Marketing these days can feel like tackling a high-wire on a unicycle… while juggling chainsaws. And that’s for experienced authors. For those with lower budgets or fewer books, the challenge can seem like entering the World Ice-Sculpting Championships armed with a box of matches and an ice cube.
Because what you are aiming to do is this:
- Sell enough to rise in the Best Seller Lists and get seen by lots of new readers.
- Shift sufficient units over an extended period to jump up the Popularity List and get pushed en masse to Amazon customers via emails and on-site recommendations.
- Keep that higher level of sales consistent enough over at least four or five days – i.e. minimizing spikes and, especially, dips throughout – hoping to convince the Kindle Store algorithms that you are the real deal, whereupon they may take over and do the selling for you.
Errr, and this also:
- Exclusively target the right readers so that your conversion rates are decent and the bloodthirsty Amazon algorithms don’t take your book to the woodshed.
- Avoid having the wrong readers purchase, so your Also Boughts are in fine fettle and Amazon has a clear idea of who might like your book. If this get muddled, Amazon will start recommending you to all the wrong people, often a one-way ticket to the primordial ranking ooze.
At this point, you might be planning some quality time with a bottle of vodka.
Getting all this right is hard. Even wrapping your head around all the underlying concepts is not exactly natural for someone whose primary job is writing great stories and bringing characters to life, and desperately trying to maintain a relationship with their editor despite never knowing where to put a comma.
It’s not all bad news though. Aside from the huge rewards for getting all this right, you don’t actually need to get all this right. The prizes for near misses can be considerable too. And getting just some of this working will bring significant benefits. Also, you can take it step-by-step and bootstrap yourself into place, and layer on the complexity (and budget) as you learn.
But first you need to really understand what all that stuff means and how all the parts should interact.
This one aspect, at least, I can make straightforward for you. Read Amazon Decoded.
It’s free FFS – a 50-page book that will break down the Kindle Store and all the algorithms which power it, including that mysterious and important and goddamn lucrative recommendation engine. Oh, and it will tell you how to change your approach to marketing to take advantage of all that too.
There is a catch, of course, you have to sign up to my list. But you can grab the book and then unsubscribe which will ruffle nary a feather of my wonderful plumage. Just note that the real prize for signing up is access to a marketing newsletter which people are calling “free” and “weekly.” An endorsement if ever there was one.
But that’s only Step 1 in this market-slaying process. Once you page through that book, you will know how the Kindle Store works (and maybe a teeny bit about the other retailers, but they are much more of a black box and/or have less of the recommendation and algorithm-powered wotsits built in to their operation).
You will also know – or you will do after reading Amazon Decoded – what visibility marketing is, how you need to tweak your metadata to increase discoverability, how to greatly boost the power of your promotions, and stretch out that halo too for good measure.
Next you must put theory into practice, let the rubber hit the road, and put together a promotion. Yes, Step 1 was more of a proto-step, but one that will serve you for your entire career. At least until the robots take over completely and we spend our days reclining in nice, cozy vats of goo, plugged directly into Netflix.
Pre-Requisites to Self-Publishing Success
I’m also making some pretty major assumptions here, namely that you have:
- worked hard at the craft of writing;
- written a marketable book with great presentation which is appropriate to your genre;
- published – or are working on – a series of books and not just trying to flog one book or some unconnected standalones; and,
- implemented a basic reader-capturing apparatus: a website, a place to collect reader emails on that website, enticing end matter in all your books pointing to that place on your website, some kind of newsletter service like Mailchimp or Mailerlite to send those emails, and a pretty Facebook Page because everyone is still on Facebook despite the bad press.
If you don’t… fix all that stuff first before wasting money on ads.
The Case of the Secret Skeleton
Chart-topping, algorithm-tickling promos can be incredibly complex with lots of moving parts. You might see the champagne being popped on Twitter but might not know everything that had to be done to get to that point. It’s a lot more than just having lots of readers and publishing regularly and throwing money at the problem.
As well as promoting my own books, I’ve run giant campaigns for huge authors over the last couple of years, launching multiple books into the Top 100, running major backlist promotions that generated tens of thousands of sales during their foray into the charts, and million and millions of page reads, as well as multiple Kindle Unlimited awards. Some of these campaigns can generate extraordinary profits.
