Amazon > Books > Browse > Categories > Argh!

Categories: Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em!

As a reader looking for books, categories are a necessity to help organize millions of books.

As an author hoping to sell books, categories are a necessity to help customers find them.

But categories can sure be frustrating from both ends! And it’s not just at Amazon. It’s all online booksellers. And a book may be listed in different categories on different websites…

Example > One > Begin

Suppose that your child is struggling with phonics. So you decide to search for a phonics workbook.

Obviously, at Amazon, you would click Books > Children’s Books. At this point, things already become interesting.

At the top of the screen at the left, it says “Shop by Category.” But where it says this, these are actually age groups, and not categories. The real categories are much further down (on my screen, I actually have to scroll down to find them – so you might not even discover those categories). What we mean by categories are things like mystery, education, and humor, right?

But it’s useful to narrow the search by age. At least, it seems like it should be. If your child is 7 years old, it makes sense to choose the 6-8 years range. That will help filter out all of the irrelevant books, right?

Oh, but it will also filter out some of the relevant books. Only some of the books in Children’s Books are categorized by age range. Many books are not.

Most customers won’t realize this. Those who do face a dilemma: See only some of the books in the right age group, or see many books from all of the age groups? Well, you could do two separate searches…

You can select the age group and a category, but that will only catch books that show up both ways; this loses even more results.

You want to filter the results; otherwise you have way too many to sort through. But what you really want is to keep the relevant results, and just filter out the irrelevant ones. The funny thing is that there are irrelevant results in virtually every search on Amazon, while a few highly relevant results are generally excluded.

Suppose we decide to search the categories down below (i.e. not the age group). If you’re looking for the Reference category, you might have trouble finding it: It’s under Education & Reference, so you have to look for E, not R. A lot of categories are merged together like this. For example, if you want Fantasy, look for S because it’s under Science Fiction.

Here’s a trick question for you: Which category would you choose for Mathematics? The correct answer is Science, Nature, & How It Works.

What’s more interesting is that the categories change periodically. It’s really fun to find a category that you know you used to use, but isn’t there any longer!

In this example, we’re looking for a phonics workbook. You could pick Education, but you might select Activities (thinking it’s a workbook). For some types of books, the choice can be quite difficult.

Let’s go with Education & Reference. Note that Reference is one of the categories within Reference. Why not just give it its own category to make it easier to find? If you pick Science Fiction & Fantasy, it splits into separate Science Fiction and Fantasy categories. Why not eliminate the middleman?

Which subject do you think we should choose? If this were Family Feud, I bet English would be a good answer. Do you agree? Well, that’s only the correct answer if English is the child’s second language. What do you pick if it’s the child’s first language? It must be under Reading & Writing.

Now we get to choose from Composition, Grammar, Handwriting, and Vocabulary.

Wait a minute! Did we make a wrong turn somewhere? Who stole Phonics?

If you want to sort through the Vocabulary & Spelling category, all I can say is, “Good luck!” Why? Because you get to browse through 1,222 books to find out if any of them actually relate to Phonics.

You know what makes this task even more fun? There are only 12 search results showing on each page. Hey, it’s only 100 pages. It could be worse.

Maybe the category wasn’t the best idea. Maybe we should just type a keyword.

So we start typing Phonics Workbook into the search field, and we see some other options, like Phonics Workbook Kindergarten. Hmm, maybe we should click on one of those more specific searches.

Well, if you’d like to filter out books published through CreateSpace, that will do the trick because they place a 25-character limit (including spaces) on keywords. Ironically, those same authors can publish the same books (well, probably not workbooks) on Kindle, where there is no limit on the character count of a keyword. The paperback and ebook editions can then be linked together. Go figure!

Another issue is that the publisher can only choose so many keywords, like Phonics, Phonics Book, Phonics for Kids, Phonics Workbook Grade 2, etc. CreateSpace, for example, only allows publishers to select up to 5 relevant keywords. Kindle, in comparison, allows up to 7. Why the disparity?

So when you search by a keyword, it’s possible for a relevant book not to show up in the search.

It’s also possible for a highly irrelevant book to show up in the search. As long as it has the same keyword as you searched for, it will show up.

Of course, Amazon’s algorithm must decide in what order to display the results. Let’s not open yet another can of worms…

Example > One > End

That example illustrates some of the fun that customers experience while searching for books.

Authors and publishers experience a similar sort of fun when publishing books.

Example > Two > Begin

Suppose that you wrote play that contains a bit of murder, satire, and romance. Okay. Which category would you choose when it comes time to publish?

Let’s explore Amazon. You can’t even get passed Books before you come across a tough decision.

Maybe it should be listed as a play for people looking for plays. If so, where are they? Well, you might find them under Literature & Fiction > Drama. At least, you’ll find Shakespeare there. Hey, this book kind of sounds like one of Shakespeare’s works. Makes you wonder how anyone would find his books if he lived in the 21st century! (Okay, I won’t debate that his greatness would prevail even in our times. But suppose you wanted to write something kind of like Shakespeare’s works, but without that same level of genius. Where would you put it?)

Do you really think people will be sorting through dramas looking for new plays that include murder, satire, and romance? (Remember, we’re talking about the book I proposed in this example, and not one of Shakespeare’s books. I just remarked that one of his books could have a similar issue. If you want his books, just type Shakespeare in the search field. It helps a bit to have a famous name. How would such a book get discovered without that big name?)

The category Plays doesn’t appear to exist.

There are many nonexistent categories. Like Phonics (see Example > One). That’s a problem for customers who are looking for such books, and a problem for publishers who sell those books.

It has some murder and some romance. We could throw it in Romantic Suspense. But if it’s anything like Shakespeare, that’s certainly not what those customers will be looking for in that category.

The same goes for Romantic Comedy. You don’t have to worry about that, however. Although there are many romantic comedies, there is no such category. It’s not under Romance, nor is it under Comedy.

Maybe it’s more of a suspense. Or does it fall under Humor for the satire.

It’s a tough decision.

And you have to pick one. Well, if you publish with CreateSpace, you can contact support and politely request that a second browse category be added for your book at Amazon. Compare with Kindle, where you can choose two up front.

Then the categories that you get to choose often don’t match the actual categories at Amazon. CreateSpace presents the BISAC categories, which aren’t the same. This definitely adds to the fun.

Speaking of fun, it gets even better.

Sometimes, your book automatically appears in three or more categories, even though you can only choose one or two. Your book can appear in categories that you don’t even select, all without you knowing.

And this can be a problem.

More is better, right? Not always.

If your book is Fantasy, but buyers see it listed under Science Fiction when they check out the book’s detail page, they might decide it’s not what they were looking for. Similarly, a buyer who is looking for a suspense might be deterred to see a book listed in romance, too.

If a book is good fit for one genre, that’s the only place it should appear so as not to create any buyer confusion. Confused shoppers tend to not buy the book.

Example > Two > End

The real answer for the author’s concerns is marketing. This will be far more effective than relying on customers to discover your book among millions through category or keyword searches. And if your marketing effort pays off, the sales that are generated may improve your book’s visibility.

But what is the solution to the poor customer’s dilemma with categories? Online booksellers are highly customer-oriented, are they not?

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers