The core of the Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing is a simple rule of thumb called The Ultimate Book Marketing Formula. This distills everything you need to focus on when it comes to selling books into a heuristic that fits on a single 4 x 6 note card. There are no secrets, of course; the true power, if there is any, of the formula lies in its simplicity. It’s 80/20 embodied: it focuses on the 20%—the 1%, really—of vital tasks that will produce 99% of the results in your indie career. If you focus on these areas and execute them well, you can make huge strides quickly.
Before we hop into the main formula, though, I have another, more general, formula to share that explains the basic framework of internet marketing. If you’ve found that selling books is a confusing, labyrinthine process, this should hopefully give you some clarity on how it works. It’s remarkably simple, but some marketing books massively overcomplicate things with arcane theories and buzzwords. We’ll cut through that and focus only on what matters (it’s just three things).
In this section, we’ll cover:
- The Internet Marketing Formula
- The Ultimate Book Marketing Formula
- A Marketing Flight Check
Let’s start with the Internet Marketing Formula – otherwise known as how to sell anything online.
The Internet Marketing Formula
This is a well-known formula that internet marketers use to sell everything from soap to shoes to online courses. Here, I’ve adapted the terminology specifically to books:
- TRAFFIC: directing the right potential readers to your book page via paid ads, your mailing list, social media, Amazon’s algorithms and so forth. Commonly referred to in the indie world as “generating visibility.” Often thought of as advertising, although there are multiple ways to generate free/semi-passive traffic, too. This would be handled by an organization’s marketing team.
- CONVERSION: convincing readers to buy your book with a stellar blurb and cover, competitive price, hook-filled first few pages and so forth. Later, you convert them into fans by directing them to the next book in the series from the back matter or offering them something of value to join your mailing list. This would be handled by an organization’s sales team.
- PROFIT: did you make money? Track your numbers to determine which traffic and conversion efforts have been effective. After analyzing the numbers, you have two options:
- If you made money, you repeat the process or, if you have additional marketing funds, you can slowly scale up your ad spend to grow your business.
- If you lost money, you typically need to troubleshoot one of the following problems:
- TRAFFIC: the advertising was too expensive or it was ineffective (e.g., you advertised to the wrong audience, or the promotional method didn’t work).
- CONVERSION: your cover or blurb are weak, or your price is too high. Or you sent the wrong traffic to your book—i.e., you advertised your gritty, serious, hyper-realistic thriller to readers who like snarky urban fantasy with talking animals.
- CRAFT: sellthrough (readers purchasing the next book in a series) is ultimately the lifeblood of your career. You can send a bunch of high quality, reasonably priced traffic to your Book 1 and get these people to buy with a great cover/blurb/price…but if the story doesn’t deliver, no one’s coming back for Book 2. At which point you’re DOA, because it’s very hard to make a profit promoting a single book.
That’s all marketing is: you need to direct targeted readers to your book’s page, and then you need to convince them to buy it; and you need to do these two things at a low enough cost to turn a profit. Then you double down on whatever makes you money and immediately stop or fix what doesn’t. Rinse, repeat in a cycle of trial and error and iteration and optimization.
Simple. Not easy.
Note that, as authors, we’re responsible for both marketing and sales which, in a big organization, are traditionally split between separate teams. The marketing team finds leads and prospects, which are then turned over to the sales team to “close.” These require different skillsets, which is why internet marketing can be tricky: you have to wear both hats. A third hat, too, if you consider that crunching the numbers is often the purview of the accounting or analytics department.
I refer to (and think of) all of these components simply as “marketing,” rather than separating them into their traditional silos. They’re symbiotic and interlocked to such a degree that it makes much more sense to think of them under one umbrella, rather than independent entities. Long-term, it’s a benefit that you’re forced to do them all, as this gives you much more insight into why readers buy. In the beginning, however, the sheer volume of information can certainly be overwhelming.
Wondering how this traffic-conversion-profit cycle applies to book marketing specifically? Let’s talk about The Ultimate Book Marketing Formula.
The Ultimate Book Marketing Formula
As discussed in Part 1, your career hinges on three core components which I call The Indie Trifecta of Success: productivity + craft + marketing. Your job as an indie author comes down to honing these three areas through repeated practice. When your skills in one of these areas is weak, achieving success becomes difficult to the point of de facto impossibility.
