Welcome back for Part 5 of the Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing! In this section, we’ll be doing a deep dive into book promotion. If you’re just stopping by and want to start from the beginning, you can find the complete series here. Each part stands alone, though, so if you’re just interested in a particular topic, feel free to jump in wherever you see fit.
First, a little refresher on our Ultimate Book Marketing Formula, which forms the backbone of the guide:
Now it’s time to talk about traffic.
You know, the thing that most people think of when the word marketing flashes through their mind.
Call it whatever you want; getting potential readers to your book page kicks off our traffic-conversion-profit analysis marketing cycle. Remember, there are only three pieces to book marketing: traffic, conversion and determining whether you made a profit. Traffic is about getting people to the book page; conversion is about convincing these people to buy (and, later, converting them into fans by getting them to join your email list); turn a profit doing this and you can continue reinvesting in your business. Many authors falter getting in the traffic-generation phase, wondering how the hell to direct potential readers to their book page. Fear not: it’s far simpler than it first appears. We’ll cover a number of ways to generate traffic, from free methods to paid advertising. By the end, you’ll have more traffic sources than you could ever need (or want, perhaps).
In fact, that’s where we’ll begin: with an explanation of why you don’t need that many traffic sources to effectively market your books.
Traffic: Why Only Three Sources?
This guide’s core principle is the 80/20 rule. Always keep in mind that a few key factors drive the majority of the results. Most of what we do doesn’t move the needle. Worse, some tasks are outright moving us in the wrong direction. By cutting these detrimental activities out of our workday entirely, our results will dramatically improve, even if we do nothing with that newfound time except watch Netflix.
The counter intuitive truth is that by trying to do everything we often end up with less than nothing. In a world of endless noise and distraction, narrowing your focus produces massive dividends. This is largely because marketing is a latticework of skills and subskills that demand time to apply and master. The number of areas one can truly excel in are limited by the boundaries of time. The chances of producing excess value in 10 or 15 disparate marketing areas is zero. However, the chances of producing negative value by dabbling in many of these areas is high, simply because marketing is competitive. In an ecosystem like Facebook, your ads compete against other people’s. If your ads suck, they you cost more.
Diverting resources away from your strong areas into areas that are liabilities is a losing proposition. Framed another way, as an old proverb: chase two rabbits, catch none.
The idea here is not to strictly adhere to the concept of “three.” You might have four or five traffic sources – or two (relying on one puts you in a precarious position, and is not recommended). Limiting it to three merely encourages careful reflection and analysis. The underlying principle here is to identify what actually works, and invest more of your resources there.
Here’s a basic overview of traffic sources, in no particular order. We’ll analyze these options in a moment. But right off the bat you can hopefully see that your main concern is picking what will work, rather than generating ideas.
And for those who might dispute the classifications, I’m just trying to keep things organized; some sources don’t slot neatly into a single category.
For now, just get a feel for all the available options:
- Organic: retailer SEO (e.g. Amazon keywords/categories), retailers’ recommendation algorithms, word of mouth
- Paid newsletter promotion: BookBub, Robin Reads, etc.
- Pay-per-click (PPC) ads: Amazon Ads, Facebook Ads, BookBub Ads, Google Ads, Twitter Ads, YouTube, Goodreads, Pinterest
- Merchandising: retailer “first in free” or “series starter” promotions – used on Apple Books, Kobo, and Nook
- Networking: cross-author promos, newsletter swaps, multi-author boxed sets, cover reveals
- Content marketing: SEO, blogging, guest posting, podcasting
- Traditional publishing: publishing stories in industry mags (e.g. Analog), trad-pub contracts
- PR & media coverage: newspapers, print features, on-air interviews
- In-person events: book fairs, industry events, fan conventions, book signings
- Social Media: Facebook (e.g. Facebook takeovers, launch parties), Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Goodreads, BookBub, forums
- Your newsletter
Overwhelmed yet? See why we’re paring this list down to three traffic sources and your newsletter? As a simple math exercise, let’s say you dedicated 10 minutes daily to each. Just for the overarching categories alone that would be 100+ minutes a day, likely well beyond the time you currently allocate to marketing. But let’s go further: 10 min/ea.; I’ll even cut the crappier options, like Goodreads PPC ads.
That’s 240+ minutes a day (e.g. over 4 hours). And, at ten minutes each, you’re barely getting your toe wet.
I consider each of these broad categories one source. Thus, if I employed PPC, promo sites, and social media, I’d have my three sources. Then, within each broad category, I’d have to be extremely selective about what I chose to do. It’s not possible to use Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram all effectively and still write books and manage your other sources. Nor it possible to manage PPC ads well on nine different platforms at once. Anyone claiming otherwise is kidding themselves.
So if we ever want to develop actual competence – and generate real visibility – we need to start cutting options. Fast.
But before we start chopping, we need to figure out what works for us.
Finding Which Traffic Sources Work For You
If you’re already overwhelmed by marketing, you skimmed that list and probably had a brain aneurysm. What’s best? How much does it cost? Will it work for my book? But it didn’t work for this other book…can I risk it?
