Part III: The Ultimate Guide to Promotion (Visibility + Traffic)

Traffic. Visibility. Eyeballs. Promotion.

Call it whatever you want; getting potential readers to your book page is critical to your overall success, since it kicks off the marketing cycle. We’ll cover a number of ways to generate traffic, from free methods to paid advertising. Many authors falter here, wondering how the hell to get anyone interested in their book. Fear not: it’s simpler than it might first appear.

Thus, Part II covers:

  • Basically every traffic source on the internet.
  • The two most effective sources of traffic for indie authors.
  • The importance of Amazon’s algorithms – and how they’re the most powerful book selling force on the planet.
  • How to schedule your promotions to maximize their efficacy.

Revisiting Our Book Marketing Formula

Before jumping into traffic, let’s revisit a couple important points from Parts I and II.

There are only three components of internet marketing: traffic, conversion and determining your ROI. Traffic is getting people to the book page; conversion is convincing these people to buy (and, later, converting them into fans by getting them to sign-up for your email list); ROI is doing these two things at a cost that allows you to turn a profit and continue reinvesting in your business.

When we combine marketing with the magic of consistent production and market research, we get The Ultimate Book Marketing Formula:

genre research + 3 targeted traffic sources + great covers/blurbs + newsletter + 4+ full-length novels per year = full time author

We’ve already covered genre research in Part II, which means you hopefully have a deeper understanding of your target market and its most popular authors. We will be building upon this research in this guide, so if you haven’t analyzed your sub-genre yet, put this text aside for a moment to do so.

After that, you’re ready for the next step: finding targeted traffic sources.

Let’s begin.

Traffic: Why Only Three Sources?

As mentioned in Part I, this guide is built upon the 80/20 principle. To recap, this principle states that a select few of our actions generate the majority of our results. Most of what we do either doesn’t matter – or is outright holding us back from making progress. Even authors who sell far more than me fall prey to nonsense. I have no interest in working 100+ hour weeks and vaporizing insane amounts of money on things that “might” be working. The glory of internet marketing is that everything is trackable. Amazon and the other retailers make our job more difficult by providing scant metrics, but even this paltry sales data is enough to assess ROI.

You might recall that we briefly touched upon leveraging your signature strengths in Part I. On a book/author level, you leverage your signature strengths into a unique selling proposition (USP) – clearly conveying to readers what makes your work distinct, thus allowing you to stand out in a crowded marketplace. You might be strong at dialogue, but weaker at setting. Including more of the latter at the expense of the former would be a fool’s errand.

Likewise, there are marketing concepts that will sing to you – and others that will screech.

We all have things that “click” with our mindset. Whether this is an issue of genetics (e.g. talent), upbringing, environment, education or other factors is largely irrelevant. As you stand at this point in your life, you have certain skills that are far more developed and robust than others. Other areas, by contrast, are like pushing a boulder uphill.

While certain skills must be developed to a baseline level – e.g. your blurbs cannot be glaringly weak – non-essential weaknesses can, and should be, ignored. The number of things one can be truly great at is limited. The chances of producing excess value in 10 or 15 disparate marketing areas is zero. The chance of producing negative value in many of these areas is high, simply because marketing is competitive. In an ecosystem like Facebook, your ads compete against other people’s. If your ads suck, they cost more.

Diverting resources away from your signature strengths into areas that are liabilities is a losing proposition.

Even if you are master of the marketing universe, you must choose among the best available options for a simple reason: time. Otherwise, publishing becomes a war of attrition, where one must add the 5 latest traffic sources and 20+ hours to their weekly workload to keep up with the churn. This quickly reaches a breaking point due to the laws of time and space, but your sanity is far more likely to wave the white flag before then.

It’s far better, then, to be good at a few things than garbage at many. By doing more, we often accomplish less – or even head backward. This is counter intuitive in an entrepreneurial culture that worships at the altar of #hustle. The idea here is not to strictly adhere to the concept of “three.” You might have four or five traffic sources – or two (relying on one puts you in a precarious position, and is not recommended). This parameter, instead, encourages accountability and analysis. Identify what actually works, and invest more resources into it.

Exception to the Rule: Launch Synergy

During a launch, normal promotion rules go out the window. The more firepower, generally speaking, the better. There are limits to this firepower, of course, as you can incinerate stacks of cash with amazing ease during an aggressive launch. Generally speaking, however, each promotional dollar spent during the launch window (first 30 days of release) is worth more than normal. Thus, if you throw a little gasoline on the release fire, you can get a lot more bang for your marketing buck.

The reason is simple: Amazon wants as much new content as possible. They constantly want exciting things to offer their customers. This means that their bestseller lists and automated site recommendations are set to constantly churn. To ensure this, they provide visibility bonuses to recently released titles. This creates a ton of churn on their charts. This is good when you have a new release, but bad for your backlist, which often disappears in the froth.

There are three things I should reiterate:

  1. Each advertising dollar is worth anywhere from 1.5x to 3x normal during the launch period. This is just a rule of thumb based on anecdotal observation, not based on data analysis. Being aggressive in the first 30 days is almost always more beneficial than spending that same amount a half year later, even if you have more books in the series available for sell-through later on. Don’t “save up” for later: come out of the gate as hard as you can, then be aggressive later, too. If you can only choose one, storm out of the starting blocks.
  2. You get 90 days of new release visibility from Amazon. However, this starts to decay at Day 30, when you’re no longer eligible for the Hot New Release chart. There is another drop-off at 60 days, then the final drop off in release visibility at 90 days. At that point, your title is “old” on Amazon, and receives no special visibility benefits. These are colloquially referred to as the 30/60/90 day cliffs. As of late 2017, the cliffs have become more pronounced, particularly the 30 day cliff.
  3. It is much harder to get “sticky” than it used to be. Mentioned elsewhere, but bears repeating. After 30 days, Amazon cuts off a lot of its recommendations and new release juice. As such, relying on Amazon’s algorithms for visibility is not a long-term proposition. I’d assume this will get worse as time goes on and as Amazon further tweaks its AMS platform. Why should they dole out tons of organic visibility that authors are willing to pay good money for?

There are those who suggest that the launch doesn’t matter in the world of indie publishing. I strongly disagree. While Amazon’s algorithms can, and do, change at any time without warning, they currently reward new releases. Since you’re essentially playing with house money, there’s no reason not to use these benefits to your fullest advantage.

To that end, the three traffic sources concept can – and often does – go out the window during an aggressive launch. This is because of synergy: when your book is everywhere – promo sites, Facebook, your newsletter, FB Ads, BookBub Ads, AMS ads, and so forth – it gives the impression that it’s important. It also reminds people constantly that it’s available. Eventually, after seeing your book five, six, ten or even twenty times in the course of a week – over multiple venues – a reader’s brain goes I have to check this out.

Again, this type of blitz only works for small windows – 3 to 14 days, maximum. Otherwise, it becomes far too expensive and stressful to manage. And it does not make sense for a traditional discounted promo push or steady advertising that hums in the background – again, I would only break this rule during a launch. And it certainly doesn’t make sense for all new releases: you might not want to do an all-out launch blitz. It’s not necessary, or even recommended in most cases – although some launch promotion is wise (using those three traffic sources you’ve been honing), since the new release visibility boosts are substantial.

You might be worried, then, that you should “practice” for such a launch by spreading your current resources thin. This is unwise; while BookBub PPC ads and AMS ads have some differences, many of the core principles are the same. This is the same with many of the sources below: master one, and your skills quickly transfer to another platform should the need arise. Trying to juggle too many plates only slows your progress and diminishes your skills.

Traffic Sources

Here’s a basic overview of traffic sources, in no particular order. We’ll assess these options down below. But you can see, right off the bat, that your main concern is picking what will work, rather than generating ideas.

And for those who might dispute the classifications, I’m just trying to keep things organized; some of these sources don’t slot neatly into a single category.

For now, just get a feel for all the available options.

