Today I am honoured to have my very talented (not to mention very handsome) husband writing a guest post for the blog. Jez is an applied psychologist who specialises in forensic and organisational psychology, and also blogs about the psychology of social media at www.drjezphillips.wordpress.com. Take it away, Jez …

When Jo first asked me to contribute a post for her brilliant blog my first thought was what can I offer that’ll be of any interest to authors? Then I got to thinking. And then I heard something on the radio that made me think some more. Did you know that, in 2012, more information was published on the internet than has existed to this point in history? Or that, on YouTube, more hours of video were posted last year than have been broadcast in America in 60 years? Fascinating, I hear you cry, but what’s this got to do with publishing?

The point is that the internet is, as you are almost certainly aware, bloody huge. The information it contains grows by the second and, as publishers of e-books, you are adding to this vast repository. It would be impossible for anyone alive now to look at every web-page that exists, even for a second, within a normal lifetime. So trying to get people to your web page, and even more importantly to your book on Amazon, is no mean feat. But, and here is the science bit, psychology teaches us that there is hope.

Thankfully humans are designed to deal with huge amounts of information. We are faced with it almost every second. Our eyes take in visual information, our ears process noise and we also have all the other senses as well – what we smell, taste and touch. Not only does all of this information surround us, but we also have to make sense of it and add meaning to it. I’m not going to be all philosophical here but without meaning all of the information we are faced with is nothing, it doesn’t really exist.

So our poor brains have to process huge amounts of data, adding meaning to it and enabling us to act on it. But there is another catch – we are limited in how much information we can process at once. Lots of psychology experiments have shown that our brains have only a certain processing capacity and that, because of this, have developed ways that allow us to function within these limits. The scientific term for these is heuristics, otherwise known as short cuts.

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One of the key methods our brain uses to take short cuts is to lump information together, to categorise things instead of dealing with them individually. That is why, for example, we stereotype – it is easier for our brains to group people together attributing certain (often wrong) characteristics to them than it is for us to try and really understand them as individuals. This then, is why Amazon uses categories. If we want a book we can’t look through 3 million of them, or however many there are on Amazon, it would take too long. So we have to use categories to make sense of the data and make it something we can process and navigate through.

This all has real implications, then, for people publishing on Amazon. If readers ever want to find the book they need they’ll have to start with a category. It seems obvious –  but it isn’t just because Amazon has chosen to set things up this way, it’s because our brains demand that it is set up this way. Because of our limited processing we are, in brain terms, all pretty lazy and operate on principles of ‘least effort’. The quicker, and easier, we can do something, the better. And that goes for finding new reads as well.

So, how can this all help you to best use your Kindle categories? Essentially the answer is to keep things as straight forward and simple as you can. Our brain likes that. There are many categories, and sub-categories, that you could use but people, being what they are, will always take the simplest route to choosing a book. Sure, if your book really fits an obscure category then use it because people will be going there anyway. But, let’s face it, a lot of the time people aren’t even sure what they want. These readers are more likely to browse starting with the biggest category that interests them, even if that is as broad as ‘fiction.’ Make sure you are in the key categories then but don’t assume that using the more obscure ones will necessary help you that much.

A second point is that, because of the huge volumes of books, even the right category will only get you so far. Psychology tells us that the information that we pick up most readily is both vivid and salient. In other words it is bold, stands out from the ordinary and ‘fits’ our expectations in some way. And what this means is that using stereotypes is not only fine in cover design but actually works. If your next book is the new ‘Thirty Shades of Green’ or whatever it was called, there’s no point in having a picture of a whimsical cottage on the cover. It won’t fit, it won’t trigger the right expectation and people will pass it by. It may even sound trite but ‘bold and obvious’ works well to get things noticed.

So, there you are. Categories work because we use them all the time but, and it’s an important but, we have lazy brains. So avoid over complicating things and don’t be afraid of the obvious. Simple and obvious is great for our brains.

Image courtesy of ddpavumba/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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