At the beginning, you need to try things before you can cull the list. The main way to know what works for you is to test.
You can read tons of guides, take a half dozen courses, ask every author you can think of…but ultimately, you’ll have to take the plunge and start trying things on your own books.
This an approach I call shotgun, then narrow: go broad before you focus things down. That means, at least at the start, you’ll have more than three traffic sources. To be clear, this does not mean trying three hundred things at once. Nor does it mean throwing cash around willy-nilly. We must still delve deep enough to tell whether something works, which inevitably demands time.
Remember: There are many places to find readers. More sources, in fact, than you could hope to master in a lifetime. Unlike most other guides, however, we’re not looking for just anything that can generate traffic.
We’re searching for the best sources of readers possible. This idea seems obvious, but it’s radical enough to make some people pause and say, but wait a second. I’ve been struggling for months, maybe years. I don’t deserve the best. I can’t ask for the best. I’ll just settle for anything. And what if I miss finding those three readers I could’ve reached on another platform?
If this is you, cut the shit. We’re here to make money. Whatever your hangups about narrowing your focus, address them. If you’ve read the previous sections, you should have a general understanding of your target audience and where you might be able to find them. If not, then performing that market research will help. Once you have an idea of who your audience might be, start experimenting with 5 – 10 promising sources.
After you have sufficient data, narrow your traffic list via the following method:
- Analyze your records. How many sales did you get when you messaged your Twitter peeps? Posted on that ancient weapon forum? Double down on what’s driving the bulk of your sales.
- Test more things. What happens when I remove a promo site? What happens when I stop messaging my Twitter peeps/doing a cover reveal/only post on Facebook once a day? Does the world implode? What happens if I only advertise during launches and do minimal marketing otherwise? What happens if I double my Facebook spend? What happens if I email my list four times in a day (don’t do this)? These are just sample hypotheses to get you thinking (i.e. they are not suggestions); you should come up with ones that are relevant to your business.
- Different books have different responses to different traffic sources. Fairly obvious, but Facebook Ads might be a total dud for Series A, whereas they might generate thousands of dollars in profit for Series B. Yes, this happens even if both series are by the same author, in the same sub-genre. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
You can narrow your focus immediately by following my Top 5 Traffic Sources for Fiction Writers. Even if you want to do your own rigorous analysis (which I wholeheartedly recommend) later, these are a good starting point.
Top 5 Traffic Sources for Fiction Writers
- (1 + 2) Your newsletter & Amazon’s recommendation engine. If you have absolutely no time for marketing, focus on these two items and you will see results. They’re that powerful; harnessing them effectively is critical to your overall success. For those who are “wide” (have their books on all retailers), you’ll also need to understand merchandising; that’s a big part of how retailers like Apple Books push titles.
- (3) PPC Ads: the big three you’ll be using are Amazon Ads, Facebook Ads, and BookBub Ads. PPC ads can be a huge money pit, and they aren’t effective unless you have $250+/mo that you’re willing to learn with over a few months (e.g. lose). PPC requires trial and error and constant monitoring, as winning ads eventually fatigue and turn into losers. However, PPC offers unlimited traffic potential and upside, since you can spend $5/day or $5,000. Perhaps most importantly, PPC ads are highly targeted. Recall from our discussion regarding the algorithms in the previous section that we don’t just want three sources of traffic; we want three targeted sources of traffic. This has to do with Amazon’s algorithms, as we’ll discover soon enough.
- PPC has the added benefit of being a transferable skill. I understand that you might want to become an author more than anything in the world, but there are no guarantees. Many skills relevant to fiction writing & eBook publishing are decidedly narrow and non-transferable, but PPC skills are applicable to many industries and most other internet businesses, too.
- (4) Paid newsletter promotions: easy to use, and solid ROI for the top 5 sites. A BookBub Featured Deal in particular can be very lucrative. Check out my curated list of top sites for more info.
- (5) Your choice from the remaining options.
Properly leveraging Amazon’s algos doesn’t demand additional time once you understand how they work, and building your mailing list is a separate beast that gets its own section in this guide. They are separate from our three core traffic sources. Thus, we’ve taken up only two of our three traffic slots. I recommend PPC and paid newsletter sites for 99% of fiction writers, assuming you can invest at least a few hundred dollars a month in your business. If not, replace them with free alternatives or scale back to what you can afford.
Why do I like paid traffic? Simple: it’s controllable, on demand and quickly scalable. Facebook will always accept your dollars. Even if you have a great relationship with another author, they might not mention your new book to their fans. And there’s no way of forcing them to do so. Let me repeat: Facebook will always take your dollars – even if you’re starting out and don’t know a soul in this game. You can learn the fundamentals of Facebook Ads in a couple weeks and fire up a $100/day budget, thus reaching thousands of highly targeted potential readers a day. Relationships, by contrast, take months, if not years to build.
To be clear, PPC doesn’t work for every book or author, particularly if you write in a super-niche sub-genre. But it’s so powerful that you should give it a solid try before relegating it to the dust bin.
