My Online Date with the Almighty Amazon Algorithm (Part 3 of 3): Beauty Is Only Thumb(nail)-Deep

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.


An amateur book cover announces itself from across the room, there’s no mistaking it.”
Joel Friedlander, “Book Covers: Why Simple Works Better,” Nov 3, 2011

DO choose pictures that show your face close up. Your potential dates shouldn’t have to squint at the screen just to determine if you have good teeth or a beard.
–Rachel Wilkerson, “10 Do’s and Don’ts for Picking Your Online Dating Profile Picture,” TECH Coquette, retrieved August 3, 2009. 


Find Mr. Right—Before He Finds You

[Note: If you haven’t already done so, I would recommend that you first read Part 1 and 2 of the series “My Online Date Using the Almighty Amazon Algorithm. Part 1: “Say Hello to My Ugly Friend”; Part 2: “Don’t Be Ugly By Accident”]

So you think you’re ready to create a “dating profile”—a Product Page—for your book?
Remember the steps for creating a Product Page are essentially the same as creating a profile on a dating website:

1. Create an account.
2. Upload eye-catching visuals.
3. Write an interesting description.
4. Set the locations so that interested parties can find you.
5. Wait for people to find you.

Number 2 on this list is what I want to focus on the most because, as on dating sites, people will typically not read your book description (or profile) first. Why? Well, they haven’t bumped into you yet, have they? In fact, the situation is even more dire than that:

They don’t even know you exist.

But don’t worry, this is where the wizardry of the algorithm—whether on OkCupid or Amazon—kicks in. Remember, the whole point of these magical algorithms is to bring two people together for a date or a reader to a book they’ll enjoy. So both Amazon and OkCupid often know more about what you like than you do because the sites not only remember what you “buy,” they analyze your behavior while you’re on the site. Everything you do (or don’t do) is measured, turned into a number, and plugged into a mathematical formula that is very good at predicting your future behavior.

So how is one “discovered”—whether you’re looking for a book or a date?

It’s a Small World After All

At the top of the graphic on the left, you can see the Product Page on Amazon for my novel The Frog Prince. Below the Book Description  is the “suggestive selling ribbon” (circled in red) that displays thumbnail images of various other books with the header “Customers Who Bought This Book Also Bought…”

Dating sites also use “suggestive selling.” At the bottom of the graphic is my profile on OkCupid. The suggestive selling ribbon on this site is called “You Might Like” and underneath it are thumbnails of potential matches. “You Might Like” thumbnails hound you from the moment you sign into your OkCupid account—every time you click on a profile, send an email, or decline a suggested match.

The beauty of suggestive selling on sites such as Amazon or OkCupid is that it’s personalized and tailor-made for each person based on their previous purchases and browsing history. In other words, the items you see on the ribbon—regardless if you’re browsing for a good book or a nice boy—won’t necessarily be what I would see, because your browsing behavior and actions on the site would translate into unique data for the algorithm to analyze.

Of course, all authors are aware of the suggestive selling ribbon on sites such as Amazon, but few of them actually think about how this ribbon is transforming “discoverability”—that is, the way readers “stumble upon” a book. And that ignorance is almost certainly costing authors click-throughs to their Product Page as well as sales—both of which are actions that “feed the algorithm” and factor into a book’s overall ranking.

If you’re looking for a date on a site such as OkCupid, it’s important to recognize that potential matches will almost never see your profile photograph as a full-sized image first (unless they directly type your user name—”ElizaEffect,” for example—into the search box). If you’re looking for a book on site like Amazon, the same holds true: unless a reader types in “Arthur Author Tiptoe Thru the Tulips,” readers won’t see this book cover in all its full-sized glory.

What you hope they will see.

On a dating site like OkCupid, it’s more likely that a potential match will stumble upon a thumbnail of your photograph simply by browsing the site or by doing a match search.

For authors, this means that readers will likely “discover” your book on Amazon by first seeing a thumbnail on another part of the site, and that it will most certainly be the thumbnail of your book that will entice them to click-through to your book’s Product Page (or not).

What they will see.

