Part II: 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. There are a number of ways to do this, many of which we’ll cover in this guide. Since traffic kicks off the marketing cycle, it’s of critical importance. Many authors falter here, wondering how the hell to get anyone interested in their book. 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 promotion to maximize its efficacy.

Revisiting Our Book Marketing Formula

Let’s revisit a couple important points from Part I (in case you forgot – or didn’t read it, since these sections are meant to stand alone)

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 them to buy; 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 these with the magic of consistent production and market research, we get the following formula.

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 I. Thus, we’re on to our next step: finding targeted traffic sources.

Ready?

Traffic Sources

Let’s start with a basic overview of traffic sources, in no particular order. We’ll rank things later, down below. But we can see, right off the bat, that your main concern is picking what will work, rather than coming up with tons of ideas.

And for those who take umbrage with 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 options available to you.

  • 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: BookBub CPM, Amazon AMS, Facebook Ads, Google AdWords, Twitter Ads, YouTube, Goodreads
  • Merchandising: getting the retailer to feature you in “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 tours
  • Content marketing: SEO, blogging, guest posting, podcasting
  • Traditional: publishing in industry mags (e.g. Analog), trad-pub contract
  • 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 going to pare this down to three traffic sources + your newsletter? As a simple math exercise, let’s say you dedicated 10 minutes daily to each of these. 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 some of the crappier options, like Goodreads PPC ads.

240+ minutes a day. Or in other words, more than four hours. And at ten minutes each, you’re barely getting your toe wet. This means we need to start narrowing our options fast, if we ever want to gain real visibility.

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

I’m New or Have No Idea What’s Working

Those starting out looked at 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. We still need to go deep enough to tell whether something works, which inevitably requires time and commitment.

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 go but wait a second. I’m a new author or struggling. 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 yourself (a simple method adapted from the great Noah Kagan):

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

And then start experimenting with 5 – 7, or maybe 10 different sources that sound promising.

Unsure what to choose? Commit to something for 1 – 2 months. See if you like the “feel” and can make some progress. Don’t expect to completely slay; just see if the marketing channel is bearable, and, more importantly if it translates into money. Enjoyable is nice, but it’s a luxury; something enjoyable that makes you no money is otherwise known as a hobby.

We are running a business, and business people must be ruthless. Cut what’s not working, and do it fast.

After you have sufficient data, narrow your list. Or, follow my Top 5 Traffic Sources for Fiction Writers below, and skip the trial and error.

If you’ve been at this for months/years and have no idea what’s working, you need to:

  1. Analyze your records. How many sales did you get when you messaged your Twitter peeps? Posted on that ancient weapon forum? Find out what’s driving the bulk of your sales and focus on that.
  2. Test 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 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 that are relevant to your business. If you don’t have the necessary data to answer, start acquiring it by removing elements and seeing if the tower falls down – or if, magically, it improves.

Or, alternatively, narrow your focus immediately (because you don’t have records, and it’ll take you six months to get the necessary data) by following my Top 5 Traffic Sources for Fiction Writers.

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 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 find out 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 a number of 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 here, complete with direct links to the submission forms.
  • (5) Your choice from the remaining options.

You’ll notice that this takes up 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. Similarly, paid sources of promotion are instantly scalable/usable: you can learn most of the fundamentals of Facebook ads in a week and be off and running with a $100/day budget. Relationships take months, if not years to build.

To be clear, PPC doesn’t work for every book or author, and there’s no real reason why. 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 quick rundown of additional options.

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. Additionally, 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. The hardcovers face out on the front table at the Barnes & Noble? A prime example of merchandising. While prominent print placement is a pipe dream for indies, you can acquire this same front-of-the-store, highly visible placement on retailers’ websites for your eBooks.

  • Amazon: their imprint books (e.g. 47 North/Montlake) often receive prominent merchandising. One of the most obvious examples 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 submit to these retailers via the aggregator Draft2Digital, you can be considered for merchandising. Simply email Draft2Digital support and ask them 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 on iBooks pushed about 1,000 free copies of a title I published 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 merchandising-wise. Outline your sales record, the books in your series and also what offers you might be open to. For example, iBooks has given authors 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 Kindle Unlimited 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 super popular (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 a number of 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.

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 that 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 quarter last year 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 all the time. 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 $12.53 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 writers 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 genre short story magazines like Analog cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. Getting your 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 vast 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 not anywhere close to a magic bullet. Still, if they come knocking, their deal is worth serious consideration.
  3. Publishing via a traditional publisher. A big misconception is that a Big 5 publisher 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 likely 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.

In Person Events

I haven’t been to a book signing or a book fair, 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.