But this concept, while useful, isn’t an actionable strategy. What benchmarks should an author aim for when it comes to “marketing” or “productivity” to be successful?
And how do we integrate this trifecta of skills with other important items we’ve discussed, like The Internet Marketing Formula and creating a personalized strategy?
Enter the Ultimate Book Marketing Formula. This heuristic is the 80/20 rule in action—the key stuff that you must do, with zero padding. There are ten thousand more things you can do in this business. But if you consistently execute well in these six areas over 3 – 5 years, you’ll have a good shot at making it. How can that be, you say? This formula forces you to focus on keystone tasks—and, most critically, get them done. It is designed to maximize your odds of succeeding in a highly competitive business.
Ready? Here it is:
Or, put another way:
- Market research: researching what books are selling in your sub-genre—both consistently and what’s hot right now. Understanding the core tropes and audience expectations of your sub-genre. Finding the overlaps between what you can write long-term with the audience’s preferences. Then incorporating these into everything: the book, its cover/blurb, and advertising so that your target audience knows that your book is specifically for them with a single glance.
- Three targeted traffic sources: mastering three marketing channels that provide consistent visibility to your books instead of splitting focus and being mediocre at ten of them. You can use more; this isn’t a set number. The idea is to narrow your focus.
- Pro covers: using your market research to commission genre-specific, professionally designed covers that attract the right readers to your work at a one-second glance; branding your covers so that readers can easily tell they’re in the same series and by the same author.
- Great blurbs: writing an engaging blurb that convinces your target readers to buy.
- Newsletter: building your email list so that you have a direct way to contact fans about new releases, updates, and other writing-related items; keeping them engaged between projects so they remain interested in your upcoming books.
- Consistently publish 4 – 6 quality novels a year: releasing four full-length (50,000+ word) novels a year provides readers with a steady stream of new books; it helps keep you visible on stores like Amazon; over a period of 3 – 5 years, it also builds a substantial backlist. It’s possible to succeed with fewer than four annual releases in certain genres (i.e. epic fantasy and psychological thrillers), but it means your craft or marketing chops must be significantly better to compensate.
- Readers prefer full-length novels and will generally pay more for them than shorter works. Longer books also have a longer shelf life, which makes your backlist more effective.
- Writing in a series massively increases your chances of success. A certain percentage of readers who buy Book 1 will also pick up Books 2, 3 and so forth (known as “sellthrough” or “readthrough”). An author with a long series of books with high sellthrough can spend more on advertising and still be profitable versus an author who writes standalones/has poor readthrough. There are very few genres where you can write profitable standalones (psychological thrillers being one of the few).
- Amazon’s algorithms reward new releases, and readers like them as well. Consistent releases smooth out your earnings, making your cash flow more stable. Once you have good covers, good blurbs, and some effective traffic sources, your best marketing is a new, quality book.
You can hopefully see how there’s significant overlap between the three core skill areas (productivity, craft, marketing). Market research is a marketing skill, but it also requires a knowledge of structure, tropes, and other craft-related elements. Publishing 4 – 6 novels a year appears to be primarily a productivity-based skill, but it’s perhaps your most powerful marketing tool—and figuring out how to execute at this speed while maintaining quality is often a matter of refining your craft to a fine point.
Play with the variables in accordance to your personal strengths and weaknesses; some people are productivity monsters, writing 12+ books a year. They constantly tap into the massive boost Amazon grants new releases (covered in Part 4), instead of doing stuff like Facebook Ads. Other authors only release a couple times a year, but build a huge mailing list that reliably launches them into the Top 100. Which lever(s) you pull should be dictated by your strengths and overall strategy.
How Many Books Do I Need?
Please note that the most “controversial” part of the formula is the last piece: publishing 4 – 6 quality novels a year. This is not unusual advice, but it garners the most debate, so it deserves a little more examination. Publishing fast and in a series is not so much controversial as a sticking point where many authors balk and immediately say, there’s no way I can do that or I only like writing short standalone novellas. All that is perfectly fine, but focusing on what you want is a fundamental mindset error if you want to make a living writing fiction.
Being a novelist is primarily about focusing on what the reader wants and likes. You are providing them a service. When I go to a sandwich shop, the restaurant doesn’t decide to make me a turkey sub when I order ham and cheese, even if they think the former is much better. When it comes to books, this often means making concessions and compromises in what you like to deliver the product that readers like.
