Welcome back for Part 5 of the Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing! 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 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 marketing cycle. Remember, there are only three components of internet 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 sign-up for 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 get anyone to their book page. Fear not: it’s 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).
Part 5 covers:
- Basically every traffic source on the internet.
- The two most effective sources of traffic for indie authors.
And we’ll begin with an explanation of why you don’t need that many traffic sources to effectively market your book.
Traffic: Why Only Three Sources?
This guide’s core principle is the 80/20 rule. It’s always important to bear in mind that a few key actions are responsible for the majority of our results. Most of what we do doesn’t matter – or, worse, is outright holding us back from making progress. Indeed, a significant portion of our efforts actually move us backward. That is, if we simply cut certain activities out, our results would dramatically increase, even if we did nothing but use that time to watch Netflix.
By doing more, we often accomplish less – or even head backward. This is counter intuitive in an entrepreneurial culture that worships at the altar of #hustle, and it can be hard to accept that narrowing your focus will almost always improve your results.
Many elements of marketing are complex, and take time to implement and master. The number of things one can be truly great at is limited. The chances of producing excess value in 10 or 15 disparate areas of marketing is zero. 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 what you’re good at into areas that are liabilities is a losing proposition. Framed another way, as an old proverb: chase two rabbits, catch none.
Even if you are master of the marketing universe, you must choose among the best available options for a simple reason: time. This is a matter of opportunity cost; if you can make $10 in one area, but $2 in another, you are essentially costing yourself $8 by choosing to pursue the latter. Further, publishing becomes a war of attrition, where one must add the 5 latest traffic sources and 20+ hours to their weekly workload to keep up with the churn. This soon reaches an obvious breaking point due to the laws of time and space, but your sanity is far more likely to wave the white flag before you’re turning in 100+ hour work weeks.
It’s far better, then, to focus on being great in a few critical areas than terrible at many. 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). This parameter, instead, encourages accountability and analysis. Identify what actually works, and invest more resources into it.
Exception to the Rule: Launch Synergy
During a launch, normal promotion rules go out the window. The more firepower, generally speaking, the better. There are limits to this firepower, of course, as you can incinerate stacks of cash with amazing ease during an aggressive launch. Generally speaking, however, each promotional dollar spent during the launch window (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.
The reason is simple: Amazon wants as much new content as possible. They constantly want exciting things to offer their customers. This means that their bestseller lists and automated site recommendations are set to constantly churn. To ensure this, they provide visibility bonuses to recently released titles. This creates a ton of churn on their charts. This is good when you have a new release, but bad for your backlist, which often disappears in the froth.
There are three things I should reiterate:
- 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 almost always more beneficial than spending that same amount a half year later, even if you have more books in the series available for sell-through later on. Don’t “save up” for later: come out of the gate as hard as you can, then be aggressive later, too. If you can only choose one, storm out of the starting blocks.
- 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, then 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. As of late 2017, the cliffs have become more pronounced, 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 will get worse as time goes on and as Amazon further tweaks its AMS platform. Why should they dole out tons of organic visibility that authors are willing to pay good money for?
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 these benefits 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, FB Ads, BookBub Ads, AMS ads, and so forth – it gives the impression that it’s important. It also reminds people constantly that it’s available. Eventually, after seeing your book five, six, ten or even twenty times in the course of a week – over multiple venues – a reader’s brain goes I have to check this out.
Again, this type of blitz only works for small windows – 3 to 14 days, maximum. Otherwise, it becomes far too expensive and stressful to manage. And it does not make sense for a traditional discounted promo push or steady advertising that hums in the background – again, I would only break this 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 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 PPC ads and AMS ads have some differences, many of the core principles are the same. This is the same with many of the sources below: master one, and your skills quickly transfer to another platform should the need arise. Trying to juggle too many plates only slows your progress and diminishes your skills.
Here’s a basic overview of traffic sources, in no particular order. We’ll assess these options down below. But you can see, right off the bat, 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 of these 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 AMS, Facebook Ads, BookBub CPM, Google AdWords, Twitter Ads, YouTube, Goodreads, Pinterest
- Merchandising: retailer “first in free” or “series starter” promotions – used extensively on iBooks; Kobo + Nook as well
- Networking: cross-author promos, author mailing list shares, multi-author boxed sets, cover reveals, blog toursc
- Content marketing: SEO, blogging, guest posting, podcasting
- Traditional publishing: publishing in industry mags (e.g. Analog), trad-pub contract
- 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, forums
- Your newsletter
Each one of these counts separately. Overwhelmed yet? See why we’re paring this list down to three traffic sources + 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 allot for 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. If we ever want to develop actual competence – and generate real visibility – we need to start narrowing our 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. Go wide before you go narrow. 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 plenty of 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 give us traffic.
