Marketing for Muppets – Part 6

In Part 5, I mentioned in a footnote (because it happened after I’d drafted that post) that one of my books reached the top 500 in the Amazon store (not in the US) and gained the No. 1 Bestseller tag in three countries in various sub-categories of science fiction. In this post, I’m going to talk about how that happened.

One thing: as with all these marketing posts, what works for me won’t necessarily work for you, and vice versa. For instance, I know of authors who swear by the power of Facebook ads, or being visible on social media, with neither of which have I found a great deal of success. On the other hand, I have heard some authors say how disappointed they are with Amazon ads (AMS), which have worked quite well for me. Each of us has to try different methods until we hit on the one that is effective for us.

The proposition in Part 1 bears repeating:

Proposition 1: What works well for one author, won’t necessarily work well for another.

As mentioned in Part 5, I was already seeing increased sales through AMS and the knock-on effects of greater visibility the ads brought me. As of 26th January 2019, I’d already had a good month. A couple of days later, my sales for January had more than doubled.

How? In a word: BookBub.

BookBub has long been held up by the indie-author community as the crème de la crème, the Holy Grail of book advertising. A few years ago, I’d applied—twice—and been turned down. If the relationship between me and my then-publisher hadn’t stalled, I’d have carried on applying. As it was, I grew unwilling to incur the high cost involved when I wouldn’t be the only person to benefit from any resulting success, so I stopped applying.

And, yes, it is pricey. The cost of a featured deal depends on what category (genre) your book fits into and the price to which you’re discounting the book. The highest cost (as at 12th February 2019) is for a book falling within the category of ‘crime fiction’—to advertise such a book at a price of $3 or more will cost the author $3,983. That falls to $783 if the author is running a free promotion. That’s almost $800 to give a book away.

With all rights in my books reverted back to me, I decided to apply again. Although my sales had been growing steadily, it was mainly in the UK, while sales in the US remained sporadic. The Earth Haven trilogy had been popular in the States a couple of years ago, but for reasons mentioned in previous posts I hadn’t been able to maintain interest across the Pond. Thus my primary aim in applying to BookBub was to raise sales and visibility in the US.

On 11th January, I submitted the first book in the trilogy, The Cleansing, to BookBub for a featured deal at the discounted price of $0.99. I heard back from BookBub that same day. To my excitement, they offered me a featured deal to run on 27th January. To my disappointment, it was what they call an ‘international’ deal, meaning it would only run in Australia, Canada, India and the UK, but not in the US.

There was a silver lining: had I been accepted for the full deal, the cost would have been a whopping $754. The international deal alone was a far more modest $160. Nevertheless, I almost turned it down. I had heard other authors say they’d lost money on international deals and the sell-through had been nothing to write home about. But, thankfully, I decided to go with it because, remembering Proposition 1, I needed to find out for myself how good or otherwise it actually is.  

27th January was a Sunday. I discounted the book’s price in Australia, Canada, the UK and India in plenty of time and waited impatiently for Sunday to arrive.

I reckoned on needing to sell a minimum of 400 books at the discounted price to come anywhere near recouping the cost of the promotion. I didn’t expect to achieve that, but hoped to boost visibility to improve sales in the weeks to follow. Long story short: the promotion comfortably exceeded my expectations—not only did I recoup the cost, but made a modest profit.

The book reached number one in the Amazon bestseller charts in most science fiction categories for which it was eligible in Australia, Canada and the UK, earning the orange No. 1 Bestseller tag (which disappears again as soon as the book drops from the top spot—thank goodness for screen shots). It reached number 300-odd in the entire UK Amazon store; number 50-something in the Canada and Australia stores.

My books are distributed wide through Draft2Digital and I also publish directly to GooglePlay. I’d never done any promotions specifically aimed at readers who shop at places like Kobo and iTunes and my sales in those wider channels had been pitiful. In fact, I don’t think I’d sold a single book through D2D or Google for the previous three months. Much to my surprise and delight, my sales increased massively in all wide channels that day.

What about sales since? That’s where the real value of the promotion has come into play. My sales on Amazon approximately doubled post-promotion from where they were before it. They have started to falter a little—not unexpected, though I thought the tailing away might happen sooner—but remain higher than they did pre-BookBub. In the wider channels sales, though low, have been steady. Considering I wasn’t selling anything at all wide, that’s an infinite improvement.

Time, then, for another proposition:

Proposition 6: BookBub is an effective promotional site, especially for authors with sequels or a substantial back catalogue available to take advantage of sell-through.

That, of course, remains subjective—while some authors have reported greater success with BookBub promos than I experienced, others have said they didn’t feel their promo was worthwhile. As always, remember Proposition 1.

