Welcome to the 2023 Book Marketing Crash Course. This 8,500 word no-fluff guide breaks down the keys to book marketing via the modestly titled Ultimate Book Marketing Formula. These are the main needle movers that I’ve discovered from publishing my own titles as well as working 1-on-1 with multiple six- and seven-figure authors. The components are as follows:
While previous editions of this crash course were aimed more toward beginner to intermediate level authors, I’ve crafted the 2023 version to be applicable to beginner and advanced marketers alike. For the former, the ensuing guide gives you an instant snapshot of what to focus on within the book marketing landscape. For the latter, it cuts through the noise, hopefully serving as a reminder of what’s really important (and perhaps a critical item or two left undone). I also include some next level tips to demonstrate ways to use the fundamentals in more advanced ways. Step-by-step processes accompany the material where appropriate to help you apply the concepts to your own catalog. There are also accompanying resources (some free, some paid) if you want to dive deeper into a specific area.
As a final note, this guide is geared toward indie authors. If you’re traditionally published, some of the information will still apply, but many of the marketing techniques within require having direct publishing control of your books.
And since we have a lot of ground to cover, let’s dispense with the preamble and hop right in with the 80/20 principle.
The 80/20 Principle
The core principle underpinning this crash course, and the rest of my material, is the 80/20 principle. For the unfamiliar, this rule states that 80% of your results come from just 20% of your actions. While mathematically robust, the actual numbers vary (e.g., 1% of your actions can produce 99% of the results). But the key takeaway is this: a few select actions have a disproportionate impact on the ultimate outcome. That makes grinding things out and doing everything an exceptionally poor strategy that should not be employed, since most tasks are worthless or of nominal impact.
Put another way: small, marginally effective tactics are, in fact, liabilities, as they thieve time from your highest value tasks.
The more you focus on the core 20% of actions driving most of the results, the better those end results will be. I’ve relentlessly tested the marketing strategies and tactics presented within this crash course across thousands of ads, dozens of clients, and almost every genre imaginable, distilling the core 20% into the Ultimate Book Marketing Formula.
We’ll go into much more detail regarding the formula’s components later in this guide. But there’s one additional formula that all book marketers should be familiar with that we need to cover first.
The Internet Marketing Formula
The Internet Marketing Formula is used to sell everything from soap to shoes to books. Here, I’ve adapted the terminology specifically to books:
- We generate traffic to our book page via paid ads, social media, or dozens of other potential sources. This is also commonly called “getting visibility.”
- We convert these visitors into paying or borrowing readers via an on-genre cover, title, and blurb, solid reviews, and a competitive price.
- We analyze the numbers to determine whether we performed these first two steps profitably, looking for ways to improve each and also extend our series’ and catalog’s overall profitability.
This process is a cycle. We continue to test and iterate in these three areas until we’re comfortable with our current level of profitability or determine that a particular book / series isn’t a good candidate to actively market.
99% of marketing problems are related to traffic, conversion, or profitability. Understanding this formula greatly streamlines your marketing efforts, giving you a clear framework with which to diagnose and fix problems.
For more on the 80/20 principle and traffic, conversion, and profitability, read Perry Marshall’s excellent 80/20 Sales and Marketing.
What You Need
It’s easy to get stuck in the weeds instead of doing actual work, spending all your time making business cards or commissioning a custom logo that won’t sell more books. After careful consideration, I believe there are only two necessities every part-time or full-time author must have:
- An email newsletter service provider like Active Campaign ($9/mo for up to 500 subs, $29/mo for 1k+) or ConvertKit (free up to 1k subs, starts at $29/mo for 1k+). ConvertKit has a better interface and is my recommended go-to email service provider. To improve deliverability with whatever service you ultimately choose, a custom email address is also recommended (e.g., firstname.lastname@example.org; $6/mo from Google).
- An author website, which requires:
- A domain ($12/yr from Google)
- Hosting (rock-solid WordPress hosting from FlyWheel ($15/mo) or WPX ($25/mo)
- A WordPress theme (you can use the free Astra Theme with the free Elementor page builder or the Kadence Theme with the built-in WordPress Gutenberg editor)
That’s it. While you can get by without an author website, your site acts as a hub for your author brand where readers can learn about new books, sign up for your newsletter, and explore your backlist. The long-term career-building benefits are well worth the nominal investment. You can hire someone for under $500 to build a basic WordPress site if you don’t have the technical skills to create one yourself. If you’re short on cash and lack the technical know-how to set a site up yourself, that can wait for later, however.
While these are the only mandatory items, check out my resources for other useful services and items.
With necessities squared away, let’s take a moment to talk about the importance of building assets.
Perhaps the most unique part of being an author compared to most other jobs and businesses is the ability to build assets that can generate revenue for years with minimal or no additional work. Words that you publish today can not only make you money today and tomorrow, but five, ten, or even fifty years down the line.
That’s insanely powerful. It’s also an easy to overlook advantage, since it’s not commonplace in most other professions. Thus, you want to make sure you’re building and leveraging your three main assets:
- Your books. These are your most valuable asset. As your backlist grows, the revenue it can generate without constantly releasing new books increases significantly.
