephen ever telling Molly about it. Molly does wonder about it, and wonders why it would be so much more unspeakable than what happened to her — but that’s it. Stephen is no Jamie Fraser. He just wants to get the hell out of town.

I backed off with Molly, too. Most of the rape scene ended up cut out, mostly because I ultimately decided that if I wasn’t willing to read it out loud to my writing group, maybe it shouldn’t be there. Maybe the point would be better made without quite so much horrifying detail. Most of all, I was afraid that someone would get off on it for all the wrong reasons, a tension that comes up explicitly in regard to Molly’s mother’s art later in the book.

And that’s the most discomforting issue with writing about rape, to my mind. There’s a whole ton of romance and erotica, especially after “Fifty Shades of Grey,” that glories in submission, and rape fantasies are part of that. I won’t claim to be immune to its charms, either, which is a pretty embarrassing admission for a feminist. “Outlander” at least skirts the border of this phenomenon. Is this what makes the books so popular?

According to Daniel Bergner’s fascinating New York Times Magazine article “What Do Women Want?” there’s research that shows women are almost always turned on by sexual imagery, and not too fussy about what it is (men on men, men on women, women on women, bonobos on bonobos). Women SAY they’re not aroused by the non-hetero (and non-human) pairings, but measuring devices show they are. Some women, the article notes, even admit to getting aroused while being raped (which generally intensifies their sense of shame).

Meredith Chivers, the scientist whose work is the focus of the article, theorizes that this has been bestowed on females by evolution: the average cave woman was presumably  at pretty decent risk of being raped. Arousal during an assault provides protection against injury, infection, and death, and thus increases the likelihood that a woman will at least live long enough to bear and raise children. Chivers also theorizes that it may be more a physiological reflex than a matter of actual lust.

If so, I’m thinking that physiological reflex seems to inform a hell of a lot of dubious romance. How else do we explain the success of Luke and Laura? And why are the loudest objections to “Outlander”  over Jamie’s rape and not some really questionable interactions between Jamie and Claire?

There has been controversy over a beating — and, yes, it gave me pause. I was willing to accept it in that historical context, but I had a hard time forgiving the author for making a kind of saucy joke out of it, with Jamie happily confessing to enjoying it.

But maybe it was because I’d been forewarned about those last two scenes that I actually had much more trouble with a later scene. Jamie warns Claire that he won’t be able to be gentle, and although he does give her a chance to get the hell out while she can, he doesn’t oblige later when she says, “Stop, please! It’s hurting me.” And we’re meant to believe she then continues to have passionate, flesh-tearing, screaming, ridiculously violent sex with him that turns into a moment of great emotional completion.

Really? Okay, so maybe the bonobo/lizard brain in me is getting turned on by that despite myself, but the feminist me thinks: Seriously? Are we going to allow a romantic hero to make the excuse of rapists everywhere? He can’t help it? Under emotional duress, even a man as heroic and intelligent and affectionate as Jamie can’t control himself? Once a man’s in bed with you, all bets are off? How could you not feel betrayed when he can’t listen to what you’re saying at that most basic level?

So I call bullshit on that scene. I don’t believe it of those characters, and I also don’t think it should ever be an excuse for any man anywhere. And I’m a little alarmed that this sort of thing seems to sell so well.

The other scene that really bugged me arrives a little later, when Jamie freaks out that his sister has named a kid he thinks was the product of rape for him (yeah, rape is a constant threat in those books — if that bothers you, don’t even pick them up), and that she married his best friend after becoming defiled.

Seriously? Jamie was pretty inconsistent there. He’s an earthy Highlander who’s quite happy to marry a widow who isn’t a virgin, but freaks out because his own sister wants to marry a man after being (apparently, but not actually) raped? What the hell is that sudden patriarchal squeamishness about? So what if she was raped? It wasn’t her choice if she was. At that point in the book I honestly wished she had been, just so Jamie could learn that that he was being a complete clot-heid about it. Instead, he was simply corrected about the status of her virginity prior to marriage.

Yes, his reaction might have been historically accurate. And presumably he has to re-think that as the plot moves along. (He does react better in a similar situation later.) God save us all from the expectation of female purity. Women get honor-killed and beaten and ruined and ostracized for that all the time even today. Enough, already.

I’m really hoping that the popularity of these novels is more because of interesting characters and fast-paced, intriguing plots than the sex. Or that if it is the sex, that women  realize it’s fantasy sex, not real sex.

And meanwhile, of course, I’m still reading.