How to Sell More Books By Optimizing Your Metadata

Book metadata optimization

Today’s guest post is excerpted from How to Market a Book by Joanna Penn (@thecreativepenn). I’m grateful to Joanna for sharing her expertise here; if you’re not familiar with her blog, I encourage you to visit and subscribe—click here to visit The Creative Penn.

You can never sell as many books as Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and the other retailers can sell for you.

Why? Because they have a vast sea of readers who specifically go to their sites to buy books. Every day, readers are spending millions of dollars looking for, and buying, their next read in those stores.

Sure, you can build a massive following on your website or through your speaking platform, but it will never equal the volume of readers that these book distributors have access to every day. The trick is ensuring your book can be seen by those avid book readers.

Nobody can say for sure how the book retailer recommendations work, but what can be known is this: Data algorithm engines within every book retail site drive what is seen on the homepage of every customer, as well as what is sent in personalized e-mails. 

The very best book to read on the algorithms and how you can understand them is: Let’s Get Visible by David Gaughran. It’s well worth a few dollars to understand the algorithms—and Amazon lists in particular—in depth.

So your job is to ensure that your book is found by the algorithms, and then you will find that your sales are perpetuated. Success does indeed breed success. But how can you optimize your chances?

1. Choose the right category.

Remember: not everyone will like your book.

You may think that everyone will, but they won’t. You might not want to put it in a box or a genre or a category, but you have to, because that’s how readers find it. The category/genre reader has expectations, and if you don’t “fit,” they will be disappointed.

That’s not to say that you need to follow any specific rules in your writing, but when you load it up to the distributors, you have to choose which categories to use, and they need to be meaningful.

If you have a publisher, they will do this for you, but it’s best to discuss it with them.

It’s important to match reader expectations and the promise of what your book delivers with what your book is actually about. There is no point having a book with a swirly, girly pink chic-lit cover in the horror section of fiction. It won’t sell, however good it is.

If you can, choose a category that fits your book and is easier to rank in. How do you know which categories are easier to rank in? Check the number in brackets in the category on Amazon. The lower the number, the easier it probably will be. That’s optimization—but the category must still be true to the book and to the reader’s expectations. You only get to select a couple of categories, so make them count.

If you’re struggling with this, choose 3-5 authors whose books are similar to yours (not what you want your book to be like, but what it is really like), and check what categories they are in. That will help you to find the appropriate category.

2. Use the best keywords.

Keywords and search engine optimization have been considered important for a long time in the online world, particularly for ranking on the first few pages of search engines so that people can actually find you.

But these principles and tools are also important for your book page on the retail stores. They make up a critical part of the metadata that’s crucial in the discoverability of your book.

What is a keyword?

A keyword is a word or phrase that is associated with your book.

It’s based on the words that people actually use to search online. Often the language you use online is not the language that your customers might use. For example, some authors like the term “indie author” or “indie publishing,” but to a new author, they might only recognize “publishing” or “self-publishing.”

Importantly, a keyword is not just one word. Remember that as you go through the following process. For example, my thriller novel Exodus is associated with the keyword “ark of the covenant” and my nonfiction book with “career change.”

  1. Brainstorm words and phrases.Make a list of all the words and phrases that are associated with your book. For fiction, that will include themes, places, things and anything concrete that you can hang your book off. For Exodus, I might consider the keywords thriller, action adventure, exodus, ark of the covenant, israel, freemasons—as those are the themes of the book and people searching for those things will be interested in it.
  2. Check the usage of keywords in the search engines. Google has a Keyword Search Tool that you can use to discover what search terms people are using and what are the most popular. It is primarily used for people working on advertising terms, but we can use it as an indication of interest, as well as a verification of the kind of language that people use when searching. You will likely be surprised at what you find.
  3. Try to be as specific as possible. For example, the word “pain” could relate to back pain, pain of grief, pain of divorce, and many more options, so use keyword phrases where possible.
  4. Note the number of global monthly searches per keyword/phrase. With my book Career Change, when I checked the volume of searches, I found the following: how to enjoy your job – 5,400 global monthly searches; changing careers – 27,100 global monthly searches; I need a career – 60,500 global monthly searches; choosing a career – 40,500 global monthly searches; career change – 165,000 global monthly searches.
  5. For each search term, Google will recommend more options. Look through that list and write down anything else with a high number of searches. (Don’t worry about the competition column as that is aimed at the advertising crowd.)

Nonfiction authors should be using this type of research to make a decision on the title or—at least—subtitles. There’s no point in your title meaning something to you but nothing to anyone else. Too often, authors will decide on a title that has emotional resonance for them when they would be better off using specific keywords to help customers find them more easily.

3. Check the usage of keywords on Amazon.

Amazon doesn’t have a specific tool to check keywords, but it does have an auto-populate tool that enables you to see a drop-down of specific words or phrases. Just start typing something in and you’ll get a drop-down. Make sure that you’re in the Books/Kindle store if you want to narrow the search down.

This can help you decide on topics or titles, particularly again with nonfiction. The principle is the same with fiction. You want the most commonly used keywords in your metadata.

Some of your keywords from Google might not even show up in the Amazon listing, so discard those and focus on keywords that appear in both lists.