- Your newsletter. Your subscribers are your second most valuable asset. Email has been around for thirty years; it’ll be around for another thirty (and more) even after the latest social media site du jour peaks and fades from the public consciousness. Your newsletter gives you a direct, unbreakable communication channel to your fans.
- Your data. Often underutilized, but incredibly valuable as your publishing business grows. This data can be anything from the general sales and revenue numbers, to more granular and specific insights like how Amazon Ads convert compared to Facebook Ads for your books.
And having a good strategy helps you build these assets and your publishing business faster, so let’s talk about that.
A strategy is a set of tactics and actions specifically chosen based on your strengths and current resources to achieve your core objective. Effective strategies lean heavily on your strengths—those areas where you have a competitive advantage over fellow authors—while minimizing your weaknesses and acknowledging constraints.
We can illustrate the importance of strategy through the metaphor of a sled dog team.
If you want to reach your intended destination (core objective) as quickly as possible, all your sled dogs (actions and tactics) must pull in the same direction. To reach that destination with even greater efficiency, you’d want to use each dog in the manner best suited to its existing abilities and training (strengths and current resources). When your sled dogs are assigned the right job and pull as one, the team will make rapid progress toward the final line (core objective). During any one race, of course, the final outcome is still variable. Perhaps you win; other times you’ll lose. Sometimes the elements come into play, wreaking havoc. But over multiple races, this focused effort compounds into significant progress.
Absent well-defined roles, however, some dogs (actions and tactics) pull no weight, thus slowing progress and reducing the chances of reaching the destination (core objective). But worse, some dogs (actions and tactics) might actively pull in the wrong direction entirely. This results in expending tremendous amounts of energy to merely run in place, or even travel backward. If this continues for long, the team becomes stranded in no-man’s land and ultimately dies of exposure.
Or, to abandon the metaphor: authors burn out and either take an extended break or quit writing altogether.
You can avoid this fate by creating a marketing strategy that dovetails with your strengths, current resources, and core objective. This gives you a clear North Star to cut through the marketing noise. And don’t worry if your strategy lacks pyrotechnic appeal when compared to “ambitious” or “optimal” stuff you might come across. A marketing strategy that you actually follow has far greater utility than an ultra-optimized one you cannot execute or that fails to align with your career’s core objectives.
For a step-by-step course on how to craft a custom 1-page marketing strategy focused on achieving what’s meaningful to your author career, check out Six-Figure Author Strategy.
Oh, and since execution is critical to your marketing success, we’ll talk about that next.
The 3 x 3 Productivity System
Purportedly “optimal” strategies exist in all facets of life, from fitness to finance to book marketing. But the only truly optimal strategy is the one you can execute long-term. That’s because progress in this publishing game, and really life at large, hinges on compound interest: consistent deposits that, over time, build on each other. As such, leveraging the benefits of compounding demands showing up not just for a day or a week, but for months and years.
The 3 x 3 system is a simple approach to consistent productivity that focuses on the three areas most crucial for building your author career.
The idea here is straightforward: investing 3 hours of quality work a day across 3 core areas (writing, marketing, and reading) gives you a good shot at becoming a part-time or full-time writer in 3 years (hence 3 x 3). This adds up to about 3,000 hours invested in your author business over that stretch.
This hourly commitment can be scaled up / down according to your available time and current focus level. Start small, establish the skill of showing up and doing quality work, then scale. Choose which areas you need to work on the most and divvy up the time accordingly. Note that three hours is simply an average, and does not necessarily mean you should work on each area every day. Identify whether a task requires only consistency of production output (e.g., 4 books+ a year) or actual day-to-day consistency (e.g., diet and exercise) to achieve results. A book is the same end product regardless of whether it’s written during a frantic five day sprint or daily over a five month period. Execute in the way that best meshes with your existing skillset.
For more on productivity, check out the Double Your Productivity Crash Course and The Ultimate Guide to Author Productivity.
There’s one more decision to make before jumping into the Ultimate Book Marketing Formula: whether we’ll be exclusive to Amazon or go wide.
Exclusive or Wide?
The decision to be exclusive and publish only on Amazon (often referred to as “being in Kindle Unlimited (KU)”) or go wide and publish your book(s) on all retailers (Kobo, Apple Books, Google Play et al. in addition to Amazon) influences many of your ensuing marketing decisions. This isn’t the adversarial dilemma it’s frequently presented as in the author community, however. In fact, having a blend of exclusive and wide titles is common for many authors as their career grows. Rather than follow a dogmatic approach, we want to break down the advantages and disadvantages of each so we can select the approach that best serves our current objectives.
Being exclusive means that a title can be available only on Amazon for 90 days. In exchange, there are five main advantages:
- Kindle Unlimited. Enrollment in Kindle Unlimited (KU), which is a library of 1,000,000+ titles that Kindle Unlimited subscribers (an all-you-can-read eBook service that’s essentially Netflix for books) can borrow and read for free. You, in turn, get paid per page read for these borrows (usually around $0.0045 per page in the US, but that number fluctuates on a monthly basis). If someone purchases your book, you still get paid as you normally would.
