Ah, yes: bestseller-dom, that elusive stamp of approval from on-high that our books are, indeed, worthy. Jokes about validation aside, becoming a bestseller does open (small) doors, so it can be worth pursuing under the right circumstances. While the New York Times list is out of reach for all but the bestselling indies (those lucky enough not to be curated off, that is), USA Today’s list is very much in reach.
There were two reasons I did this: to use the USA Today Bestseller tag in my marketing materials, and also to make it clear that it’s a realistic goal for a solo mid-list author in 2018. Many authors know you can still readily hit Amazon’s Top 100 and the USA Today list. But if you believed those were hopeless endeavors without outside help, special wizardry, or, in rare (and unfortunate) cases, black hat techniques, good news: the following is an in-depth guide on how I hit the list, with an easy to follow strategy for replicating my run.
I won’t pretend to be the originator of this strategy; that credit goes to the many helpful threads on KBoards (C. Gockel’s + Post Run Analysis, Michael Ploof’s, Angela Quarles’s, and T.A. Grey’s). But instead of sifting through pages of forum posts, you can read this 3,000 word guide and have everything you need to maximize your chances of a successful run.
Before we start, let’s talk about why you should bother trying to hit the list at all.
First: Why Bother?
Given the lengths some authors have gone to get their letters, it’s easy to assume that becoming a USA Today Bestseller is some huge boon to your career. While the tag has certain benefits, if you’re taking a huge risk (either through shady means – which I do not recommend – or through a huge financial outlay, which I also do not recommend), then you’re unlikely to see a commensurate reward. Basically, here’s what you can expect:
- A slightly increased chance of getting BookBubs. Bestseller/award accolades generate more clicks from their readers, so if your book is in a tiebreaker with a non-bestseller, you’ll likely get the edge.
- Putting USA Today Bestseller on your PPC ads, blurbs, covers, and other marketing materials. This can slightly boost conversion, clicks, and interest.
That’s about it. We’re talking about minor increases here, not career-changing windfalls. But every boost helps, and once you get your letters once, you can use them for eternity. Thus, if the correct opportunity arises, and you have the funds to chase a spot on the list, it might be worth doing. If you’re spending a ton of money just for the validation, you’re doing this for the wrong reasons. It’s a marketing asset, pure and simple.
Requirements: What You Need to Know
First, the most important: variables like what books you’re going up against, how well your promos perform etc. are key, but out of your control. Publishing is a probabilities game. By having a good strategy, you increase the probability of a favorable outcome (in this case, hitting USA Today). But there is no surefire, silver bullet method of hitting a list. Which means, like anything else in publishing, even with a great plan, you can fail.
Good strategies yield favorable results over time. They never guarantee results, however.
These are the basic requirements to hit the list:
- USA Today counts sales from Monday to Sunday each week.
- Only sales in the US count.
- Pre-order sales prior to the week count toward the release week’s numbers (if you’re trying to hit the list with a new release).
- The number of sales you need to hit the list varies based on the time of year. Time of year is critical and, unfortunately, also out of your control. You generally need at least 5,000+ US sales to have a shot, but there have been instances of authors with far more not making it during competitive times of year.
- You must be wide (e.g. not exclusive to Amazon) and have one retailer other than Amazon report sales.
- You can hit the list with a single book, solo author boxed set, or multi-author boxed set.
- Your book must be priced $0.99 or higher to be eligible (e.g. no freebies).
- Other retailers (Barnes & Noble/Apple Books) do not require the commonly suggested 500+ sales to report. They report with as few as 150 – 200 (I don’t have an exact number). During this run, I thought that I needed 500+ sales on B & N and 250+ on Apple Books, which is what I aimed for. But this isn’t necessary, so you can save money by not running a bunch of expensive PPC ads to get those extra sales.
- The bestseller list is available on Wednesday, although the USA Today website seems to officially update until Thursday.
One other thing:
- Drop the price well before your BookBub to make sure it properly adjusts in all regions. I did it around 5 days before (I do this for all promos that are wide; while Amazon usually updates the price within 12 hours, other sites vary). Barnes & Noble doesn’t push updates through on weekends.
Okay, fairly straightforward, right? Let’s talk about what I did, then.
Details About My Run
- I advertised an urban fantasy boxed set – a complete trilogy and four side stories advertised as the “complete collection.” Normal price was $9.99, at which price it sold 2 – 4 copies a day.
- This is a single author set (e.g. everything is written by me).
- This collection was released on November 15, 2017 – approximately 2.5 months before the run.
- The collection had 15 Amazon reviews at the start of the week (4.9 average).
- The collection had never been on sale for $0.99.
- The first book (Lightning Blade) in the series was permafree.
- I was wide on all retailers. Amazon and Google Play were direct, B & N, Nook, and iBooks were through D2D.
- My BookBub was on Wednesday (Jan 31st), so I told them the deal would end February 4th (Sunday) – perfect for racking up tail sales on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
- My BookBub was in Fantasy. Urban Fantasy is often run in the Supernatural Suspense category, which is much smaller. This was a big help.
