Crash Course: The Ultimate Book Marketing Formula (2021)

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Welcome to the 2021 Book Marketing Crash Course. This 5,000 word no-fluff guide breaks down the keys to book marketing into a simple formula that I’ve discovered from publishing my own titles as well as working 1-on-1 with multiple six- and seven-figure authors. Modestly titled the Ultimate Book Marketing Formula, its components are as follows:

 

While previous editions of the crash course were aimed more toward beginner to intermediate level authors, I’ve crafted the 2021 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 helpful 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.

And since we have a lot of ground to cover, let’s dispense with the preamble and hop right in with the 80/20 rule.

80/20

The core principle underpinning this crash course, and the rest of my material, is the 80/20 rule. For the unfamiliar, this principle 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 dive into much more detail regarding its components during this crash course. But there’s one other 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:

  1. We generate traffic to our book page via paid ads, social media, or dozens of other potential sources. This is also called “getting visibility.”
  2. We convert these visitors into readers via an on-genre cover, title, and blurb, solid reviews, and a competitive price.
  3. We look at 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 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, giving you a clear process with which to diagnose and fix problems.

For more on the 80/20 rule 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 books. After careful consideration, I believe there are only two necessities every part-time or full-time author must have:

  1. An email newsletter service provider like MailerLite (mailerlite.com; free up to 1k subs, starting at $15/mo for 1k+) or ConvertKit (convertkit.com; free up to 1k subs, starts at $29/mo for 1k+). MailerLite is a good budget option. Once you have some cash, ConvertKit has a better interface, better deliverability, and is my recommended go-to email service provider.
  2. An author website, which requires:
    • A domain ($12/yr from Google; domains.google.com)
    • Hosting (rock-solid WordPress hosting from FlyWheel ($15/mo) or Pressidium ($25/mo); getflywheel.com and pressidium.com)
    • A WordPress theme (you can use the free Astra Theme with the free Elementor page builder; wpastra.com and elementor.com)

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.

While these are the only mandatory items, check out my resources for other useful services and items.

We’re almost ready to start breaking down the Ultimate Book Marketing Formula piece-by-piece. Before we do that, though, let’s take a moment or two to talk about strategy and execution.

Strategy

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 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.

To create a custom 1-page marketing strategy focused on achieving what’s meaningful to your author career, check out Six-Figure Strategy.

Oh, and since execution is critical to your marketing success, we’ll talk about that next.

The 3 x 3 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.

The 3 x 3 system is a simple approach to 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 time.

This hourly commitment can be scaled upward / downward 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. 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. Approach productivity in the way that best meshes with your existing skillset.

For more on productivity, check out the Double Your Productivity Crash Course and Ultimate Guide to Author Productivity.

Now we’ll jump into the Ultimate Book Marketing Formula, starting with publishing frequency.

Publish 4+ Novels a Year

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 difficult with lower frequency. Realistically, I’d say 2 releases per year is the absolute minimum I’d recommend.

Write in a series, aiming for a minimum of five books to maximize profitability. Standalones can work in select genres (psychological thrillers, women’s fiction, historical), but writing in 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. The longer the series, the higher the revenue per sale, and thus, the more profitable (and scalable) your marketing efforts tend to be.

Build out your backlist in the same genre / sub-genre to encourage cross-sellthrough between your series, rather than genre hopping.

Next level: link as many series as possible via a shared world, shared characters, or as spinoffs to further encourage cross-sellthrough across your backlist and maximize reader value.

Tracking

Tracking your key numbers weekly and monthly allows you to analyze how your marketing is doing 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.

In addition to tracking your numbers, you should also create:

  • A spreadsheet of your best ad copy and ad taglines / headlines with key stats for quick reference and discerning patterns. Don’t keep track of your worst performers, just your best.
  • A swipe file (folder) 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.
  • A swipe file (folder) on your computer for storing your best ad creatives, with key stats in the file name, for quick reference and discerning patterns. Don’t keep track of your worst performers, just your best.