- Bonuses. There are Kindle Unlimited All Star bonuses in many regions. These used to be based solely on which titles generated the most page reads in a given month, but as of mid-2022 Amazon also started factoring in a “variety of customer signals” (according to their official help documentation) to determine who receives these bonuses.
- Rank. Each borrow counts the same as a sale in Amazon’s ranking algorithm, so it’s easier to rank well in the store with a Kindle Unlimited title.
- Visibility. Three key promotional tools help you market your books:
- 5 promotional free days per 90 day exclusivity term to use whenever you’d like.
- Access to Kindle Countdown Deals, where you can discount your book to $0.99 or $1.99 in the US/UK markets (other regions aren’t currently eligible) for up to 7 days and still receive 70% royalties. During a single 90 day period, you can either run a Kindle Countdown Deal or do a free run on a title; you cannot do both.
- Access to Prime Reading, wherein you can nominate your title for inclusion. If selected, your book is offered as a free download to Amazon’s millions of Prime members. Each Prime download counts the same as a borrow or sale in Amazon’s ranking algorithm, so these titles can sometimes get a significant visibility boost.
- Simplicity. You only have to upload and manage your titles on a single retailer, which cuts down on administrative time.
The disadvantages of Kindle Unlimited are:
- Economics. If you write short stories, novellas, or short novels, you might only make $0.80 – $1 when someone borrows and reads through your entire book. That can be a considerably pay cut in comparison to a sale, which will usually net $2+ (if the book is priced at $2.99+).
- Loyalty. Kindle Unlimited readers tend to be more KU and genre loyal than author loyal. This means they’re often looking for KU books in a certain genre first. You can find superfans in Kindle Unlimited, of course, but upon going wide you might discover that your actual fanbase is much smaller than anticipated.
- Ad tracking. Since Amazon doesn’t report the exact number of borrows your books receive, only the number of page reads, this makes ad tracking tricky. You don’t know if 10,000 reads of a 400 page book represents 25 people reading all the way through or 200 people reading 50 pages. Page reads also take time to be reported (since a reader must actually read the book in question). That means they can borrow the book on one day, then read it days or even weeks later. This makes it challenging to accurately gauge how your ads and other marketing activities are performing. This has been mostly mitigated by the introduction of Amazon Attribution, however, which allows you to make tracking links that track page reads and sales from almost any traffic source (Facebook Ads, TikTok organic, Instagram, your newsletter, basically anywhere you could put a regular Amazon link).
- All your eggs in one basket. This is the biggest disadvantage of being in Kindle Unlimited. If the program’s terms change or the page read rate fluctuates significantly (it usually hovers between +- 10% of $0.0045 in the US), this can dramatically impact your business if all your titles are exclusive.
The advantages of being wide are as such:
- Diversification. You’re less susceptible to changes on any one retailer, since your income is split between multiple sources.
- Regional opportunities. While Amazon is the dominant retailer in the US, other retailers can actually be the major player in other regions. Kobo, for example, is the leading eBook retailer in Canada. This opens up additional avenues in non-US markets.
- Price sensitivity. Readers purchasing from other retailers tend to be less price sensitive, especially in non-US regions.
- Selling direct from your own store. This may be the biggest advantage of all. Admittedly, however, this is likely only a consideration for those already making a full-time income. The ability to sell direct allows you to earn a higher royalty rate and enjoy immediate cash flow (since you’re paid directly, rather than waiting for the retailer to send you the funds). It allows you to get very accurate data on the performance of your ads. And it gives you the ability to get actual sales data on how specific covers, blurbs, titles, and other aspects of your book’s packaging are converting. You can then take this information and, in turn, use it to improve the performance of your books on the various retailers.
Disadvantages of being wide are:
- Visibility. You have to bring your own traffic to non-Amazon retailers, since they have far less robust algorithmic recommendation systems than Amazon. And since you’re getting less of a push from Amazon when you’re wide, you need to generate more traffic and visibility on your own there as well.
- The grind. While being exclusive isn’t some magical panacea to the early grind of building an initial fanbase, it’s considerably easier to build momentum in Kindle Unlimited in most genres. On other retailers, you’re often looking at a year or longer to gain traction. In the meantime, it’s common to see lots of $6 monthly royalty checks and the like, which can be demoralizing and cause people to give up or stop marketing their books.
- Admin. Instead of publishing your title on just one retailer, you’re now doing so on half a dozen or more. Aggregators like Draft2Digital can help with this, but any price changes or manuscript updates that would be 5 minute adjustments when exclusive can now take 15 or 20 minutes per title.
Again, this doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. You can start in Kindle Unlimited to build initial momentum and gradually release some of your catalog wide as your career progresses. That’s a common approach, and a good way to diversify. Kindle Unlimited is its own ecosystem, in that subscribers are generally looking for books within the program. While KU readers obviously also purchase books, you’re tapping into different readerships by having your feet in both pools.
Thus, the simple answer to this decision is: do what works best for your catalog. Use the options at your fingertips strategically to maximize profitability and build your fanbase.
With our KU v. Wide discussion wrapped up, the rest of this guide is dedicated to breaking down the components of the Ultimate Book Marketing Formula. And we’ll start with publishing frequency.