We’re searching for the best sources of readers possible. This idea seems obvious, but it’s radical enough to make you 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. A few little old readers…
Cut the shit. We’re here to make money. Whatever your hang-ups about narrowing your focus, deal with them.
If you’ve read Part I, you should have at least a general understanding of your target audience. If not, then performing market research will help. Once you have an idea who that is, 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? Focus 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 at launches? 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 questions (otherwise known in science as “hypotheses”) – come up with ones 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 generate thousands of dollars in profit for Series B – even if they’re both by the same author, in the same 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, they’re a good starting point.
Calculating Net Series Income
In Part I, we discussed three key metrics: cash flow, net income and ROI. In Part II, income makes a return – but with a twist.
As a quick refresher, net income = money made – money spent.
Most indie authors calculate their revenue on a promotion based solely on the book being promoted. If the ads are on Book 1, they use the sales of Book 1 to determine the efficacy of their advertising dollars. But, as competition becomes fiercer, savvy marketers have started looking at the series numbers. And a long running series can amplify the effects of each marketing dollar significantly.
But to calculate the true effect of our promotions, we need to crunch another number: sell-through. In today’s marketplace, it is difficult to turn a profit on promo sites and PPC ads without having a series behind Book 1 or the box set you’re advertising. Gone are the days of breaking even on Book 1. Those basing their income on the initial sale are liable to terminate profitable campaigns. This also means it’s often not profitable to advertise until you have 3 or even 5 books out (however, there are other reasons to advertise, such as visibility and launch exposure, which we’ll discuss below). I’d expect this trend to spread to more genres in 2018, as advertising and click costs rise across the board (more authors/books being advertised = more competition for clicks, which means higher costs).
Sell-through: Book 2’s sales/Book 1’s sales. E.g. 35 copies of Book 2/60 copies of Book 1 = 58.3% sell-through.
Then we calculate Book 2’s sellthrough: Book 3’s sales/Book 2’s sales. E.g. 30 copies of Book 2/35 copies of Book 3 = 85.7% sell-through.
And so forth.
- Higher sell-through is better.
- Sell-through increases with later volumes, leveling off between 85 – 90%. This is because only fans will reach this far.
- Aim for 50%+ sell-through on full price sales; otherwise, Book 1 might have a problem. This will dip significantly if you price Book 1 at $0.99. If you give Book 1 away for free, expect sell-through to be around 1 – 3%, max.
Let’s calculate two income examples using the sample numbers: one with a three book series and a seven book series.
Three books: 60 copies of Book 1 * 2.70 + 35 copies of Book 2 * 2.70 + 30 copies of Book 2 * 2.70 = $337.50
Amount spent: $350
Net income: -$12.50
Seven books: (60 x $2.70) + (35 x $2.70) + (30 x $2.70) + 27 x 2.70 + 25 x 2.70 + 23 x 2.70 + 20 x 2.70 = $594
Amount spent = $350
Net income: +$244
This highlights two important things: one, it’s critical that readers actually read your books. This is where craft comes in. If you’re selling a ton of copies of Book 1, but have anemic sales on the backend, you’re in trouble. And two, longer series with high sell-through allow you to spend more on advertising Book 1. In example two, we lost a hefty amount advertising Book 1 ($162 – $350 = -$188), but made a healthy profit when the rest of the books were factored in.
With PPC (pay-per-click) in particular, it’s very hard to turn a profit on sales of Book 1 alone. Thus, the series sell-through calculations are of critical importance.
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 how retailers like iBooks operate.
- (3) PPC Ads: can be a money pit, and not effective unless you have $200+/mo that you’re willing to lose. Requires trial and error and constant monitoring, as winning ads eventually turn into losers. However, PPC offers unlimited traffic potential, since you can spend $5/day or $500. Perhaps most importantly, PPC ads are highly targeted. Recall 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 is useful in most industries and for all other internet businesses, too.
