| Don’t Write Alone
Shop Talk How Do Algorithms Help (and Hinder) Book Sales?
As a marketing professional, I mastered the art of writing for algorithms. As a novelist trying to sell my books, it’s more complicated.
I make a living writing content whose success is measured by the number of clicks and downloads it gets. For a decade, I devoted much of my writing to helping drive a software company’s Google rankings to the top while also writing novels on the side.
I’ve since left the software company, but I still write marketing copy as a contractor. In this line of work, algorithms are my lifeblood. Having mastered the nuts and bolts of writing for algorithms, I thought my knowledge would help me sell copies of my books when I finally got published. As writers know, getting published traditionally is hard; selling copies of your book once it’s published is even harder. And in today’s digital landscape, algorithms can greatly influence an author’s book sales and marketing viability.
The majority of readers learn about new books from the internet. Even when books are recommended to them, they usually go online to get more information. On the vast highway of the internet, where authors compete for readers’ short attention spans, algorithms direct the heavy traffic flow by showing users what they search for while also pushing products that they are likely to want. On sites like Google, Amazon, and Goodreads, when users type book-related search words, algorithms get to decide which of the millions of titles users will see first. Algos have the power to propel best sellers and repress less-than-popular titles. They’re great for the Stephen Kings and Danielle Steels of the world. They can be terrible for the rest of us because, let’s face it, out of the millions of books published annually, only a handful become best sellers.
In computer science, an algorithm refers to a set of instructions that makes a piece of hardware or software perform a task. We encounter algos in one form or another in almost everything we do today. Google is the most ubiquitous algorithm-driven platform. The banking app in your smartphone uses algorithms. The five stars your debut got on Goodreads? That’s all thanks to algos too. Tech companies invest billions of dollars into creating algorithms for one purpose—to make money. Sure, algorithms help users find free information and do other neat things with just a few clicks, but their fundamental purpose is to generate revenue by peddling products and services, including books.
Take the innocuous practice of rating books on retail sites. While readers are leaving reviews, algorithms are also pushing to the foreground advertisements of similar books. Algos allow a reader to rate a book, help advertisers promote their books, and generate revenue for the platform all at once. Though this seems like a win-win situation, it’s more complicated for new authors like me.
Algorithms have the power to propel best sellers and repress less-than-popular titles.
My first book, In His Corner , was a romance under my pen name, Vina Arno, and it was published by Lyrical Press in 2015. My second book, the historical novel My MacArthur , was published by Sand Hill Review Press in 2018.
Like a good marketer, I established a website and social media presence to promote my books. I hired a professional website designer, but I wrote all the content myself. I knew that to compete in the algorithm-driven world, my books needed a platform. A platform can be as simple or as complicated as the author wants it to be, but a website is a must-have. The basic purpose of this website is to feed content to algorithms so the author’s name and books will appear in search engine results. Since algos consist of sequences of calculations that process data, they always need more data to feed them. You feed algos by generating online content, both paid and organic. This also means that algos automatically favor books and authors with more marketing resources—cash and man power that continuously generate content, resulting in more data.
Some writers don’t invest in a website, saying readers will find them on social media anyway. Indeed, social media is an important part of your platform, but it’s not your home. A platform could fold, like Google Plus, or you could get suspended or banned as a user. But you’ll always control your author website because you own it.
Some writers mistakenly think they have to be present on every social media channel, but that’s unnecessary. The best practice in marketing is to go where your target audience is. I chose Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. I’m also active on LinkedIn because it caters to my marketing clients. I created an author’s page on Amazon and Goodreads. I’m on YouTube (barely) but not on TikTok. I also try to write articles like this one for online magazines. All of these types of content are meant to feed algorithms—from search engines to e-commerce platforms to readers’ and book-discovery channels.
I rank high in keywords most relevant to me: my own name and the titles of my books. This means readers are likely to learn about me through my own website, which was my goal. That much I’ve accomplished. But the algorithms that I feed diligently have yet to make me visible to Google and social media users and Amazon shoppers in a way that sells books.
Though I succeeded as a marketer for a corporate employer, I’m unable to parlay my skills into book sales because I don’t have the support I need. I know how to write content for the purpose of search engine optimization (SEO), but optimized content is just a small part of digital marketing. I need other things to go with the content: the know-how in choosing the right keywords for my book’s genre and subject matter, a robust keyword software application for research (free tools can only go so far), the skills to optimize the technical elements of a website page such as metadata, tags, and URL. I also need fresh content on a weekly if not daily basis. I don’t have the time to write daily content promoting my books because I’m too busy doing exactly that for companies that hire me.
In promoting my published novels, I discovered that the digital environment doesn’t offer a level playing field. Although anybody can promote books online, algorithms ultimately favor those with resources—the authors whose publishers provide a decent marketing budget and those (traditional or self-published) who have support for the marketing legwork or can afford to pay for marketing services.
Though I succeeded as a marketer, I’m unable to parlay my skills into book sales because I don’t have the support I need.
So what can writers do? Everything I’ve discussed above—adding content to my website semi-regularly, posting on social media strategically, and getting my articles published in digital magazines—constitutes an organic digital presence, which refers to search rankings that happen naturally over time. But organic marketing is like planting a tree. You need to nurture it for years before it takes root—unless you’re a best seller to begin with.
Writers like Stephen King and Danielle Steel have been selling books by the truckload since long before the internet became commonplace. Their names and book titles have fed algos organically for decades through book reviews, magazine interviews and articles, blog posts, and ads.
When you enter the keywords “horror,” “novel,” and “author” (or some variation of them) into search engines, guess whose names appear first? Stephen King and other best sellers. Because their books appear at the top of the search results, users are more likely to click on them. For new and midlist authors who lack a strong organic online presence, paid promotion is a viable tool for increasing their visibility quickly.
Paid promotion works faster than organic marketing because it targets motivated users picked by algorithms for specific characteristics (i.e., their demographics and interests). People who search for their next read on Amazon or Bookshop.org or Facebook are often ready to buy. As they search, algos will push relevant paid ads to the top, increasing the likelihood of a sale.
I’ve run pay-per-click ads on BookBub, Amazon, and Facebook. But just like organic marketing, advertising algorithms are biased toward best-selling authors, or at least authors with adequate promotional budgets. Platforms accept ads that you can create yourself, but those ads will be competing with professionally crafted ones with bigger budgets paid for by publishing companies.
PPC ads work through an algorithm-driven auction, meaning you have to bid for the chance to make your ad visible to users. Whereas a lone writer might be able to afford only a few cents per click, a publishing house can make a higher bid—and run the ad for longer. Many self-published authors with the right budget and know-how can succeed in this environment. I, on the other hand, find it hard to benefit from algorithms the way I have done as an SEO writer. I succeeded as a corporate marketer because I was an efficient cog in a full-fledged marketing machine. My former employer paid dozens of people like me, used the right tools, and allotted significant funds to leverage algorithms. But as a novelist, I’m alone.
Still, I nurture my digital platform. Just like a tree, it’s intrinsically valuable. With time and the right publisher with the right marketing support, my tree will grow taller and stronger.
As a novelist, my primary job remains writing. I remind myself time and again why I write fiction—to tell stories in a way that only I can. I earn my place in the sun by getting published. It’s a bonus when an SEO-friendly blog post I wrote or a PPC ad I paid for leads to a book sale. Publication, writes Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird , is how authors “acquire a rank that you never lose.” This rank, not the algorithm-driven search rankings, is what truly matters to me.