(1) Publish 4+ Novels a Year
This is the first piece of our Ultimate Book Marketing Formula, and the most critical. You must continually put out new books to remain visible and build your career.
Publish 4+ full-length novels (40,000+ words) a year in a recognizable genre / sub-genre where you understand the key tropes and reader expectations. Once you’re consistently writing books that resonate with your sub-genre’s readers, your best marketing tool is a new book. Nothing else comes close.
You can publish fewer than 4 books per year—and indeed plenty of successful authors do. But this means that you must rely more on your marketing chops to sustain momentum between releases, which becomes more challenging with a lower release frequency. Or your books must be at a stronger level of craft, such that readers will still remember your name while they wait between longer layoffs. Authors with deep backlists in the same genre (15 – 20+ books) can also potentially release slower, since their existing catalog can shoulder more of the revenue burden. Realistically, I’d say 2 releases per year is the absolute minimum I’d recommend if you’re aiming to be a full-time author.
A few authors meet with success publishing shorter works, but full-length novels of 40,000+ words almost universally command higher price points, sell better, and have a longer shelf-life.
Write in a series, aiming for a minimum of five books to maximize profitability (especially if you’re planning on using paid ads a lot). Standalones can work in select genres (psychological thrillers, women’s fiction, historical), but writing a series makes marketing significantly easier. This is because writing in a series increases the revenue per sale, which is the total amount of revenue a sale of Book 1 generates when factoring in sellthrough to the rest of the books in the series.
For example, while the sale of a $2.99 Book 1 would net you about $2 in royalties, the ensuing sales of Books 2, 3, 4, and so forth could add an additional $5, $10, or more in royalties as the reader picks up the rest of the series. The longer the series, the higher the revenue per sale, and thus, the more profitable (and scalable) your marketing efforts tend to be.
Finally, build out your backlist in the same genre / sub-genre, rather than genre-hopping, to encourage more cross-sellthrough between your series. This increases your reader value (this is analogous to lifetime customer value (LTV) in a more traditional business context), which you can’t directly measure or calculate. But if you have 50 thrillers / mysteries, you might be able to sell a reader 10, 20, or even more of them, making a new reader worth $20, $30 or more to you. Whereas if you have 50 books in an eclectic variety of genres, you’ll be lucky to sell most readers any of the others once they’re done with the series that brought them in if you don’t have any additional books in the same genre.
Next level: link as many series as possible via a shared world, shared characters, or as spinoffs to further improve cross-sellthrough across your backlist and maximize reader value.
Tracking your key numbers allows you to analyze your marketing’s performance and make adjustments accordingly. This can be as simple as tracking net profit (royalties – expenses) and organic newsletter subscribers (which is your key growth metric), or as granular as tracking sales and reads by individual book and region.
While adherence is the #1 key to effective tracking, if possible I recommend these five pillars:
- Ad spend / revenue / sales / reads for your series that you’re actively advertising (daily or weekly).
- Revenue and expenses for official accounting purposes (e.g., logging all expenses and revenue) (monthly).
- Log all expenses as soon as they occur (other than PPC ads) to keep this up to date.
- Log PPC ads once you have the final numbers at the end of the month. This is easier than doing it at the time of billing since they’ll often invoice you multiple times a month.
- Log royalties once you have the final numbers from the deposits in your bank account.
- Track launch numbers daily for the first 30 days. Over time, this helps you build a library of launch data to refer back to when releasing a new book.
- Swipe sheet where you store your best performing images, ad copy, taglines, and other ad assets with key stats (e.g., CPC) for quick reference and discerning patterns. Unless you’re skilled with spreadsheets and can export / crunch through raw data exports from various ad platforms, only store the best performers. Otherwise this becomes a nightmare to maintain. You can also keep a record of tests you run here (for covers, blurbs, etc.).
- A swipe file (this is a folder, rather than a spreadsheet) on your computer for storing ads, blurbs, covers, and other marketing materials from other authors that catch your eye. This serves as a valuable reference when creating your own ads and other marketing items.
All of this might sound like a lot, but after the initial setup, this system takes an average of 5 – 15 minutes a day (or week, if you’re tracking weekly) to maintain, depending on the number of ads you’re running.
Next level: As your catalog grows, using spreadsheet formulas and a reporting tool like Google Looker Studio can unlock additional analysis insights hidden within your existing data. This Google Sheets course is excellent (wait for a Udemy sale for it to be $12 – $20; these are frequent).
(3) Market Research
Market research sounds boring. Whether you believe that’s true or not is irrelevant; it’s at the heart of your authorial success, so it must be done. Fortunately, it shouldn’t be a chore, assuming that you actually like the genre you’re writing. That’s because market research mostly amounts to reading books in your sub-genre and poking around the Amazon store (particularly your sub-genre’s Top 100 list) to get a feel for where your book slots in amidst the competition (or other storefronts, if you’re not exclusive to Amazon).
This is an ongoing process. If you’re gonna be writing thrillers for the next 20 years, basically just be prepared to read some thrillers during that span. Understanding your genre and familiarizing yourself with the books within it makes every piece of marketing massively easier.