If you’re a friendly person, I’m sure these events can be fun – and a good way to interact with like-minded fans and authors. If you’re looking to get a trad-pub deal, or network with authors in your genre, relevant conferences provide opportunities to connect 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 selling many books.

Other than taking up a substantial chunk of time – perhaps an entire weekend – you’ll likely have to pay for 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. 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 source of traffic you have. 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 getting 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 mean it’s 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 you 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, then 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 fewer marketing things, but invest more time in each to do your three things better.

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

Simple: if you understand them, you can put Amazon’s marketing machine to work for you. Even if you spent $1000/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 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 Amazon’s massive data stores.

Thus, by feeding Amazon the right data, you can get them recommending your book to the right people. Result? A higher conversion rate, better reviews and more sales. Activity their data algorithm interprets as “customers like this book” – so then it recommends it more.

This is a reinforcing cycle that has massive upside. Amazon’s customer base numbers in the hundreds of millions. 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 other factors.

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 gradually increase 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 (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 a critical section. I realized, upon re-reading this post, that it looks boring as hell.

There’s no real way of making the math sexy, but it’s crucial to understanding why you need to spread your sales out to grow over time. Please don’t skim it; get out a sheet of paper and work out the math along with me, if it makes you focus.

First, two points of clarification:

  • Sales rank 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 (primarily) 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.

  • 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: 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.

Given that we’ve covered the first two key principles in understanding Amazon’s algos, let’s briefly touch on why sales rank is important at all before heading on to the third: the sample of people purchasing your book.

Why is Sales Rank Important?

Because readers browse the sub-genre lists – and getting in the top 20 of your sub-genre is a great source of free traffic. Structuring your traffic schedule correctly can be the difference between receiving that boost – and a nice sales tail after your promo is over – and falling straight down.

Check the chart below to understand how many sales you need to hit a certain rank. Big thanks to PhoenixS for the data; she allowed me to use these charts with the caveat that I explain to you all that these charts are a rough estimate and from the summer of 2016. Thus, it’s not entirely accurate at this point, given that Amazon’s algos shift (the free ranks, in particular, have changed); it is, however, the best source of rank data I’ve come across (better than the rank calculators), so it’ll still be valuable.

 

The Data Set: All Traffic is Not Equally Beneficial

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

But what of perpetual, consistent sales over time – otherwise known as “stickiness”?

That requires an understanding of how to train Amazon’s data set.

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.

Amazon’s site is essentially one big machine learning system. In a sense, 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.

Combing through all this data, their 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 that we’d like to buy. So what?

This is 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 based on 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 his book 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 voracious, hardcore fans that you never could have reached through any other mechanism.

How to Train Amazon’s Data Monster

What does this mean practically for you, as a marketer? It means that if you have a 1st person female MC urban fantasy mystery, then finding 150 people who have bought lots of books like that will be much more beneficial than 1000 more general buyers. Because Amazon will know exactly who your target market is in the former, and root out those people.

The emails and recommendations it sends out based on that 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 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 this new UF book. Unfortunately, I don’t buy, because I don’t 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 aren’t interested in your book. And boom: Amazon stops recommending your book. It disappears, 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 about people very concerned with misleading Amazon’s AI. They don’t want to send any off target traffic to the 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 these 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 this 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 these 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 just released 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. 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. They’re generally 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 on the sale of the first book/box.

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 unconsciously confirm their suspicions: that this book is cheap because it’s crappy. This is a quirk of human psychology. You’ll also run into the problem of 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 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. This is a common misconception – that simply lowering the price will increase traffic to the page. Not true – 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 list at the beginning of this guide does not encompass everything you could possibly do. Cover reveals, swag (bookmarks, beach towels, postcards, tote bags, stickers), signed paperbacks, Kindle giveaways, gift card giveaways, King Sumo giveaways, book blog tours…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. Adding a fourth traffic source, or a fifth, or a sixth traffic source is tempting. But 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.

Assuming this focused mindset demands 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 blow your brains out – that’s totally fine. Start small and build up your focus/skills. By going slow, we actually go fast.

In that same spirit, for those starting out, 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 really get something under your belt; after that, you’ll own the skill forever. The feeling of competence is truly empowering – far moreso than dabbling amidst a dozen options you don’t understand that well 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 work 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 massively 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 tell Amazon what type of customer will like the book. 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 will likely start recommending your book. Sell enough copies and you’ll also receive prominent placement on the pop lists & 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.
  2. Map out a promo stack that will get you 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. You can use PhoenixS’ charts as a rough guide; here are Amazon’s Kindle Bestseller Lists.
    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 Point calculator Excel sheet here to automatically do the math.
    4. Book it and record the results.