I don’t say that to brag – the respective authors most certainly did the hardest part by writing books which resonate so widely with readers, and I had quite the headstart in the marketing aspect by working with big-name authors with an existing audience and a large budget. Not quite barrel-fish shooting, but not starting from zero either.
I say this to show that these methods work. And so that I can explain something else: all these promotions, colossal ones right down to smaller pushes, usually have the same underlying skeleton.
- Drop your price.
- Advertise the discount.
- Jump up in the charts.
- Raise your price and make some (more) money on the way down.
You can advertise full price books, of course, it’s just much harder (with the exception of Amazon Ads, which I’ll get to in a moment).
And there are other ways to market books that don’t necessarily involve cutting prices, whether that’s content marketing (particularly for non-fictioneers), list-building and email marketing, or various forms of cross-promotion, among other things.
Price Promotion Springboard
That said, price promotions – and pushing those discounts with advertising – is the tentpole for most successful self-publishers, along with regular new releases, of course. Those promotions generally involve free or 99¢ books.
Before the “do you not VALUE books?” crowd get warmed up, let me say this: those cheap deals are used to pole-vault us into position to shift even more books at full price. A springboard, if you like. I don’t focus so much on prices anyway, these things are all tools to me. I prefer to look at monthly income. Running price promotions increases it greatly.
Free and cheap books don’t just make you more visible (and enticing) to new readers, they also generate sellthrough to full-priced books. A classic example is a free or cheap Book 1 hooking a reader, who then goes on to purchase Books 2 through 8.
If that’s devaluing books, I’ll do it every day of the week. And twice on Sundays.
This basic approach works very well, but sometimes you want to… juice it a little. So, let’s look at a few pared-back marketing plans, before turning to the various promo tools for executing those plans, and some resources to help you master them.
Let’s assume you have a three-book series normally priced at $2.99, $4.99, and $4.99 respectively. That’s a fairly typical and moderate pricing approach.
Let’s also assume that you are in Kindle Unlimited and have easy access to Countdowns and free runs (we’ll talk about some differences with wide authors in a moment).
A simple plan to launch that Book 3 might look like this:
Book 1 – 99¢ Countdown Deal.
Book 2 – $1.99 Countdown Deal.
Book 3 – $2.99 manual discount.
You can’t do a Countdown on that Book 3 for its launch so the price drop will have to be manual. It’s often worth doing for Kindle Unlimited authors though. Not always. This is definitely not a One True Way scenario. This is just one way you can do it.
A wide author often needs to be more conservative with pricing strategies, for example, as they don’t get the cream of page read income and miss out on that special 70% royalty rate that Countdowns give you on sub-$2.99 books. So, I might run it like this instead if I was wide.
Book 1 – 99c manual discount.
Book 2 – $2.99 manual discount.
Book 3 – $4.99 (no discount).
This will have less oomph, naturally, but you’ll be making more per sale on those later books and still have deals in the earlier ones to push with ads and so on. The immediate sellthrough will be less with those steps up in pricing, but this approach can still reap dividends.
Authors of either stripe can adapt this kind of approach and be more, or less, aggressive, depending on their current needs. For example, that Book 1 can go free temporarily. Or you can offer a temporary discount just to your mailing list for that Book 3. There are lots of options here.
Playing around with different approaches is a great way to learn the ropes. There’s always some kind of trade-off between pricing and royalties and the responsiveness of your ads too, but, with experience, you’ll begin to instinctively know which approach might best serve your needs.
Those are your discounts. Now you need to advertise them.
Book Advertising Toolbox
Obviously, the first thing you will reach for is your mailing list and social channels as those are free. These tools will likely be of little use to you starting out, as most of us don’t arrive into this world fully formed.
But even for those of us with large mailing lists and/or social platforms, they only get you so far. Plus these promotions are predominantly about finding new readers – particularly if your strategy centers around using deals on older books to help sell newer ones.
Which means you need to look at some form of book advertising to reach those fresh eyeballs.
There are lots of different places you can promote a free or cheap book. Your first port of call should invariably be what we call reader sites or deal sites or discount sites or promo sites (you would think we’d have this terminology nailed down after nine or ten years, but there you go…). In short, these are sites where readers can sign up to get notified of deals in various genres.