A brand is simply the promise of a consistent customer experience. You know what you’re getting when you order a latte at Starbucks, regardless of whether you’re in London, New York, or Tokyo. The same concept applies to your author brand: your author name carries the promise of a certain reader experience. This experience has two facets: emotional consistency and quality consistency. There are four components to consider when building your author brand to maintain this consistency:
- Genre: the genre you write and your unique spin on it that makes your books the same but different than other offerings. Make sure you choose a genre that matches your writing style, voice, and preferred word count. If you’re writing books no one wants, all the fancy marketing tactics in the world won’t move the needle.
- Voice + worldview: your voice is how the words appear on page stylistically. Some authors are very voice-y, others are not. If you are, lean into this; if you aren’t, then don’t try to force it. Worldview is your work’s thematic resonance. Many authors gravitate toward politics here, but this is a good way to touch the third rail and immediately alienate over half of your readership (the entire other side, plus those on your side who don’t want to read about politics during their escapism time).
- Persona: this is your public face. It can be your actual personality / life or a “character” that you play. Even if you’re a private person, the former is an easier approach; just curate the details you share according to your comfort level.
- Packaging: this is the visual representation of your brand, including your covers, blurbs, titles, ads, and so forth.
The easiest way to deliver a consistent brand experience is by following a simple rule: one pen name, one genre. Certain sub-genres mesh together (crime, mystery, and, thriller; sci-fi and fantasy) and can co-exist under the same name.
This feels restrictive for some authors. Many resort to genre-hopping (publishing multiple disparate genres under a single name) or multiple pen names. The former isn’t recommended. It confuses readers looking to pick up more of your books and it confuses the algorithms, who don’t know what readers to recommend your books to. Multiple pen names can work, but just know that each new pen name is essentially an entirely new business. It’s hard enough to get one author career going; trying to keep multiple fires stoked at once is rarely a recipe for massive success.
Next level: Fret not, however; there is a workaround. A clever way to maintain brand consistency while exploring other sub-genres under the same pen name is the umbrella genre. This holds to the one pen name, one genre rule, but uses the tropes of your core genre / sub-genre as the common thread between the various series and books in your backlist. Using urban fantasy as an example, we could have:
- A straight up urban fantasy series (which usually have a mystery / thriller core).
- A post-apocalyptic series that has magic, wizards, vampires, et al.
- A paranormal romance series.
- A space opera series with vampires and magic in a futuristic setting / with space ships etc.
Another way to think of the umbrella genre is using your main genre as a lens through which to filter the other sub-genres you want to write. Absent the umbrella genre approach, an urban fantasy series and space opera series would have minimal cross-sellthrough. This way, however, we can generate much more cross-sellthrough across our backlist while still being able to explore new creative horizons.
(5) Three Traffic Sources
Traffic is what comes to mind when most people think of the word marketing. This is likely why authors tend to overextend themselves when it comes to traffic, shotgunning their efforts out across a dozen or more sources. Driving people to your Amazon page is actually one of the easiest parts of selling books, however. That means you don’t need a ton of traffic sources. In fact, you really just need two or three that you can actually wield effectively.
The main sources of traffic for authors are:
- PPC (pay-per-click): Facebook, Amazon, and BookBub ads
- Social media: Facebook Groups, Facebook pages, Instagram, and TikTok
- Promo sites: these are email newsletters that you can purchase spots in. On the selected day, your (usually discounted) book is sent to that service’s list of readers in your chosen sub-genre (my curated list of recommend promo sites is here).
Each of these would count as just one source (i.e., Facebook Groups would be a single source, Facebook Ads would be a completely different one). This is not an exhaustive list; for more traffic sources, check out The Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing.
Authors fall into two primary traffic traps: having just one source or having far too many. Having only one solid source leaves you extremely vulnerable to changes in that platform, whether that’s from increasing costs (click costs rising), shifting algorithms (organic reach dropping on a social media site), or existential threats (suspensions / bans / the service disappearing or becoming ineffective).
On the opposite end of the spectrum, wherein a person is spreading their attention between tons of different sources, it should be noted that it’s very hard to become even reasonably good at using three. It is very easy, however, to employ a half dozen or a dozen poorly.
To avoid these issues, begin by getting comfortable with one source of traffic (e.g., Facebook Ads or Amazon Ads or promo sites or TikTok organic). Then layer another source on top as needed. Note that you do not have to use anything; if you’re not interested in social media, you do not have to use it. The key to selecting traffic sources is not their potential effectiveness, but how well you can use them. That demands trial and error to find what works, which only happens if you’re using sources that align with your strengths and objectives.
Regardless of what traffic sources you use, I’d recommend submitting to BookBub as often as possible. This takes about two minutes a month, but is an almost guaranteed profit if you’re accepted and can generate a nice influx of new readers. For more tips on how to maximize your chances of getting a BookBub Featured Deal, read my free in-depth guide.
(5b) Amazon’s Algorithms
Although the algos, as the Amazon algorithms are often called, have achieved almost mythical status within the author community, they aren’t a silver bullet. But they can provide substantial additional visibility to your books at no extra cost. As such, leveraging them to maximize the impact of your traffic, particularly during launches and promos, is worthwhile.
A hat tip to Phoenix S., David Gaughran, and Chris Fox for uncovering many of the original insights into how the algorithms work with books; over the years, I’ve added my own insights and built upon them through my own data analysis and research.