  • Organic: retailer SEO (e.g. Amazon keywords/categories), retailers’ recommendation algorithms, word of mouth
  • Paid newsletter promotion: BookBub, Robin Reads, etc.
  • Pay-per-click (PPC) ads: Amazon AMS, Facebook Ads, BookBub CPM, Google AdWords, Twitter Ads, YouTube, Goodreads, Pinterest
  • Merchandising: retailer “first in free” or “series starter” promotions – used extensively on iBooks; Kobo + Nook as well
  • Networking: cross-author promos, author mailing list shares, multi-author boxed sets, cover reveals, blog toursc
  • Content marketing: SEO, blogging, guest posting, podcasting
  • Traditional publishing: publishing in industry mags (e.g. Analog), trad-pub contract
  • PR & media coverage: newspapers, print features, on-air interviews
  • In-person events: book fairs, industry events, fan conventions, book signings
  • Social Media: Facebook (e.g. Facebook takeovers, launch parties), Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Goodreads, forums
  • Your newsletter

Each one of these counts separately. Overwhelmed yet? See why we’re paring this list down to three traffic sources + your newsletter? As a simple math exercise, let’s say you dedicated 10 minutes daily to each. Just for the overarching categories alone that would be 100+ minutes a day, likely well beyond the time you allot for marketing. But let’s go further: 10 min/ea.; I’ll even cut the crappier options, like Goodreads PPC ads.

That’s 240+ minutes a day (e.g. over 4 hours). And, at ten minutes each, you’re barely getting your toe wet. If we ever want to develop actual competence – and generate real visibility – we need to start narrowing our options fast.

But before we start chopping, we need to figure out what works for us.

Finding Which Traffic Sources Work For You

If you’re already overwhelmed by marketing, you skimmed that list and probably had a brain aneurysm. What’s best? How much does it cost? Will it work for my book? But it didn’t work for this other book…can I risk it?

Slow down.

At the beginning, you need to try things before you can cull the list. Go wide before you go narrow. That means, at least at the start, you’ll have more than three traffic sources. To be clear, this does not mean trying three hundred things at once. Nor does it mean throwing cash around willy-nilly. We must still delve deep enough to tell whether something works, which inevitably demands time.

Remember: There are plenty of places to find readers. More sources, in fact, than you could hope to fully explore in a lifetime. Unlike most other guides, however, we’re not looking for just anything that can give us traffic.

We’re searching for the best sources of readers possible. This idea seems obvious, but it’s radical enough to make you pause and say, but wait a second. I’ve been struggling for months, maybe years. I don’t deserve the best. I can’t ask for the best. I’ll just settle for anything. A few little old readers…

Cut the shit. We’re here to make money. Whatever your hang-ups about narrowing your focus, deal with them.

Here’s what you need to ask (a simple method adapted from the great Noah Kagan):

  1. Who is my reader?
  2. Where are the best places to find them?

If you’ve read Part I, you should have at least a general understanding of your target audience. If not, then performing market research will help you answer these two questions. Once you have your answers – which don’t have to be perfect – start experimenting with 5 – 10 promising sources.

After you have sufficient data, narrow your traffic list via the following method:

  1. Analyze your records. How many sales did you get when you messaged your Twitter peeps? Posted on that ancient weapon forum? Focus on what’s driving the bulk of your sales.
  2. Test more things. What happens when I remove a promo site? What happens when I stop messaging my Twitter peeps/doing a cover reveal/only post on Facebook once a day? Does the world implode? What happens if I only advertise at launches? What happens if I double my Facebook spend? What happens if I email my list four times in a day (don’t do this)? These are just sample questions (otherwise known in science as “hypotheses”) – come up with ones relevant to your business.

Or, alternatively, narrow your focus immediately (because you don’t have records, and it’ll take you six months acquire the necessary data) by following my Top 5 Traffic Sources for Fiction Writers. These sources work for almost all books, so even if you want to do your own rigorous analysis (which I wholeheartedly recommend), they’re a good jumping off point.

Calculating Net Series Income

In Part I, we discussed three key metrics: cash flow, net income and ROI. In Part II, income makes a return – but with a twist.

As a quick refresher, net income = money made – money spent.

Most indie authors calculate their revenue on a promotion based solely on the book being promoted. If the ads are on Book 1, they use the sales of Book 1 to determine the efficacy of their advertising dollars.  But, as competition becomes fiercer, savvy marketers have started looking at the series numbers. And a long running series can amplify the effects of each marketing dollar significantly.

But to calculate the true effect of our promotions, we need to crunch another number: sell-through. In today’s marketplace, it is difficult to turn a profit on promo sites and PPC ads without having a series behind Book 1 or the box set you’re advertising. Gone are the days of breaking even on Book 1. Those basing their income on the initial sale are liable to terminate profitable campaigns. This also means it’s often not profitable to advertise until you have 3 or even 5 books out (however, there are other reasons to advertise, such as visibility and launch exposure, which we’ll discuss below). I’d expect this trend to spread to more genres in 2018, as advertising and click costs rise across the board (more authors/books being advertised = more competition for clicks, which means higher costs).

Sell-through: Book 2’s sales/Book 1’s sales. E.g. 35 copies of Book 2/60 copies of Book 1 = 58.3% sell-through.

Then we calculate Book 2’s sellthrough: Book 3’s sales/Book 2’s sales. E.g. 30 copies of Book 2/35 copies of Book 3 = 85.7% sell-through.

And so forth.

  • Higher sell-through is better.
  • Sell-through increases with later volumes, leveling off between 85 – 90%. This is because only fans will reach this far.
  • Aim for 50%+ sell-through on full price sales; otherwise, Book 1 might have a problem. This will dip significantly if you price Book 1 at $0.99. If you give Book 1 away for free, expect sell-through to be around 1 – 3%, max.

Let’s calculate two income examples using the sample numbers: one with a three book series and a seven book series.

Three books: 60 copies of Book 1 * 2.70 + 35 copies of Book 2 * 2.70 + 30 copies of Book 2 * 2.70 = $337.50

Amount spent: $350

Net income: -$12.50

Seven books: (60 x $2.70) + (35 x $2.70) + (30 x $2.70) + 27 x 2.70 + 25 x 2.70 + 23 x 2.70 + 20 x 2.70 = $594

Amount spent = $350

Net income: +$244

This highlights two important things: one, it’s critical that readers actually read your books. This is where craft comes in. If you’re selling a ton of copies of Book 1, but have anemic sales on the backend, you’re in trouble. And two, longer series with high sell-through allow you to spend more on advertising Book 1. In example two, we lost a hefty amount advertising Book 1 ($162 – $350 = -$188), but made a healthy profit when the rest of the books were factored in.

With PPC (pay-per-click) in particular, it’s very hard to turn a profit on sales of Book 1 alone. Thus, the series sell-through calculations are of critical importance.

Top 5 Traffic Sources for Fiction Writers

  • (1 + 2) Your newsletter & Amazon’s recommendation engine. If you have absolutely no time for marketing, focus on these two items and you will see results. They’re that powerful; harnessing them effectively is critical to your overall success. For those who are “wide” (have their books on all retailers), you’ll also need to understand merchandising; that’s how retailers like iBooks operate.
  • (3) PPC Ads: can be a money pit, and not effective unless you have $200+/mo that you’re willing to lose. Requires trial and error and constant monitoring, as winning ads eventually turn into losers. However, PPC offers unlimited traffic potential, since you can spend $5/day or $500. Perhaps most importantly, PPC ads are highly targeted. Recall that we don’t just want three sources of traffic; we want three targeted sources of traffic. This has to do with Amazon’s algorithms, as we’ll discover soon enough.
    • PPC has the added benefit of being a transferable skill. I understand that you might want to become an author more than anything in the world, but there are no guarantees. Many skills relevant to fiction writing & eBook publishing are decidedly narrow and non-transferable, but PPC is useful in most industries and for all other internet businesses, too.
  • (4) Paid newsletter promotions: easy to use, and solid ROI for the top 5 sites. A BookBub can be career changing (although that’s rare; it’s still lucrative, though). Check out my curated list of top sites, complete with direct links to the submission forms.
  • (5) Your choice from the remaining options.

Properly leveraging Amazon’s algos doesn’t demand additional time once you learn how they function, and building your mailing list is a separate beast that gets its own place in the formula. Thus, we’ve taken up only two of our three traffic slots. I recommend PPC and paid newsletter sites for 99% of fiction writers, assuming you can invest a few hundred dollars a month in your business. If not, replace them with free alternatives or scale back to what you can afford.

Why do I like paid traffic? Simple: it’s controllable, on demand and quickly scalable. Facebook will always accept your dollars. Even if you have a great relationship with another author, they might not mention your new book to their fans. And there’s no way of forcing them to do so. Let me repeat: Facebook will always take your dollars – even if you’re starting out and don’t know a soul in this game. You can learn the fundamentals of Facebook Ads in a week and fire up a $100/day budget, thus reaching hundreds of highly targeted potential readers a day. Relationships, by contrast, take months, if not years to build.

