Welcome to the Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing, a complete step-by-step marketing system that gives you the tools to sell more books with less effort and time. It aims to be the most comprehensive book marketing resource in existence—better, even, than high-dollar paid courses.
I’ll let you be the final judge of whether I hit that mark.
Marketing is not an arcane art; it is a learnable skill based upon well-established, time-tested principles. But if you’re anything like I was a few years ago, you have a random collection of bookmarks, scribbled to-do lists, Excel sheets, and notes all pulling you in twenty different directions. Whether you’re an experienced author or just starting out, this guide cuts through pages of nonsense to focus on one thing: getting you results.
The marketing system detailed within is founded upon thousands of hours (and many dollars) of personal testing that spans 50+ titles, multiple pen names/clients, and a variety of genres. We’ll cover every essential piece of book marketing, from strategy to blurbs to newsletters, complete with action exercises so you can apply this info to your own books. These exercises are not busywork, but are specifically designed to help you implement the most important aspects of this guide. If you do them, by the end you’ll have created a marketing plan specifically designed for your books.
A final note: each part of this guide was written to stand alone. So you can either read it in order, or select which sections are most relevant to you.
Enough preamble. In this section, we’ll cover:
- Who I Am (And Why I Wrote This)
- Three Core Principles
- The Trifecta of Indie Success
A Brief But Important Note
Marketing is a skill.
Or, rather, a set of many sub-skills.
Much like writing itself, marketing demands time and experience to master. While this guide features step-by-step exercises designed to quickly sharpen your skills, do not be discouraged if your first marketing efforts yield less than spectacular results. Being disappointed by this would be akin to going to the gym once and then lamenting that you weren’t immediately in immaculate shape. That’s not how anything challenging works, and while legions of super-long internet sales pages might suggest the book business is exempt from this rule, allow me to dissuade you of that notion before we travel any further. Accepting that this will be difficult will free you from the tyranny of unrealistic expectations and might stop you from quitting too early.
This is a long game (five, ten, twenty years). Plan accordingly.
But much like any other area, if you’re patient and put in the time, you will improve.
So let’s get started, shall we?
A Little About Me (And Why I Wrote This)
This guide isn’t about me; while it draws heavily upon my experiences, I’ll spare you the anecdotes and focus on the data. That’s because this is all about getting you results. But you might be wondering why you should invest multiple hours reading a very lengthy guide that you perhaps stumbled upon at random. So here are the basic broad strokes of who I am:
- I’m a sci-fi and fantasy author who’s written 20+ novels.
- My micro press has sold 100,000+ books and published 50+ titles.
- I’ve hit the USA Today Bestseller list.
- I’ve spent $100k+ of my own money refining these principles.
- I’ve consulted and/or run marketing campaigns for multiple 6-figure authors.
- I’ve worked in a variety of genres, including crime/mystery/thriller, romance, action adventure, horror, fantasy, and sci-fi.
- I’ve personally tested and implemented almost everything in this guide (in the rare instances where I mention something I haven’t tried, I try to note this)
As for the why: writing this guide has helped me structure my own marketing ideas and strategies into a usable format. If I can’t explain something, it means I don’t fully understand it— or it’s actually BS. And we all know far too well that BS spreads like wildfire. I’ve kindly omitted it from this guide.
I’ve torn down and rebuilt this guide multiple times since writing the initial version way back in 2017, with each iteration featuring new strategies, principles, and the latest marketing info. Each revision has helped me refine my principles and strategies.
In short, writing and rewriting this guide over the past three years has been an indispensable learning tool for me. It has helped me get significantly better at marketing. I hope you find it helpful as well.
And since learning more about me won’t help you get better at marketing, let’s switch gears and talk about the three core principles this guide is built upon.
Core Principle #1: The 80/20 Rule
I’m big on streamlining and simplifying everything to its absolute essentials. In this information-rich world, curation is 100x more valuable than information (which, thanks to the internet, is now essentially infinite). Amidst the noisiness of this spiraling complexity, it’s refreshing to know that, in any discipline, there are probably less than a dozen core principles that you must master to get results.
Often, it’s even less.
The 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, is the reason why. For the uninitiated, this rule states that 80% of your results come from just 20% of your actions. The numbers vary (e.g. 1% of your actions can produce 99% of the results). The key takeaway is this: a select few actions have a disproportionate impact on your outcomes. You cannot do everything, nor should you even try; most tasks are worthless. Small, marginally effective tactics are, in fact, liabilities, as they thieve time from high impact, ultra-valuable tasks.