Of course, when it comes to writing standalones, or releasing a couple books a year, or even writing short stories/novellas, you’ll find exceptions who have been successful (often wildly so). People intent on writing standalones or shorts tend to focus on these cases to show that writing quicker/novels/in a series doesn’t matter.
While I won’t sit here and tell you that there is One True Way™, always remember that publishing is a probabilities game. This is already an incredibly difficult business; making it harder is generally not advisable. I am not making these suggestions because they are my personal preferences; in fact, I like writing standalones and my fiction tended to be shorter than novel-length at the beginning. Unfortunately, the market, in most genres, isn’t receptive to this; I’ve had to hone my skills accordingly. There were growing pains, but I can now comfortably write a solid 50k+ novel (which is still considered short by some readers) and maintain reader interest/a cohesive arc over a series.
You can argue whether this should be the case or not; debating the merits of series, fast releases, and the novel as a format is for another guide entirely. But releasing full-length novels consistently really is the most important part of the formula, and where most people stumble. Fight reader expectations at your own peril.
A final note of emphasis on the four novel threshold, since many authors get hung up on this. Do not give up if you can only publish, say, two or three books a year. It’s a (strong) recommendation, not a requirement; it’s also genre-dependent. Cranking out four 200k epic fantasy novels a year would be an insane pace and is not expected by that reader base. Putting out four 60k urban fantasy novels per year will probably see you get buried and forgotten in the ranks. The pace you must write at is largely dictated by the sub-genre’s expectations. Voracious readers want more content; if you’re a slower author and want to publish successfully in such sub-genres, then your books must be of a significantly higher craft level, and your marketing chops must be on point.
If you cannot meet your sub-genre’s demand, that is okay. The main principle behind the four – six novel recommendation is consistency. Whatever pace you write at, make sure the books are coming out regularly and on time. It’s very easy for two books a year to become one book every two years. That’s not tenable; meet your deadlines, and make sure you’re delivering content to your readers on a regular schedule. Realistically, however, I’d put two books a year as the minimum viable number to make a decent run at this indie author gig. Any fewer than that, and you’re essentially at the whims of variance, even if you’re an excellent writer and marketer.
Now that we’ve talked about the Ultimate Book Marketing Formula, let’s spend a moment to discuss why craft isn’t the only thing that matters.
I’m Going to Ignore Marketing and Just Write Good Books
Content is king, the old saying goes. Put out good work, and readers will notice. Marketing is only for subpar titles or those that couldn’t rise above the fray based on their artistic merits.
This is not true.
The formula doesn’t ignore the importance of writing good books. It’s critical to your long-term success—just not in the way most authors think. Unfortunately, “write good books” is a uselessly vague piece of advice, often proffered with a not-so-subtle undertone: if you’re not selling, your books are crap. This might be the case, but marketing shortcomings are far more common, especially among creative types. We’ve all encountered fantastic TV shows, movies and books that died from lack of exposure. And there are plenty wonderful stories, too, that are simply too niche to make much commercial impact.
Thus, writing good books is not a reader acquisition strategy. No one can tell if your book is good from the cover or blurb (or even the sample, which I strongly suspect most readers don’t read prior to purchasing). They assume they’ll enjoy it if your presentation hits the correct notes. But it is not until they are deep within the book some hours later that the final verdict is known. Thus, writing good books—particularly strong, satisfying endings—is a reader retention strategy.
Ultimately, all business is built on repeat business (which for us means readers who become fans). Without penning compelling books that your target audience LOVES to read, you will never have a career. But publishing a good book will do nothing by itself, either (with rare exceptions that I can assure you are not you), until you make it visible to the world through competent marketing.
Basic Flight Check: Things To Do Before We Begin
We’re about ready to jump into the book marketing. Before we do that, however, let’s make sure the groundwork is laid down. If you already have an Amazon Author Central account, Amazon Affiliate account, and your Amazon series pages all in order, you can skip this section. Rest assured: if you’re already a part-time or full-time author, there’s plenty of more advanced stuff coming.