To be clear, PPC doesn’t work for every book or author, particularly if you write in a super-niche sub-genre. But it’s so powerful that you should give it a try before relegating it to the dust bin.

To fill out that third slot – and for alternatives to PPC and promo sites – here’s a more in-depth rundown of the other options from our traffic sources list.

Promo Sites

The idea behind promotional sites is simple: the site gathers reader emails (or social media fans). You pay the site to advertise your book to their list. Running an ad with a promo site requires your book to be discounted to $0.99 or free (some sites offer the option to advertise a $1.99/$2.99, but this isn’t recommended).

Examples include BookBub, Robin Reads, and BookSends. There are dozens of promo sites. Most of them aren’t worth your time to submit to, let alone the fee. A curated list of currently recommended sites is available here (nicholaserik.com/promo-sites).

As mentioned, promo sites have a remarkably simple learning curve: just fill out a form, pay the fee, and your book will be sent out to thousands (or even hundreds of thousands of readers). But this comes with caveats: top performing promo sites are competitive, with some booked a couple months in advance. And, since indies have shown their willingness to spend advertising dollars, a number of ineffective sites have cropped up.

Three things to keep in mind:

  • The total # of newsletter subscribers means very little. A list of 100,000 that has little engagement won’t sell any books.
  • Social media #s are useless. If a site has 100,000 Facebook Likes, less than 6% of them will see any given post.
  • Few sites outside of BookBub will net you a positive return on the book being advertised. This is because it’s hard to sell enough copies at $0.99 to cover the ad cost. And, if you’re giving a book away for free, obviously you need a backlist. Thus, you need a series with strong sell-through to generate positive revenue from most promo sites. If you don’t have a series (e.g. you write standalones), or your series has poor sell-through, you’re usually better off not spending a bunch of money on advertising.

If a site isn’t on the list above, but it looks promising, do a search of KBoards (go to Google, then search KBoards: promo site name] or post. The authors there will chime in.

Pay-Per-Click (PPC)

Pay-per-click is a vast, complicated topic that would be difficult to cover in a multiple part series, let alone a few paragraphs. Further, each platform changes frequently, so tips and tricks that are hot today will be useless tomorrow. This is because PPC platforms function like a competitive marketplace, a la the stock market. Pricing inefficiencies and edges are smoothed out of the market as more and more participants become aware of them.

Currently, these platforms are the most promising for authors:

  • Facebook
  • Amazon AMS
  • BookBub PPC (note: these ads are different than their famous “Featured Deals”)

Other platforms that might be of interest, but I haven’t used:

  • Instagram
  • Pinterest
  • Reddit
  • Google Adwords

Goodreads also offers PPC advertising, but the general consensus is that it’s totally worthless and not worth your time to even experiment.

Over the years, PPC has become more and more competitive, which means turning a profit has become harder. These platforms are still insanely valuable, but you must be careful. A few general principles that apply to all platforms:

  • Test a lot of ads. This is the “secret” to PPC: constantly test different ad objectives, different images, different ad copy, different audiences, different regions. When you find a winner, ride it for all its worth. If you have a 20% hit rate (that is, 1 out of every 5 ads is a winner), then you’re doing really well. The key to success is quickly eliminating your losers, so they don’t suck up a bunch of cash.

General tips:

  • One ad, one objective. Don’t try to get a mailing list sign-up, sale, social media followers, create buzz, and so forth all with one ad. You can have separate ads each with these objectives, but when an ad has more than one objective, this leads to confusion from the person seeing it, which results in inaction.
  • Your audience targeting is the most important part of your ad.
  • Target one audience per ad (e.g. fans of Stephen King). You can roll multiple audiences together when you know they work.
  • Target audiences relevant to your genre/sub-genre. Tighter targeting to a smaller audience is preferable to shotgunning your book out to everyone.
  • Your cost-per-click (or subscriber, if you’re trying to build a mailing list) will vary based on your targeting and genre, as you are competing against other advertisers. As such, PPC might not be viable in certain genres due to exorbitant costs.
  • Costs vary widely based on the region you’re targeting. Try the Big 4: US, UK, Canada and Australia. Again, one region per ad.
  • Costs vary widely based on the retailer you’re targeting. If you’re wide, test ads to each retailer individually.

Budgeting:

  • Start each ad with the minimum daily budget allowed by the platform ($1 – $5). Kill ads that don’t perform and use that extra ad money to double down on your winners; a losing ad at $1 doesn’t become a winner at $20. It just loses 20x as much.
  • Even if you’re copying a winner that has scaled to $20, $30, or $40 a day, start the new ad with a reasonable budget. If you start too high, the PPC platform will often poorly optimize the new campaign, resulting in much higher click or subscriber costs
  • Ads don’t scale perfectly; they get more expensive as you spend more. If you’re getting $0.20 clicks at a $5 daily spend, you should expect that to increase if you bump up your budget to $30/day. Thus, you want to scale slowly to find the sweet spot. Some ads only work at the minimum budget, particularly those aimed toward smaller audiences.

Monitoring:

  • Keep an eye on your ads. Check them daily.
  • Most ads have a shelf-life of 1 – 3 weeks. Expect to constantly refresh them with new copy, images and audience targeting.
  • You can pause winning ads when they start to stagnate, then turn them on again in a few months. No need to throw them out.

For mailing list ads:

  • Offer them a free book in exchange for their email. Test different books.
  • Direct the ad to a “squeeze page” (landing page) if you’re trying to get subscribers. This page doesn’t have other links, and has only one option: sign-up for the newsletter or leave.
  • After the person signs up, direct them to a thank you page where you “upsell” the next book in the series. This helps recoup ad costs, and also introduces them to your paid work.
  • Mailing list ads are not immediately profitable. You might see most of the returns a year, or perhaps even two years down the line, as readers make it through your autoresponder, read your book, and read your emails. If cash flow is an issue, these are not where you should start, as the immediate payoff is extremely low.

For sales ads:

  • Your sales ad has one goal: get the person to click. It must grab someone’s attention and pique their curiosity enough to get this click.
  • Without a series with high read-through, it’s difficult to turn a profit on PPC sales ads.
  • Direct the ad directly to your book page (e.g. on Amazon, iBooks, Barnes and Noble etc.) if you’re trying to get sales. Don’t send them to a page on your website with links to the retailers; you’ll lose 50% of people right away.
  • Test different blurbs on your book page to increase the number of conversions and profitability of your ads.
  • Boxed sets priced at $6.99+ can be profitable alone, if your Amazon page is well-optimized and your clicks are reasonably priced.

And again, to reiterate: test, test, test. Most of your ads will not be successful. This isn’t an indication that you suck at PPC. It’s to be expected. Keep testing.

Since you’ll need to test constantly, which does cost money, I recommend that you only start with PPC if you have $200/mo you’re willing to spend. And, in the beginning, you might not get much of that back – so make sure it’s money you can lose. However, I think this “risk” is worth it, since PPC offers you a nearly unlimited number of customers, and control over your own marketing destiny if you crack the code.

Merchandising, Networking, Content Marketing & Social Media

These all fall under a similar banner for two reasons: they’re free, and they all rely on relationships with other people. This means that they’re less predictable and often slower to grow than other avenues of promotion. This does not mean they cannot be fruitful. If you like interacting with people more than you like tweaking Facebook Ads to find the one winner out of twenty, then these can be far, far better promotional avenues for you.

Merchandising is controlled by the retailers. Those hardcovers face out on the front table at the local Barnes & Noble? A prime example of merchandising. While prominent print placement is a pipe dream for indies, you can acquire similar front-of-the-store, highly visible merchandising space on retailers’ websites for your eBooks.

  • Amazon: Amazon’s imprint books (e.g. 47 North/Montlake) often receive prominent merchandising. The most obvious example is their Kindle First program – sent out as a newsletter to Prime subscribers – which instantly vaults all six of the books included into the Top 10 of the entire store. Almost all the best merchandising opportunities are reserved for their imprint authors (or Big 6 books). However, indies with Kindle reps can be offered various merchandising opportunities. How do you get a rep? Sell well.
  • Barnes & NobleKobo & iBooks: if you publish to these retailers via the aggregator Draft2Digital, you can be considered for merchandising. Simply email Draft2Digital support and ask if there are any merchandising opportunities available for your titles. If you have a permafree and a series of books, you can usually get placement in a first in free promotion. One such promo on iBooks pushed about 1,000 free copies of a title with a much, much higher sell-through rate than a typical promotion site.
    • How to: ask D2D what genres they’re currently looking to promote via merchandising. Outline your sales record, the books in your series and also what offers you might be open to. For example, iBooks has given indies merchandising placement in exchange for an exclusive pre-order period.
    • Alternatively, sell well enough to attract a rep’s attention. If you’ve been exclusive to Amazon and have an impressive sales record, you can also approach a retailer to request a rep – and see what type of perks they’ll offer for bringing your books wide.

