Figuring out how to sell books in 2020 means grappling with a pair of imposing challenges: the multiplying complexity of book marketing and — speaking of things rising exponentially — the global pandemic, which has led to lockdowns, recessions, as well as no small amount of tragedy.
And I want to focus on that second challenge for a moment — before we dive into all the ways that you can get your books into readers’ hands — because there is something rather different about this year.
Writers are generally quite fortunate in that they can work from home and sell books online and, for the moment at least, the digital side of the publishing business looks less exposed than the physical end.
Indeed, retailers and distributors are reporting a boost in ebook sales, and freebies in particular seem especially popular. Anecdotal reports concur, and also seem to confirm that there has been a surge in new entrants to the ebook market — which makes sense when people are stuck at home or less inclined to go browsing in meatspace, for painfully obvious reasons.
It feels weird to use the word “opportunity” when so many people are sick or dying, or otherwise facing financial difficulties or mental health challenges. This is not an easy topic to discuss and it is important to be sensitive to people who are dealing with… a lot.
But I also want to reassure authors that the book economy hasn’t collapsed, readers need escapism more than ever, and there might well be some increased, errr, opportunity to rack up sales. And perhaps salt away some money for whatever is coming at us.
Books are somewhat recession-proof — certainly at the price self-publishers sell them at — but there’s no telling how this pandemic will play out, or how prolonged the economic downturn will be.
Or if publishing will face any other curve balls, like anti-trust hearings into tech giants (who increasingly run the book business) — something that would cause much more uncertainty for the digital end of publishing, flipping the script of disruption for once.
It’s also worth pointing out that the pandemic has led to many companies turtling up. One of the quickest and easiest things to cut from budgets is online advertising as that is one place you can stop the bleeding instantly, unlike disentangling yourself from employment contracts or building leases or supplier arrangements.
Digital marketing agencies noticed an immediate and pronounced drop in ad spend across the board in March — not just in the hardest hit sectors such as tourism and hospitality — something that has continued as big brands especially batten down the hatches.
And while we are watching a horde of pigs take to the sky here in terms of ad costs dropping for once, those same agencies report that online traffic is up, of course, along with clickthrough rates and conversion and engagement levels.
Drawing all of this together, there are more (digital) readers than ever before, lots of them are new entrants to the market — meaning they have new devices to fill and are beating the bushes for cheap content — the uptake on freebies is higher than normal, and it’s cheaper to advertise than usual. Spoiling this view, though, are those storm clouds on the horizon.
Pick whatever bones you like out of that, but all this clearly says to me that now is the time to be proactive rather than passive. Now is the time to be running free promotions (and price promotions), dangling enticing and exclusive freebies to get people onto your list, but also making sure your email game is on point so that you retain as many customers as possible throughout this period of uncertainty that could drag on quite a while.
At least that’s my take. When I saw all this unfolding earlier in the year, I decided to double down on email and be a little more price aggressive generally.
What does that mean in real terms? Across my fiction and non-fiction I rebuilt my funnels to make them frictionless. I also added some pretty valuable products and made them completely free to really boost sign-ups, and the effect has been pronounced.
In case anyone is hanging a question mark on this, let me stress that these are readers happy to pay for books too, judging by my last launch; the new sign-ups who came in through all these spruced up free funnels are looking very strong in terms of opens, clicks, and purchases.
You don’t necessarily need to be as aggressive as I have been. I’m making some big bets here. I built an entire course and made it free — something that took a considerable amount of time to put together. It also costs money to host a course, and all that time spent building it and recording videos could have been spent writing a book, I’m sure you are thinking.
So it’s a gamble, especially because I decided to give it away for free, when there was potentially significant income to be made from selling it too. But it’s a gamble which might well pay off quite handsomely as 3,500 authors enrolled in the first three weeks and it has significantly boosted my mailing list with very high quality sign-ups.
And being able to do something cool for people right now is a buzz. I’m not going to pretend my motives are 100% altruistic, but if there’s a way I can make something accessible to everyone and help a lot of people and help myself too, then I’m down.
All this mailing list growth has a real effect on the bottom line. My last release shifted over 3,000 copies in the first few days before I even rolled out my first ad, and the investment in email marketing and content marketing means I haven’t really pushed that hard with ads at all.
Ads get all the attention these days but there are many ways to reach readers. I love ads! They are a really important part of my toolkit. But there are all sorts of ways that you can run your author business; you have options if you don’t have the budget for ads, or if they don’t work for you (or your particular niche). Or if you just want to explore other paths to readers so you are less dependent on one means of reaching them.