This means that a cover (or photograph) that might sweep you off your feet at full-size is often a discoverability disaster when shrunk down to a thumbnail—whether you’re looking for readers or a date. It’s a concept that is difficult for many authors to grasp or accept, but its implications for cover design and discoverability—as well as the way it affects the Amazon algorithm—cannot be stressed enough:

When designing an e-book cover, you MUST assume that every potential reader will see it first as a thumbnail on a suggestive selling ribbon and not as a full-sized graphic. 

Shrinkage: It’s a Problem

Case in point: take a look at the book cover on the left in the graphic below as one example. A serene pond with a lily pad floating on the water on a full-sized cover looks like a pink flip-flop in a thumbnail. What about the profile picture on the right? What is clearly a stunning ball gown in a full-sized profile photo suddenly looks, as a thumbnail, like the gray funnel I use to put oil in my car.

Neither of these thumbnails will attract readers or dates because very few people will click-through to read your Product Description or your dating profile—an action that feeds the Almighty Algorithm. More click-throughs means more sales, which affects not only your book’s rankings but determines which books your title is grouped with on the suggestive selling ribbon (novels with a similar ranking tend to be grouped together).

Compare the graphics above to the ones you see below. Even when shrunk down to the size of a thumbnail, both the cover and the photograph are professional-looking and eye-catching. (And c’mon, that frog is practically begging readers to click-through!)

When an author emails me with a lament that they “can’t find a date”—that no one is buying their book, in other words—a quick trip to their Product Page often reveals that their cover is the problem. By this I don’t mean that their cover is amateurish, sloppy, ugly, or so far outside the bounds of the genre as to confuse the reader, although certainly those problems often exist. But barring those common problems, oftentimes the real issue is that when you shrink their cover down to a thumbnail it’s just…blah.

[Self-publishing’s worst covers, according to the Huffington Post.]

If the suggestive selling ribbon on Amazon offered up only one “suggestion”—one book at a time, in other words—well, that would great! But at any given moment, your title is in hand-to-hand combat with at least six other thumbnails on the “Customer Who Bought This Title Also Bought” ribbon—all dying to be noticed. Put a “blah” thumbnail in a lineup with six other better covers, and it practically disappears.

And if your book is invisible, well, no one can discover it, can they? No click-throughs means no sales—both of which will doom your title to the equivalent of Friday nights at home waiting for the phone to ring.

You Have to Kiss a Lot of Frogs to Find a Prince*

Like I explained in Part 1 of this series (“Say Hello to My Ugly Friend”):

About four months after I uploaded my first novel The Frog Prince, the book became an Amazon bestseller. One of the first questions I was asked during Q & A sessions at workshops and conferences for the next two years was what I called The Dreaded Marketing Question: “What did you do to successfully market The Frog Prince?”

My go-to response? A blank, dumb look, and then a half-hearted, “Well, that’s a really interesting, complicated topic that we could spend all day on. Unfortunately we’re running out of time, so…”  

Here’s the truth: I didn’t do anything to market The Frog Prince; I simply completed steps 1-5 as you see above, fixed up my book’s hair and makeup, and waited to see whether or not the Almighty Amazon Algorithm would think it was “hot.”

Of course, I’ve had a couple of years to think about The Dreaded Marketing Question so I’m happy to say that I no longer incorporate the “blank, dumb look” into my answer. Here’s how I believe my frog turned into a prince…

When I designed the cover for The Frog Prince, I did it without knowing anything about romantic comedy, cover design, or even the standards of the genre. I didn’t read romance so it never occurred to me to look on Amazon to see what other book covers in the genre looked like (something I do not recommend, by the way; I was incredibly lucky).

In fact, it wasn’t until The Frog Prince became an Amazon bestseller in December of 2010 that I really took a look at other book covers in the romantic comedy genre. And what I saw was a lot of variations on the following: pink, pink, pink, followed by hearts, wedding cakes, wedding dresses, wedding rings, and pink.

Which is not to imply that these covers aren’t good; most of them are professional, eye-catching, clever, and lovely to look at—on a bookstore self or full-sized on a Product Page. Shrink many of them down to a thumbnail and you have…blah. Soft pink blah.