Networking with your fellow authors is not only a good way to make like-minded friends who can commiserate about arcane concepts like fluctuating Kindle Unlimited payouts, but also provides a way of pooling your resources for enhanced firepower. Examples include:

  1. Multi-author boxed sets: a number of authors, usually 10 – 12, contribute a full-length novel to a themed, limited time offer boxed set available for a discounted price. E.g. 10 urban fantasy novels or 10 contemporary romance novels with spice. Usually sold at $0.99 or free as a lead-in to the participating authors’ work. Another riff on this is an anthology of new, exclusive stories/novellas, where each author contributes a story in their existing series.
  2. Co-authors: a number of popular authors either open up their universes via Kindle Worlds, or team up with co-authors to write new series volumes, spinoffs or entirely new series. Typically only works once you’re successful (e.g. a great trad pub example is the immortal Clive Cussler); successful indie examples include Michael Anderle and J.A. Cipriano.
  3. Collaborative series: a single pen name/series, written by different authors. An example is the Veil Nights series by Rowan Casey.
  4. Newsletter/social media swaps: you and another author agree to promote your new releases to each others’ readers. Only works for authors in the same genre/sub-genre. If using your newsletter, be sure you’ve set expectations with your readers beforehand about what emails you’ll send, otherwise this could be viewed as spam.
  5. Cross author promos: a bunch of authors come together, each offering a free or $0.99 book; everyone then shares with their mailing list to generate sales or mailing list sign-ups. Examples include Patty’s Promos, EB Brown’s Mega Mailing List Promo and Instafreebie Cross Promos. A current list can be found in the middle of the promo site page.
  6. Cover reveals & blog tours: often go together, but can be done in a number of ways. Often coupled with an interview or a giveaway for swag (bookmarks/tote bags/post cards/signed paperbacks etc.) or an Amazon Gift Card/Kindle. Frequently leverages the relationships you’ve formed with other authors to maximize the reach. Primarily a romance thing, but cover reveals and blog tours have been used in other genres. You can pay an established company like Xpresso Book Tours (note: I haven’t used their service) to organize a blog tour which will reveal your book cover + blurb to a wider audience. Or you can contact blog owners/fellow authors to organize one yourself.
  7. Making friends. Being a real human being and interacting with other authors in your genre can be a great boon to your career. One single email blast from a top author in your genre (e.g. what’s known in marketing as an “influencer”) can put you on the map and change your life. However, trying to make friends with people solely for the purpose of exploiting their platform is sociopathic and ill-advised. People can smell this behavior from a mile off, as it tends to be irritatingly transparent. Be helpful, do favors, read their books (if you’re a fan) and be a positive force. Don’t expect anything in return, because you might not get it – and if you do, it probably won’t be for many years.

Content marketing is effective for building a non-fiction readership. In fact, it takes over #4 on the Top 5 list for non-fiction peeps, knocking off newsletter promos. For example, the Self Publishing Podcast guys vaulted their first how-to book, Write. Publish. Repeat., into the Top 100 through their podcast’s reach, as well as extensive guest posting around launch time. However, it’s important to mention that their substantial podcast/non-fiction audience doesn’t cross over in huge numbers to their fiction. For fiction authors, activities like blogging, guest posting and podcasting (either your own, or appearing as a guest) are ineffective for garnering new readers. They might be fun, but they’re also time consuming; your podcast that gets 50 downloads a month isn’t helping you.

Technically website SEO (search engine optimization) is a form of organic marketing, but it’s so tightly knit with content marketing (in many cases) that I’ve placed it under the same umbrella. Website SEO is a waste of your precious time as a fiction author. Many successful authors don’t even have websites. Aside from that, your chance of appearing on the first page of Google for, say, “thriller novels,” is abysmally low.

We’re saving the best for last in social media.

To put it bluntly, I know zero about social media; I don’t use it. I’m not going to regale you with a rewarmed summary of a crappy blog post imploring that you act like a real person and make it about readers. I have no idea if those things are true, but they sound true-ish. Of course, I only mention them to make a point: 99% of social media tips are pulled out of someone’s ass, rather than fact tested.

What I will say is this.

Most authors use social media so poorly that simply abstaining would increase their ROI (to whit: 88% of marketers don’t see a return on their social media campaigns). Many are fooled by the “free” price tag, failing to recognize that their time has value. But I would be remiss if I claimed social media can’t be used effectively. Some idiots love to claim that social media users are only looking to interact, rather than buy—making sales messages inappropriate. The fact that Facebook sold $6.24 billion in ads in a single 2106 quarter suggests otherwise.

Assorted social media observations:

  • Romance authors kill on Facebook. I dunno what the hell Facebook parties or takeovers are, but romance writers expertly leverage fellow authors’ audiences to get their books visible. If you’re a romance author, get on Facebook. It cracks your Top 5 without question.
  • Each platform has its own flavor. Blasting the same message out to fifteen different platforms seems like a time-saver, but it’s dumb. Not only does receiving an identical message with no customization on three platforms have decidedly spammy undertones, it’s simply ineffective. Each platform has different unwritten rules of audience engagement, as well as different methods of generating visibility. What’s important to Instagram junkies is not necessarily important to Twitter addicts. By crafting a generic message, you fail to leverage the unique features that will make you stand out amidst a maelstrom of content.
  • A note on reach (and in general). Visibility rules change frequently. Facebook has systematically nerfed the organic reach of pages; now you must pay to “boost” posts if you want more than ~6% of your followers to see them. This speaks to a larger problem: Since you don’t run social media, you don’t make the rules. You’re sharecropping on someone else’s land, and they can revoke your privileges or change the contract at any time. Further, the land in this analogy can be seized by creditors and disappear entirely. Remember MySpace? It’s a desert filled with tumbleweeds. Or, as deserts are known in internet parlance, a portal site. It might behoove you to consider that while Twitter is valued at $13.62 billion as I write this, the company has never turned a profit.
  • Estimates vary, but a mailing list subscriber is worth anywhere from 20x to 50x as much as a like or follow. As such, I prefer to spend my limited energy building a more effective traffic source that I completely own.

Traditional Publishing

This series is all about indie publishing, but many authors are also traditionally published or actively submitting to such outlets. These can be a source of traffic as well; if you get a traditional deal, then your book publisher will throw some marketing weight behind the release.

Right? Kind of. Let’s break it down.

  1. Publishing in industry magazines. Single page spreads in short story genre magazines like Analog cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. Getting your multi-page short story published, then, is like receiving thousands in free advertising – plus, you get paid. If the story ties into a main series, even better. Of course, the relative sell-through will be low, as readers have to jump from your story to a computer to check out more of your work. But if you’re targeting a specific genre (sci-fi/fantasy etc.), then short story magazines offer a nice revenue stream and a way to attract new, relevant readers into the fold. Of course, publications like Analog are competitive, so it might take many submissions before you get accepted. This takes a lot of time for (likely) modest returns.
  2. Publishing via Amazon’s imprints (Montlake, 47 North, Lake Union etc.). Amazon generally picks up indie authors already selling well, so this is kind of a chicken-egg situation. But having one of your titles republished by their imprints – or working on a new series for them – is a potentially career changing opportunity. Not only do Amazon’s imprints offer competitive contracts and royalty rates, they also have the ability to tap into Amazon’s best merchandising capabilities. You know those $2 Kindle Deals, banners for new books and Kindle First Books we talked about earlier? Most of that space is reserved for Amazon imprint books. Of course, most of the Amazon published books don’t get the supernova merchandising, so temper your expectations. Plenty of APub titles dwell in the Amazon ranking cellar; it’s nowhere close to a magic bullet. Still, if they come knocking, their deal is worth serious consideration.
  3. Publishing via a traditional publisher. A misconception is that Big 5 publishers do a lot of marketing for you. This is true – if you’re lucky enough to get a big advance. The stories from mid-list or first time authors are much more sobering, however. For these folks, the publisher generally throws the book out there, does a couple of things and expects the author to do the heavy lifting. This varies from publisher to publisher and author to author, so there’s no telling exactly what experience you’ll get. But expecting a traditionally published book to raise your indie boat is wishful thinking, unless the publisher wants to make said book a tentpole of its publishing schedule.