Next level: track your numbers daily if you’re running high ad spends, and track your book launches during the first 30 days.

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 simply amounts to reading books in your sub-genre and poking around the Amazon store 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.

Branding

A brand is simply the promise of a consistent customer experience. You know what you’re getting when you order a chai 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 and quality. There are four components to consider when building your author brand:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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. The latter 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.

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 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 had 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 critical cross-sellthrough across our backlist while still being able to explore new creative horizons.

Three Traffic Sources

Traffic is what comes to mind when most people think of marketing. This is likely why people tend to over-extend 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 three that you can actually wield effectively.

The main sources of traffic for authors are:

  • PPC (pay-per-click): Facebook, Amazon, BookBub, and TikTok
  • 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., TikTok social would be a single source, TikTok 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 and or having far too many. Having only one solid source leaves you extremely vulnerable to changes in that platform, whether that’s from rising 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, 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, start by getting comfortable with one source of traffic (e.g., Facebook Ads or Amazon Ads or promo sites), then layer another on top.

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 in-depth mini guide.

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.  While many data points help fuel Amazon’s recommendation engine, the three most important factors are:

  1. Conversion. Amazon likes recommending books that convert well. 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).
  2. Sales velocity + volume. Amazon likes recommending books that have existing sales momentum / velocity (e.g., books that are already selling well).
  3. Newness. Amazon gives substantial 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 is called the 30/60/90 day cliffs by authors). For more on how to maximize the impact of the launch, check out The Launch Blueprint.

Covers

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Test multiple cover options. As with ad images, different covers will vary widely in performance, even when they’re on-genre and professional. Testing multiple options can massively improve your cover’s performance.

Titles

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).

Blurbs

I mentioned earlier that the cover was arguably the most important conversion factor. That’s because the blurb 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 flavor, tone, style, and expected reading experience.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 marketing chops? Set a timer for 15 minutes. Pull up a blurb from the top 100 of your sub-genre and take 7.5 minutes to hand copy it. 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. 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 progress.

Next level: as you do the hand-copying exercise, 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.

Pricing

$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. Over 1,000 copies, that will be $700 (since you get 70% royalties). This doesn’t mean that you can price your books without regarding your sub-genre’s market, 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.

Next level: check your regional and paperback prices to make sure those are optimally set.

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 wide 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 and back matter (on the same page as THE END) of every book you write. 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 resources 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.

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 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 5 – 10% of the writing time.

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).

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 aspect 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.

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

That’s it for the 2021 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.

After around 5,000 words, here’s the summary of the key points:

  1. Use the 80/20 rule to narrow your focus and eliminate tasks / tactics that don’t align with your strengths and objectives.
  2. Use the Internet Marketing Formula to assess whether you have a traffic, conversion, or profitability problem.
  3. Create a cohesive marketing strategy to align your marketing tactics and tasks with your core objective, strengths, and current resources.
  4. Execute your strategy by investing 3 hours in 3 key areas daily: writing, marketing, and reading.
  5. 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 / Amazon’s algorithms and builds your backlist quickly.
  6. Track your net profit and organic subscribers weekly at minimum, and set up a swipe file for your best ad creatives / ads + marketing materials from other authors that catch your eye.
  7. Regularly read and browse through the books in your sub-genre to perform market research.
  8. Establish a reliable author brand by delivering a consistent reader experience.
  9. Have three main sources of traffic that you can use to drive visibility to your books.
  10. Maximize the impact of these traffic sources by understanding that Amazon’s algorithms like books 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.
  11. Commission an on-genre, professional cover that clearly signals your genre by studying your sub-genre’s Top 100.
  12. Make sure the title also signals your sub-genre.
  13. Write a clear, on-genre blurb. Practice hand-copying blurbs (7.5m) and writing your own (7.5m) to improve your copywriting.
  14. Price your books properly; a $1 difference can be thousands of dollars over thousands of sales.
  15. Build your newsletter faster by offering a novella 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.
  16. 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.
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