Amazon’s algorithms are highly technical in nature (and a black box), but that doesn’t really matter if you keep one thing in mind: the algorithms are just a proxy for the audience’s preferences. That means the algorithms are designed to recommend books that readers like. They’re essentially trying to quantify how satisfied readers are with a certain title. While many data points help fuel Amazon’s recommendation engine, the three most important factors are:
- Finish rate. This is the % of people who finish your book, which is a clear measure of reader satisfaction. If buyers are finishing books Amazon recommends, that means they’re going to have greater trust in future recommendations. And they’re also going to spend more on books (and other products) in the future. It’s unclear what exact metric(s) Amazon might use here; it might not be specifically finish rate. But incorporating reading behavioral data into their recommendations makes a ton of sense, because this is an unfakable signal: readers only make it to the end if the book was engaging enough to finish.
- Conversion. Amazon is an eCommerce store, which means they’re trying to maximize the effectiveness of each piece of digital real estate on their website. That means Amazon likes recommending books that convert well. Thus, if one book is converting at 5% and another is converting at 1%, then it’s likely costing Amazon money by recommending the latter to customers. Increase your conversion by ensuring your covers and blurbs are on point, and that the traffic you send to the page is relevant (e.g., if you’re writing thrillers, target readers who are interested in thrillers, not readers who are interested in paranormal romance).
- Sales velocity + volume. Amazon likes recommending books that have existing sales momentum / velocity (e.g., books that are already selling well).
They also factor in the following:
- Consistency. Spreading sales out over time instead of a one day spike helps maximize your sales rank.
- Newness. Amazon gives visibility boosts to new releases during the first 90 days of their life (most of this wears off after the first 30 days; the waning impact of the algorithms on a new release is called the 30/60/90 day cliffs by authors).
- The sample of people who purchased your book. If Amazon sees that your new romance book was just purchased by 50 romance readers, the algorithms will use this data sample as a signal that they should recommend it to other romance readers. By feeding Amazon the right data sample, then, you can get it recommending your book to the right subset of readers. In practice, this just amounts to what you should be doing anyway: get the book in front of the people who are most likely to purchase and enjoy it (e.g., readers in your sub-genre).
In practice, there are no real tricks here; getting the algorithms on your side is really a matter of improving your marketing and craft skills. Of course, if you’re looking at books in your sub-genre and comparing yourself to others, it’s worth noting that there’s randomness in the algorithms. One book may catch while another with similar metrics may not, for reasons unknown. While market research is important, I wouldn’t read too much into patterns that aren’t actually there.
For more on how to maximize the impact of your launches and promos, check out The Launch & Promo Blueprint course.
The cover is arguably your book’s most important conversion factor. It can make or break your book’s success. You are not commissioning a piece of artwork here. Your cover art is just your book’s product packaging. Its main purpose is to signal the genre at a half-second glance.
To avoid purchasing a beautiful piece of art that won’t sell books, here’s a repeatable process for commissioning a professional, on-genre cover:
- Find 3 – 5 covers that you like on your sub-genre’s Amazon Top 100 bestseller list. Identify a mix of traditionally published books and indie titles. Readers have voted with their dollars that they prefer these covers in this genre. These charts are like the ultimate focus group that definitively answers the question “what do readers want?” totally free.
- Find a cover artist with a portfolio matching your desired style and book genre. Visit my resources for a list of designers I’ve personally worked with and recommend.
- Send your 3 – 5 sample covers to the designer and tell them to MAKE IT LOOK SIMILAR TO THE EXAMPLES. It is crucial to provide your designer with clear visual expectations, as text can be easily misinterpreted. Be specific regarding the design elements you do or do not want. The more clearly you communicate expectations, the better your final cover will be.
- Ensure that the typography is consistent in terms of font/placement across your series. This is critical for branding and to signal that books are in the same series.
- Test multiple cover options. As with ad images, different covers will vary widely in performance, even when they’re on-genre and professional. Testing at least two options can massively improve your cover’s performance.
As with the cover, a book’s title should clearly signal its genre to the prospective reader.
Consider the book Killing Floor. If you didn’t recognize the title, you surely won’t be surprised to learn that it’s the first book in the Jack Reacher series. It communicates the genre and tone of the subject matter perfectly, without being overtly cliché (but cliché is fine; clarity beats cleverness when it comes to marketing).
I mentioned earlier that the cover was arguably the most important conversion factor. The “arguably” qualifier was included because the blurb (the book’s description) might have a higher impact. While readers might click because of the cover, they’ll likely buy because of the words in the blurb itself.
I know. If you hate writing blurbs you’re about to break out in hives.
Don’t worry. Copywriting (the type of writing used to pen blurbs, ads, and taglines) is a learnable skill that can be developed through practice.
Here’s the general structure of a blurb:
- Hook/tagline: not mandatory, but if present, must pique serious curiosity in a very brief time frame. A hook is a high-concept idea that can be summed up in 15 words or less. Most books don’t have them. Thus, you’ll often rely on a tagline (Only a demon can save the world from burning) or statement (For fans of Jim Butcher and Ilona Andrews comes a pulse-pounding new urban fantasy series) that hits the right genre notes. Many good blurbs don’t have taglines, but it’s worth coming up with a few anyway.
