Part 10: The Ultimate Guide to Optimization

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Welcome back for Part 10 of the Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing! In this section, we’ll be talking about small tweaks you can make to your website and books to increase sellthrough and organic newsletter subscribers. 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.

Right now, we’ll be talking about optimization. The essence of optimization is simple: find low to medium hanging fruit that you can apply across your backlist. Pay once, enjoy the benefits for years. This is a refreshing change of pace from active marketing. Ads require constant attention and maintenance. New books require new words.

Both of these are critical, but they demand hands-on time. Optimization shoulders some of that marketing load for us, saving our time and energy for more important things. Thus, to maximize our backlist, we want to find one-time simple tasks that pay big long-term dividends.

There are seven tweaks covered in the guide:

  • HOME PAGE: optimize this so more visitors subscribe to your newsletter.
  • DOUBLE OPT-IN: turn this off to stop losing 30%+ of your subscribers
  • AUTORESPONDER: every week, have an automated email introducing readers to another series in your backlist
  • UPSELL: make your thank you for subscribing page an upsell to the box set/Book 1 in the related series
  • FORMATTING: limit fancy formatting and images to keep file sizes down
  • FRONT MATTER: always include a link to your newsletter; increases subscribers 2x or more.
  • BACK MATTER: limit to two CTAs on same page as THE END (newsletter and next book); put any additional info into an afterword or about the author etc.

All told, these adjustments will take you 5 – 10 hours to implement (less if you don’t have a large backlist). But they could net you hundreds of sales and subscribers over the coming years.

A Note

We’ve covered most of these during the course of the guide. The reason for the repetition, then, is simple: These are items ones people tend to overlook or dismiss. Ironically, plenty of authors also complain that they don’t have time to do enough marketing. These things can carry part of the marketing load even when you aren’t actively pushing your books. They’re always working the background, 24/7, selling books passively.

None of these will take you from the Amazon cellar to bestseller status. But ignoring them in favor of shiny objects is ill-advised. Recall the principle of compounding from Part 1:

Compound interest applies to everything from money to newsletter subscribers to skill acquisition. Get 1% better per week; 1% per week compounded over 5 years is a 13x increase. Initial progress is modest—until you hit critical mass (an inflection point), which people mistakenly call “overnight success.”

Note that compounding assumes you’re iterating and putting in the time. Without making constant deposits into your skills account, so to speak, there will be nothing to build upon. You can make these deposits actively – by writing new books, running marketing campaigns, and so forth – or passively. The later involves getting your books and back matter to help you out in the background. Remember that we want to be building our platform brick-by-brick.

This is what these optimization tweaks are all about. As a simple example, let’s say these changes add 10 subscribers a month. That’s 100+ subscribers a year. That’s an extra 5 – 10 sales per launch, which bumps you up that much higher in the rankings. Which gets you more sales and more subscribers from the ensuing visibility, getting you to that inflection point that much faster.

Convinced? Cool. Let’s jump into the first tweak, which is to our website’s home page.

The Home “Landing” Page

A lot of people use aggressive pop-ups or other plugins to hound people to subscribe. Such methods can be effective when used correctly, but they also take time to set up and troubleshoot. You can get most of the benefits in a far less intrusive fashion by simply optimizing your home page.

How? Simple: make the newsletter sign up the first thing a visitor sees when they hit your site.

Here’s the home page of my D.N. Erikson site:

This is the first thing you see when you type in dnerikson.com into your browser. It takes up the entirety of the screen (on both mobile and desktop).

Getting a reader on my email list is my primary objective. That has more value than them browsing my backlist or checking out any of the pages. After they’ve subscribed, they can explore further if they wish. But most people who visit a site once never return.

That’s bad if we don’t capture their email address, since it means we’ve lost them forever.

Here, I’m advertising my lead magnet on the home page. The majority of your traffic hits your home page at some point, ergo this maximizes exposure to your sign-up offer. The layout is simple: We have the cover on the left, a tagline/sign-up button on the right. There’s only one core action to take, clearly drawing the visitor’s attention with a contrasting blue button.

If people are intrigued by the cover and offer, they click.

Nothing flashy. It’s not super aggressive. I don’t make it so you have to sign-up, nor do I disable the top navigational menu (you can do both of these). You can also scroll down. I’m fine if people come to my author site, browse, and then buy books instead of signing-up. It’s always important to recognize that fans come in different forms. In fact, I’m only on a few people’s email lists (less than 5). I don’t join them, even if I really like the artist. Not my thing, which might sound funny since I stress the importance newsletters throughout the guide.

But I don’t design my marketing materials for me. I design them for other people. That’s why I use my prime real estate for the highest value item: getting them on the email list.