Let’s remain realistic. The fleeting appearance of the No. 1 Bestseller tags was fun; to reach the top 100 overall in the Canadian and Australian Amazon stores was exciting; to see the balance in my business account go up instead of haemorrhaging makes a nice change. But I’m not getting carried away. There’s still a long way to go to achieve my dream of making a living at this game. At best, I’ve taken a stride closer.

And I think these marketing posts have run their course. It’s not that I no longer consider myself to be a muppet when it comes to marketing—far from it—but I’m less of one than I was a year ago. It has taken a lot of trial and error but at last I feel I’m on the right track to gain some visibility and achieve steady, if unspectacular, sales. I’m going to keep applying for a BookBub promotion in the States—if I secure one, I’ll probably report back in one more Marketing for Muppets post. Other than that, I want to blog about other stuff and host more guests.

As for ongoing marketing, I intend continuing with the AMS ads for as long as they remain productive and cost-effective. For now, at least, I’m not going to give away more books in return for joining my mailing list. I’m not going to join any author cross-promotions. US BookBub aside, I’m not going to apply for any more paid promotions.

More importantly, I need to publish new work. I am hoping that I can now concentrate on finishing my works in progress without being constantly distracted by trying to improve sales of my existing books.

Then there is the small proofreading/copyediting business I can afford to devote a little more time to. There are book covers to design and editing of my own work to do. And there are always more stories to tell. I can’t wait to write them. It’s time to roll up my sleeves and crack on.

Till next time…

Marketing for Muppets – Part 5

In previous instalments, I’ve looked at types of marketing at which, to put it mildly, I don’t excel. I thought I’d now talk a little about a method that has worked for me to some extent. By ‘worked’ I mean it has led to sales, either directly or indirectly. Since my ultimate aim is to become a full-time writer, sales are usually how I measure the success or otherwise of my marketing efforts. You might use a different yardstick—number of mailing list subscribers, hits to your blog, followers on social media—whatever works for you.

I’ve tried various things over the past six years:

  • Making use of the five free days for books in Kindle Unlimited (and its predecessor)
  • Giving paperbacks away on Goodreads
  • Making the first in a trilogy permafree
  • Running temporary price reductions
  • Paying to advertise with one of the many online promoters
  • Running ads for new releases on Facebook
  • Placing fixed ads on websites
  • Joining cross-author promotions in conjunction with a price reduction
  • Joining cross-author promotions in conjunction with a giveaway with a view to increasing mailing list subscribers
  • Being active on social media to try to raise my profile
  • Posting guest blogs or interviews on other authors’ websites

There are probably other things I’ve forgotten, but the above covers most of the obvious marketing methods.

If you’ve read my previous Marketing for Muppets posts, you’ll know that most of these efforts have either been spectacularly unsuccessful, or I’m simply not very good at them. For instance, I find trying to be active on social media a time sump that I don’t particularly enjoy.

I said in an earlier post that I’d concentrate on blogging regularly as a form of marketing that I do find enjoyable. Mind, difficult to know how effective it is—not particularly, I suspect. But I’m not too bothered if I sell no or few books through these efforts. It’s fun and I feel that I may have something to offer novice writers looking for, say, ideas on self-editing—it’s worth it for that alone. I was once a novice writer and found a wealth of information freely given by more experienced writers—why not give something back?

I’m digressing. What form of advertising is working for me? The answer is AMS: Amazon Marketing Services. I know—as authors making their work available on Amazon, we already pay the Zon a proportion of every sale we make. It’s around 30% for higher-priced books on sales in most countries; it’s 65% in some countries and everywhere on lower-priced books. So why, I hear you ask, would you also pay Amazon to advertise your books?

That’s a fair question. It’s also a fairly easy one to answer and I’ll come to that shortly.

But, yes, it irks me to pay Amazon to enable readers to more easily find my books on its site. The profit margin on book sales for small independent publishers is slim enough already—why eat into them further by paying the Zon advertising fees?

The answer for me is simple: to gain visibility and stand any chance of achieving sales.

In line with its tendency to keep data to itself, Amazon has made it difficult to ascertain how many books it has available in its online stores. I’ve seen recent estimates for e-books ranging from a mind-boggling 4.5 million to 7 million. That’s a lot of books and thousands more are added each day.

If readers aren’t aware of their existence, books will sink into the murky depths of the Zon’s nether regions, never to be seen again. Most independent authors can rely on a few sales of a new release, even if only from a handful of family and friends. But after that initial flurry, what then? How does the author make the wider reading community aware that the book exists?

Of course, that’s when the mailing list and social media presence may bear fruit. To a point. After all that’s been exhausted and the book’s plummeting like a stone—what then?

That is when I have found that advertising on Amazon helps. I have been running ads in the US and UK on the first books of each of my completed trilogies: The Cleansing (Earth Haven: Book 1) and The Elevator (Book 1). Especially for The Cleansing, especially in the UK, the ads have undoubtedly helped to raise visibility so that sales over the past six or seven months have increased dramatically.

