Crumpled paper and a notepad.

This is part three of my ongoing series. You can check out the other posts here.

When talking about writing and publishing, most authors tend to think of marketing as a sort of nebulous, pie-in-the-sky idea that either comes naturally or is the most dreaded part of the entire ordeal. If you want to indie publish commercial fiction and make money, the sad truth is you need to market your books. In the US alone, there’s something like 4+ million titles published each year, with a large portion of those being indie books. This isn’t the wild west days of publishing anymore where there was no actual competition. 

There are a ton of books, a ton of choices for readers and most methods of discoverability come at a cost. Chances are, if you’ve been hiring professionals and working hard at polishing your books, each one is costing you somewhere in the realm of $1,000 to get ready for publishing and the idea of spending even more money just to get people to read it can feel counterintuitive or daunting. 

For me, this is also a sticking point where I start to diverge with a lot of the indie publishing hive mind. Just like when it comes down to the question of Amazon exclusivity for ebooks or publishing wide, I believe you have options and that they should be tailored to you, the author, what you feel comfortable with, what you can afford and what works for your genre and specific books. There is no catch-all answer. As much as we’d love for there to be a big switch we flick that helps us sell our books. 

There are a lot of ideas that are… older, at least in the realm of indie publishing, and used to work well that I feel are unproven today. What’s difficult about book marketing is it’s difficult to get accurate figures on how effective marketing is. We can know how much we spend, how much we sell and how much income we’re generating, but there’s a ton of factors at play and it’s difficult to say “I did X, which sold me Y-amount of books and yielded Z-amount of income.” It just doesn’t work that way, no matter what the gurus want you to think. 

In theory, if you have a six-book series and you’re selling book one at 99 cents, if you run a promotion that sells 20 copies of that book, with you spending $3 to make each sale (yes, that’s $60), if you sell 12 copies of book two and from there sell through 8 copies of the rest of your series, you should be able to say “I spent $60 to earn $130” (this is rough-ish math on $3.99 books for the rest of the series), but that’s not how reality works. Not every sale can be attributed to a recent sale. Someone may have purchased books one and two during your last sale three months prior and finally bought the rest of the books. Someone could buy one of your books a month or two later.

Authors tend to simplify our thinking when it comes to marketing, relying on magical thinking because it makes it easier. All you can do that’s going to be true is market your books and attribute your sales to your continued efforts. If you think that makes doing book marketing more complicated, you’re correct. It does. Sometimes we’ll run a sale and spend more to sell copies. Other times readers dislike our books, grow bored with them or move on. Sadly, sometimes our readers up and die. I’ve had readers email me, saying they have cataracts and can’t read anymore. Life happens and all we can do is create good books and hope what we’re doing is working. 

What I’m saying is never grow too reliant on one method of advertising unless you’re 100% certain it’s what’s working for you.

Amazon Ads.

For authors who are Amazon exclusive, Amazon’s AMS ads are an easy way to gain traction. I’m saying for Amazon exclusive authors because for authors that are wide, it’s unclear what kind of benefits these will do for you unless you’re selling dozens of copies of your books a day. Amazon relies heavily on their internal algorithms and sales rankings. Lately they seem more reliant on sponsored ads to serve book recommendations and are doing it in a completely intrusive way. There used to be a carousel of “also boughts” on the book page, which still exists occasionally, but you’ll always find a “products related to this item” carousel which is sponsored. These are ads.

Check out the Amazon product page for Broken Ascension.

We’ve got a sponsored ad on the right-hand side, then a sponsored ad right beneath the book info. My series with the other books has a carousel under that, then directly following is a sponsored ad carousel.

From there you’ve got more info about the book from the publisher, my bio, the Amazon rankings and then, yep, another carousel. Then, yep, another banner ad. 

Then, at the very bottom of the page, after the reviews, are the old “also boughts.” “Recommended for you in GENRE,” and “Customers who viewed this item also viewed.” Then “popular products inspired by this item.”