If you don’t have an offer, you can just have the sign up form. It works the same way. Note that here, the reason I use a button is not for some fancy marketing trickery. You may have seen information that having a two-step opt-in process converts better (e.g. having them click a button, then seeing the form). In my experience, that hasn’t produced any improvement.

Instead, the reason I use the button is because my WordPress theme didn’t allow me to easily integrate the sign up form. Thus, they click the button and they’re taken to a page on my website with the form installed. An easy and effective workaround if you’re struggling to get the technical side to play nice.

One final note: you might consider getting people to check out your new release as your highest value action. That’s fine. The same principle applies: make sure it’s the first thing they see when they visit your site, and ensure that the area is devoid of distractions. And whatever you do, never use sliders on your home page. Click data indicates people don’t interact with them. They’re also glitchy when it comes to device compatibility.

Double Opt-In

Double opt-in is terrible from both an optimization and user experience perspective. Confirmation emails tend to get delayed or trapped in spam, wasting the reader’s time. This is not an endearing first impression. As such, 30%+ of people never click the confirmation link. People erroneously state that this filters out people who are uninterested or cuts down on spam complaints.

They are incorrect. There are people who will report the confirmation email for the list they just signed up for as spam. The only thing double opt-in does is kill your engagement and subscriber count.

The only reasons to enable double opt-in is if it’s legally required in your jurisdiction (unlikely) or you’re having a significant problem with spam subscribers. The latter, however, can be mitigated by including a check box or CAPTCHA on the sign up form itself.

The Weekly Autoresponder (The Netflix Strategy)

This is an easy one that most people skip for fear of “irritating” their subscribers or some other such nonsense. Yes, the people who purposely signed up to your list to hear more about your books will be annoyed when you tell them more about your books.

The real reason, of course, why authors refuse to set up autoresponders is simple: they’re afraid. I get it. I’ve been there; for the first three years, I don’t think I sent a single email to my list. I deleted my subscribers two or three times.

Being tentative did my career no favors. My sales reports from that time reflect this fact all too well.

An autoresponder that introduces your backlist to your readers is not an irritant. Instead, it’s a favor. You’re telling them about more books they might like.

Services like Netflix, Hulu, or HBO do the same thing. They have vast content libraries that can be overwhelming to navigate. To keep you engaged (and subscribed), these companies periodically highlight shows or movies that you might enjoy via curated emails. This happens more frequently than you might expect. Don’t believe me? Do a quick search for their name in your inbox. You’ll be shocked at the number of emails you receive.

Netflix sends me an email like this about new or backlist content every few days:

We can adapt this same idea to our own backlist by sending subscribers an automated email every week introducing a new series to them. All you have to do is schedule an autoresponder email every Friday (or a different day of the week) with a subject line like “looking for your next weekend read?” Want to do Wednesday instead? Try something like “Work sucks. This book doesn’t.” Obviously, you want to be on-brand: that irreverent tone might work for urban fantasy, but it’s not going to fly for sweet romance. Calibrate things to your readers.

Have an email every week this until you run out of series.

Don’t lump all the series in a single email. This can be tempting, but it’s overwhelming and counterproductive. Introduce one series at a time.

This strategy is an excellent, passive way to sell books without active promotion.  Never assume your fans are familiar with all of your books – this won’t be the case, especially if you’re prolific.

Upsell: Add an Upsell to Your Thank You Page

You’ll see the upsell thank you page referred to as a “tripwire” in eCommerce. The idea is simple: after someone signs up to your newsletter, you direct them to webpage with a relevant offer. In our case, this offer is simple: we can sell them one of our books or box sets.

When it comes to author websites, however, I’m generally not taken anywhere. Or the page just says “thanks for subscribing.” This is a missed opportunity. Turn that thank you page into an upsell. You can see an example at dnerikson.com/rc-box (a screenshot is also posted below). When a reader signs up to receive the Ruby Callaway novella Bone Realm, they’re sent to this page, where they can buy the entire series at the retailer of their choice.

Most people will ignore this, but you will pick up some extra sales as people sign up for your newsletter.

More importantly, you’re introducing the series and the box set to the reader. So even if they don’t purchase right away, you still make them aware that more books exist.

An important caveat here: you still need to include the “thank you” and tell them that their subscription is confirmed/their free book (if you’re offering one) will arrive shortly. Put that first. Otherwise people will be confused, and you will receive emails from folks asking their sign up went through. Remember: clarity trumps cleverness. Always spell things out.

Limit Images and Fancy Formatting

You probably know that KDP charges you a delivery fee on books that receive 70% royalties. What you may not have checked is how much this can impact your bottom line. Delivery fees are not static; they’re based on the book’s file size. So while it’s pretty much unavoidable to get charged $0.03 – $0.05 for a full-length novel, by limiting the number of images and any fancy formatting, we can greatly reduce the delivery fees and thus boost our take-home royalties with a few simple tweaks.