To fill out that third slot – and for alternatives to PPC and promo sites, should those not be a fit for your books – here’s a more in-depth rundown of the other options from our traffic sources list.
The idea behind promotional sites is simple: the site gathers reader emails (or social media fans) from people interested in hearing about discounted eBooks. You pay the site to advertise your book to their list of readers in your genre (say, mystery or fantasy). Running an ad with a promo site requires your book to be discounted to $0.99 or free (some sites offer the option to advertise a $1.99/$2.99, but this isn’t recommended; the readers who sign up for these newsletters do so to receive deals on deeply discounted books).
Examples include BookBub, Robin Reads, and Booksends. There are dozens of promo sites. Most of them aren’t worth your time to submit to, let alone the fee. A curated, consistently updated list of recommended sites is available here (nicholaserik.com/promo-sites).
As mentioned, promo sites have a remarkably simple learning curve: just fill out a form, pay the fee, and your book will be sent out to thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) of readers in your selected genre. But this comes with caveats: top performing promo sites are competitive. BookBub Featured Deals, while insanely powerful, are so competitive that they accept less than 20% of submissions (according to their official word on the matter; I’d say it’s more likely to be less than 10%). Some of the other top promo sites, while nowhere near as powerful as BookBub, are booked weeks or a couple months in advance. And, since indies have demonstrated extreme willingness to spend advertising dollars, a number of totally ineffective promo sites have cropped up that charge a ton of money and produce few sales in return.
Three things to keep in mind when evaluating promo sites:
- The total # of newsletter subscribers means very little. An unengaged list of 100,000 will sell far fewer books than an ultra-engaged, tightly genre list of 20,000.
- Social media #s are useless. Most of these likes/followers are unengaged.
- Few sites outside of BookBub will net you a positive return on the book being advertised alone. This is because it’s hard to sell enough copies at $0.99 (which only makes you $0.35 in royalties) to cover the ad cost. And, if you’re giving a book away for free, obviously you need additional titles in that series to make things profitable. Thus, you’ll need a series with strong sellthrough (readers purchasing Books 2, 3, 4 etc. after picking up Book 1) to generate positive revenue from most promo sites. If you don’t have a series (e.g. you write standalones), or your series has poor sellthrough, you’re better off not spending a bunch of money on advertising.
Pay-per-click is a vast, complicated topic that would be difficult to cover in a multiple part series, let alone a few paragraphs. Further, each platform changes frequently, so tips and tricks that are hot today will be useless tomorrow. PPC platforms function like a competitive marketplace, a la the stock market. Pricing inefficiencies and edges are smoothed out of the market as more participants become aware of them.
Currently, these are the big three PPC platforms that you’ll use:
- Facebook Ads
- Amazon Ads
- BookBub PPC (note: these ads are different than their famous “Featured Deals”; they appear at the bottom of the daily BookBub emails)
A sampling of the other platforms available:
- Google Ads
I wouldn’t bother with these; I’d focus on the big three. Goodreads also offers PPC advertising, but the general consensus is that it’s totally worthless and not worth your time to even experiment.
Turning a profit with PPC ads is hard; they are not a magic bullet. These platforms are still insanely valuable, but you must be careful. Only start with small amounts of money that you can afford to lose.
Three general principles that apply to all platforms:
- Test a lot. This is the “secret” to PPC: constantly test different ad objectives, different images, different ad copy, different audiences, different regions. When you’re testing, expect a maximum of 1 in 10 or 1 in 20 ads to be winners. Many will be terrible. With practice, you may be able to get this up to 1 in 5 (e.g. a 20% hit rate).
- When you find a winner, ride it for all its worth. The key to success is quickly eliminating your losers, so they don’t suck up a bunch of cash.
- Move fast. This applies to everything in marketing and publishing. The faster you can put up ads, test them, analyze the results, and then make the necessary adjustments, the faster you can improve. Too many authors get bogged down in analysis paralysis, endlessly deliberating about whether an ad, book concept, blurb, price etc. is the right choice. You need to get real-world feedback by testing, then make changes. Get things to 90% quality. I call this A- level. Sometimes you get an A; other times you get a B+. But quality never suffers dramatically, and your time investment to get to 90% is probably 10x – 100x faster than what it takes to try to reach perfection. Which doesn’t exist anyway.
And again, to reiterate: test, test, test. Most of your ads will not be successful. This isn’t an indication that you suck at PPC. It’s to be expected. Keep testing.
Since you’ll need to test constantly, which does cost money, I recommend that you only start with PPC if you have $250/mo you’re willing to spend as an educational endeavor. And, in the beginning, you won’t get that back – so make sure it’s money you can lose without any concern (re: not money you’re charging to your credit card or borrowing). However, I think this “risk” is worth it, since PPC offers you a nearly unlimited number of customers, and control over your own marketing destiny if you crack the code.
Merchandising, Networking, Content Marketing & Social Media
These all fall under a similar banner for two reasons: they’re free, and they all rely on relationships with other people. This means that they’re less within your direct control and often slower to grow than other avenues of promotion. This does not mean they cannot be effective. If you like interacting with people more than you like tweaking Facebook Ads, then these can be far more fruitful promotional avenues for you.