In my case, the suggestive selling ribbon did all the work for me. The Frog Prince, with that little green frog on the cover, stuck out like a sore thumb(nail) in a sea of bland colors, indistinguishable graphics, or cluttered covers too complicated to decipher at that size. Readers clicked through to The Frog Prince product page from that little thumbnail…well, because they couldn’t help themselves. Many of them were intrigued enough by the Book Description to buy the book. And they told their friends, and they told their friends…

The Frog Prince might have ended up as just another generic rom-com cover, lost in shades of pink. Instead, it not only became my first bestseller, but the graphic and cover design would become a “brand” of sorts that I would use to inspire the book covers for Sleeping Beauty, Sleeping Beauty Wakes Up, Alice in Wonderland and Rapunzel.

Sure, I took a chance on a sexy frog, but it was the thumbnail combined with the Almighty Amazon Algorithm that helped him seduce all those readers. And all those readers and all those kisses turned him into a prince and helped me find my “happily ever after.”

As ever, thank you for reading. 

Related Posts:

* Much of the section “You Have to Kiss a Lot of Frogs to Find a Prince” is drawn from my blog “Let’s Talk About My Pants. No, Seriously.” where you can also learn how I “accidentally” wrote a romantic comedy.

Note: All photographs featured in mock-up dating profiles (except mine) are stock photos obtained for this DBW blog from They are NOT the actual profiles for real people on OkCupid or any other dating site. The Tiptoe Thru the Tulips book cover is a mock-up of my own design that I use in my cover design workshops. “The Frog Prince” cover with the pink title art and the lily pad was designed for me by Rich Moyer (but was never used).

Expert Publishing Blog
Elle Lothlorien

About Elle Lothlorien

A “military brat,” Elle Lothlorien was born in Germany and spent her childhood in such far-flung places as Puerto Rico, Charleston, S.C., Italy, and Washington D.C. Sadly, the only language she ever became semi-fluent in is English. Elle’s first two self-published romantic comedies, THE FROG PRINCE and SLEEPING BEAUTY went on to become Amazon bestsellers. She is considered a “reluctant expert” on the business of electronic, independent publishing (also called “indie-publishing”), and frequently writes and speaks on the topic. Elle lives in Denver, Colorado. She keeps two dachshunds around the house to provide comic relief. Find out more about her and her books by going to her website, or by following her on Facebook and Twitter.

4 thoughts on “My Online Date with the Almighty Amazon Algorithm (Part 3 of 3): Beauty Is Only Thumb(nail)-Deep

  1. Michael W. Perry

    I suspect that I disagree with your claim that, “You Have to Kiss a Lot of Frogs to Find a Prince.\ For years, I’ve worked to persuade a friend, single and in her twenties, that letting jerks and losers into her emotional life is likely to leave her so angry and bitter, that a real prince–meaning a guy she’d love to marry–won’t give her a second glance, seeing her as too high-maintenance. Fortunately, she’s finally coming to realize that and in time, but she’d have been spared a lot of grief if she’d learned to set some standards earlier.

  2. Yusra

    Thank you so much: some really interesting points in this article (even though I’m reading it over a year late, haha!)

    I was wondering if you know the exact dimensions for the “Also Bought” thumbnail? That way, aspiring self-published writers (and/or cover designers) can shrink their images to the right size beforehand, in order to check legibility/attractiveness. If you do happen to know, measurements would be hugely appreciated!

    Thanks again! 🙂

    1. Elle LothlorienElle Lothlorien Post author

      Hi, Yusra. The reason there are no dimensions given in the blog is because every person will see the thumbnails at different sizes, depending on the size of their monitor, the type of computer they have, and what they’ve set the “zoom” on their screen to. If you have a PC, you can see what I mean by pressing the CTRL button while at the same time pressing either the “+” or “-” symbols. Words and graphics will get larger or smaller when you do this, so there is no universal dimension for every person. My advice is to go to Amazon and take a look at the suggestive selling ribbon that YOU see. Measure the thumbnails with a ruler and then shrink down your cover design to those dimensions. Best of luck to you!

      Elle L.

  3. Yusra

    Cheers Elle! I was not expecting a reply considering how late I was in checking out the article, so your answer was a really pleasant surprise!!! 🙂 I will definitely do as you advised. Thank you most graciously!



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