It’s fair to say that, at this point in time, Amazon is pay-to-play when it comes to sales, which means if you’re Amazon exclusive and trying to climb the Amazon charts, you’ll need to spend money on Amazon ads to get that real estate. These recommendations at the bottom of the page used to have real estate near the middle of the product pages, at times, because Amazon is always tinkering, they still do. On average? They don’t. What most customers see are the sponsored ads. I say this is better for Amazon exclusive authors because sales ranking is impacted by KindleUnlimited check-outs. Those count just as a sale in the algorithm’s eyes. Since those readers have twenty spaces for books in their KU libraries, are already immersed in Amazon’s ecosystem and have already paid for their subscription, they’re more willing to check a book out and flip through it to see if they like it than spend their hard-earned money to outright buy it. 

With Amazon’s AMS ads, well, I will not go into detail about how to use them. In part, because they’re complicated and ridiculous. There is a lot of disinformation from well-known members of the indie author community about how to use these, so beware. A part of this is talk of ten-cent clicks, using thousands of keywords in ads regardless of relevance and many other things that were perhaps true ten years ago but are no longer true. Amazon’s systems grow and evolve with time, and representatives from Amazon have stated numerous times that their system rewards relevance. 

That means if you’re targeting books in their ads that readers will enjoy, you’re going to have your ads served more often and for lower rates, because they’re more relevant to the system. Amazon tries to predict when a reader will click and purchase or download a book. Remember, Amazon’s primary goal with everything they’re doing in these kinds of low-cost markets is to keep users engaged within the Amazon ecosystem. If I’m making $2.79 on a sale of an ebook selling for $3.99, that means Amazon is making $1.21. But, if I need to spend $3.00 in ads to make that sale, it changes the equation in Amazon’s favor. If that sale is actually a download through KindleUnlimited, meaning that user is even further baked into regularly visiting Amazon, all the better for them. 

This may be a cynical view on Amazon and their business, but I tend to believe it’s more realistic than a lot of the folks who view Amazon as a market leader with any sense of altruism. I don’t care if “Jeff loves books.” Jeff loves money and power, so there’s no reason to worship at the altar of Bezos, because Amazon graciously provides you with their platform. The $1.21 they make per sale of your ebook isn’t keeping them afloat. The gas grill for $2,000 that the guy browsing books to read on his Kindle who has a KindleUnlimited AND Amazon Prime subscription is all working in unison to keep them positioned where they are. 

All of this has been about one market’s ads. Exhausting, right?

There are other pay-per-click/impression ads out there, though.

The most popular are probably Facebook’s. I have better luck with Facebook ads than I ever did on Amazon. In fact, when I was Amazon exclusive I was at times spending 100% of my income on ads just to keep my books afloat, which, well, was not a great business model! I spent dozens of hours learning the system, reading books, watching videos and what I found was the clicks had grown too expensive to see a return until I had a very long series, which I don’t. 

Facebook ads allow you more levels of control than Amazon’s do, although there are drawbacks. On Amazon, you can target specific authors, books and genres, while on Facebook you’re tethered to whatever filters its way through their system into their ad targeting choices. You can filter even further, on granular levels, like by what device they’re browsing on, if they’re an “engaged shopper” and even filter out people who like certain things that don’t fit your readers’ demographics. My exclusions on Facebook have been “Joe Rogan Experience” and “Ivanka Trump” (the Trump on FB with the most likes) and the comments and engagements on my ads became a lot more pleasant in a hurry, plus I know I’m not hitting an audience that I don’t want to hit. 

You can even pull direct from your email list to market to people on that list and people that Facebook believes are similar to them. 

BookBub Ads are another choice and are a comfortable in between of Amazon and Facebook. You can target authors directly here, unlike most authors through Facebook, and unlike Amazon, you can target readers on other platforms. The cost is somewhere in between the other two, depending on a vast array of factors, and the results all depend. I run them occasionally and have had great results and poor results for the same ads for the same books. 

There are other ad platforms, but these are the main ones you’ll want to experiment with to sell books. Stuff like Twitter, Reddit, Google Ads, etc. are all options, but ones unproven and expensive for books, which are already running on tight margins. What else is there? Glad you asked.

Paid newsletters.

Paid newsletters are my preferred method of marketing these days. The reasons are bountiful, but on average it’s the cost, how effective they are, and how easy they are. You book a promo, pay for it, set a reminder and make sure everything on your end is set. It happens and that’s it. There is a wide range of these, from the king of all paid newsletters in BookBub, to smaller ones that cost $10 or so and give you decent results for the money. Depending on your genre and what your deal is, you’ll have different options. 