Merchandising is controlled by the retailers. Those hardcovers face out on the front table at the local Barnes & Noble? A prime example of merchandising: publishers pay a premium for that space. While prominent print placement is a pipe dream for indies, you can acquire similar front-of-the-store, highly visible merchandising space on retailers’ websites for your eBooks.
- Amazon: Amazon’s imprint books (e.g. 47 North/Montlake) often receive prominent merchandising. The most obvious example is their First Reads program, which allows Prime subscribers to borrow one of six books on offer that month. This almost always vaults all six of the books included into the Top 100 of the entire store (with some titles hitting the Top 10, and even #1). Almost all of Amazon’s 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 & Noble, Kobo & Apple Books: if you’re publishing to these retailers via the aggregator Draft2Digital, you can be considered for merchandising. Simply email Draft2Digital support and ask if there are any merchandising opportunities available for your titles. If you have a permafree and a series of books, you can usually get placement in a first in free promotion. One such promo on Apple Books pushed about 1,000 free copies of a title with a much, much higher sellthrough rate than a typical promotion site.
- How to: ask D2D what genres they’re currently looking to promote via merchandising. Outline your sales record, the books in your series and also what offers you might be open to. For example, Apple Books sometimes offers indies merchandising placement in exchange for an exclusive pre-order period.
- Alternatively, sell well enough to attract a rep’s attention on that specific retailer. If you’ve been exclusive to Amazon and have an impressive sales record, you can also approach a retailer to request a rep – and see what 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 offers a way to pool your resources for enhanced firepower. Examples include:
- Multi-author boxed sets: a group of authors (usually 10 – 20) each 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 set in the world of their existing series.
- Co-authors: a number of popular authors team up with co-authors to write new series volumes, spinoffs or entirely new IP. Typically only works once you’re successful (e.g. a great trad pub example is the immortal Clive Cussler); successful indie examples include Michael Anderle and Shayne Silvers.
- Collaborative series: a single pen name/series, with each book written by different authors. An example is the Veil Nights series by Rowan Casey.
- Newsletter/social media swaps: you and another author agree to promote your new releases to each others’ readers on certain dates. 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. Additionally, if you’re constantly sending your readers uncurated recommendations, this is a good way of burning out your organic list.
- 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. These can build your list rapidly, but they can also burn out your organic list by sharing them with dozens of other authors, so proceed with caution. A current list of cross promo opportunities can be found in the middle of the promo site page.
- Cover reveals & blog tours: often done together, but can be done in a number of ways. Can be coupled with an author interview, a swag giveaway (bookmarks/tote bags/post cards/signed paperbacks etc.) or an Amazon Gift Card/Kindle. Leveraging the relationships you’ve formed with other authors helps maximize the reach. Primarily used in romance, but cover reveals and blog tours are occasionally seen in other genres. You can pay an established company to organize a blog tour, or you can contact blog owners/fellow authors to organize one yourself.
- Making friends. Being a real human being and interacting with other authors in your genre can be hugely beneficial to your career. One single email blast from a top author in your genre (e.g. an “influencer”) can put your book on the map and change your life. However, trying to make friends solely for the purpose of exploiting their platform is sociopathic and ill-advised, as this behavior tends to be irritatingly transparent. Be helpful, do favors, read their books (if you’re a fan) and be a positive force. Don’t expect anything in return, because you often won’t get it – and if you do, the dividends probably won’t be seen for many years.
Content marketing is effective for building a non-fiction readership. In fact, it takes over #4 on the Top 5 list for non-fiction peeps, knocking off promo sites. I’ve built most of my non-fiction readership through content marketing, with minimal paid advertising. However, it’s important to mention that this audience does not cross over to my fiction. For fiction authors, activities like blogging, guest posting and podcasting (either your own, or appearing as a guest) are ineffective ways of finding new readers. These endeavors might be fun, but they’re also time consuming; your podcast that gets 50 downloads a month isn’t helping you unless you’re using it as a networking vehicle to make friends with folks in your sub-genre.
Technically website SEO (search engine optimization) is a form of organic marketing, but it’s so tightly knit with content marketing (in many cases) that I’ve placed it under the same umbrella. Website SEO is a waste of your precious time as a fiction author. Many successful authors don’t even have websites. Aside from that, your chance of appearing on the first page of Google for, say, “thriller novels,” is abysmally low.
We’re saving the best for last in social media.
To put it bluntly, I know little about social media, and use it rarely. 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. Many are fooled by the “free” price tag, failing to recognize that their time has value. But I would be remiss if I stated social media can’t be used effectively. It can.
But most authors would probably be better served dropping it almost entirely, save for the occasional post to their Facebook Page about their latest release. I’d also consider checking out BookBub; they’re building out their social platform into something that looks like a modernized Goodreads. You can recommend books to your followers extremely easily. This is a good way of connecting with your core audience (readers) without it becoming a huge time sink.