- (4) Paid newsletter promotions: easy to use, and solid ROI for the top 5 sites. A BookBub can be career changing (although that’s rare; it’s still lucrative, though). Check out my curated list of top sites, complete with direct links to the submission forms.
- (5) Your choice from the remaining options.
Properly leveraging Amazon’s algos doesn’t demand additional time once you learn how they function, and building your mailing list is a separate beast that gets its own place in the formula. 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 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 week and fire up a $100/day budget, thus reaching hundreds 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 try before relegating it to the dust bin.
To fill out that third slot – and for alternatives to PPC and promo sites – 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). You pay the site to advertise your book to their list. 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).
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 list of currently 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). But this comes with caveats: top performing promo sites are competitive, with some booked a couple months in advance. And, since indies have shown their willingness to spend advertising dollars, a number of ineffective sites have cropped up.
Three things to keep in mind:
- The total # of newsletter subscribers means very little. A list of 100,000 that has little engagement won’t sell any books.
- Social media #s are useless. If a site has 100,000 Facebook Likes, less than 6% of them will see any given post.
- Few sites outside of BookBub will net you a positive return on the book being advertised. This is because it’s hard to sell enough copies at $0.99 to cover the ad cost. And, if you’re giving a book away for free, obviously you need a backlist. Thus, you need a series with strong sell-through 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 sell-through, you’re usually better off not spending a bunch of money on advertising.
If a site isn’t on the list above, but it looks promising, do a search of KBoards (go to Google, then search KBoards: promo site name] or post. The authors there will chime in.
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. This is because PPC platforms function like a competitive marketplace, a la the stock market. Pricing inefficiencies and edges are smoothed out of the market as more and more participants become aware of them.
Currently, these platforms are the most promising for authors:
- Amazon AMS
- BookBub PPC (note: these ads are different than their famous “Featured Deals”)
Other platforms that might be of interest, but I haven’t used:
- Google Adwords
Goodreads also offers PPC advertising, but the general consensus is that it’s totally worthless and not worth your time to even experiment.
Over the years, PPC has become more and more competitive, which means turning a profit has become harder. These platforms are still insanely valuable, but you must be careful. A few general principles that apply to all platforms:
- Test a lot of ads. This is the “secret” to PPC: constantly test different ad objectives, different images, different ad copy, different audiences, different regions. When you find a winner, ride it for all its worth. If you have a 20% hit rate (that is, 1 out of every 5 ads is a winner), then you’re doing really well. The key to success is quickly eliminating your losers, so they don’t suck up a bunch of cash.
- One ad, one objective. Don’t try to get a mailing list sign-up, sale, social media followers, create buzz, and so forth all with one ad. You can have separate ads each with these objectives, but when an ad has more than one objective, this leads to confusion from the person seeing it, which results in inaction.
- Your audience targeting is the most important part of your ad.
- Target one audience per ad (e.g. fans of Stephen King). You can roll multiple audiences together when you know they work.
- Target audiences relevant to your genre/sub-genre. Tighter targeting to a smaller audience is preferable to shotgunning your book out to everyone.
- Your cost-per-click (or subscriber, if you’re trying to build a mailing list) will vary based on your targeting and genre, as you are competing against other advertisers. As such, PPC might not be viable in certain genres due to exorbitant costs.
- Costs vary widely based on the region you’re targeting. Try the Big 4: US, UK, Canada and Australia. Again, one region per ad.
- Costs vary widely based on the retailer you’re targeting. If you’re wide, test ads to each retailer individually.
- Start each ad with the minimum daily budget allowed by the platform ($1 – $5). Kill ads that don’t perform and use that extra ad money to double down on your winners; a losing ad at $1 doesn’t become a winner at $20. It just loses 20x as much.
- Even if you’re copying a winner that has scaled to $20, $30, or $40 a day, start the new ad with a reasonable budget. If you start too high, the PPC platform will often poorly optimize the new campaign, resulting in much higher click or subscriber costs
- Ads don’t scale perfectly; they get more expensive as you spend more. If you’re getting $0.20 clicks at a $5 daily spend, you should expect that to increase if you bump up your budget to $30/day. Thus, you want to scale slowly to find the sweet spot. Some ads only work at the minimum budget, particularly those aimed toward smaller audiences.
- Keep an eye on your ads. Check them daily.
- Most ads have a shelf-life of 1 – 3 weeks. Expect to constantly refresh them with new copy, images and audience targeting.
