I had a meeting this morning with a good friend and fellow author who wanted to talk about marketing and advertising. Specifically, how to do it for a book launch in a series.
I had a meeting this morning with a good friend and fellow author who wanted to talk about marketing and advertising. Specifically, how to do it for a book launch in a series.
My general answer is always: I have no idea. There are as many strategies and tactics as there are authors and books out there, and I’m only one author with a handful of books. Those have done well for me, but that doesn’t mean I know how to market every book out there.
Still, I think the best way to talk about marketing and launching a new book is to take someone else’s specific, actionable tactics and apply them to your own book, mixing and matching pieces as needed. Maybe your genre requires more social media engagement than mine, for example. Or perhaps you’re in one of those rare categories of books where advertising isn’t the way to sell a book at all and you instead need to set up booths at conventions.
So the rest of this post will be a strategy for launching a book. My strategy. It works for my books, which are firmly in the action-adventure thriller genre. If you’re in that same genre, I’d urge you to try this out. If you’re not, I’d still urge you to try it out — understanding that your mileage will vary.
If you have questions or comments, leave them below. If you want to say thanks, go buy one of my books!
How I launch my books
I’m pretty good at launching new books these days. I’ve done it enough that I know what’s going to work, and I rarely change up many of these tactics. That said, I’m also aware that I’ve got a 60,000-person mailing list, I’m an established author, and I was a marketing guy long before I was an author. That stuff totally affects my success, and I’m aware of that. Still, I think you’ll be able to glean a bit of insight into my process.
Phase 1: The Platform
Without a doubt, if you’re trying to launch a book into the void of nothingness that is “not having a platform,” it’s going to fail.
What’s a platform? Well, for starters, it’s a website. A place you can call your “Home Base,” an online space that points to everything else and where everything else points.
It’s having your social media accounts set up and (hopefully) occupied by useful, engaging content.
It’s having a mailing list, even if that list is empty.
It’s a brand. A logo, a style, a shared feeling that carries your identity across all forms of media.
Why are these things important? Momentum. You’ll generate momentum when you launch a book, and you want to capture that momentum however you can. These platform elements are really just “momentum-catching buckets,” and they’re the sorts of things you set up and let run in the background. You don’t have to be at a Kardashian level Instagrammer, but if you think having an IG account will help connect you with fans, set one up and start using it long before you release your book.
If someone reads your book and they don’t have another book to go to afterward, your platform gives them somewhere to go. They can drop you a line on Facebook, tag you on Instagram, or send you an email.
Best case, they can sign up for your mailing list and give you permission to let them know when your next release is available.
Phase 2: Write The Books
That’s right, I wrote “books,” plural. I don’t know how to market a standalone book. I don’t know how to advertise the first book of a series if it’s the only one out.
I wish I did, but sorry. My success has come from advertising the first book in a series of at least three books. My best series has seven.
So if you want my advice, go write another book. Then another, until you have three. Then read the rest of this post.
If you’ve got that already, great! You’re ready.
Phase 3: Marketing
I believe marketing includes all of the upfront preparation — getting your book the best it can be (maybe that means hiring an editor. I don’t, and I’ll explain why later), having a great cover design, etc. Here are the setup steps I’ll take before I even begin to spend money on advertising:
Step 1: Have a great book
Seriously, this one is so crucial it’s hilarious. I find that the number one problem facing authors who aren’t finding success with their book is that their books aren’t, um, any good.
They’re slapped together, don’t follow age-old guidelines about structure, the pacing’s off, and their characters suck. Or one of the above.
I’ve been there. Sometimes I still am. The only way to get out of it is to read other books and then to practice. That might mean rewriting the hell of your manuscript until it matches up to a proven story structure. Read James Scott Bell, Robert McKee, and Dwight Swain.
Maybe you need an editor. Most books need at least a second or third set of eyes to make sure their aren’t any glaring mistakes, typos, plot holes, or character anachronisms.
I’ve hired editors before, and while they’re generally worth their cost, they’re also not cheap (for the good ones). These days, since I have a beta reader team of 200+ people, I don’t spend the money on an editor. I simply send the book out to the Street Team, collect their responses after they’ve read it, and whip the book into shape. The Street
Read your book.
This one’s funny, because I find it appalling that there are authors who don’t, you know, read their stuff before they publish it. And I don’t mean as they’re checking it chapter-by-chapter in their Scrivener file. I’m talking about sitting down in a comfy chair and just… reading.
I do this on my Kindle, which allows me to highlight mistakes and make notes, which I can then export and open in a text editor when I need to fix them.
Step 2: Set up your book for success.
Once you have the book finished, you need to make sure it’ll stand out (in a good way).
Get a good cover.
The cover is the most important piece of marketing you can have when you start advertising. It needs to be professional, set the tone and genre of the book, and match the readers’ expectations.
Do not design your cover yourself, unless you are a professional cover designer. I am, so I do.
This is another place authors must take their own emotions and opinions out of the equation: while you should like your cover, it’s more important that it fits within your genre. You may have a beautiful picture of an idyllic lake scene that was taken by your niece, but if your book is about helicopter battles over the desert, this picture is a terrible idea for a book cover.
The best way to know if you have a good cover or not is to ask other authors. We’ve done it, dude, so just ask us. We’ll tell you the truth.