There are three things to keep in mind here:

  1. Any image you include is likely going to cost you an additional $0.01 – $0.02. If you’re embedding your book cover (or all the book covers, if it’s a box set), consider removing these for a quick win.
  2. Assess whether other images, like covers for your free novella, or images of your backlist, are pulling their weight. In theory, showing an attractive cover image of your free novella can increase the number of subscribers you generate. But each of those additional subscribers comes at an increased cost.
  3. Custom chapter breaks and headers take up less space, but add up because they’re repeated throughout the book. While there is an argument to be made in favor of branding (e.g. a distinct header will make your book look different than the hundreds of other titles using the same Vellum template), that’s impossible to quantify. I prefer to go with numbers I can quantify. As an another plus, you save on commissioning the custom graphics, which is results in additional savings.

It’s especially important to optimize your files if you plan on running Kindle Countdown Deals. These offer you a 70% royalty rate at $0.99 and $1.99. But you’re still charged your standard delivery fees. Thus, if you’re running a box set, having a number of unnecessary images like book covers inside can drop your effective royalty rate from about 55% (typically a large set, even without images, will cost $0.10 – $0.20 in delivery fees) to 40% or even below 35%. In which case you’d be better off not running the deal, since you’d make more money (at the 35% royalty rate, you’re not charged delivery fees).

In general, my rule of thumb is simple: unless the image is absolutely necessary, cut it out. If you have a map or image that’s vital to the story, don’t remove that. That’s idiocy. Everything else, however, should be likely removed.

Front Matter: Include a Newsletter Link

Always include a link to your newsletter in the front matter; it often increases subscribers 2x or more. This applies even if you have nothing to offer in exchange (e.g. “sign up to my newsletter for updates”). It will still help.

The reason is simple: readers consume your book in different ways. By placing the newsletter link in the front and back matter, you maximize the number of eyeballs on it. People who read your sample can also see the newsletter link, which means they might not immediately purchase your book – but they might sign up to get your free novella to try one of your complete works. This is also a win.

The approach? Just put the newsletter link on its own page in the front matter, like one of the three options below:

Keeping this link on its own page is crucial. I often see authors bury the link on their copyright or also by page, thus effectively making it so no one will ever see it. You want to give it a page unto itself, with a heading so that it appears in the table of contents. This way, readers browsing through the TOC will see “Get the Free Prequel Novella” or “Get [Book Title] for Free.” Make sure this heading clearly describes the offer.

From our previous discussion of file sizes and delivery fees, you’ll know that I recommend the text-based option over the images. However, if you do want to include an image, just make it the book cover. A graphic like the one in the center, while eye-catching, will cost you additional money to commission, and should you need to make any edits to the text, will require additional funds and time to adjust.

Finally, as a general rule, I try to limit my front matter. Just the copyright page (which can probably go to the back), the table of contents, and the newsletter link page. That makes it easier for readers to spot, which in turn increases the chance of them signing up.

Back Matter: Limit of Two CTAs

Fear drives a lot of bad marketing decisions. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the back matter, which is your book’s most valuable real estate. Someone just liked your book enough to finish it. That’s a big win. Now, instead of keeping that excitement going, what do most authors do?

They overwhelm them with thirty-six different links that make the person immediately put down their Kindle. Authors are deathly afraid of leaving anything out. What if the person who only likes Twitter doesn’t see a Twitter link? What about that Bookstagram reader who might blast their book out to ten thousand followers?

Meh.

You should be more afraid of freezing excited readers into inaction through sheer informational overload.

Here’s an example of stripped down back matter:

Put the upsell to Book 2 and the link to the newsletter on the same page as THE END. By placing these items right after THE END, instead of on a separate page (e.g. using a page break), you avoid triggering Amazon’s automated end-of-book pop-up. This pop-up appears on most devices, asking the reader to review the book and also presenting them with other titles they might be interested in. If your books are linked in the series, this will include the next title, but it can also include other books in the genre. These distractions will decrease sellthrough, which is why we want to direct the reader to focus on our most valuable actions (buying the next book or signing up to the newsletter) ourselves.

You’ll also notice that I include the actual link, and not just a hyperlink. This is important because web pages won’t display properly on certain devices (e.g. e-Ink Kindles). Thus, the reader will need to enter the link on their smartphone or computer. By including a URL that they can easily enter, you make it easy for these readers.

If you do include a hyperlink, make sure the CTA text is clear, a la TAP HERE TO GET [TITLE] BOOK 2 NOW. You’d think that including language like “Tap Here” would be superfluous, but such instructions do help. Never underestimate the power of absolute clarity.