BookBub is the most famous, obviously, and is significantly larger than all the other sites combined with millions of genuine book buyers on its lists. There are no sure things in marketing, but a BookBub Featured Deal is the closest you’ll get. Authors typically report making the cost back in twenty-four hours or less, and then enjoying a significant increase in visibility and sellthrough and email sign-ups and reviews.
The only real issue with BookBub is getting a Featured Deal is very difficult, and doubly so for authors who are exclusive to Amazon. The cost can be a barrier to some also. It is considerable, especially for some categories. Newer/smaller ones are quite a bit cheaper, but still hard to get.
There are a whole host of smaller sites, though, usually charging significantly less. Authors still need to be careful here. There are innumerable sites which are overpriced, have no audience to speak of, or even those which are outright scams or use illicit means to promote your book which can put you in serious hot water with Amazon.
This list of promo sites is curated, regularly updated, and dependable. Some sites are better for freebies, others are better for 99¢ deals. A few of them won’t take new releases or have a minimum review count/average requirement, others are more open. You can check them all out there, where they are handily tiered for effectiveness also.
I think newer authors should restrict themselves to advertising on these promo sites first as this requires the least knowledge and experience, and these are often the cheapest clicks going anyway.Me, quoting me. Hey, I was the only person I could get at short notice.
Experienced authors, those with more books and knowledge and money will want to look at advertising options which scale a little better – there is a hard limit to what these sites can generate in terms of sales and downloads. To step up to the next level you will almost certainly need to grapple with at least one of Facebook, Amazon, or BookBub Ads.
There are lots of resources out there which will teach you about book advertising more generally and those platforms individually, with a huge variation in quality, it must be said. Those prices vary a lot too from free blog posts and cheap books, all the way up to courses which can cost four figures or more.
I should point out that the quality level often has little relationship with that price. I’ve seen terrible courses charging several hundred dollars and read wonderful blog posts which cost nothing. Scams proliferate too.
As with most things in our increasingly shady world, get a referral from someone you trust. And then double-check with someone else too. And then probably triple-check if we are talking about serious money because there is often affiliate cash being thrown around these days which can… skew opinions.
I taught myself these ad platforms, but that takes time and patience and money, of course. And there’s no need for you to make all the mistakes I did – I’m happy for you to learn from my singed eyebrows.
You are also in danger of making a lot more mistakes than I did, quite frankly, as I come from a marketing background and previously ran huge pay-per-click campaigns for big corporate clients in a previous life; I wasn’t coming at this cold.
Even with that professional background, I really struggled with some of this, so be careful. Tackle the platforms one at a time. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. You don’t need to master all of them. Being good at one way of reaching readers is often enough.
Make sure you understand the basic principles of online advertising and start small in terms of budgets. Don’t get drunk on the first flush of success either. If you are stepping up the spend, do it slowly or the wheels can come off quite spectacularly.
I’ve only covered these a little for my mailing list as this is the platform I’ve had most difficulty with. Amazon Ads is the most paradoxical platform. It’s the simplest to use, but the hardest to master. It’s the easiest place to get a modicum of sales going, but the most difficult to scale. It requires the least speciality knowledge to get things moving, but on the other hand you will end up grappling with some arcane algo-alchemy to really master it.
Ironically, I find Amazon Ads to be the best platform for advertising full price books. It’s also the best tool for nailing down the right Also Boughts on a new release – which is pretty crucial. The great problem with Amazon Ads that everyone runs into, aside from spiraling click costs which can reach a dollar or more on the bigger authors and books and keywords, is scaling.
Most people can get a baseline of sales going with a little practice. Almost everyone struggles to scale those ads to anything more meaningful except perhaps in a fleeting way. Although I’m interested in some recent changes Amazon has made which might help in that regard.
In terms of resources, I recommend this course from Reedsy Learning – Amazon Ads For Authors – which is free and will teach you the basics.
And for those of you on my mailing list: I’ll be covering those exciting new changes at Amazon Ads this Friday, as well as a new approach I’m testing. For those not on my list: sucks to be you!
I kid, I kid: you can sign up here. You’ll get a copy of Amazon Decoded too for your troubles, which should help increase the results from book advertising.