Assorted social media observations:
- Master one instead of being everywhere. There’s an obsesssion with signing up for every social media site in existence, then using none of them…or using them all poorly. Focus on one; Facebook is probably the best bet for most authors, because it’s gigantic, it’s not going away, and your readers are likely here. If you don’t like Facebook, then consider your other options; there are plenty to choose from.
- Each platform has its own flavor and rules. 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 a decidedly spammy feel, it’s simply ineffective. Each platform has different unwritten rules of audience engagement, as well as different ways of generating visibility (e.g. hashtags et al.). What’s important to Instagram junkies is not necessarily of interest to Twitter addicts. By crafting a generic message, you fail to leverage the unique features that will make you stand out amidst a maelstrom of content.
- A note on reach (and in general). Visibility rules change frequently. Facebook has systematically nerfed the organic reach of pages; now you must pay to “boost” posts if you’d like for more than a handful 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.
- 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 my newsletter. It’s more effective, and I completely control it.
This series is all about indie publishing, but many authors are also traditionally published (known as “hybrids”) 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.
- Publishing in industry magazines. Single page spreads in short story genre magazines like Analog cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. Getting your multi-page short story published, then, is like receiving thousands in free advertising – plus, you get paid. If the story ties into a series of yours, even better. Of course, the relative “sellthrough” will be low, as readers have to jump from your story to a computer to find 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. Keep in mind that quality publications like Analog are competitive, so it might take many submissions before you get accepted. This demands a lot of time for (likely) modest returns.
- 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. You can also submit directly to their imprints, but you need an agent. But having one of your titles republished by their imprints – or working on a new series for them – is a potentially career changing opportunity. Not only do Amazon’s imprints offer competitive contracts and royalty rates, they also have the ability to tap into Amazon’s best merchandising capabilities. Stuff like $2 Kindle Deals, prominent banners for new releases and First Reads. Most of that premium merchandising space is reserved for Amazon imprint books. Of course, 99% 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; landing a publishing contract with one of their imprints is nowhere close to a magic bullet. Still, if they come knocking, their offer is worth serious consideration, as it has major potential upside.
- Publishing via a traditional publisher. A common misconception is that Big 5 publishers do a lot of marketing for you. This is true – if you’re fortunate enough to get a big advance. The stories from midlist or first time authors are much more sobering, however. For these folks, the publisher generally throws the book out there, does a couple of vaguely marketing-related 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 have. 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.
While this is a complex subject, the general idea is this: if you’re pursuing a hybrid publishing route, you should still expect to do the bulk of your own marketing. Unless you get struck by lightning (a First Reads selection, for example), the spillover from your trad pub books to your indie backlist will likely be modest. In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I’ve never submitted a manuscript to either a trad publisher or an industry magazine, so this 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 the general process.
I’ve never been featured in traditional media, so I can’t tell you how to accomplish this particular feat, nor what to expect. Consider this information sourced from others, then. That being said, for an indie fiction author, this type of press generally has limited direct value for selling books, even if you get featured in a popular and well-respected venue like The New York Times.
Building up your media credentials, however, can have other perks. It can open doors if you’re a non-fiction author, and works great as proof on your site (you’ve surely seen “as featured in…” logos around the web). Such credentials are important in non-fiction, where a credit in, say, The Wall Street Journal can “verify” to potential readers/clients that you’re an authority in your field. However, these opportunities usually only come about when you have done something of note. It is far easier to receive media coverage once you’re selling well or have an interesting story to tell (e.g. Mark Dawson, Russell Blake or Hugh Howey) than if you’re just starting out. The NYT is not looking for a story on the upstart indie writer who is struggling to sell their book.
Further, it seems that the increase in sales one receives from traditional media coverage is relatively modest (perhaps even nonexistent). This is unsurprising, since someone has to read an article, go to their computer, remember your name and then finally click purchase. Or, if they hear you on the radio, they need to remember your name for the rest of their commute and then still be inclined to purchase your work upon finally rolling into the driveway.
Thus, I think it’s best to put accumulating media credits in the same bin as getting your “letters” (e.g. being a New York Times Bestseller) or getting a favorable review from, say, Publisher’s Weekly. Nice things to have in your back pocket, sure, but hiring a PR specialist or doing loads of gruntwork for years under the incorrect assumption that a high visibility media appearance will make your fiction career is a fantasy. Having hit the USA Today Bestseller list, I can attest that the returns have been vanishingly small (if they’ve produced any difference at all).
Indeed, 99.9% of the bestselling indie authors have zero traditional media credits, letters, or professional reviews of any kind. And those indies who have been featured did not build their platforms upon these appearances; these interviews came as a result of their wild success. It’s worth noting that traditional media tends to be somewhat condescending or dismissive of indie authors. This sentiment is shifting, but many journalists and their publications still remain stuck in a traditional publishing paradigm, where writing not validated by the gatekeepers is considered suspect. This makes sense, given that these outlets are gatekeepers themselves, and thus have a vested interest in protecting their turf. So even when you do score an appearance, you and your work might not be presented in a favorable light.