- 80 – 90 word lead: this is the area “above the fold” on Amazon (before readers have to click “read more”) that totals under 90 words (30 on mobile). An effective lead makes people want to read the book by instantly communicating the genre, flavor, tone, style, and expected reading experience.
- Body: this is where you establish the book’s core conflict. Focus on one thread, rather than a myriad of subplots that confuse or distract a prospective reader.
- Cliffhanger/snapper: if the ending is truly in question, end with a simple cliffhanger, which works the same way as it does within the book. If the ending is not (which is the case for most books) the alternative is a “snapper” —a rhythmic, pithy line that drives home the stakes, hooks the reader’s attention, and forces them to either purchase or check out a sample.
That’s it: tagline, lead, body, cliffhanger/snapper. Four parts.
One of the best ways to improve your blurbs (and marketing chops in general)? Set a timer for 15 minutes. Find a blurb from a book in the top Amazon Kindle Top 100 of your sub-genre and take 7.5 minutes to hand copy it, underlining the tropes and genre-related words as you go. Yes, with actual pen and paper. This helps you internalize the structure, word choices, rhythm, and other factors in a way that merely reading it cannot replicate. Then use the remaining 7.5 minutes to write your own blurb for your own book. Don’t worry about quality, just write it and then save the blurb in a document.
Do this for 30 days. After the end of 30 days, you’ll see a massive improvement in the quality of your ads, blurbs, taglines, and anywhere else you write copy.
You do not have to do all 30 days, but this level of immersion can massively accelerate your marketing progress (not just with blurbs).
Next level: test your blurbs via ads to get data-driven feedback on what’s resonating with your audience and further hone your copywriting chops. For more on testing everything from blurbs to covers to first chapters, check out Advanced Book Marketing Alchemy.
$1 is not just $1 when it comes to your book’s price because of sales volume. At $3.99 v. $4.99, $1 is 25% more. This can massively impact your profitability over, say, 1,000 copies, since that will be $700 (since you get 70% royalties). This doesn’t mean that you can price your books without regard to your sub-genre’s general pricing conventions, merely that most authors tend to underprice their books. This is particularly true when it comes to later titles in the series, at which point readers are far less price sensitive.
Here’s a quick and dirty 80/20 way to dial in your prices.
(1) look at the indie bestsellers in your sub-genre. Take note of authors selling well who are pricing higher. Sometimes this is due to a huge fanbase or great branding. But it might simply be because many of the other authors are underpricing. Even highly successful authors price wrong, leaving thousands or tens of thousands of dollars on the table.
An example is contemporary romance: many authors price at $3.99. From my experience advertising a lot of romances, there is little difference in conversion between $3.99 and $4.99. Which is not to say that there won’t be a difference for your book; merely that it is worth testing. Because if you can successfully sell your book at $4.99, you’ve given yourself a 25% raise in two minutes.
(2) price later books in a successful series higher. Many indies don’t do this. They’re leaving money on the table.
There’s a ceiling here, but in many genres you can go to $4.99 without any problem after Book 2 or 3 (and sometimes for Book 2 or 3). And there are some genres (thrillers/mysteries/crime, for example) where you can price later books at $5.99, $6.99, or even $7.99.
This does not scale infinitely, but there are a handful of indies, even in genres like contemporary romance (where prices almost universally fall around $3.99 – $4.99) charging $5.99+ (up to $9.99).
A solid price structure to start with as a framework for a five book series: $2.99 / $3.99 / $4.99 / $4.99 / $5.99.
Remember: a lot of price ceilings are in your mind.
Next level: make sure your prices in other markets are set optimally (UK/CA/AU). That means rounding up from, say, the auto-converted 1.77 GBP to 1.99 GBP. There will rarely be a difference in sales conversion here from the minor price increase. Most indies also don’t do this, so they’re leaving cash on the table in other regions, which also tend to be less price sensitive. Also check your paperback pricing.
(10a) Newsletter: Build
Your newsletter is your second most valuable asset behind only the books themselves. It’s your main communication channel with your readership. As it grows, it will likely become your primary sales generating mechanism by a sizable margin. And unlike social media or other sources of traffic, you have full control of your list. No one can take it away from you. Email has been around since the advent of the internet, and it will survive until its demise.
That makes your newsletter an excellent foundation upon which to build a long-term career.
To start growing your list of organic subscribers, put the newsletter sign-up link in the front (on its own page) and back matter (on the same page as THE END) of every book you write.
The front matter looks like this (do either option 1 or option 3, creating a graphic a la the middle example isn’t recommended):
And the back matter looks like this:
While slow to accumulate, people who join the list organically tend to be your most engaged subscribers. You can also build your list more rapidly by entering giveaways or cross promotions; visit the curated promo site page for services you can use. Such subscribers are referred to as non-organic, since they aren’t familiar with your writing prior to joining your list.