This is a complex subject, but if you’re going the hybrid-publishing route, you should still expect to do the bulk of your own marketing. Unless you get hit by lightning (a Kindle First selection, for example), then the spillover from these outlets to your backlist will be modest.

In the interest of disclosure, I should say that I’ve never submitted a manuscript to either a trad publisher or an industry magazine, so that information is based on other sources. I have worked with an author whose book was picked up by an Amazon imprint, so I have first-hand knowledge of what you can generally expect.

Media Coverage

I’ve never been featured in traditional media, so I can’t tell you how to accomplish it or what to expect. Consider this information sourced from others, then. That being said, for an indie fiction author, it has limited direct value for selling books, even if you get featured in a popular and well-respected venue like The New York Times.

Building up your media credentials, however, can have other perks. It can open doors if you’re a non-fiction author, and works great as proof on your site (you’ve surely seen “as featured in…” logos around the web). Getting this media coverage in the first place, however, can be challenging. It is far easier once you’re selling or have an interesting story to tell (e.g. Mark Dawson, Russell Blake or Hugh Howey). The NYT is not looking for a story on the upstart indie writer who is struggling to sell their book.

Further, it seems that the sales increase one receives from traditional media coverage is nonexistent. This is unsurprising, since someone has to read an article, go to their computer, remember your name and then finally click purchase. Or, if they hear you on the radio, they need to remember you for the rest of their commute and then still be inclined to purchase your work upon finally rolling into the driveway.

There are perks, however, of being featured in traditional, well-respected media: credentials. This is important in non-fiction, where a credit in, say, The Wall Street Journal can “verify” to potential readers/clients that you’re an authority in your field. However, these opportunities usually only come about when you have done something of note; again, they are not looking to interview a fledgling self-help guru.

Thus, I think it’s best to put media credit in the same bin as getting your “letters” (e.g. being a New York Times Bestseller) or getting a favorable review from, say, Publisher’s Weekly. These are usually indicators that you’re selling books and a popular author, rather than a driver of that fact. Nice things to have in your back pocket, sure, but hiring a PR specialist or doing loads of gruntwork for years under the incorrect assumption that a high visibility media appearance will make your career is a fantasy.

Indeed, 99.9% of the bestselling indie authors have zero traditional media credits (or even reviews) of any kind. And those indies who have been featured did not build their platforms upon these appearances; these interviews came as a result of their wild success. It’s worth noting that traditional media tends to be somewhat condescending or dismissive of indie authors. This sentiment is shifting, but many journalists and their publications still remain stuck in a traditional publishing paradigm, where writing not validated by the gatekeepers is considered suspect. This makes sense, given that these outlets are gatekeepers themselves, and thus have a vested interest in protecting their turf. So even when you do score an appearance, you and your work might not be presented in a favorable light.

For all these reasons, I don’t recommend actively pursuing such coverage unless there’s a specific reason you need a media credit.

In Person Events

I haven’t been to a book signing or convention, so I can’t tell you what to expect. However, if you’re hoping for people to cross over and buy your eBook, remember that there are a lot of barriers to them doing so.

  1. They need to remember your name.
  2. They need to go to the Amazon website.
  3. They still need to be interested enough to do #1 & 2 three hours later, when they’re tired from walking around and have met 60 other authors.

Hand-selling paperbacks is limited by the number of copies you can bring with you – and how many you’re willing to print in advance.

If you’re a friendly person, these events can be fun – and a good opportunity to meet like-minded fans and authors. If you’re seeking a trad-pub deal, or want to network with authors in your genre, relevant conferences can connect you with these folks. But unless you’re a big-name author getting paid to make a speech or appear on a panel, it’s unlikely that fairs, conventions, conferences and so forth are going to sell many books.

Other than taking up a substantial chunk of time – perhaps an entire weekend – you’ll likely have to pay booth or attendance fees, in addition to travel and lodging expenses. Given printing costs (and transportation), it’s going to take a lot of hand-signed paperbacks to make that back.

Thus, for 99.9% of indie authors, in-person events should be considered “vacations” rather than an effective source of promotion.

Fundamentals

That about covers the traffic sources available to indie authors. In the interest of not making this guide a million words long – or overwhelming you with information – the points above trended toward the brief. If you pursue one of those avenues, you should expect to do additional research beyond the scope of this more general guide. But it’s nothing you can’t find on A) KBoards B) in a book or C) with a Google search.

Whatever three traffic sources you choose, remember these fundamentals.

  1. Understand how Amazon’s algorithms work. Simply put, Amazon’s recommendation engine is the most powerful book marketing force on the planet. It can amplify the impact of your traffic by 5x, 10x, even 50x. Learn how it works and how you can work with it, rather than against it. Using the algorithms to your benefit is not one of your three traffic sources, as the recommendations are only “ignited” by your outside efforts.
  2. Don’t get hung up on granular classifications. Do cross author promos and author mailing list trades count as two separate items or one, since they’re similar? What if I have four traffic sources instead of three? The goal of the “three traffic sources” heuristic is not to be an iron-clad rule, but to encourage you to reflect on what’s working, spend your time wisely, and narrow your focus to what matters.
  3. Track your ad spend (or your time). Know where your sales are coming from, and understand the cost (time and financial) of generating them. Most of the sources we’ve covered will get you some sales. Hell, putting up a billboard will probably get you some sales. This doesn’t make it effective. Remember part three of the internet marketing formula: determine your ROI. This will tell you what to double down on and what to jettison.
  4. Not all traffic sources perform the same in every genre. As we saw above, romance authors kill it on Facebook. Other genres? Hit or miss. YA/MG/children’s authors usually get terrible results from promotional sites. Regular genre authors do well, though. Each book, series and genre performs differently. This is why you need to track your ROI. PPC is awesome for many authors, but for some books it just doesn’t work. Period. If something sucks, even if it “should” work, first analyze if you’re making any obvious mistakes. If you’re using it right, but getting no results, cut it and try something new.
  5. Three damn traffic sources plus your newsletter. Did I accidentally copy and paste this again? No. I cannot emphasize this enough. If you’re unsuccessful, the first instinct is to add. Instead, do less, but invest more time and energy into your signature strengths.

Okay. So I’ve talked a lot about the importance of Amazon’s recommendations. But why do they matter?

Simple: if you understand how they work, you can put Amazon’s marketing machine to work for you. Even if you spent $10,000/mo on Facebook, you couldn’t match the power of Amazon’s organic visibility. Which is why, once we have our three traffic sources in hand (you do have those written out, right?), we must learn how to maximize their effectiveness.

So let’s demystify Amazon’s algorithms.

The Algos, Demystified

If you want to sell more books on Amazon, it pays to take a moment to consider the main sources of visibility available to you, as an author. You’ll recall that we discussed merchandising already. Amazon is unique among online booksellers in that most of its merchandising is actually automatic. While prime cuts are reserved and curated (Kindle First, for instance), their recommendation algorithms are constantly generating targeted merchandising to customers based on the company’s massive data stores.

Thus, by feeding Amazon the right data, you can get them to recommend your book to the right readers. Result? A higher conversion rate, better reviews and more sales. All of which is activity their data algorithm interprets as “customers are enjoying this book” – so then it recommends your book even more. This reinforcing cycle has massive upside, as Amazon has hundreds of millions of customers. Imagine them hand-picking customers that love urban fantasy or bad boy romance out of this database, then aggressively marketing to those people – e.g. your core fanbase – automatically and totally for free.

Examples of Amazon’s automated recommendations hard at work:

The also-boughts for my space opera novel Adrift, displaying other space opera/mil sci-fi books to browsers.

Amazon’s sci-fi & fantasy weekly email, with Kindle First picks and new releases in sci-fi/fantasy. Note that they’re pushing indie books in the new releases.

The Dark Fantasy sub-genre Top 100 Kindle Bestseller list. Note also the “Hot New Release” list on the right side of the page.

There are probably over a dozen of these little ads in nooks and crannies of Amazon’s site; this is just a taste of how powerful the recommendation engine is.

And if you can convince Amazon that readers are buying and enjoying your book, they’re happy to put this engine behind you as an author.

You just need to know how to trip the wire.