For all these reasons, I don’t recommend actively pursuing such coverage unless there’s a specific reason you need a media credit.
I haven’t been to a book signing or convention, so I can’t tell you what to expect. However, if you’re hoping for people to cross over and buy your eBook, remember that there are a lot of barriers to them doing so:
- They need to remember your name.
- They need to go to the Amazon website.
- They still need to be interested enough to do #1 & 2 three hours later, when they’re tired from walking around and have met 60 other authors.
Hand-selling paperbacks is limited by the number of copies you can bring with you – and how many you’re willing to print in advance.
If you’re a friendly person, these events can be fun – and a good opportunity to meet like-minded fans and authors. If you’re seeking a trad-pub deal, or want to network with authors in your genre, relevant conferences can help you 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 directly move many books.
Other than taking up a substantial chunk of time – perhaps an entire weekend – you’ll likely have to pay booth or attendance fees, in addition to travel and lodging expenses. Given printing costs (and transportation), it’s going to take a lot of hand-sold 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.
That about covers the traffic sources available to indie authors. In the interest of not making this guide a million words long – or overwhelming you with information – the points above trended toward the brief. If you pursue one of those avenues, you should expect to do additional research beyond the scope of this more general guide. But it’s nothing you can’t find on A) KBoards B) in a book C) with a Google search or D) a Facebook group.
Whatever three traffic sources you choose, remember these fundamentals:
- Understand how Amazon’s algorithms work. Simply put, Amazon’s recommendation engine is the most powerful book marketing force on the planet. It can amplify the impact of your traffic by 5x, 10x, even 50x. Learn how it works and how you can work with it, rather than fighting against it. Using the algorithms to your benefit is not one of your three traffic sources, as Amazon’s recommendations are only “ignited” by your outside efforts. If you missed Part 4, I covered the algorithms in depth; read more about them here.
- Don’t get hung up on granular classifications. 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.
- Track your ad spend (and perhaps your time). Know where your sales are coming from, and understand the cost (time and financial) of generating them. Tracking the time investment temporarily can be a good way of identifying time sucks. It’s not good enough that a traffic source generates sales. You need to weigh that against other potential sources and maximize your resources. Most of the sources we’ve covered will get you some sales. Hell, putting up a billboard will probably get you some sales. This doesn’t make it effective. Remember part three of the internet marketing formula: determine whether you’re making a profit. This will tell you where to double down and what to jettison.
- Not all traffic sources perform the same in every genre. Each book, series and genre performs differently. This is why you need to track your profits. PPC is awesome for many authors, but for many books it just doesn’t work. Period. If something sucks, even if it “should” work, first analyze if you’re making any obvious mistakes. If you’re using it right, but getting no results, cut it and try something new.
- Three damn traffic sources plus your newsletter. Did I accidentally copy and paste this again? No. I cannot emphasize this enough. If you’re unsuccessful, the first instinct is to add. Instead, do less, but invest more time and energy into mastering your chosen sources.
Even the lengthier traffic list at the beginning of this guide does not encompass everything you could possibly do. Swag (bookmarks, beach towels, postcards, tote bags, stickers), signed paperbacks, banner ads, King Sumo giveaways…you get the picture. Promotion is an endless topic.
It bears repeating: more is not better. It’s easy to succumb to shiny object syndrome, and chase each flavor of the month strategy that comes along.
Choosing is difficult for two reasons:
- 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.
- Gurus claim you have to be everywhere, taking “massive action.” Not multitasking somehow feels “lazy.” I assure you that focusing is the exact opposite: it is cognitively demanding and much more intense. You will get far more work done in a lesser amount of time, but it will be challenging. However, it will also be satisfying – not least of all because you will see results.
But while humans crave choice, too much also results in massive unhappiness. We are always concerned about missing out – and whether we made the best choice.
The panacea is narrowing your focus, and pretending that everything else doesn’t exist. Twitter, anthologies, conventions and trad-pubs are invisible to me. They are simply not even on my radar.
Cultivating this focused mindset requires an adjustment period. I’m going to keep stressing this, since it’s counter-intuitive: take things as slowly as necessary. If you only have five minutes – or can only concentrate on PPC ads for 5 minutes before wanting to scream – that’s fine. Start small and build up your focus/skills. By going slow, we actually go fast.
In that same spirit, don’t try to master all three traffic channels at once. I basically worked with promo sites alone for 3+ years before trying cross author promos, boxed sets and PPC ads. While I don’t recommend going that slowly, either, remember that you’re building a career and not merely gunning for a temporary windfall.
It’s okay to take two months to get something under your belt; after that, you’ll own the skill forever. Competence is empowering – far moreso than dabbling amidst a dozen options you don’t understand and can’t use effectively.
How Often Should I Promote?
Actively promoting your books is generally a hands-on affair that takes time away from writing and other activities. It also usually costs money. As such, you want to be selective and pick your shots to maximize the return and minimize the wasted time. Here are some general rules that I follow for my own titles. You can use them as a framework for your own promotional activities, although yours will likely differ based on your available titles, strategy, and core objective.