- You can pause winning ads when they start to stagnate, then turn them on again in a few months. No need to throw them out.
For mailing list ads:
- Offer them a free book in exchange for their email. Test different books.
- Direct the ad to a “squeeze page” (landing page) if you’re trying to get subscribers. This page doesn’t have other links, and has only one option: sign-up for the newsletter or leave.
- After the person signs up, direct them to a thank you page where you “upsell” the next book in the series. This helps recoup ad costs, and also introduces them to your paid work.
- Mailing list ads are not immediately profitable. You might see most of the returns a year, or perhaps even two years down the line, as readers make it through your autoresponder, read your book, and read your emails. If cash flow is an issue, these are not where you should start, as the immediate payoff is extremely low.
For sales ads:
- Your sales ad has one goal: get the person to click. It must grab someone’s attention and pique their curiosity enough to get this click.
- Without a series with high read-through, it’s difficult to turn a profit on PPC sales ads.
- Due to the way Amazon is set up – which is to churn heavily (e.g. reward new books with visibility) – and the level of competition for ads targeting the US store, it’s usually difficult to turn a profit when you’re using heavy spend PPC ads for backlist books on Amazon. Instead of huge daily budgets, keep your budgets low – $1, $2, $5 – and make sure you keep an eye on costs. Backlist ads for books that have been out longer than 90 days work much better at a slow drip than a massive, all-out spend.
- Direct the ad directly to your book page (e.g. on Amazon, iBooks, Barnes and Noble etc.) if you’re trying to get sales. Don’t send them to a page on your website with links to the retailers; you’ll lose 50% of people right away.
- Test different blurbs on your book page to increase the number of conversions and profitability of your ads.
- Boxed sets priced at $6.99+ can be profitable alone, if your Amazon page is well-optimized and your clicks are reasonably priced.
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 $200/mo you’re willing to spend. And, in the beginning, you might not get much of that back – so make sure it’s money you can lose. 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 predictable and often slower to grow than other avenues of promotion. This does not mean they cannot be fruitful. If you like interacting with people more than you like tweaking Facebook Ads to find the one winner out of twenty, then these can be far, far better 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. 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 Kindle First program – sent out as a newsletter to Prime subscribers – which instantly vaults all six of the books included into the Top 10 of the entire store. Almost all the 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 & iBooks: if you publish 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 iBooks pushed about 1,000 free copies of a title with a much, much higher sell-through 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, iBooks has given indies merchandising placement in exchange for an exclusive pre-order period.
- Alternatively, sell well enough to attract a rep’s attention. 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 type of 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 provides a way of pooling your resources for enhanced firepower. Examples include:
- Multi-author boxed sets: a number of authors, usually 10 – 12, 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 in their existing series.
- Co-authors: a number of popular authors either open up their universes via Kindle Worlds, or team up with co-authors to write new series volumes, spinoffs or entirely new series. 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, 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. 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.
- 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. Examples include Patty’s Promos, EB Brown’s Mega Mailing List Promo and Instafreebie Cross Promos. A current list can be found in the middle of the promo site page.
- Cover reveals & blog tours: often go together, but can be done in a number of ways. Often coupled with an interview or a giveaway for swag (bookmarks/tote bags/post cards/signed paperbacks etc.) or an Amazon Gift Card/Kindle. Frequently leverages the relationships you’ve formed with other authors to maximize the reach. Primarily a romance thing, but cover reveals and blog tours have been used in other genres. You can pay an established company like Xpresso Book Tours (note: I haven’t used their service) to organize a blog tour which will reveal your book cover + blurb to a wider audience. 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 a great boon to your career. One single email blast from a top author in your genre (e.g. what’s known in marketing as an “influencer”) can put you on the map and change your life. However, trying to make friends with people solely for the purpose of exploiting their platform is sociopathic and ill-advised. People can smell this behavior from a mile off, as it 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 might not get it – and if you do, it probably won’t be 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 newsletter promos. For example, the Self Publishing Podcast guys vaulted their first how-to book, Write. Publish. Repeat., into the Top 100 through their podcast’s reach, as well as extensive guest posting around launch time. However, it’s important to mention that their substantial podcast/non-fiction audience doesn’t cross over in huge numbers to their fiction. For fiction authors, activities like blogging, guest posting and podcasting (either your own, or appearing as a guest) are ineffective for garnering new readers. They might be fun, but they’re also time consuming; your podcast that gets 50 downloads a month isn’t helping you.