Nothing scales like Facebook, but it’s also the most complex platform, where you can lose the most money for the least return if you don’t know what you’re doing – which describes at least 90% of people using it, I’m guessing.
It took me ages to figure it out. And quite a bit of cash.
Part of the problem with talking about Facebook Ads is that everyone has quite a different experience. Some people are able to target by author and get good results that way. Certainly that’s the easiest way to use Facebook Ads. And those authors can’t understand why the rest of us struggle so much.
Author coverage is patchy though. In many genres targeting by author simply doesn’t work. People have to either target their niche more broadly, or get super creative in finding those readers. This makes Facebook Ads much more difficult to use – but absolutely not impossible.
Besides, over time you’ll be switching from mostly targeting by interests to – most likely – leaning more on your own custom audiences you develop over time. People who have engaged with your ads before, or who visited your website, or who commented on your page, or who watched a video you posted. The options are endless. Which makes learning Facebook very intimidating. It’s certainly not the first ad platform I’d recommend tackling.
It is the one with the most upside, so you should grasp that nettle at some point.
Advanced users should check out Jon Loomer’s site – he’s my go-to resource. He’s a general marketer rather than book-specific, so you often have to tailor some things, and straight up ignore other things, but advanced users should be able to do that instinctively.
For the rest of you, I’ve been slowly covering my Facebook method with my mailing list. You can get a taste of the approach here: this was the first episode, so it’s super basic, but you’ll get the idea. I think we’re up to about episode six or seven now and the last one was a really cool trick for cloning and mirroring your ads which multiplies your social proof like crazy and sends CTR through the roof. So, you can see that even though it starts basic, it ramps up pretty fast to some cool techniques.
We’re only about halfway through those episodes, by my reckoning, so you can still jump aboard. Plus, you can get access to old episodes by signing up to my mailing list.
My favorite book advertising platform right now, and probably the second easiest to use after Amazon Ads. And the easiest to master, without question. Certainly the most reliable once you have cracked it. And, these days, can scale to impressive levels too.
I have literally written the book on BookBub Ads. And I can use the definite article there without tooting my own horn because it is – I believe – the only book on BookBub Ads!
However, my penchant for luxury mustache balm won’t pay for itself, meaning I have the temerity to charge five whole dollars for this comprehensive guide to mastering the platform – which is called BookBub Ads Expert and is available from Amazon and all other retailers too – which may not suit those who are unsure about BookBub Ads and are still unswayed despite reading all these glowing reviews.
I have a solution.
I’ve launched a FREE course at Reedsy Learning – BookBub Ads For Authors – which covers the basics of the platform. It’s a nice format too: ten emails over ten days, each introducing a different aspect. They are bite-size and will take you just five minutes to read each morning.
Note: you can only take one Reedsy Learning class at a time. So if you have signed up for the Amazon Ads course already, finish that before signing up for this one.
Obviously, this course won’t be anywhere near as comprehensive as the book, and the whole point is to get you hooked and empty your wallet of that precious five dollars but you will get the basics for free, which is the best price I can rustle up without breaking the laws of physics. Which cannae be done.
Before I wrap up this monster post, I’ll point you to one last BookBub Ads resource because every writer knows you must tickle more than one sense: I did a podcast series with Chris Syme at the Smartypants Book Marketing podcast. We did three shows and really got into the weeds on BookBub Ads and you can listen to those – free – right here:
Go Forth And Multiply
Don’t get overwhelmed. Take things one at a time – otherwise you’ll go crazy. Properly getting your head around book advertising is a long-term project. There’s no need to rush anything.
If you want a recommended order, perhaps tackle things like this:
- Write a series in a popular genre.
- Assemble your reader-capturing apparatus (website, sign-up page, mailing list provider, end matter in your books, pretty Facebook Page).
- Start running basic price promotions, pushing the deals with recommended deal sites.
- Dabble a little with Amazon Ads until you get a baseline of sales going and then (invariably) run into issues scaling them.
- Switch your attention to BookBub Ads and go through the process outlined in my book/the Reedsy course. This will be a little time consuming but you only have to do it once and then your BookBub Ads will take up very little admin time.
- Start getting into Facebook Ads to further scale everything up.