- Always promote during launch. Amazon’s algorithms favor new releases from the past 90 days and provide substantive visibility boosts to new titles. Any promo during a new release is thus dramatically amplified.
- Backlist. Optimally, you want a large enough backlist where you can always be advertising something. If you have six series, you can rotate through them as needed using a combination of the methods outlined below. You’ll find some series aren’t actively worth promoting. Others respond well, and should receive the bulk of your efforts.
- Autoresponder. We’ll touch on this in greater depth during Part 7, but you can set up your email autoresponder 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 or actively promoting. Never assume your fans are familiar with all of your books – this won’t be the case, especially if you’re prolific.
- BookBub Featured Deals. Submit whenever you’re eligible. If you get rejected, which will happen frequently, mark the calendar and submit as soon as you’re eligible again. These are worth taking whenever you can get them, which won’t be often. But they’re often lucrative when you do.
- Kindle Countdown Deals on backlist. For exclusive books in Kindle Unlimited, running Kindle Countdown Deals is a great way to get your backlist moving and also enjoy a nice page read tail (provided you get the books ranked high enough – I’d aim for at least the top 2k – 3k). This not only massively boosts your visibility if you push some advertising to the discounted books, but you also receive 70% royalties for each discounted sale with the KCD.
- Advertise the first three books for $0.99/ea or Book 1 free + Books 2 & 3 at $0.99.
- You can do the entire series at $0.99 (with Book 1 at $0.99 or free) to aggressively push sales and boost the visibility of the entire series.
- KCDs on backlist can also be combined with a launch, thus using the launch to boost your backlist and vice versa.
- You can use a combination of promo sites, PPC, and sources like your social media/newsletter to advertise the Kindle Countdown Deals.
- Promo sites: no more than once every 6 months on a given title. The more frequently you promote a book via promo sites, the lower bang for your promo dollar – e.g. using a promo site again has significantly diminishing returns (this applies to everything besides BookBub, where the results are often steady or drop only modestly for a second run). For most promo sites, a 2nd run with a service will often net 50% or less of the sales/downloads versus the 1st.
- Low to modest PPC ads can run daily on profitable series. These ads are usually 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 boost rank and thus gain visibility via Amazon’s charts/recommendations.
- Works best with a long series (e.g. 5+ books), as you’ll usually lose money on the sale of the first book/box.
- Depending on your genre (size and click costs) and the series length, you can potentially scale to higher spends. There’s no limit here, other than when the ads become unprofitable (or you run out of free cash).
- It’s important to reiterate that advertising your backlist via PPC is very difficult, and most series will not be remotely profitable. Don’t push this if the results aren’t there. You can lose a ton of money.
Free, Discounts & Permafree: What’s Best?
While we’ll discuss the mechanics of finding your optimal price in Part 6, discounting is a key ingredient in running successful promotions. While a lower price doesn’t automatically generate traffic to your page, it has two benefits:
- Lowers objections (and thus raises the conversion). 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.
- Opens up promotional opportunities. For example, promotional sites really only work with $0.99 or free books.
Downsides of lower prices include:
- 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.
- Lower review scores. Studies have shown that people rate cheaper or free items more harshly. At free or $0.99, you’ll get more people seeking to subconsciously confirm their suspicions: that this book is cheap because it’s crappy. This is a quirk of human psychology. You’ll also get people outside your target audience picking up the book merely because it’s cheap. These effects are most pronounced with free books.
- 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 baby algorthmic AI, 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.
- Lower organic visibility (permafrees). Permafree books don’t appear in the also-boughts at all, which is one of the major sources of organic visibility. Books that are free via a KDP run remain visible in the also-boughts while free.
When should you potentially use $0.99 or free?
- Launches. I’m not a fan of launching at $0.99; it devalues your brand and brings you only $0.35 a sale. It only makes sense if you’re in Kindle Unlimited, since you can make money on the page reads that come as a result of your book ranking higher. But this is a risky game that can backfire, leaving you with low profits. Genearlly, unless you’re trying to push a KU book into the Top 100 overall in the store during the launch, you’re better off launching at $2.99. You get the 70% royalty rate and you establish yourself as less of a commodity and more as a premium, unique long-term brand. Discounting earlier backlist books in the same series can be an effective way to employ discounting during a launch without devaluing your new release.
- Special promotions. If sales have been lagging, you can drop your price for a limited time and run some additional paid promotion, as outlined above.
- A “loss-leader” funnel starter. This can be effective with a longer series, and is generally recommended if you have 5+ books in a series. Just to be clear on that point: If you’re going to keep a book at $0.99 or free indefinitely (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. Generally speaking, if you’re in KU, $0.99 as a loss leader makes sense, because you can make some good money off page reads on that book if it’s ranked high enough. Permafree tends to work better than $0.99 for a wide book; free is basically frictionless, and maximizes the number of readers coming into your series.
It’s important to reiterate that your price does not generate visibility on its own. You still need to bring the traffic yourself, using the methods outlined above. But it’s easier to find this traffic and convert it into sales at a lower price.