Tripping the Amazon Algo Wires

Amazon is basically one big recommendation engine that tries to anticipate what purchasers want. It spits out personalized recommendations based on a number of factors, including a book’s overall popularity, the buyer’s account history, price (e.g. how much it’s likely to make for Amazon), verified reviews (apparently; which goes against the grain of popular belief) and probably hundreds of additional aspects.

In practice, most of this stuff doesn’t matter when it comes to generating visibility via Amazon’s recommendations, also-boughts, popularity lists (now referred to as “Featured” in Amazon’s search options), or bestseller charts; ergo, variables like reviews, which are allegedly factored into the algorithm, don’t mean jack when it comes to rank.

Three things matter more than anything else for tripping the algo wires:

  1. Sales volume & velocity (key for pop lists/bestseller charts)
  2. Sales consistency (key for pop lists/bestseller charts)
  3. The sample of people who buy your book (key for Amazon’s automated emails, also-boughts and on-site merchandising)

Sales volume and velocity are self-explanatory: sell more books in a short period of time and you’ll rank higher. What’s a little counter-intuitive, however, is that Amazon’s algorithms also reward consistency, rather than massive spikes. As such, you want to spread out your marketing efforts to mimic the right-hand curve:

how-to-distribute-traffic

To be absolutely clear, you’ll never see a line as straight as the one on the right. Sales will fluctuate; the underlying principle is what’s important. You want your sales to trend upward over the course of the promotion to maximize visibility and the tail. This entails spreading out your traffic over multiple days, instead of doing a “one shot” blast.

It’s important to note that spikes aren’t “penalized” – selling a lot of books in a day is never a bad thing. However, you can amplify the effect of those sales when you spread them out over multiple days, rather than firing all of your promo sites, newsletter, social media and blogging efforts on a single day. 

This works for two reasons:

  1. Amazon’s algorithms treat consistent sales as organic buying activity, and will start to recommend your book if it sees evidence of this (provided you’ve targeted your book toward the right buyers).
  2. You’ll maximize the impact of those sales on your sales rank, granting you visibility on Amazon’s genre and sub-genre bestseller charts.

How to Maximize Your Sales Rank

This is the math that explains why you need to spread your sales over the course of a promo. You can skip the math, but working it out will give you a deeper understanding of what’s actually going on behind the curtain.

First, two points of clarification:

  • Sales rank (e.g. the # you see on every book page – Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #67,339 Paid in Kindle Store) is purely driven by sales + KU borrows.
  • Popular list rank (now known as “Featured”; thanks to PhoenixS for explaining this to me) is a mixture of sales + KU borrows and 1/10 of any free downloads over a rolling 30-day period.

Higher ranks grant you better placement on Amazon’s popularity & bestselling charts.

Here’s a free Excel spreadsheet that auto-calculates the math outlined below. It also has a chart which details how many sales are required to hit a specific rank (big thanks to PhoenixS for letting me use her rank data).

  • For simplification’s sake, let’s say it requires 40 “rank points” to rank at 5,000 in the Kindle Store.
    • 1 sale = 1 rank point, 1 borrow = 1 rank point.
    • Today’s rank point score = 1/2 of yesterday’s score + today’s sales/borrows.
  • Let’s say, given our budget, available promo and mailing list size, we can reliably generate 80 total sales @ $0.99 over a five day promo window, after which the book will return to full price. How should we spread these out to hit the top 5000 and maximize our visibility/ROI (return on investment)?
    • Option 1: Start big, taper down – 30 sales (Day 1), 20 sales (Day 2), 15 (Day 3), 10 (Day 4), 5 (Day 5).
      • Result: rank point scores of 30, 35, 32.5, 26.25, and 18.125. At the end of our promo, we have our lowest score, lowest rank, and we didn’t hit our goal of hitting the top 5000.
    • Option 2: Start small, scale up – 5 sales (Day 1), 10 (Day 2), 15 (Day 3), 20 (Day 4), 30 (Day 5).
      • Result: rank point scores of 5, 12.5, 21.25, 30.625, and 45.3125. At the end of our promo, we exit at peak rank (beating our goal), breaking the top 5,000. We come back to full price at maximum visibility, and with our strongest rank point history, thus enhancing our chances of getting “sticky” at a higher rank as sales decline to an equilibrium point.

More in-depth math analysis can be found here.

Remember, we’re not spending more in scenario two, nor are we generating more sales: we’re merely scheduling things differently. With a little planning, we massively increased the effectiveness of our promotional efforts. This is, of course, imperfect in practice; you can’t know exactly how many sales you’ll get from a certain traffic source beforehand. Using historical estimates, however, we can schedule our efforts so that they gradually increase, with the heaviest promo push toward the end.

The general principle is simple: backload your biggest promos toward the end of a promo, if possible, and create a consistently increasing sales curve.

Why does sales rank even matter? Because readers browse the sub-genre Top 100 lists – and getting in the top 20 of your sub-genre is a great source of free traffic. Structuring your promotional schedule correctly can be the difference between receiving that organic boost – and a nice sales tail after your promo is over – and plummeting back into Amazon’s cellar.

Given that we’ve covered the first two key principles in understanding Amazon’s algos, it’s time to address the third principle: the sample of people purchasing your book.

The Data Set: All Traffic is Not Equally Beneficial

We’ve talked about how to get placement on Amazon’s sales charts.

But what about perpetual, consistent sales over time – colloquially referred to by indies as “stickiness”?

A book selling on its own is the Holy Grail, since Amazon’s recommendation engine can push far more books than you can ever hope to – and it does it for the low, low price of $0. While stickiness never lasts forever, prolonged stays in lofty chart positions can result in four, five or even six figure months.

Maximizing our chances of getting sticky requires an understanding of how to train Amazon’s data set.

An important side-note: Amazon is constantly tweaking its algorithms. It’s much harder to get sticky these days than it was even a year ago (I’m writing this in August 2017), and even harder to stay there for any appreciable length of time. Most promos rocket up the charts, then crash back into the ranking cellar like they’ve got lead strapped to their ankles. Thus, if you’re building your marketing strategy around perpetual organic sales, that has unfortunately become much less viable. I have easily spent $20,000+ in all advised marketing spend in pursuit of this white whale. Those marketing dollars were used for one-off promos instead of building an author platform.

I was searching for a silver bullet. I found a couple bronze ones, but they never had enough firepower to make the cost remotely worthwhile. Usually, the key ingredient in igniting the algos is a rabid group of fans. No ad spend or marketing blitz can compete with the power of word of mouth and a few hundred (or thousand) people who will read your book during launch week.

While it does you no harm to optimize your marketing efforts to entice Amazon’s algorithms, and I certainly recommend you do so, this is not a replacement for the difficult business of finding your fans. Your core marketing focus should always be building your own fan base. This is a pain in the ass, since it demands years of patience. The alternative – an instant vault up the charts, and subsequent full-time authordom – is alluring. But chasing rank or burning massive piles of cash as a loss-leader to prod the algos is usually a fool’s errand. With 3,000+ books being released every day, organic sales can and do disappear overnight. Expect to do the heavy lifting, and consider any selling Amazon (or another retailer does on your behalf) as a bonus.

Now, back to our explanation of Amazon’s algos.

Amazon’s site is essentially one big machine learning organism. You can consider it a baby AI: it’s constantly recording your actions and trying to predict what you’ll buy next – before you even know. It does this through advanced statistical analysis of massive amounts of data. As it combs through all this data, Amazon’s baby AI searches for patterns amidst the hundreds of millions of customers in the database, like a pig searching for truffles. Based on your browsing and buying history, it will then recommend things that other folks with similar data profiles purchased.

All this sounds well and good: Amazon works hard to recommend us shit we might like to buy. So what?

The kicker is that Amazon does this better than every other retailer on the planet. Which makes this the most powerful marketing tool at your disposal. Remember all those automated emails Amazon sends, the little recommendations it makes at the bottom of the page, the also-boughts – you know, all of the stuff I’ve been talking about for the past 3,000 words? Those are all generated by this purchasing data.

In short, if you have an urban fantasy book, and you feed Amazon some voracious urban fantasy readers – who have purchased dozens of UF books on their Amazon account – Amazon’s recommendation engine searches through the customer base to find other people who fit this “voracious urban fantasy reader” profile. (Hat tip goes to Chris Fox for putting these pieces together in Six Figure Author.)

The rest is basically as easy as counting your money. Because when voracious urban fantasy readers are recommended new, cool urban fantasy books, what tends to happen? They buy. And boom: Amazon is now selling books to hardcore fans that you never could have reached on your own.