The Basic Strategy
If you’re familiar with promotion, then a USA Today run is just a much bigger promotion. It involves the following ingredients:
- BookBub: unless you have a huge audience, BookBub does 90% of the heavy lifting during a USA Today run. Authors have hit USA Today with a massive BookBub alone, although this is rare.
- A BookBub no later than Thursday is key, since the tail from the BookBub is crucial to generating sales. Middle or beginning of the week is best to max out the tail. I wouldn’t even try to hit the list if my BookBub was on Saturday or Sunday.
- Promo stacking: these provide sales and boost your Amazon rank going into the BookBub.
- PPC Ads: authors have made the list without using Facebook/BookBub PPC ads (AMS is less helpful for short-term boosts), but the extra firepower often puts you over the top.
- Platform: let your fans know about the deal. This works better if the set or book hasn’t been discounted heavily in the past.
- A popular genre: if you write in a super-niche sub-genre, you’re going to have a difficult time hitting the list, since your potential audience is smaller.
By the way, this is also a valid strategy for trying to get into the Top 1000/500: load up on PPC and promo sites over a short period and hope to catch Amazon’s attention with a book written in a popular genre. High risk in that case, since there’s no BookBub to blast you upward (and recoup some of the ROI), but also high potential reward.
Things I Didn’t Do That Would’ve Helped
- Cross promo: reaching out to authors you know, or doing newsletter swaps can be huge.
- Posting in communities: promo runs and USA Today quests are popular on places like KBoards, and the community often shares or buys a copy. This obviously only works if you’re actually a contributing member, rather than someone driving by to spam their book, which will result in the opposite effect (pitchforks and eye-rolls).
- Merchandising: You can also contact retailers like B & N, iBooks, or Kobo for merchandising opportunities. If you submit via D2D, you can contact their support and ask them about merchandising opportunities on the various retailers.
Note that all these things apply to promos and launches as well: you can ask D2D, for example, about merchandising opportunities for a new release.
I was accepted by BookBub on January 2nd, for Wednesday the 31st. That gave me four weeks to plan my run. Here’s what I did, logistically:
- Immediately submitted to all eligible promo sites. I hadn’t used any of them before for Ruby Callaway: The Complete Collection, since it had never been discounted to $0.99.
- Organized and uploaded all my Facebook ads beforehand. All I had to do was turn on the campaign on Monday the 29th.
- Organized my BookBub PPC creative beforehand. While I didn’t have these loaded before the 29th, I had winning ads from when I was promoting the boxed set for $4.99. It was just a matter of tweaking the copy slightly and uploading them. Easy.
This is all straightforward, but eased the pressure during the week. The most important thing is to get your book submitted to those promo sites, since the slots fill up quickly. You want to stack most of them to go off before the BookBub.
Because of this planning, I had to do nothing besides log my stats and monitor my Facebook/BookBub ads, which still took me an hour or two a day. I wasn’t scrambling (for a change), and it was remarkably stress-free. Getting all your ducks in a row well beforehand is highly recommended, albeit good advice I will no doubt ignore in the future.
What I Did
Much of my strategy revolved around Amazon’s algorithms, and the fact that they respond to a steadily increasing sales history. I was confident from past data that BookBub plus the other promo sites would provide the requisite 500+ sales on Barnes and Noble or 250+ on iBooks I was aiming for, both of which ended up happening. [Note: you only need 150 – 200 sales from another retailer, which I didn’t know at the time]. I focused on Amazon because it has the largest audience, and thus could provide the most potential sales.
To maximize the rank/algorithm boost from the BookBub on Day 3 (Wednesday), I wanted to get some sales on Days 1 & 2. The idea is to aim for a consistent upward trend, which you’ll be familiar with if you’ve read the Cracking the Amazon Algorithms, is this:
You’ll never get it to be a straight line, and it’s not the end of the world if Day 2’s sales are less than Day 1’s. You just want a steady sales history that’s trending upward. Amazon’s algorithms interpret this behavior as organic, and often provide your book with additional visibility. To that end, I stacked 16 sites – two days of heavy promos – beforehand to prime the algorithms going into the BookBub on Wednesday. All told, I booked a total of 20 sites other than BookBub:
The red highlight marks BookBub day.
A few important notes on this lineup:
- I went with the featured/premium options for many of these sites for some extra firepower. For regular promos (e.g. anything other than an all-out launch or a bestseller run) I’d stick with the vanilla options. They generally have more bang for the buck (e.g. a cheaper cost per sale or download).
- I didn’t purposely schedule additional promo sites on Wednesday with the BookBub; in fact, I would have preferred to run a heavy hitter like Robin Reads before.
- Unless you’re chasing rank/sales (e.g. for a launch or a USA Today run), I wouldn’t use half these sites. My recommended sites for normal promo stacks can be found here.
- The BookBub was $614; it ran about 40% of the promo site budget, but provided 80 – 90% of the sales. To maximize profit, you can leave almost all these sites off, pre-stack a few of the quality sites from the list above, and call it a day. If you start booking suboptimal sites in pursuit of sales/rank/bestseller lists, you generally sacrifice profit.