The heavy hitter is BookBub and from there, the fall off is steep, dipping down to Written Word Media’s newsletters, Freebooksy and BargainBooksy. There’s eReader News Today somewhere after that, with Fussy Librarian in the mix and then the fall off from there is real. In addition, there are plenty of genre-based email newsletters as well. Those can be just as hit-or-miss, so hang around author spaces and see which ones people are speaking well of, and which ones seem to be a waste of money. 

From what I’ve found, at least as of 2021, 99 cent deals are a tough sell in these newsletters outside of BookBub. Free books do a lot better. Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint, so it may sting to give away your hard work for free, but you’ve gotta tally up the costs and see which is more effective for you. If running a paid newsletter for $50 nets you 12 sales (yes, I’ve had this happen recently) at 99 cents, that’s gonna be a lot of sales from the rest of the series before you see that $50 back. If you pay $35 to give away 400 copies, you’ve paid 11 cents per copy you gave away, as opposed to paying $4.16 to make 35 cents. You’re more likely to make that $35 back in sales deeper into your series than you are to make the $50 back off of 12 sales. Most series read through is somewhere in the realm of 50% of 99 cent book sales turn into a sale of book two, then 80% of book two sales carry over to the rest. Sales off of free books are a lower percentage, anywhere from 1 to 10% (so let’s say 5%, for argument’s sake). 

So, five percent of 400 is 20. 50% of 12 is 6. 

You tell me which one is better for your money.

Wide authors have advantages.

We just do. What advantages do we have? Every store works differently and virtually none of them work pay-to-play the same way Amazon does. Amazon rewards the biggest spender with the deepest catalog. Google Play is a search engine, so SEO keywords and sales page optimization is a real thing that moves books. 

B&N and Kobo have promotions tabs that allow you to gain access to their on-site marketing promotions. These can be immensely beneficial and are either free (B&N) or low cost (Kobo). Apple also runs occasional promos, and if you’re lucky enough to be in their good graces, those can help move your books. Building up relationships with these storefronts, who don’t have pay-to-play ads and book recommendations that come from organic sales alone is a huge help and why lots of us who take our books wide see our sales pick up on these stores after giving them some juice. 

So, if Amazon exclusive authors have the benefit of KU borrows impacting their sales ranking, wide authors have the benefit of building relationships with these stores that will help promote your books.

What else?

Most of these are to sell or move copies of ebooks. They all work and have their associated costs. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other methods of marketing, just that they aren’t proven as effective as these. 

I still see a lot of authors talking about “street teams” and such, which, if you can assemble enough excited people to post about your books and tell their friends, that’s great. The audience for science fiction books (my main genre) skews older, so their excitement levels about doing free marketing for some guy they don’t know is almost nonexistent. The same can be said about blog tours, paying for advance review services and whatever else. Reviews happen when you sell books, and yes, it’s a paradox because the more reviews and ratings you have, the better chance you have of making that sale. 

Direct sales and paperback sales are a tougher nut to crack, with some authors having good luck hitting up conventions and live events. Of course, it’s 2021 and we’re almost two full years deep into a pandemic and while there are live events happening, they come with associated risks. This is something I had planned for 2016 until, well, I had kids and my publishing plans went on the back burner. I had it planned for 2020 and then, well, you know what happened. 

You can always try asking local bookstores if they stock local authors, have a local authors shelf or anything like that. 

What not to do?

Don’t buy banner ads on sites. Just don’t. Please. 

Don’t rely on just one thing.

Don’t listen to one person or get swept up in the hype. That means gurus offering expensive, paid courses. Some can absolutely help, but the idea that you need to “invest in your future” by spending hundreds or thousands of dollars is a tough sell for me. If you go this route, do your research and ask people you trust about it. Don’t just poll a Facebook group that seems ingratiated to this person. There are inexpensive books written by authors about these topics, some of which are better than others or more targeted towards your genre. There are also author groups where people share information and tactics. 

If it feels like I’m leaving a massive thing out, I am. I haven’t even touched upon having your own email list newsletter yet. Why? Because that’s another big one and it’s getting its own write up.

How about the next one is about having a newsletter? Speaking of, you can sign up for mine below.

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