How to Train Amazon’s Data Monster

What does this mean practically for you, as a marketer? You train Amazon’s algorithm by selling books to the right readers. This means that if you have a 1st person female main character urban fantasy mystery, finding 150 people who have bought lots of similar books will be more beneficial than 1000 more general book buyers. Because those 150 sales will teach Amazon exactly who your target market is.

This is when the magic starts.

The emails and recommendations Amazon sends out based on that highly targeted customer data set will have a high conversion rate (e.g. the % of people who buy the book will be higher), your reviews will be better, customer on-page interaction will be high, and the overall response will be better. The AI then interprets this as positive, and returns to its little data storage vault to continue recommending your book.

On the other hand, 1000 more generalized buyers will also trigger recommendation emails. Let’s say I like thrillers and purchased a UF book once – randomly. I might get an email from Amazon because I fit their vague, uncertain profile of people who might like your new UF book. Unfortunately, I don’t buy, because I don’t really like books with wizards. The result of these broader recommendations is catastrophic and also self-reinforcing: your conversion rate plummets due to your book not being relevant to a ton of buyers, review scores drop, customer interest metrics are low (clicks/bounce time on the page) – all leading Amazon’s friendly AI to an obvious conclusion when it crunches the numbers.

Buyers just aren’t interested in your book. And boom: Amazon stops recommending it. Your book disappears into the Kindle cellar, never to return.

All this means in practice is simple: you’re better off using highly targeted sources of traffic that hit your key audience instead of broader ones that might result in more sales/better immediate ROI. When you’re considering your traffic sources, remember:

  1. Highly-targeted, genre-specific newsletters “train” Amazon’s recommendation engine better than more generalized ones.
  2. PPC is the gold standard for laser-targeting. Facebook, BookBub, Amazon AMS and other venues allow you to narrow your target to specific sub-genres and authors.
  3. Your fans are the best way to train Amazon’s data set, provided you don’t genre hop. If you do genre hop, then you need separate lists (e.g. one for your thrillers and another for your wizard books) so that you don’t muck up the data set.

You can confuse Amazon’s algorithms when you get a ton of sales that have no clear data pattern behind them. When it doesn’t know who to recommend the book to, its automated marketing efforts will be substandard.

Important Note: Mucking with the Data

I’ve gotten a number of questions/emails from people very concerned with misleading Amazon’s AI. They don’t want to send any off-target traffic to their book page, lest Amazon’s AI gets confused.

While Amazon’s AI isn’t a genius (yet), it also isn’t that easily duped/misled. A few sales from your friends/family or a well-meaning associate won’t scuttle your chances of getting sticky. In fact, even a bunch of untargeted sales won’t skew the data set, provided a large chunk of the sales is coming from the heart of your target audience.

How much? I’d aim for 25%+ targeted sales as a rough rule of thumb.

Sales volume is still an important factor in Amazon visibility, and it’s often difficult to generate enough volume without venturing (slightly) outside your core audience. The real reason you want to target your buyers actually has nothing to do with fancy technology and everything to do with commonsense. If you get your urban fantasy book in front of people who like urban fantasy, they’re more likely to buy. This means your marketing costs are going to be cheaper and more effective.

On the other hand, putting your urban fantasy book in front of thriller fans is an uphill battle. You’ll need to spend more to achieve less.

25% is a big enough sample that Amazon can get an accurate feel for your readership. But it’s small enough that you can realistically find those targeted readers.

And it’s also small enough that you can also stop worrying about leading Amazon’s AI down the wrong path when your Grandma Beatrice buys your latest opus.

Promo Stacking

We’ve talked about sales rank and training Amazon’s data monster. But, if you’ve been following along, you probably have a question: how do I get enough sales to rank high or trigger Amazon’s automatic recommendations? If you’ve looked at the Top 20 or Top 50 of most sub-genres, you need at least 50 – 100 sales in a day to crack that visibility barrier. That can be a tough mountain to climb for even a mid-list author.

Subsequently, one of the most powerful traffic tools in your arsenal is promo stacking.

This term originally applied to using multiple promo sites on a single day to create a large spike. Here, I’ll use it to describe combining multiple traffic sources – whether they be promo sites or PPC – to push your book higher. This “stack” is spread over multiple days. Normally, 1 + 1 = 2; but with a promo stack, 1 + 1 = 11.

Or it can, with a little luck and some planning.

We know from our discussion of the algorithms that Amazon’s charts reward sales volume and velocity. They also reward consistency. But there’s a balance that must be struck between the two, for a series of sales that looks like this:

8 – 7 – 3 – 10 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 8 – 5 – 2 – 9

will be less effective than:

15 – 16 – 19 – 22

The first scenario might be relatively consistent, but won’t get you near any charts if your sub-genre is competitive. And it might not trip Amazon’s automated recommendations, either. No one knows what the exact tipping point is for Amazon to send out merchandising emails and start pushing your book to buyers. But we do know they reward books that are already selling – and their recommendation mechanisms favor books that are selling big.

Despite its intricate nature, Amazon’s AI is still a baby mammoth that, while powerful, responds best to brute force. It likes sales. And it likes a lot of them in a short period of time (3 – 7 days).

But getting a lot of sales in a short period is difficult for authors. Hence the promo stack:

  1. Day 1: promo site 1 + promo site 2 + promo site 3 + promo site 4
  2. Day 2: first part of personal newsletter + $10 PPC campaign
  3. Day 3: second, larger part of personal newsletter + $20 PPC campaign
  4. Day 4: $40 PPC campaign + seven additional newsletter sites

This is not a prescribed order – your traffic sources and stack will differ. It is merely an illustration of how you can combine multiple traffic sources to entice Amazon’s algorithms. Whereas each individual source by itself might have only generated ten or fifteen sales, in tandem, they form a powerful push.

Of course, like fishing for bass, there’s no guarantee the AI will bite. But the more enticing and tasty the bait, the greater your chances.

And sales are the tastiest bait of all.

Done correctly, each element of the stack adds up to more than the sum of its parts due to tripping Amazon’s charts + automated recommendations. So you might get 50 sales from the 4 promos on Day 1 – but this turns into 65, because you hit the Top 20 of your genre and got additional traffic for free.

Super basic, but super effective.

How Often Should I Promote?

  1. Always promote during launch. Amazon’s algorithms favor new releases from the past 90 days; as such, they provide substantive visibility boosts to new titles. Any promo during a new release is dramatically amplified.
  2. For using promo sites w/ backlist titles, no more than once every 6 months. This depends on your ROI and available funds. You’ll find some books aren’t really worth actively promoting. Others respond well, and should receive the bulk of your efforts. The more you promote a book, the less return you get for your promo dollar – e.g. PPC ads dwindle in effectiveness, using a promo site for the 3rd time has diminishing returns and so forth. This is especially true for the smaller sites (e.g. everything besides BookBub), where a 2nd run with a service will often net 50% or less of the sales/downloads as the 1st.
    1. Optimally, you want a large enough backlist where you can always be advertising something. If you have six series, you can rotate them month-by-month through the promo sites.
    2. We’ll touch on this in greater depth during Part 4, but you can set up your email auto-responder to tell your fans about your backlist over the course of months. This is a good, passive way of continually selling books without spending money/taking time to promo. Never assume your fans are familiar with all of your work – particularly if you’re a prolific author.
  3. Low spend ($5 – $10/day) PPC ads can run daily. These are directed toward the 1st book in the series (usually either free or discounted) or a box set of the first three books, unless you’re pushing a new book. The aim here is getting readers into your series funnel, rather than trying to gain visibility via Amazon’s charts/recommendations. Works best with a long series (e.g. 5+ books), as you might only break even (or even lose money) on the sale of the first book/box. Depending on your genre (size and click costs), you can scale lower spend PPC ads into higher ones. There’s no limit here, other than when the ads start becoming unprofitable (or you run out of free cash to spare).

 

Free, Discounts & Permafree: What’s Best?

While we’ll discuss the mechanics of finding your optimal price in Part 3, discounting is a key variable in visibility. While having a lower price doesn’t automatically generate traffic to your page, it has two benefits:

  1. Lowers objections. A $4.99 price might be “wait and see,” whereas $0.99 draws in impulse buyers. More sales volume = a higher rank, which generates organic traffic from Amazon’s charts.
  2. Opens up promotional opportunities. For example, promotional sites really only work with $0.99 or free books.