Survey the landscape, explore all the options, and pick what works from you out of this list. Here’s what’s working to sell books in 2020.
*picks mic back up again*
How To Sell Books With Deal Sites
Call them deal sites, reader sites, ad sites, promo sites, it doesn’t matter. They’ve been around since before I started publishing in 2011 and have gotten slicker every year since.
Deal sites are sometimes overlooked by authors who go for the flashier ad platforms, but as anyone who has taken my free course Starting From Zero will know, I make deal sites the foundation of any price promotion or free promotion that I run — even those at huge scale with significant spends on Facebook and Bookbub.
The reason for that is simple: these are the cheapest clicks going and give you a great basis to build on for any launch or backlist promotion. Booking a hand-picked selection of deal sites is the very first thing I do when lining up all my pieces for a big launch or when I want to goose a backlist book, or move a whole series at once. We’ve seen some interesting innovations on that latter front recently.
I have a curated selection of recommended book promo sites, which is both kept up to date and broken down into various categories — freebies, discounts, series promos, genre specialists, and so on. I even have a list of the best sites for those on a restricted budget, as well as listing several sites which I only use for the biggest, most aggressive pushes. For best results, you really need to stack your promos. And if you want to learn how to do that, my course Starting From Zero will walk you through every step.
Of course, the biggest deal site of all is BookBub, where the Featured Deals promos can rack up more sales than all the other sites combined – many times over, in fact.
A BookBub Featured Deal is the closest we have to a sure thing in the book marketing world, generating thousands of sales and instant bestseller status and often quite a bit of profit too. However, getting picked can be a challenge — especially for less established authors (or those exclusive to Amazon, regardless of how many millions of books they sell).
Luckily, there’s another way to reach that audience.
Selling Books With BookBub Ads
I think BookBub Ads deserve a little more love than they get from authors. It’s my favorite advertising platform, and the very best one for wide authors as no one else can reach those small pockets of non-Amazon readers scattered around the world with such ease, and those little income streams are crucial for wide authors eschewing the mighty… I’m not going to do it. The pun is right there, I can almost taste it, but I’m not going to do it.
Anyway, the unparalleled responsiveness of the platform also make it the very best choice for Kindle Unlimited authors looking to really blow a Countdown promo out of the water, in my opinion. I definitely don’t buy into the idea that BookBub Ads don’t work for Amazon-exclusive authors! That’s crazy talk.
I’ve run giant campaigns generating millions and million of page reads and garnering multiple All-Star awards where BookBub Ads were probably driving around half the action in advertising terms — even though the audiences are so much bigger at Facebook and Amazon.
I wrote the book on BookBub Ads — literally. And I’ve just given that book a quick update so that it covers the couple of small changes that were made to the platform since I released it last year.
It also comes with a pretty amazing set of bonus resources (housed on a private part of this site), such as a gallery of winning ad images, and detailed optimization advice.
And it’s available at a reduced price until the end of the week, so now is the time to grab it.
Moving on to other resources for you, I realize now that might have to change that marketing line because USA Today bestselling author Nick Thacker has released his own book on BookBub, the rascal.
I haven’t read BookBub Mastery yet, but it’s on my Kindle, although I understand it encompasses the whole platform, including Featured Deals and the like, rather than just focusing on ads.
Now that I’ve finished a long stretch of publishing new books for authors, I can catch up on what everyone else has been writing!
BookBub Mastery is here if you want to check it out – Nick Thacker is a very savvy author, so I’m sure it has lots of useful takeaways.
Resources I have actually read and can recommend in more detail mostly come from BookBub themselves, who have a pretty great blog (itself a stellar example of content marketing — take note, fellow non-fiction authors).
Aside from writing posts themselves and drawing back the curtain so we can regale the glorious innards of BookBub Inc., they also regularly feature some pretty great guest posts from authors doing all sorts of interesting things with BookBub Ads, and the platform generally, for example this post from regular New York Times & USA Today bestseller Cheryl Bradshaw.
Just always keep in mind that BookBub is a deals site. I’m not saying it’s impossible to sell full priced books there, but you will be swimming against the tide.
I prefer to lean into the strengths of a platform, and BookBub is supremely good at moving freebies and discounts at volume. Indeed, a blog post released just today from BookBub’s Carlyn Robertson analyzes 1,000 recent BookBub Ads campaigns showing just how much price affects CTR and conversion.