Doing everything is not a recipe for overachieving; it is a recipe for ruin.
While the 80/20 rule may sound like a BS business term or productivity hack, the math behind it is fairly robust (economist Vilfredo Pareto first observed the principle in relation to land ownership in early 20th century Italy, where 20% of the population owned 80% of the land) and can accurately predict/model input-output relationships in a range of disciplines.
80/20 is what’s known as a power law. This means these core actions aren’t marginally better than their superfluous counterparts; they’re literally 100x or 1000x more potent.
Focus on the wrong things and you’ll get poor results. While hustling is a staple of entrepreneurial culture, hustling produces negative effects if the core 20% essential to progress is ignored in favor of garbage. One hour of work spent on these essentials obliterates 100 hours of “work” spent changing the fonts on your website.
At its heart, the 80/20 rule is really about identifying the fundamentals and leverage points in any discipline, then relentlessly working on them until you achieve your desired outcome. Focusing only on what matters allows you to simplify and streamline your entire schedule—saving you time and energy while massively increasing your results.
How do you identify the key 20%? A few sections from now, we’ll go over the three core areas (productivity, craft, and marketing) critical to your success. But within each area, identifying the core 20% is an exercise in trial and error. The truth is, it’s impossible to identify what matters and what doesn’t when you’re new to a discipline. You simply don’t have enough experience or skill to understand what truly matters (yet). BS, unfortunately, doesn’t announce itself as such; it is often packaged in plausible explanations and enticing case studies.
What you need to do, then, is use a technique I call shotgun, then narrow. To find out what works and what doesn’t, you need to consume multiple quality resources and then start putting promising ideas into practice as soon as possible (rather than sitting on vast quantities of notes). The last part is critical: most people devour information, get excited by the possibilities, then never execute. You either need to take action or eliminate it. To be clear, even with good resources at your disposal, there is a lot trial and error involved in identifying what works. Narrowing your focus too soon usually leads to focusing on the wrong things.
Try an array of techniques, then eliminate what doesn’t work or doesn’t make sense, and double down on what does. Then iterate and optimize to further improve those things that work the best.
When you find principles that work, you should always continue testing new ideas while iterating on your current process to find ways to improve. Don’t remain stagnant and assume your way is the best. The learning process should never stop. Because you either keep evolving, or your business dies.
For much more on the 80/20 rule, check out Perry Marshall’s excellent 80/20 Sales and Marketing. It is one of the Top 10 books (not just business books) I’ve ever read and is well worth your time.
Core Principle #2: Life is Dictated by Evolution
Success in indie publishing—and, presumably, life at large—is not about being the strongest, fittest, smartest, or quickest. Success is a product of being the best adapted to the current environment. That means life is dictated by your ability to evolve—that is, your willingness to try new, uncomfortable things. This business constantly changes. You can adapt, or you can die.
Evolution essentially boils down to continually asking yourself how do I get better?
This sounds all well and good, and perhaps fairly obvious in our fast-changing world. But this doesn’t answer the burning question at hand.
How does one evolve?
Devote 80% of your time and budget toward things you know work. Fundamentals. Proven ads. Strategies that reliably make money. Principles that haven’t changed for decades.
Devote 20% of your time to testing new ideas. This number can actually be anywhere from 5% – 20% (or even beyond 20%) of your resources, depending on how much risk you want to assume. These shouldn’t just be random ideas; they should be good ideas. Your best ideas. Why? Because even your hit rate on seemingly good ideas will be annoyingly low.
But the hits? They become part of your core 80%—improving your bread and butter tactics and strategies.
And if you don’t have anything that works yet? Flip the script: 20% to principles that you’re almost certain are true (according to successful people in the field), then 80% on testing.
Remember, shotgun and narrow. You evolve by testing new ideas and putting in the hours, honing your skills while slowly eliminating what doesn’t work. Persevere, but iterate. You can’t simply grind away at the exact same things for the next ten years. Best case scenario, you’ve found something that works, but will eventually change. Worst case scenario, you haven’t found anything that works, and you’re spinning your wheels in a mud pit.
Ultimately, evolving is a question of mindset. Once we find something that produces results, or assume a core belief as part of our identity, change becomes difficult. To adapt, we must have strong beliefs loosely held. That means having the confidence to double down on what’s working right now while still being able to pivot the instant the market renders our current strategies or tactics obsolete.
Core Principle #3: Compound Interest Rules the World
You’ve probably heard about compound interest.