Downsides include:

  1. Lower royalties. It’s hard to make a living on $0.99 or free books. You need a funnel in place (a fancy marketing word for a series) to make money. Your free/$0.99 Book 1 or box set is a loss leader; the real money is made on Books 2 – infinity.
  2. Lower reviews. Studies have shown that people rate cheaper or free items more harshly. At free or $0.99, you’ll get a ton of people seeking to subconsciously confirm their suspicions: that this book is cheap because it’s crappy. This is a quirk of human psychology. You’ll also get people outside your target audience picking up the book merely because it’s cheap. These effects are most pronounced with free books.
  3. Less refined targeting. Readers tend to pick up cheap books in bulk, which means that they might purchase ten or fifteen titles at once that have little relationship with each other (not even genre). This can confuse Amazon’s data mammoth, and cause your also-boughts and other recommendations to become screwy. More of a problem with free books, where there’s literally no downside to picking up forty or fifty titles at once.
  4. Lower organic visibility (permafrees). Permafree books don’t appear in also-boughts at all, which is one of the major sources of organic visibility. Books made free via a KDP run remain visible in the also-boughts while free.

When should you use $0.99 or free?

  1. Launches. You can launch a book for $0.99 or free to maximize your sales rank and visibility during the 90 day new release window. Additionally, you can discount earlier volumes (say Books 1 & 2) to generate additional visibility for a later release in a series.
  2. Special promotions. If sales have been lagging, you can drop your price for a limited time and run some additional paid promotion. I recommend only doing this every 3 – 6 months, as most promotional sites have significantly diminishing returns when overused.
  3. A “loss-leader” funnel starter. If you’re going to keep a book at $0.99 or free (e.g. permafree), you must have a series/backlist behind it. Your goal is to grab readers with the cheap or free book, and then get them to buy the other 5, 6, 7 etc. books in your series.

It’s important to reiterate that your price does not generate visibility on its own. You still need to bring the traffic yourself. But it’s easier to find this traffic and convert it at a lower price.

First, Go Slow

Even the lengthier traffic list at the beginning of this guide does not encompass everything you could possibly do. Swag (bookmarks, beach towels, postcards, tote bags, stickers), signed paperbacks, banner ads, King Sumo giveaways…you get the picture. Promotion goes on and on.

All this becomes quickly overwhelming.

Complexity abounds in our modern world. To navigate this requires cutting through the clutter with a clarion focus. Even if you’re fortunate enough to have an assistant, you do not have enough time to do everything. Even if, in theory, there were 50 fantastic traffic sources available, you would still need to choose – otherwise they would all be worthless because your attention would be spread too thin.

It bears repeating: more is not better. It’s easy to succumb to shiny object syndrome, and chase each flavor of the month strategy that comes along.

Choosing is difficult for two reasons:

  1. It demands reflection and careful thought. In a world full of constant distraction, I understand this is a big – and perhaps uncomfortable – ask. But it’s necessary and, ultimately, beneficial for sales and your overall sanity.
  2. Gurus claim you have to be everywhere, taking “massive action.” Not multitasking somehow feels “lazy.” I assure you that focusing is the exact opposite: it is cognitively demanding and much more intense. You will get far more work done in a lesser amount of time, but it will be challenging. However, it will also be satisfying – not least of all because you will see results.

But while humans crave choice, too much also results in massive unhappiness. We are always concerned about missing out – and whether we made the best choice.

The panacea is narrowing your focus, and pretending that everything else doesn’t exist. Twitter, anthologies, conventions and trad-pubs are invisible to me. They are simply not even on my radar.

Cultivating this focused mindset requires an adjustment period. I’m going to keep stressing this, since it’s counter-intuitive: take things as slowly as necessary. If you only have five minutes – or can only concentrate on PPC ads for 5 minutes before wanting to scream – that’s fine. Start small and build up your focus/skills. By going slow, we actually go fast.

In that same spirit, don’t try to master three traffic channels at once. I worked with promo sites alone for 3+ years before trying cross author promos, boxed sets and PPC ads. While I don’t recommend going that slowly, either, remember that you’re building a career and not merely gunning for a temporary windfall.

It’s okay to take two months to get something under your belt; after that, you’ll own the skill forever. Competence is empowering – far moreso than dabbling amidst a dozen options you don’t understand and can’t use effectively.

What’s Next?

We’re back for Part III: The Ultimate Guide to Optimization, where I break down how to get a killer cover, write a blurb that hooks the reader and doesn’t let go, the correct way to price your books and a bunch of other crucial stuff.

But before we move forward, go ahead and do this section’s Action Steps to start promoting your books. Because information without implementation is useless.

Summary

  • There’s an almost unlimited number of ways to generate visibility as an author.
  • You should narrow your traffic options to three effective sources that mesh with your time, personality and capital constraints.
  • Your newsletter and understanding Amazon’s algorithms are critical to your success. If you ignore all other marketing channels, you can still be successful by leveraging these well.
    • Amazon promotes your book through its automated recommendation engine, colloquially known as “the algos.” To harness their power, you need to teach Amazon what type of customer will like the book – and prove that your book can sell. It runs on three primary factors: sales volume/velocity, sales consistency and customer data.
      • Sales volume & velocity are self-explanatory, and the biggest factor in on-site visibility. If you sell a lot of books over a brief, but consistent period (particularly during launch), Amazon starts recommending your book. Sell enough copies and you’ll also receive prominent placement on the Featured & bestseller lists.
      • Teaching Amazon’s baby AI is a matter of feeding it the right customer data. The “data” you need to feed it is sales from the right type of reader. If you have an urban fantasy book, you need people who like urban fantasy to buy the book. In this way, you teach Amazon that avid urban fantasy readers really, really like your book. Amazon’s AI likes to sell books and it’s really good at identifying patterns; seeing this, it hunts through its massive customer base, searching for avid UF readers similar to your initial buyers. As it sends out recommendations, this pattern is reinforced: the emails to UF readers convert highly, lots of people click on the also-boughts to your book and so forth, and Amazon recommends the book further, because the AI is confident that people are interested.
      • Thus, while an untargeted sale might be worth simply 1 sale, a targeted sale of a urban fantasy book to a voracious urban fantasy reader might be worth 2.5 – 3 sales in terms of visibility (note that this doesn’t apply to sales rank; it’s merely fuzzy math to demonstrate the visibility impact).
    • Places Amazon recommends your book:
    • Because of the way Amazon’s ranking mechanism is designed, it rewards a smooth, consistently increasing sales curve over time. Thus, you should always backload your strongest promos and set your marketing efforts up to generate a gradually increasing sales curve (e.g. Day 1 = 5 sales, Day 2 = 10 sales, Day 3 = 12 sales, Day 4 = 14 sales).
  • Paid promotional newsletters like BookBub & Robin Reads and pay-per-click (PPC) ads like Facebook & Amazon AMS are both excellent sources of traffic since they’re controllable and available on demand. PPC also has the benefits of being scalable (you can spend $5 or $500/day) and highly targeted. I recommend that 99% of authors use both, thus taking up the first two traffic source slots. A list of curated promo sites, with links, is available here.
  • Certain genres work better on certain platforms; romance authors, for example, kill it on Facebook.
  • Promo stack: placing multiple traffic sources/promo sites on the same day to amplify their effects and catch the attention of Amazon’s sales algorithm. Creates an effect where 1 + 1 no longer = 2, but can, with luck, equal 11. Or more.
  • Keeping records is vital to knowing which traffic sources are key and which are expendable.

Action Steps

  1. Choose your three traffic sources and write them down. Be realistic about your time and budget constraints as well as your personal preferences. If you’re never going to post regularly on Facebook, don’t lie to yourself. Just pretend that Facebook doesn’t exist, rather than wondering what could have been.
  2. Schedule a promo stack that properly leverages the organic visibility from Amazon’s charts + recommendation engine.
    1. Determine how many sales it will take to break into the Top 20 & Top 50 of your sub-genre. Use the rank chart in the Excel spreadsheet below as a rough guide; here are Amazon’s Kindle Bestseller Lists (nicholaserik.com/top100).
    2. Based on this, pick a rank target for either a new release book or a backlist book that hasn’t gotten any promo love. E.g. if book #20 in paranormal vampire romance is #550, your target rank is 550 – and your rank point target is 300 sales + borrows in a day.
    3. Schedule your three traffic sources over 3 – 10 days, stacking them in a way that will create a gradually increasing sales curve and allow you to hit your target rank. You can download the free rank calculator Excel sheet (nicholaserik.com/excel) to automatically do the math.
    4. Book the promo stack and record the results.