You’ll want to make sure you have the following Amazon items squared away:
- Create an Amazon Author Central account. This is so you can claim all your books under your author profile (making it easy for readers to browse your backlist). It also allows you to have a bio, author photo, and link to your website. You do not need to enter a bio, picture, or website if you do not have one; many authors simply use their logo or their latest cover for their photo. You don’t have to sign up in all of the regions; just make one in the US (unless your books are super popular in another part of the world) and make sure you claim all your titles.
- Create an Amazon Affiliate account. While you can’t use Amazon Affiliate links in your newsletter, your actual books, or pay-per-click (PPC) ads (it’s against the affiliate TOS), you can use them on your website. Some promo sites will also allow you to use your affiliate code when you book a promotion. None of this will make you rich, but it can earn you a few hundred to a few thousand dollars extra a year (depending on how many books you sell) with zero additional effort. Much like the Author Central account, just create a US affiliate account—don’t worry about the other regions unless a huge portion of your fanbase is located there. I also wouldn’t bother signing up for affiliate programs on non-Amazon retailers unless you sell in huge numbers there.
- Link your Kindle, audio, and print editions. This is supposed to occur automatically, but sometimes the automated system drops the ball, leaving your book’s various formats floating around in isolation. If all your versions aren’t linked, login to your KDP account and contact support to link your books.
Finally, you want to make sure your books are linked in a series on Amazon and have a corresponding series page. Amazon often does this automatically, but the automated systems can sometimes fail to add your latest release to the page. They’re properly linked when you see this on your book’s page:
When you click on the series name—The Eden Hunter Trilogy, in this case—you land on what’s known as a series page, which, as its name would suggest, displays the entire series on one page:
Linking the books in a series serves four important functions:
- Amazon’s automated systems will market Books 2, 3, 4 and so forth more aggressively to readers who have bought the previous volumes, since the system knows the books are related. On many devices, an automatic pop-up will trigger at the end of the book with a direct purchase link to the next volume in the series. This increases sellthrough.
- It clearly indicates on the book’s Amazon page that it’s part of a series with multiple books, rather than forcing the reader to hunt through your website/all your books to find out.
- Readers can one-click buy the entire series from the series page.
- The series page has relatively few ads or distractions, which means directing paid advertising traffic can be very effective when you’re running discounts on multiple titles in the series.
Some romance authors choose to keep their series unlinked so that readers know each book stands alone. I believe you’re better off with the series linked, due to the factors above, but if you find that the numbers have dropped, you can always request for the books to be unlinked.
I won’t pretend doing these things is fun; if you’ve put them off, it’s probably because they’re boring. But spending a couple hours to tick off these administrative tasks will dramatically amplify the effectiveness of all your marketing efforts going forward.
Now that you have an overview of the key marketing principles that form the backbone of this guide, we’re ready to dive into marketing. The remainder of this guide will tackle the Ultimate Book Marketing Formula step-by-step, giving you clear instructions on how to approach each component. By the end, you’ll have designed a customized marketing strategy tailored to your strengths and weaknesses—and plenty of ways to actually sell more books, too.
We’ll start with Part 4: The Ultimate Guide to Market Research. Here, we’ll explore why product positioning and market research are the most important components of marketing. And why getting them wrong (or ignoring them completely) can doom your book before you write a single word.
- The Internet Marketing Formula: generate traffic to your Amazon book page (via paid ads, mailing list, PPC and so forth), convert potential readers into buyers by having compelling covers/blurbs; later, convert readers into fans by having a compelling mailing list offer, and then crunch the numbers to see if your efforts are profitable. Finally, double down on things that make you money (e.g. repeat the cycle again) and immediately stop stuff that doesn’t.
- The Ultimate Book Marketing Formula: market research + 3 targeted traffic sources + newsletter + great covers/blurbs + consistent new series novel releases of 50,000+ words (4+/year) = full time author
- A new release is the ultimate marketing strategy once you have the other four elements working. Until then, publishing a good, new book is not a reader acquisition strategy; it is a reader retention strategy. To acquire readers in the first place, you need to generate targeted traffic and have compelling packaging (covers/blurbs/price).
- You only need two things as a full-time author: a mailing list provider and your website. A personalized email address is recommended once you have a few thousand subscribers to increase deliverability of your emails.
- Other services can be useful, but it’s easy to rack up unnecessary charges. Save most of your money for covers, editing, and advertising.
- Make sure your Amazon Author Central account, Amazon Affiliate account, and your Amazon series pages are all in order.