4. Add the keywords to your book metadata.

For nonfiction authors, you can use this technique to decide on your book title, and indeed, I changed my nonfiction book title, Career Change, based on the keyword search. (It used to be How to Enjoy Your Job or Get a New One.) This can make a huge difference to your book appearing in search results and significantly impact your success. Although I don’t have a full year for each different title usage, in January 2012 I sold 9 books, and in January 2013 I sold 135 books. The cover and keywords were different. This is not something I market in any other way at all, so any sale is a good sale. I have no platform for the career-change niche, so all of my marketing is about keyword search. My book sales rank rose within days after the keyword change, and now the book ranks on the first page of Amazon for the keyword “career change.”

Changing a fiction title to include keywords is less likely to be useful, but you need to supply a description any time you enter information about your book, so make sure that it includes some of your keywords. However, as a primary rule, ensure that it is people-friendly and not just a list of keywords. For more on creating a book description that rocks, check out this interview with Mark Edwards on secrets of Amazon metadata. Or, see my article on how to write compelling sales descriptions.

NOTE: If you don’t have control of the publishing process you won’t be able to access these keywords, but you can do the research and advise your publisher what you think is the most appropriate.

The most effective usage: the keywords resonate among the title, description, and keywords box, ticking all three boxes of metadata. You can also use these keywords for marketing purposes as well—for example, using them in a guest blog post title, or as part of your website.

I know things like metadata, keywords, search engine optimization, and algorithms might be overwhelming if you’re totally new to the concept, but it is an important part of being an author in a world increasingly driven by search.

How to Market a Book by Joanna PennIf you found this post helpful, I encourage you to check out Joanna Penn’s How to Market a Book, which covers marketing principles, short-term marketing, long-term marketing, and book launches. Click here to find out more and download a sample.

Posted in Guest Post, Marketing & Promotion.

Joanna Penn is an author, speaker and entrepreneur, voted as one of the Guardian UK Top 100 creative professionals 2013. Her website, is regularly voted one of the top sites for authors and self-publishers. Writing as J.F.Penn, Joanna is also a New York Times and USA Today bestselling thriller author. Connect on Twitter @thecreativepenn.

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Thanks for having me, Jane! The keyword optimization tip is particularly critical for non-fiction authors, even for book titles, so I hope people find it useful!

Thanks, Joanna

Jane Friedman

A pleasure to have you here—thank you for demystifying what doesn’t have to be an intimidating topic or process.

[…] A big challenge in book publishing is discoverability at online retailers. You can ensure your book is found by optimizing your metadata—here's how.  […]

Kat Sheridan

Can these keywords be used effectively in a subtitle of some sort for a fiction work, i.e. “A Victorian romance novel” or “sci-fi adventure novel” etc.?


Hi Kat, Amazon is quite particular about what words you can use in the title & sub-title. There is a notice on the KDP upload that says those words have to be on the cover itself. However, you can use the keyword section instead, but I wouldn’t use generics like ‘sci-fi adventure nove’, I would do the keyword comparison technique and try to find resonant words for the themes e.g. I’ve used ‘akhenaten’ and ‘freemasons’, so really brainstorm words. It is definitely harder for fiction, but you may find some of those resonant words in your back blurb/sales description as… Read more »

Kat Sheridan

Thanks for the info! I’ll get onto that research and see what I can come up with!

Natalie Aguirre

Thanks for all the great tips. There are many here I’d never thought of.


I’m glad you found it useful Natalie 🙂

Heather C Button

Nice to see you here Joanna Penn! Some good tips, and I keep getting confused by the metadata. Your tips really help clarify things. I tend to be a person who searches easily to find what I’m looking for, but I guess it’s best to see what the masses look for in a search.


Exactly Heather – sometimes the language we use is not the language of the readers! This is true of the self-publishing niche now as we are starting to use ‘indie author’ but no one outside the ‘tribe’ would use this phrase. For non-fiction in particular you need to search around terms for the masses.

Marcia Burrows

Thanks for the excellent advice. The link for “Google has a Keyword Search Tool” is broken. Can you post the correct link? Seems it could be very helpful.

Jane Friedman

Let me know if this works?

I’m pretty sure you’ll need a Google account to use it.

Marcia Burrows

I have a Google account but needed a Google ad words account. Then I found a couple of tools under Tools and Keyword. I’m trying them out as described in the blog. Thanks so much Jane!


Glad it’s sorted Marcia – the keywords tool is fantastically helpful once you get used to it. I also used it for my blog headlines in the early days – it’s a good guideline

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[…] You can also use these keywords for marketing purposes as well—for example, using them in a guest blog post title, or as part of your website. I know things like metadata, keywords, search engine optimization, and …  […]


Thank you for sharing! I intend to apply your advice!

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[…] Basically, you want key words that will help a reader find your book. I have a tendency to write friends to lovers stories, so I’d probably use those keywords. (By the way, if you’re a romance writer and you’re having trouble identifying your tropes? Romy Sommer and Amalie Berlin both have great posts on known tropes.) There’s a great post on metadata and how it’s used to sell your books for you over on Jane Friedman. […]

[…] You might not want to put it in a box or a genre or a category, but you have to, because that’s how readers find it. The category/genre reader has expectations, and if you don’t “fit,” they will be disappointed. […] It’s important to match reader expectations and the promise of what your book delivers with what your book is actually about. There is no point having a book with a swirly, girly pink chic-lit cover in the horror section of fiction. It won’t sell, however good it is. (How to Sell More Books By Optimizing Your Metadata) […]

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