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 zero about social media; I don’t use it. 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 (to whit: 88% of marketers don’t see a return on their social media campaigns). Many are fooled by the “free” price tag, failing to recognize that their time has value. But I would be remiss if I claimed social media can’t be used effectively. Some idiots love to claim that social media users are only looking to interact, rather than buy—making sales messages inappropriate. The fact that Facebook sold $6.24 billion in ads in a single 2106 quarter suggests otherwise.
Assorted social media observations:
- Romance authors kill on Facebook. I dunno what the hell Facebook parties or takeovers are, but romance writers expertly leverage fellow authors’ audiences to get their books visible. If you’re a romance author, get on Facebook. It cracks your Top 5 without question.
- Each platform has its own flavor. 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 decidedly spammy undertones, it’s simply ineffective. Each platform has different unwritten rules of audience engagement, as well as different methods of generating visibility. What’s important to Instagram junkies is not necessarily important 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 want more than ~6% 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. It might behoove you to consider that while Twitter is valued at $13.62 billion as I write this, the company has never turned a profit.
- 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 a more effective traffic source that I completely own.
This series is all about indie publishing, but many authors are also traditionally published 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 main series, even better. Of course, the relative sell-through will be low, as readers have to jump from your story to a computer to check out 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. Of course, publications like Analog are competitive, so it might take many submissions before you get accepted. This takes 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. 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. You know those $2 Kindle Deals, banners for new books and Kindle First Books we talked about earlier? Most of that space is reserved for Amazon imprint books. Of course, most 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; it’s nowhere close to a magic bullet. Still, if they come knocking, their deal is worth serious consideration.
- Publishing via a traditional publisher. A misconception is that Big 5 publishers do a lot of marketing for you. This is true – if you’re lucky enough to get a big advance. The stories from mid-list or first time authors are much more sobering, however. For these folks, the publisher generally throws the book out there, does a couple of 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 get. 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.
This is a complex subject, but if you’re going the hybrid-publishing route, you should still expect to do the bulk of your own marketing. Unless you get hit by lightning (a Kindle First selection, for example), then the spillover from these outlets to your backlist will be modest.
In the interest of disclosure, I should say that I’ve never submitted a manuscript to either a trad publisher or an industry magazine, so that 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 what you can generally expect.
I’ve never been featured in traditional media, so I can’t tell you how to accomplish it or what to expect. Consider this information sourced from others, then. That being said, for an indie fiction author, it 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). Getting this media coverage in the first place, however, can be challenging. It is far easier once you’re selling or have an interesting story to tell (e.g. Mark Dawson, Russell Blake or Hugh Howey). 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 sales increase one receives from traditional media coverage is 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 you for the rest of their commute and then still be inclined to purchase your work upon finally rolling into the driveway.
There are perks, however, of being featured in traditional, well-respected media: credentials. This is 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; again, they are not looking to interview a fledgling self-help guru.
Thus, I think it’s best to put media credit 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. These are usually indicators that you’re selling books and a popular author, rather than a driver of that fact. 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 career is a fantasy.
Indeed, 99.9% of the bestselling indie authors have zero traditional media credits (or even 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.
In Person Events
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 connect you 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 sell 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-signed 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 or C) with a Google search.
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 against it. Using the algorithms to your benefit is not one of your three traffic sources, as the recommendations are only “ignited” by your outside efforts. If you missed Part 4, read that here.
- Don’t get hung up on granular classifications. Do cross author promos and author mailing list trades count as two separate items or one, since they’re similar? 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 (or your time). Know where your sales are coming from, and understand the cost (time and financial) of generating them. 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 your ROI. This will tell you what to double down on and what to jettison.
- Not all traffic sources perform the same in every genre. As we saw above, romance authors kill it on Facebook. Other genres? Hit or miss. YA/MG/children’s authors usually get terrible results from promotional sites. Regular genre authors do well, though. Each book, series and genre performs differently. This is why you need to track your ROI. PPC is awesome for many authors, but for some 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 your signature strengths.
How Often Should I Promote?
- Always promote during launch. Amazon’s algorithms favor new releases from the past 90 days; as such, they provide substantive visibility boosts to new titles. Any promo during a new release is dramatically amplified.