There’s a ton of info out there on BookBub Ads now, even if you don’t want to put your hand in your pocket and/or commit to reading an entire book on the topic. It’s a community of over ten million passionate readers, so I strongly recommend finding some way of making that work for you.
Here’s one last resource to tempt: a video guide to creating your first BookBub Ads, featuring yours truly. Warning: contains Peak Lockdown face-hedge.
I am no expert here. At all. I won’t detail my frustrations but suffice to say I’ve never really cracked Amazon Ads. I can get them working at a lower level. Scaling those promising ads into something that delivers meaningful sales is something I can only do temporarily, it seems, and then the wheels come off. Sometimes spectacularly!
The best resource I’ve read to date is Robert Ryan’s Amazon Ads Unleashed, which was clear and concise and helped me understand the system a lot better. I’m going to take some time out soon and really have another proper crack at Amazon Ads, and try to follow his method to the letter, rather than doing my usual piecemeal-type approach, and I expect performance to improve a couple of notches at least.
(Robert Ryan also has some guides to writing sales copy and blurbs which are on my list to check out – just FYI.)
Another highly rated guide is Deb Potter’s Amazon Ads For Authors which I’ll also be reading as I really try to get to grips with Amazon Ads.
Lots of authors who know their stuff have been recommending this one quite passionately — and I’ve been meaning to read it for a while, but I can’t read non-fiction while writing it! Looking forward to diving into this one.
While I have more than enough reader eyeballs to be chasing on Facebook and BookBub — with ads I already know how to wrangle — Amazon Ads does have some rather unique strengths, despite my personal frustrations (and shortcomings).
Amazon Ads are the best tool for the job when it comes to nailing down Also Boughts, for example. The platform is arguably the least price sensitive of the three main places to advertise. And then while Amazon Ads might seem sluggish compared to the responsiveness of BookBub Ads, and thus less suitable perhaps for really turning up the juice on a limited-time promo like a launch or a Countdown Deal, they are eminently suited to providing a solid baseline of sales so that any hard-won Amazon visibility doesn’t slip away so easily.
A gold-plated safety-net, if you like.
One mistake that we all make at some point, though, is trying to solve all our problems by just throwing traffic at our books. But often the problem — and the solution — is more fundamental.
Book Marketing & Reader Targeting
Reader targeting isn’t just about lining your ads up and pointing them at the right people, although that helps of course. As Seth Godin says, “the best marketing is baked into the product.” If you look at the very biggest sellers, you will notice that everything is in harmony from the book title to the description to the cover to the branding to the ad graphics, and so on.
This handy primer on reader targeting will introduce you to the concept. But, in short, mega-sellers tend to have a very clear picture of their Ideal Reader, and design the whole product from the ground up to appeal to them. This is an approach we can take with our own books, both in terms of trying to get it right from the start, but also going back and fixing issues with our back catalog.
My book Strangers to Superfans explores this idea in more depth, and maps out the often tortuous journey our Ideal Reader takes from being completely unaware of our work, to being its most passionate advocate. There are many roadblocks along the way, and Strangers to Superfans will teach you how to identify them, and remove them, so that The Reader Journey is optimized at every single stage.
Strangers to Superfans was recently given a rebrand, as you can see, along with a very quick update just to zap some of the out of date parts.
(There is a new paperback edition too, just FYI.)
Strangers to Superfans is also going to be paired with a pretty nifty set of bonus resources, as you might have seen already with Let’s Get Digital and BookBub Ads Expert (note: this should roll out over the weekend).
This is a really cool value-add I’m doing with all my non-fiction now — even my free reader magnet, Following.
Anyway, once you have followed the process in Strangers to Superfans, you can then turn up the juice and watch the readers pour in, with confidence that you are getting the most out of all those clicks you are paying so handsomely for.
The Big Kahuna: Facebook Ads
The biggest platform of all, the most complex, and the most flexible. Daunting for beginners, but incredible upside for those who can master it.
Beginners: I have a pretty great 12-part introduction to Facebook Ads which you will get access to if you sign up to my mailing list. Devious, perhaps, but these are the breaks.
Advanced users: Jon Loomer is the best resource I’ve found, although keep in mind he’s a general marketer, not book-specific, so you will have to parse his advice accordingly.
For everyone: I’m going to be diving into the world of Facebook on my new YouTube channel soon, so make sure you subscribe to that.