There wasn’t much special about this stack, other than one trick: advertising the permafree first in series (Lightning Blade) on FreeBooksy, and putting a link at the top of its Amazon description to the full set with a note it was $0.99. I only got about 750 free downloads that day, since Lightning Blade has been free multiple times already. But that helped, and if you haven’t advertised your permafree yet, this overflow from the free book to the discounted set can be a huge source of sales.
This promo stack, combined with the PPC spends outlined below, turned out well (the green highlighting means I sent that item out that day):
I came into the BookBub ranked #246 in the Amazon US store. Before we continue, it should be noted that chasing rank is usually a silly endeavor, and that rank doesn’t drive sales. The visibility boost from the bestseller charts isn’t all that wonderful. What’s going on beneath the hood, however, can skyrocket your book into the stratosphere. Rank is an indicator that you’re selling books (obviously), and gaining 700 spots – from 964 to 246 – in a day, despite similar sales #s (550 to 600), signals that I was starting to trigger Amazon’s algorithms.
What your goal really is, rather than rank, is to start appearing in also-boughts, Amazon’s recommendation emails, and the other myriad ways their automated merchandising might feature you. How your rank is behaving often gives you clues to how likely your book is to be graced with these other, much more powerful perks.
Anyway, the promo stack did its job – I hit #25 in the entire Amazon US store on BookBub day, which was my best mark ever. This was especially pleasing given how much more competitive the higher parts of the store are these days – with people spending 5-figures in a week to break the Top 100, it’s nice to know that you can reach lofty heights with a more modest (albeit still high-priced) promo. And, since the promo stack primed the algorithms, I could coast on the tail, instead of dumping huge amounts of money into PPC. In fact, I only had to spend around $100/day on PPC from Thursday to Sunday to hit my numbers, which was pleasantly surprising.
Notes on the data:
- Draft2Digital doesn’t split sales out by region. B & N only has a US store, now, so I could attribute all those sales to the US. But Kobo/iBooks have regional stores. Thus, I didn’t add them in the US total of 5,960. The actual US number is definitely higher as a result; how much higher, however, I cannot say.
- Facebook will be your primary PPC platform if you plan on spending a lot of money in a short period of time. While useful, neither AMS nor BB scale well.
- BookBub PPC ads are great for wide books, and not just during discounts/promos. BookBub clicks to other retailers (B & N, Kobo et al.) are cheaper than from Facebook Ads, provided your creative is on point. Facebook tends to be cheaper when you’re targeting Amazon buyers.
- I had some AMS ads running from prior to the run that I kept going. Nothing special. You can try to scale up your AMS spends, but that usually means bidding much higher ($0.50/click or more) than I’m comfortable doing. I was happy to let my $0.15/click ads keep running, and netted a few sales from those during the promo. They didn’t move the needle either way, though.
- The mailing list was a huge help. Every person on my list has a free copy of the Ruby Callaway prequel novella (Bone Realm), which made a deal on the complete set appealing.
I won’t go into heavy details about the PPC; suffice to say, I’d already honed my audiences and ad creative prior to this run, so I had a bunch of things I knew worked. If you don’t, then it would be wise to spend the weeks going into your run testing ads at low cost ($15 – $25/day) to find images and copy that resonate with your target audience.
Even knowing what worked, I launched nine Facebook ads and killed five of them halfway through the week. PPC is very much about testing and monitoring the results. Failure is the norm with PPC. The key is to kill bad ads quickly, which keeps your spends low. You can see that I didn’t do that on Wednesday, and my CPC suffered ($0.30). That’s still within a tolerable range for me (more than $0.30 was my cutoff point), so not a huge deal.
- Newsletter: 12,448 subscribers (open rate about 30%; 2/3 gathered through Facebook, with 1/6 from giveaways/IF/cross promos, and 1/6 organic)
- Facebook: 2,000 likes
- Stats between first email and resend: 31.5% open rate with a 5.1% click rate
Key Stats in One Place
- Hit #101 on USA Today; #25 on Amazon US; #5 on Amazon CA; #57 on Amazon UK; #10 on Amazon AU; #12 on B&N
- Promo site expenses: $1575
- Promo sites used: 20 + BookBub
- PPC expenses: $821.22
- PPC clicks: 3804; CPC = $0.22
- Books sold (confirmed US): 5960
- Books sold (worldwide): 8172
- Total Expenses: $2396.22
- Revenue: $3154.29
- Profit: $758.07
And That’s a Wrap
All in all, I hit the list and made a profit. Would I do anything differently? No, other than emailing D2D to inquire about merchandising opportunities. This type of run would be a ton more lucrative if I had more books in the series, rather than just a trilogy, but I have seen some crossover sales to a trilogy set in the same world. Very little cross-selling to my recent urban fantasy series, despite being linked in the also-boughts.
If you’re surprised at how simple this is, then I’ve done my job. You don’t need to jump through hoops to hit the USA Today list. It’s totally doable on your own, with a well-executed plan. Basically, you get a BookBub in the middle or beginning of the week, build a nice promo stack before it to boost your rank and prime Amazon’s algorithms, and then add in PPC to fill out the sales numbers as needed. A good mailing list helps; mine probably contributed 500 sales, which can put you over the edge.
That’s it. Now go sell some books.