But even those well-acquainted with its impressive effects often underestimate its jaw-dropping power.
Compound interest applies to everything from money to newsletter subscribers to skill acquisition. For example, if we get 5% better each month, compounded over 5 years that’s a more than 18x increase. Initial progress is modest—until you hit critical mass (an inflection point), which people mistakenly call “overnight success.”
Compounding is one of the reasons the 80/20 rule works mathematically—success tends to automatically consolidate. When an individual gains an edge over their competition, they gather more fans and receive more revenue. At the beginning, these advantages over the competition might be small; over time, however, these small deposits compound into massive differences between the most successful authors and the midlist hopefuls.
Note that compounding assumes you’re iterating and putting in the time, as outlined in the discussion on evolution above. If you’re not making constant deposits into your skills account, so to speak, there will be nothing to build upon.
It’s easy to quit long before you reach the inflection point. The initial burst of motivation and feel-good energy from changing your life or embarking upon something new quickly wears off. And after peaking much lower than you originally thought, things crash back to earth (the valley of despair). The situation might even appear worse than when you started: when you start exercising, investing time in your writing, or doing anything with a long-term payoff, you often end up seeing negative short-term results.
If you exercise, you’re sore. You can’t eat all the foods you want. And you see no discernible results for months. In the short-term, everything is negative.
Compounding demands time. Expect this to take five years.
This doesn’t mean waiting five years. It means putting in the time and effort into the core 20%.
The inflection point won’t announce itself. Suddenly, you’ll look at your sales charts, your productivity, your craft, and realize damn, I’ve elevated my game to a whole new level.
Compound growth is fractal. A fractal is something where the part is similar to the whole. That means the line you see on the right hand side, where everything goes vertical? If you zoom in, really, the same sequence will play out over a shorter time frame: you’ll plateau. Relinquish some of those gains you fought so dearly to acquire as you test new stuff to replace the shop-worn old ideas that can’t get you any further. And enter the valley of despair once more.
But once you’ve been through the process, you’ll understand that despair is fleeting. And you’ll be off to the races again. For the person who hasn’t experienced this cycle, however, you must keep pushing. Much like finishing a novel irrefutably proves to your brain that you can be a writer, pushing through the valley and meeting with success on the other side proves to your brain just how powerful compound interest can be.
The Trifecta of Indie Success (The Core 20%)
80/20 sounds great and all, until you realize that finding the essential 20% can be a harrowing odyssey in trial and error. I’m not going to pretend that you can completely avoid this process; trial and error is an absolutely crucial part of discovering what works for you (e.g. the core 20% within each of these three areas). I won’t leave you to discover the main areas on your own, though, which are productivity, craft, and marketing. These can be arranged in a handy pyramid:
We can add business principles such as money management and strategy as the soil upon which the pyramid rests. If your understanding of business is shaky, the rest of the structure will teeter.
Marketing is relatively simple if you regularly produce books that your target audience enjoys.
Marketing is remarkably difficult if you fail on the consistency or quality fronts. For those concerned about writing every day, consistency in this business is measured in years, not days or months. If you write four books a year, but it only takes 40 days to do so, that’s not better or worse than dividing that workload up over 365 days.
The main takeaway is you need to be publishing good books.
Yes, it’s possible to push a sub-par book up the charts via clever marketing. However, a long-term career is built on sellthrough—that is, readers purchasing and reading the next books in the series (or your backlist). If your books are bad, then they won’t buy the others. And if your backlist is nonexistent because your work habits are poor, then readers will have nothing else to purchase from you and be forced to move on to another author. Should you go long enough between releases, the fond memories of your book will likely fade from their consciousness altogether.
All three elements are vital to your success; none is more important than the other. And each of these elements act as a multiplier; they’re not additive. 10 + 10 + 10 doesn’t equal 30; 10 x 10 x 10 = 1000. You must be strong in all three areas to maximize your chances of success.
You will notice, however, that productivity is the foundation of the pyramid. That is not a mistake: without the ability to do the work, it’s impossible to improve your craft and deploy marketing campaigns.
Both productivity and craft are beyond the scope of this guide. However, if you have weaknesses in either area, it pays to shore them up—doing so will massively amplify the effectiveness of your marketing efforts. There are many approaches to applying the information in this guide, but the simplest is to do one marketing task per day OR dedicate up to one hour per day to marketing. That could be as simple as reading a chapter in this book, or as complex as setting up your first launch. For more, check out the Ultimate Guide to Productivity.