Here’s a taster: a tutorial on how to make your own Facebook graphics (you can use this approach for BookBub also). No design skills needed!
Email Marketing FTW
Story time! As I’m sure you know, Amazon’s outsized money pot means it can acquire pretty much anyone it likes, but Jeff Bezos was intrigued by Zappos in particular because it was a “customer-obsessed company.”
As a pioneering online shoe retailer in the late 90s, Zappos realized that customer resistance to ordering online was the primary challenge, so it instituted a no-questions-asked returns policy with free shipping in both directions.
While this policy was open to be exploited — and was indeed abused by some customers — Zappos was betting that breaking down that entrenched customer resistance to ordering online made it worthwhile. This policy also had the rather important side-effect of keeping customers happy, not making loyal customers with genuine issues jump through hoops, and generated considerable word-of-mouth too.
What does this have to do with email marketing?
Well, smart businesses know that retaining customers is easier and cheaper than beating the bushes for new ones. Email marketing is the best tool for the job when it comes to keeping your reader engaged between releases, and building up your email list is the best thing you can do for your career, aside from writing more books.
A large list of happy and engaged email subscribers is the most powerful marketing tool available to you. It’s like having a BookBub in your pocket which you can drop any time you like. If you haven’t boarded the Email Train yet, and have not been won over to the idea of emailing readers regularly and proactively building up your list, then read this post on the power of email marketing.
Really though, the key resource when it comes to email is Tammi Labrecque’s Newsletter Ninja. Regular readers will have heard me say this a dozen times but I’ll say it again: it revolutionized my approach to email and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
While some people are passionate advocates for running Facebook Ads to build up their list, or doing lots of BookFunnel giveaways, or various other list-builders, I’m much happier building up my lists organically. Those are better quality sign-ups, with more sticking power and greater tendencies to do the rather important part of buying those books of yours.
As such, I prefer building up my mailing list by having an enticing reader magnet — one which is exclusive too — and making sure the call-to-action in my end matter is effective. I then use ads to increase book sales instead, letting that spill over into sign-ups. Not only does this put money in the bank while building up my list, the sign-ups are much better quality than those coming at you cold from somewhere like Facebook, or those who only really signed up to have a chance of winning a Kindle Fire, or whatever.
That said, I am a huge fan of BookSweeps list-builders promos (affiliate link), and I’ve used them a few times with great results. The sign-ups tend to be much higher quality than other such promos.
But to really get the most out of email marketing, you need to focus on more than getting sign-ups.
You should have a good welcome sequence in place. You can always improve your open rates. And you should a good chunk of any effort on this front into crafting emails people actually want to receive — make sure you put real and genuine value into every message.
And that’s value for them btw.
Treating your readers with respect, and remembering that there are real people behind each one of those email addresses is especially important with everything going on in the world right now. Keep that in mind when dealing with readers in general.
Those Pesky Amazon Algorithms
The wizards behind the Kindle Store curtain are another matter. Cold, heartless brutes!
Some seem to view the Amazon algorithms as some kind of capricious deities who bestow favor on certain books and curses on others, but they are more like emotionless robots who follow very set paths.
Algorithms can be observed and understood, even it they are shielded and proprietary. And we can use this knowledge to position our books and tweak our marketing plans to increase the amount that Amazons recommends our books to readers.
I’ve just released a new book called Amazon Decoded which breaks down the Kindle Store and hands you some ready-made marketing plans so that you can profit from all your new knowledge.
Whether you are an exclusive author chasing those page reads, or a wide author (like myself) trying to survive the perma-onslaught of Kindle Unlimited titles, Amazon Decoded will help you get those algorithms working for you instead of against you.
No goat-slaughtering required.
Hot And Fresh: Metadata Madness
Is there anything sexier than optimizing your metadata? I mean, aside from literally everything that has ever existed?
I cover the topic myself in some depth in Amazon Decoded so I know how hard it is to make interesting. Dave Chesson at Kindlepreneuer does a stellar job of covering keywords and categories in particular and his Publisher Rocket tool has some very passionate adherents.
Those are affiliate links so let me be clear about who I recommend this for, and who I don’t. Publisher Rocket costs $97 after all, which is not nothing. So if you are on a restricted budget, and are deciding between something like this, and booking an ad with Freebooksy, or getting higher quality cover for your next release, then book the promo/spring for the cover.