Non-organic subscribers tend to have lower open, click, and conversion (sales) rates than their organic counterparts. However, you can amass a lot of non-organic subscribers quickly, making up for their lower engagement through sheer subscriber volume. If going this route for list building, make sure you have an autoresponder set up to introduce your work and filter out non-organic subscribers who aren’t interested in your writing. I do not recommend using Facebook Ads or other PPC ads for building your list; the cost per subscriber is too expensive to make it profitable.
Finally, make sure double opt-in is off. You lose 30%+ of your subscribers immediately when it’s enabled.
Next level: write a free novella, short story, or epilogue / bonus scene to give away to generate more subscribers. Bonus scenes or epilogues are especially time-effective ways to generate a ton more subscribers, producing subscribe rates comparable to a free novella while demanding just a few hours of writing time.
(10b) Newsletter: Engagement
To start building engagement, set up an autoresponder with a welcome email that delivers your free novella / bonus scene (if applicable) and establishes expectations regarding newsletter frequency + content. Then have a weekly autoresponder email introducing readers to your backlist go out on a set day of the week (one backlist series a week until you’re done; this can be on any day you choose).
Otherwise, send out a weekly or monthly newsletter to cultivate engagement. For newsletter content, tell stories about your writing life, give background on the process, talk about books / films / TV shows you enjoyed, pets, family, and more (or less). Authors are often tentative to share any aspects of themselves. You do not have to be super open or share details from your private life. The core idea here is to use your existing storytelling skills to connect with your subscribers as a real human being, which is powerful.
When you’re writing your newsletters (whether for your autoresponder or the weekly / monthly newsletter), avoid including too many links / different items in a single email. You’ll almost always get vastly better engagement (more clicks / sales) if you focus each newsletter on one topic and push people to take action on one item (buying the new book, buying a backlist book, joining your review team—whatever you’re trying to get them to do). By offering multiple choices in a single email, you dramatically lower the engagement. Having too many links also tends to trigger spam and promo filters, so it can hurt your deliverability.
Next level: Authors often use newsletter swaps to generate visibility for their books. This is where you and another author in your sub-genre agree to mention one another’s titles in your respective newsletters. These swaps (especially when done with dozens of other authors at once) can generate a lot of traffic for a promo or a new book. But swaps are most powerful when the books mentioned are genuine recommendations, rather than the type of swap that’s included with forty other books as a footnote. Authentic word of mouth and curation demand significantly more time. But this approach is extremely valuable to readers (and thus much more effective) precisely because the effort required makes it rare.
The 80/20 Summary
After around 8,000 words, here’s the summary of the key points:
- Use the 80/20 rule to narrow your focus and eliminate tasks / tactics that don’t align with your strengths and objectives.
- Use the Internet Marketing Formula to assess whether you have a traffic, conversion, or profitability problem.
- Make sure you’re building and leveraging your three main assets: your books, newsletter, and data.
- Create a cohesive marketing strategy to align your marketing tactics and tasks with your core objective, strengths, and current resources.
- Execute your strategy by investing an average of 3 hours in 3 key areas daily over 3 years: writing, marketing, and reading.
- Publish 4 – 12 books a year in series with a minimum of 5 books per series. This release frequency helps maintain momentum with your fanbase and Amazon’s algorithms and also builds your backlist quickly.
- Track your net profit and organic subscribers monthly at minimum. Expand to tracking your ads (daily or weekly), launches for the first 30 days, your best performing ad creatives, and building a swipe file of other authors’ marketing materials that catch your eye.
- Regularly browse through the books in your sub-genre’s Top 100 and read in your sub-genre to perform market research.
- Establish a reliable author brand by delivering a consistent reading experience through your genre, voice / style, persona, and packaging.
- Have two to three main sources of traffic that you can use to drive visibility to your books, but build one at a time to actually get good at them.
- Maximize the impact of these traffic sources by understanding that Amazon’s algorithms like books that readers finish, that convert well, and have sales volume / velocity / momentum. The algos also give additional visibility to new releases for the first 90 days, with most of it concentrated during the first 30.
- Commission an on-genre, professional cover that clearly signals your genre by studying your sub-genre’s Top 100.
- Make sure the title also signals your sub-genre.
- Write a clear, on-genre blurb. Practice hand-copying blurbs from your sub-genre’s Top 100 (7.5m) and writing your own (7.5m) to improve your copywriting.
- Price your books properly; a $1 difference can be thousands of dollars over thousands of sales.
- Build your newsletter faster by offering a novella, short story, or bonus scene / epilogue and putting a sign-up link in the front / back matter of your books. Turn off double opt-in to avoid losing 30%+ of your subscribers immediately.
- Engage with your subscribers by sending out a weekly or monthly newsletter and telling them about new releases / promotions. Have an autoresponder with a welcome email that sets clear expectations regarding content + email frequency and introduces new subscribers to one backlist series a week.
To go deeper, check out:
- The Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing
- The Ultimate Guide to Author Productivity
- Advanced Book Marketing Alchemy
- Six-Figure Author Strategy
- The Launch & Promo Blueprint
That wraps up the 2023 Book Marketing Crash Course. The rest comes down to iterative trial and error: testing new ideas, eliminating what doesn’t work, doubling down on what does, and tracking your progress to make sure you’re not constantly retreading over the same marketing ground.
That’s it. Now go sell some books.