- For using promo sites w/ backlist titles, no more than once every 6 months. This depends on your ROI and available funds. You’ll find some books aren’t really worth actively promoting. Others respond well, and should receive the bulk of your efforts. The more you promote a book, the less return you get for your promo dollar – e.g. PPC ads dwindle in effectiveness, using a promo site for the 3rd time has diminishing returns and so forth. This is especially true for the smaller sites (e.g. everything besides BookBub), where a 2nd run with a service will often net 50% or less of the sales/downloads as the 1st.
- Optimally, you want a large enough backlist where you can always be advertising something. If you have six series, you can rotate them month-by-month through the promo sites.
- We’ll touch on this in greater depth during Part 4, but you can set up your email auto-responder 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/taking time to promo. Never assume your fans are familiar with all of your work – particularly if you’re a prolific author.
- Low spend ($5 – $10/day) PPC ads can run daily on profitable backlist titles. These are 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 gain visibility via Amazon’s charts/recommendations. Works best with a long series (e.g. 5+ books), as you might only break even (or even lose money) on the sale of the first book/box. Depending on your genre (size and click costs), you can scale lower spend PPC ads into higher ones. There’s no limit here, other than when the ads start becoming unprofitable (or you run out of free cash to spare).
Free, Discounts & Permafree: What’s Best?
While we’ll discuss the mechanics of finding your optimal price in Part 3, discounting is a key variable in visibility. While having a lower price doesn’t automatically generate traffic to your page, it has two benefits:
- Lowers objections. 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.
- 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 reviews. Studies have shown that people rate cheaper or free items more harshly. At free or $0.99, you’ll get a ton of 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 data mammoth, 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 also-boughts at all, which is one of the major sources of organic visibility. Books made free via a KDP run remain visible in the also-boughts while free.
When should you use $0.99 or free?
- Launches. You can launch a book for $0.99 or free to maximize your sales rank and visibility during the 90 day new release window. Additionally, you can discount earlier volumes (say Books 1 & 2) to generate additional visibility for a later release in a series.
- Special promotions. If sales have been lagging, you can drop your price for a limited time and run some additional paid promotion. I recommend only doing this every 3 – 6 months, as most promotional sites have significantly diminishing returns when overused.
- A “loss-leader” funnel starter. If you’re going to keep a book at $0.99 or free (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.
It’s important to reiterate that your price does not generate visibility on its own. You still need to bring the traffic yourself. But it’s easier to find this traffic and convert it at a lower price.
First, Go Slow
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 goes on and on.
All this becomes quickly overwhelming.
Complexity abounds in our modern world. To navigate this requires cutting through the clutter with a clarion focus. Even if you’re fortunate enough to have an assistant, you do not have enough time to do everything. Even if, in theory, there were 50 fantastic traffic sources available, you would still need to choose – otherwise they would all be worthless because your attention would be spread too thin.
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 three traffic channels at once. I 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.
We’re back for Part 4: 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 stuff.
But before we move forward, go ahead and do this section’s Action Steps to start promoting your books. Because information without implementation is useless.
- There’s an almost unlimited number of ways to generate 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 & Robin Reads and pay-per-click (PPC) ads like Facebook & Amazon AMS are both excellent sources of traffic since they’re controllable and available on demand. PPC also has the benefits of being scalable (you can spend $5 or $500/day) and highly targeted. I recommend that 99% of authors use both, thus taking up the first two traffic source slots. A list of curated promo sites, with links, is available here.
- Certain genres work better on certain platforms; romance authors, for example, kill it on Facebook.
- 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.
- Schedule a promo stack that properly leverages the organic visibility from Amazon’s charts + recommendation engine.
- Determine how many sales it will take to break into the Top 20 & Top 50 of your sub-genre. Use the rank chart in the Excel spreadsheet below as a rough guide; here are Amazon’s Kindle Bestseller Lists (nicholaserik.com/top100).
- Based on this, pick a rank target for either a new release book or a backlist book that hasn’t gotten any promo love. E.g. if book #20 in paranormal vampire romance is #550, your target rank is 550 – and your rank point target is 300 sales + borrows in a day.
- Schedule your three traffic sources over 3 – 10 days, stacking them in a way that will create a gradually increasing sales curve and allow you to hit your target rank. You can download the free rank calculator Excel sheet (nicholaserik.com/excel) to automatically do the math.
- Book the promo stack and record the results.