I’d personally classify Publisher Rocket as a nice-to-have, more than an essential, but if you have the budget I think it’s very nice to have, especially with the new features being added all the time.
Publisher Rocket is a great tool for generating keywords for your book and also for your Amazon Ads (just be careful to do some serious pruning afterwards as it will generate lots of irrelevant ones, which are death to an Amazon Ads campaign).
But it does more than that these days too: it has changed how I think about book titles, given me a deeper understanding of how real, flesh-and-blood Amazon customers actually use that search box, and is a rather handy way of snooping on the competition, finding new authors to target (and cross-promote with), seeing what categories others are in, and also where some rather lucrative opportunities might lie in terms of some under-served niches with higher volume searches.
I think non-fiction authors in particular will have their ears perking up right now, but there’s a lot there for fiction authors too. If you’re on the fence, then maybe take a look at the Publisher Rocket tutorial videos so you can actually see it in action – and see if it will be worth the $97 for you.
Also, there is a 30-day money back guarantee if you want to take it for a risk-free test drive.
For those who don’t have $97 to spare, I get you. You can replicate much of the work that Publisher Rocket does with a bit of shoe leather and patience. Dave Chesson has some great articles (above) on how you can follow this keyword generating method without using Publisher Rocket, and, really, you can learn a lot just from taking the time to do some keyword research, inputting those potentials into the Amazon search bar, seeing what terms the system suggests, and then combing through the results manually.
Content Marketing Is Your Friend
I like to tell myself a joke: a content marketer is a content marketer. Yeah. Sorry about that. It has been a slow… year.
Anyway, content marketing is more than just a buzzword and it’s something you already know how to do. Something that doesn’t involve ads, or even spending money, if you don’t want to. Yegads!
This post serves as a quick intro to content marketing. And it that tickles your tickly bits, then definitely sign up to my list and grab your free copy of Following which will teach you how to set up your author platform, and then how to use the principles of content marketing to both attract readers to that platform and, especially, how to retain your customers and keep them interested and engaged and happy, and also prime them to buy your next book.
Also check out Joanna Penn’s work on the topic – she’s an excellent content marketer and applies these principles to her fiction also. I particularly enjoyed this piece on content marketing for book promotion, and this breakdown on some of the theory behind content marketing best practices.
Dave Chesson is another good example of someone walking the content marketing walk, one who is particularly strong on the SEO aspect, which might be of interest to non-fiction authors in particular.
Content marketing should be a central plank for non-fiction authors, particularly those in niches where you can’t get a BookBub Featured Deal or run ads on ENT, or even get Facebook Ads to run without crazy CPCs, or get Amazon Ads to serve at all.
But fiction authors shouldn’t dismiss the power of content marketing. Newsletters are content marketing. Reader magnets are content marketing. (Yes, stories can be content marketing – see, you do know how to do it!) But you can also take these principles and apply them to your Facebook Page, and really grow engagement on that platform.
I get a lot of free, organic reach on Facebook – the kind that many seem to think has gone away – because I work hard to be very disciplined with my Facebook pages and keep the basic principles of content marketing front-and-center.
Well, I try. I’m not perfect at it, but I’m learning constantly and seeing better results all the time too. It’s a process, but it won’t begin until you actively start focusing on it.
How To Sell Books: Your Strategy
“Sheesh. I thought this dude was going to make our life easier and all he’s done is dump a load of crap on our desks,” is what you might be thinking right now.
Yeah. About that…
You don’t need to do all this stuff — you might not even need to do much of it! Pick a couple of things and get good at those first. That will get you very far indeed.
I come from an advertising/marketing background and I’m still playing catch-up here. My Amazon Ads game is shoddy. My SEO could be a lot better. And there’s always more to learn about Facebook.
There’s more I could be doing on multiple fronts, but I’m happy taking it step-by-step and improving one thing at a time — while making sure I reserve time for creating new books and new content of all kinds to keep my business ticking over.
Don’t get overwhelmed. You don’t need to tackle everything at once. You can get pretty far with a solid email game and one optimized pathway to readers. So maybe focus on that to begin with. Specifically, pick one aspect of email marketing to improve, and one ad platform (or one aspect of content marketing) to work on, and then bolt on new skills as you need.
This is how I’ve built my career. This is how everyone does it. Never forget: everyone starts from zero.
And if you want a little more guidance on how you can do that too, remember, I have a whole course designed to help you do that. And it’s free.
“One last thing,” he says, finally looking up from his notes to see an empty auditorium…