Important Exception to the Three Sources Rule: Launch Synergy
During a launch, normal promotion rules go out the window. The more firepower you stack up, generally speaking, the better. There are limits to this firepower, of course, as you can incinerate skyscraper-high stacks of cash with incredible ease during an aggressive launch. Generally speaking, however, each promotional dollar spent during the initial launch window (the first 30 days of release) is worth more than normal. Thus, if you throw a little gasoline on the release fire, you can get a lot more bang for your marketing buck.
There are those who suggest that the launch doesn’t matter in the world of indie publishing. I strongly disagree. While Amazon’s algorithms can, and do, change at any time without warning, they currently reward new releases. Since you’re essentially playing with house money, there’s no reason not to use the launch window to your fullest advantage.
To that end, the three traffic sources concept can – and often does – go out the window during an aggressive launch. This is because of synergy: when your book is everywhere – promo sites, Facebook, your newsletter, other authors’ newsletters, FB Ads, BookBub Ads, Amazon Ads, and so forth – it gives the impression that it’s important. That it’s big. It also reminds people constantly that it’s available. They turn around and boom, there’s your book again. If they don’t buy the first time, it doesn’t matter; you’re hitting them from three other angles later in the week. Eventually, after seeing your book five, six, ten or even twenty times – over multiple venues – a reader’s brain goes I have to check this out.
There are three things to keep in mind here:
- Each advertising dollar is worth anywhere from 1.5x to 3x normal during the launch period. This is just a rule of thumb based on anecdotal observation, not based on data analysis. Being aggressive in the first 30 days is often more beneficial than spending that same amount a half year later, even if you have more books in the series available for sellthrough later on. Come out of the gate hard with Book 1, then be aggressive later, too. If you can only choose one, it’s usually best to storm out of the starting blocks, although like anything else, there are exceptions when you might want to hold back and make your big push during Book 2 or Book 3’s release instead of Book 1’s.
- You get 90 days of new release visibility from Amazon. However, this starts to decay at Day 30, when you’re no longer eligible for the Hot New Release chart. There is another drop-off at 60 days, before the final drop off in release visibility at 90 days. At that point, your title is “old” on Amazon, and receives no special visibility benefits. These are colloquially referred to as the 30/60/90 day cliffs. The cliffs have become more pronounced in recent years, particularly the 30 day cliff.
- It is much harder to get “sticky” than it used to be. Mentioned elsewhere, but bears repeating. After 30 days, Amazon cuts off a lot of its recommendations and new release juice. As such, relying on Amazon’s algorithms for visibility is not a long-term proposition. I’d assume this organic visibility/stickiness will get worse as time goes on and Amazon further expands its ads platform. After all, from a business standpoint, why would they dole out tons of free organic visibility that authors are willing to pay good money for?
Again, this type of blitz only works for small windows – 3 to 14 days, maximum. I prefer 5 – 7 days; this gives enough time to activate the Amazon algorithms, but it’s short enough where you can realistically sustain visibility (and your full attention). At 10+ days, things generally become far too expensive and stressful to manage. And it does not make sense to do a massive, all hands on deck blitz for a regular promo discount or steady backlist advertising that hums in the background – again, I would only break this three source rule during a launch. And it certainly doesn’t make sense for all new releases: you might not want to do an all-out launch blitz. It’s not necessary, or even recommended in most cases – although some launch promotion is wise (using those three traffic sources you’ve been honing), since the potential new release visibility boosts are substantial.
You might be worried, then, that you should “practice” for such a launch by spreading your current resources thin. This is unwise; while BookBub Ads and Amazon Ads differ, many of the core principles are the same. By mastering one, you have a headstart with the other. This is true of many of the sources mention in this guide: master one, and your skills quickly transfer to another platform should the need arise. Trying to juggle too many plates, however, never builds those core skills.
We’re back for Part 6: The Ultimate Guide to Book Packaging, 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 branding-related stuff.
But before we move forward, take a moment to do this section’s Action Steps to start promoting your books.
- There’s an almost unlimited number of ways to generate traffic (visibility) as an author.
- You should narrow your traffic options to three effective sources that mesh with your time, personality and capital constraints.
- Paid promotional newsletters like BookBub Featured Deals & Robin Reads and pay-per-click (PPC) ads like Facebook & Amazon Ads are both excellent sources of traffic since they’re directly controllable and available on demand. PPC also has the benefits of being scalable (you can spend $5 or $500/day) and highly targeted (e.g. you can target authors in your specific sub-genre). I recommend that 99% of authors use both, thus taking up the first two traffic slots. The third is up to you. A list of curated promo sites, with links, is available here.
- Certain books and genres will be better fits for different options; shotgun, then narrow according to your results.
- Tracking results is vital to knowing which traffic sources are moving the needle and which are expendable.
- Choose your three traffic sources and write them down. Be realistic about your time and budget constraints as well as your personal preferences. If you’re never going to post regularly on Facebook, don’t lie to yourself. Just pretend that Facebook doesn’t exist, rather than wondering what could have been.