You can see here that streamlining the back matter generated an increase in sellthrough of about 40% (this was for a permafree, hence the low sellthrough numbers).

Two notes: if you’re just starting out and need reviews, you might include a review request instead. If you do this, make sure you link directly to the Amazon review form. That will increase the number of reviews you get beyond just the standard request. Once you have ten reviews, however, I’d generally remove this request in favor of the newsletter and next book.

Finally, you’ll see here that I only have one CTA: a link to the next book (and a link to the box set). If you do strip things down to a single CTA, that item will naturally get more attention. Here I have sacrificed some mailing list sign-ups to encourage more sales. This was a calculated decision. In most instances, however, I’d make sure you have both links.

How to Run Your Own Optimization Tests

You might want to run your own optimization tests in the future. Here’s a list of things you can test:

  1. Front Matter
  2. Back Matter
  3. Autoresponder: length, email subject lines, emails included
  4. Price
  5. Covers
  6. Blurbs

And more. If you have control over a specific element, you can probably test it. You’re only limited by your imagination.

Here’s a basic framework on how to perform tests.

  1. PROCESS: A/B testing. This means we compare our data on version A (our control) and to a Version B to see which produces better results. Change a single element per test. We want to isolate a specific change. Thus, you might choose to change the back matter or the front matter – but you wouldn’t do both at once. If you want to change your cover, don’t change the blurb at the same time. When you change more than one thing, you can’t know which adjustment produced the impact.
  2. RECOMMENDED TIME FRAME: 30 days. Note that tests may take longer if you’re not selling many books. Two weeks is the lowest I’d go, since many items have second order effects—e.g. your price can increase the number of sales, but might decrease sellthrough, which will take longer to show up in your tracking.
  3. IMMEDIATE FEEDBACK: Occasionally you may see an immediate negative impact; in this case, it’s okay to change things back sooner and end the test. Be sure this isn’t related to an outside factor, however.
  4. TRACKING DATA: Tracking may involve daily tracking or simply comparing the stats to the original at the end of the test run.
  5. ANALYSIS: Compare final data of challenger to original (known as the “control” or “winner”), looking for big changes. When dealing with smaller amounts of data, small changes can just be regular variance or randomness. With large changes, there’s more of a chance that result is reliable.
  6. SAMPLE SIZE: The more data you have during that time frame (e.g. sales/visitors/subscribers—whatever is related to the item you’re testing), the more reliable your results will generally be. E.g. if you’re trying to assess the impact of changing the back matter on sellthrough, selling 500 copies of Book 1 during the 30 days test will give you a much better idea if the new back matter is better/worse than if you sell 5.
  7. CHOOSING A WINNER: If change is large in favor of the new version, make the switch. If the original wins, keep the control. If uncertain or the difference is small, stick with the control. You don’t want to go backward.

Here’s how you can set up a back matter test, for example:

  1. Calculate current sellthrough for the existing back matter during a recent 30 day period.
  2. Make the change to the new back matter, upload the new file, and mark the start and end dates on my calendar.
  3. Wait 30 days, then compare sellthrough data for that 30 day period to the original 30 day period.
  4. Determine the winner.
  5. Repeat with a new version of the back matter, or test something different.

I try to have one optimization test in the fire at all times. Many of them end up making no difference, but if you do find something that moves the needle, you can apply it across your entire catalog, thus enjoying a nice boost.

For tests where you’re not tracking daily, you can set up a calendar note, or use a service like Follow Up Then (followupthen.com) to drop a reminder that the test is ending.

What’s Next?

In Part 11: The Ultimate Guide to Launching, we’ll be putting many of the guide’s principles into a framework you can use to launch your next book.

Summary

  • Optimization is all about one-off time investments (e.g. low-hanging fruit) that produce long-term dividends
  • This passive marketing helps increase your sellthrough and organic newsletter subscribers, thus accelerating your rate of progress.
  • HOME PAGE: optimize this so more visitors subscribe to your newsletter.
  • DOUBLE OPT-IN: turn this off to stop losing 30%+ of your subscribers
  • AUTORESPONDER: every week, have an automated email introducing readers to another series in your backlist
  • UPSELL: make your thank you for subscribing page an upsell to the box set/Book 1 in the related series
  • FORMATTING: limit fancy formatting and images to keep file sizes down
  • FRONT MATTER: always include a link to your newsletter; increases subscribers 2x or more.
  • BACK MATTER: limit to two CTAs on same page as THE END (newsletter and next book); put any additional info into an afterword or about the author etc.

Action Exercise

  1. Take one item from the list and optimize it.