Let me put it into context. My book sales had dwindled from a respectable few hundred, on average, each month during 2015 and early 2016, to barely nothing by mid-2017. There were a few reasons. Firstly, an elderly relative died in June 2016, appointing me as the executor of his estate. For the next seven or eight months, I spent a lot of time that I would otherwise have devoted to writing and marketing dealing with the administration of the estate. (I’m not bemoaning being appointed executor—it’s what I used to do for a living and it saved the family thousands in legal fees.) Secondly, I had grown increasingly disaffected with being published by a small press and yearned to gain control of my books. I’m not being critical of the publisher—let’s just say that our relationship stalled to the point that I became unwilling to spend any money on advertising. Thirdly, as a consequence of the foregoing, my marketing activity, not prolific at the best of times, became virtually non-existent.

To illustrate the turnaround, I’ll have to reveal some sales figures, which I don’t usually share, but which I think I should in this instance so you can judge how effective, or not, you feel my efforts have been. Okay, then. In April 2018 my total e-book sales on Amazon were fewer than ten. Yep, that’s all books, across all Amazon stores, in all countries. I hear you ask, if after all that time in the game you can’t even sell in double figures in an entire month, why don’t you accept that you’re never going to make it as a professional author and give up? That’s another fair question. The answer’s not as simple as ‘I’m not a quitter’, though that’s part of it.

In fact, during that April of dire sales, I was more upbeat about the publishing business than I have been for years. At the end of March, I’d parted ways with the small press publisher, all rights in all my books reverting to me. I now had full control over my books, including, for the first time, my bestselling Earth Haven series (i.e. the books that have proved most popular, not that have topped any well-known bestseller charts).

After spending a couple of months republishing my own versions of the e-books, and learning how to produce paperback editions, I was ready to turn my attention to advertising; specifically, AMS. I had already dabbled in AMS ads for a collection of short stories—only small scale; merely to get a feel for it. Now I was able to go at it head-on. I began to run AMS ads for The Cleansing and The Elevator in June.

In July, my sales on Amazon ballooned to more than one hundred and have continued to climb slowly but steadily. Still small potatoes by some standards, but a vast improvement from where I was only a few months before.

It’s possible, I suppose, that repackaging the books played some part in the improved sales—freshening up an existing product can see an increase in sales—but I put most of the upswing down to the AMS ads.

Many authors talk about paid marketing in terms of ROI: return on investment. As far as sales of the two first-in-trilogies are concerned, the ads have—especially with The Elevator—barely paid for themselves. The direct ROI has been, at best, negligible. The real value, the indirect ROI, comes in follow-through sales of the other books in the trilogies.

I am lucky to have a reasonable sell-through rate of the Earth Haven books. At present, around half of everyone who buys The Cleansing goes on to buy The Beacon. Roughly two-thirds of those buy The Reckoning. Those additional sales are not costing me anything more in terms of advertising expenditure. 

This leads to a proposition, a rather obvious one, but nevertheless worth spelling out:

Proposition 5: It can pay dividends to regularly advertise the first book in a completed series so as to raise its visibility and lead to follow-through sales of its sequels.

Once you’ve been consistently selling via the ads, there are knock-on effects that help raise visibility further. Your book may start appearing on the also-bought lists of other popular books. Amazon might notice your book starting to gain some attention and take steps to promote it themselves. As I write this, The Cleansing has been regularly in the top 10,000* books on Amazon UK, and frequently in various Top 100s in science fiction sub-categories like Alien Invasion and Colonisation, increasing its visibility again. It is rubbing shoulders with books by authors who have won major science fiction prizes, had films made of their work and are household names (at least, in households interested in science fiction). Now and again, both sequels have joined it in those bestseller charts. It might only be fleeting, but I don’t half get a thrill from it.

I was going to end this post by talking a little about how AMS ads work, but they are tweaking them and I haven’t yet made time to look into how it will affect the ads I’m running. (Bloody typical—no sooner do I get the hang of a form of advertising and make it work for me, than the advertiser moves the goalposts.) I’ll have to suss out the new forms of ads that are replacing the ones I’ve been using. A subject for a future post, maybe. Fingers crossed it’s a positive post.

* Top 10,000 might sound a little sad—why celebrate such a ludicrously low ranking?—until you consider the sheer number of books clamouring for attention. I know, from experience, how difficult it is to break into that top echelon, let alone stay there for any length of time. Goodness knows what it takes to break into the top 5,000. If I ever manage it, I’ll let you know.**

** Okay, I did it. Not only the top 5,000, but the top 500. I even gained the orange rectangle No. 1 Bestseller tag in three countries in various sub-categories of science fiction. More on this in the next Marketing for Muppets instalment. Ooh—two positive marketing posts on the trot. What is the world coming to?