How to Choose the Right Keywords to Increase Online Book Sales

Anyone trying to sell books on the Internet has likely heard about “keywords”, whether as part of search engine optimization (SEO), paid search, Google Display Network advertising, Facebook ads, Instagram advertising, or even Amazon’s own paid advertising service. Keywords are a critical part of a book’s metadata, and are what make your work searchable and discoverable online. Readers need to be able to easily find your book in order to buy it. But how do you pick the right keywords for marketing and selling your book?

You do it by putting yourself in the shoes of your target reader, and imagine the things they might type into a computer to find your book, or a book similar to yours. And since most authors write books they want to read, you’re well-suited to pick these words and phrases.

A word of caution: because we’re so close to our work, we often make the mistake of being too specific and choosing keywords and phrases that we as the author know, but that no one else will search for.

To choose relevant keywords and phrases, you need to know what makes your book unique, who your target readers are, and what can bring those two things together to drive more sales.

What Makes Your Book Unique

Finding out what makes your book unique can be complicated, but you can begin with some simple buckets and keep drilling-down, adding a level of detail each time.

You can start with technicalities. Is your book fiction or nonfiction? Fiction? Okay, is your fiction book realistic or fantastic? Realistic? Is it set in history or contemporary times? Contemporary times? A real place or a made-up one? What gender is your protagonist? Is it a thriller or a mystery novel?

You can see how this exercise gets you from “I wrote a novel” to “I wrote a contemporary thriller set in Uganda with a female Special Forces operative named Kacey who is desperately trying to get home.”

Now, that’s not a keyword, but that opens a lot of doors to break it down. Now you know what you have, and, chances are you probably have a not-too-terrible marketing line for your book, as well.

Who Are Your Readers

When new writers are asked, “Who’s your target audience?”, the most common response is often the most unrealistic:

“Oh, anyone! Everyone!”

Most authors want to reach as many readers as possible, but you will increase your chances of long-term success if you start with a focused target, and work from there. Defining your target audience is a critical step in honing your marketing strategy, and should be identified as early on in the writing and publishing process as possible.

Now run the same drill-down exercise on your target reader. Can you define the exact person who is going to enjoy your book more than any other person? Who is that, and why?

Who is going to read the story of Kacey in Uganda, desperate to get home? Fiction readers or nonfiction readers? Fans of Lee Child or fans of Noam Chomsky? Men or women? Readers who want exciting adventure or readers who want clever prose?

“My readers enjoy fast-paced books with exciting adventures in exotic places, with strong female protagonists and well-written characters.”

It doesn’t have to be exact and your target reader can evolve and expand over time. But you need these details before moving onto the next step of creating your list of keywords and phrases.

How to Put These Two Things Together

Now it’s time to role-play. Let’s imagine you’re the target reader. You’re looking for books like the one you’ve published. What words or phrases are you going to put into search engines and online bookstores to find a book like this to purchase?

Hint: You’re not going to put in “books for everyone.”

Think about how you use the search engines and online bookstores to find books you want to buy. What do you type in the search bar?

“My name.”

No. Your target reader, especially if this is your first book, likely doesn’t know your name. And no one puts random names into a search bar. If by some chance they do know your name, your name is already indexed. It doesn’t need to be a keyword.

“My book’s title.”

See previous comment above.


Closer, but there are a lot of thriller books in the marketplace competing with yours.

“International thrillers.”

Better, but be even more specific if you can be.

“Thrillers set in Uganda.”

Now that’s a great keyword phrase. Think it through: you wrote a thriller set in Uganda. This person just searched for “thrillers set in Uganda.” It’s an easy match.

Reminder: Don’t be so specific that you are using keywords readers can’t know and won’t be typing in the search bar. For example, “Kacey, special operative,” isn’t going to be helpful. Or, if you invented the name of a city in Uganda, readers won’t be searching that name.

Do always try and make your keywords as specific as you can, but also keep in mind that not all websites use keywords in the same way. Do your research to understand where and how they are applicable. It may take some experimentation as well.

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