Managing Probabilities and Variance: Play Poker, Not Roulette
Many of us hold an inherent belief that skill should be rewarded. Over time, this is true. But even when you do everything at a high level, you can’t guarantee a win. In fact, you will still fail (or come up short of expectations) more often than you’d like.
This can feel shockingly unfair and uncomfortable in the moment.
One of the hardest things to come to terms with in self-publishing is variance. As that word likely suggests, that means results in this business are not constant; they vary. Even with a good process and marketing strategy, a book can still flop. And when we put a dollar into our marketing expecting two, but instead get zero, it can be a jarring experience.
Indie publishing is ultimately a probabilities game. By improving your skills in the core three areas—productivity, craft, and marketing—you can significantly raise the probability that each book you release will be successful. But that probability will never reach 100%.
Our brains aren’t great at intuitively grasping probability. They’re pattern recognition machines tuned to look for cause-and-effect. This is a basic hard-wired survival instinct: if Bob ate the red plant in the forest and died, we avoided eating red plants, too. This cause-and-effect relationship is later reinforced by society: we do good work, we receive a reward (grade, job, promotion, praise et al.).
Being able to identify these types of cause-and-effect relationships is a big reason why we’ve survived for thousands of years.
But complex systems don’t work like that. Yes, there are many books and articles promising explanations to massively problems. These are alluring precisely because we want answers to big questions. The problem?
Simple explanations to complex issues are almost always fiction.
Self-publishing—and marketing in particular—doesn’t follow set patterns that work all the time. Often what looks like a pattern is, in fact, noise. Or the cause of a marketing campaign’s success or failure can be totally opaque, offering no lessons at all. Or, most confusingly, it can be completely random: perhaps Amazon picked the book up for a deal we didn’t know about, or a popular author shared our title, thus blasting it into the ranking stratosphere.
Thus, even marketing campaigns designed using the same strategy and principles can produce wildly different outcomes. Because human behavior is hard to predict.
This leads some authors to oscillate to the other extreme: that skill hardly matters at all, and that self-publishing is all luck. That conclusion, however, would be incorrect.
Instead, this game is a combination of luck and skill akin to poker.
A pro level poker player will win more often than he loses against amateur players. That is because he has an edge—that is, his skills are higher, therefore his probability of winning is higher. But because of variance (e.g. the inherent randomness of the cards he’s dealt and the unpredictability of the people playing), it’s entirely possible for a novice to beat the best player in the world at a hand. It’s even possible (though not likely) for them to win an entire game.
This is much like someone’s first novel becoming a lightning strike success with minimal marketing. These stories get a lot of ink and internet traffic precisely because they’re so uncommon. That can make this path seem like the norm (or even likely). It isn’t.
A counter-argument might be that such a method is not impossible. I wouldn’t disagree. You can, after all, also head over to the roulette wheel, bet it all on black, and emerge a wealthier individual. But this isn’t a strategy; it’s a wish. A losing wish, over time, given the probabilities.
And what people often ignore is that your career is not defined by a single temporary success, but successfully surviving (and thriving) long-term. $100,000 a month in royalties can turn into $1,000 as that surprise success is overtaken on the charts by next month’s breakout hit. The real measure of skill, then, is whether the percentages remain in your favor after playing thirty games of poker—or publishing your thirty-seventh novel.
That’s because only time—and playing enough hands—can smooth out variance and reveal our actual skill in games where variance is a factor. If we are truly skilled, we will come out ahead. If we are not, then we won’t. But we must play enough hands (e.g. publish enough books and do enough marketing) to find out. And the best part of this approach? With each progressive book and marketing campaign we create, we further tilt the odds in our favor by improving along the way.
We’ll dive into how to treat your writing like a business in Part 2: Business Fundamentals.
- The Indie Trifecta of Success: productivity, craft, marketing
- 3 Key Principles:
- 80/20: a few key actions have much more impact on your results than anything else
- Compound interest: it takes time to build momentum and hit critical mass; most of today’s work doesn’t truly pay off for months or years
- Evolution: shotgun and narrow (trial and error to find the core 20%, then iterate and optimize the core 20%) to adapt and evolve in a changing environment
- If you’re overwhelmed, implement one thing at a time. It’s far better to master a couple strategies and principles than be trash at 50 different things.
- Build your marketing and craft skills over time to increase your chances of success
- Block off space in your calendar to do one marketing task a day OR up to one hour of marketing each day.