Write a good description.
Second to your cover for marketing elements is having a great description. It needs to be punchy, but also have enough depth that we can tell right away what the book is about (just like a cover).
We don’t need character names, settings (for the most part), and minute details and relationships explained, but you’d better tell me that the book is a coming-of-age mystery set in the future or that it’s a military historical fiction novella.
Again, have your writer friends critique it. We’ll tell you the truth (if we don’t, get new writer friends).
Know your genre.
Really know it. What sub-sub-categories does it need to be in on Amazon? Use PublisherRocket to find out, and don’t hesitate to reach out to Amazon KDP to add a category you can’t figure out how to get into.
Also, check out KDP’s help article about using certain keywords to get into certain categories (scroll down and click on your target genre).
Step 3: Prepare for your launch.
If you have some writer buddies, this is when you call in the favors. Ask them to share your book with their readers, and ask if they’ll share it around in their circles.
Schedule some promotions on the best promotional sites you can find/afford. I use Nicholas Erik’s list, and it’s always been right.
You want to “stack” these promotions close together, but not necessarily all on the same day. Amazon wants to see a gradual increase in sales, not a huge one-day spike.
Get some early reviews — if you have a launch team or a beta group, this is when you’ll ask them to have their reviews ready at launch. If you’re doing a pre-order with an unpublished print book linked to your ebook version, you’ll be able to start collecting reviews right on the pre-order.
Phase 4: Launch!
This section is mostly going to be about advertising. Why? Because, as I said, I’ve got a large mailing list, and they’re responsive. I can typically move 500-600 copies on launch day just from my list. But that’s not a strategy, so it’s not helpful to you.
Advertising, on the other hand, is something we can all do, regardless of list size, brain size, or book size. It’s also the main way I’ve been able to build a career out of this writing thing.
So, before we jump in, here are my “rules” (meaning, these are the things I’ll want to see are in place before I turn on the advertising spigot). We’ll talk about some of these after, but this should give you a checklist if that’s your jam:
- Three books or more in series (or two books available, the third book on pre-order).
- All books are in Kindle Unlimited. I don’t know how to make advertising work on a “wide” book.
- My books are priced “high.” Typically $6.99, sometimes $4.99.
- 50-60 reviews on book one. This one isn’t a deal-breaker, but it’s
nice,and lets me know how readers like the book.
- Platform is up and running. My mailing and signup forms are working, I’ve “primed” my social channels, etc.
- I’ve set up some initial reviews. My beta team is chomping at the bit to leave their initial reviews, to get the ball rolling right away.
- I have $500 I’m willing to lose. Haha, I know, we’ll talk about this one right away.
I have $500 I’m willing to lose.
Look, here’s the thing: advertising sucks. John Wannamaker said, “half of all the money I spend on advertising is wasted, I just don’t know which half.” That’s… pretty much true for me as well.
I know Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) works, but it’s constantly giving me shit and the reporting is abysmal. But it’s the only platform that lets me advertise directly to my readers who are shopping on Amazon (hint: because it is Amazon). So I’ll keep using it.
When you first start advertising a book, you don’t know what’s going to take and what’s going to sit idly by and do nothing. You want to hit the ground running but with advertising you just… can’t. Not even after you’ve published a dozen books.
You need an initial investment that will work to give you some data: a chunk of change you can afford to lose that will, hopefully, at least break even.
All books are in Kindle Unlimited.
Mine are, and that’s been a boon to my career. When you’re advertising on Amazon, you have two types of customers: those who’ll buy a book at full-price, and those who’ll get it in Kindle Unlimited. They’re not usually the same person, unless you’re a favorite author of theirs.
So I use advertising to try to target those readers who are not part of Kindle Unlimited, knowing they’ll purchase the book at full-price, which then helps my rank increase, which then puts it in front of those readers who are in Kindle Unlimited.
My income split between KU page reads and actual sales is usually 50/50 or 60/40, leaning toward page reads. They don’t care what the actual price of the book is (remember, they spent $10 this month to get any KU book for free), which leads me to my next “rule:”
I price high.
I’m not competing with you, Unknown Indie Author. I’m competing with the big-name traditionally published giants in my genre, and all of their books are (stupidly, against all known reason and logic aside from the assumption of under-the-table deals and/or the fact that their publishers are in the business of printing on dead trees, NOT selling books) priced at around twice the price of mine.
That’s between $12-15 for an ebook. A piece of code that exists on a server somewhere and costs absolutely to make a copy of and sell.
There are readers out there shelling out not-on-sale-lobster-tail-prices for these ebooks (I’m told), so I figured why not stick my books right next to theirs at half the price. That gets me firmly out of “it’s priced like an indie author” territory and into “I haven’t heard of this guy but my psychological response to his pricing strategy and his good cover tells me this must be a ‘real’ book published by a ‘real’ publisher” territory.
And that’s how I coerce those finicky trad-pub readers into picking up my stuff.
I only advertise the first-in-series.
I also only advertise the first-in-series if there are three or more books available. Again, I’m sure there are others who have figured out a way to crack the standalone novel advertising game, but I’m not them. I won’t spend a dime on advertising for a book unless it’s got at least two more books behind it, waiting for the reader to pick up.
This benefits me in two ways:
- I can spend way more on advertising because I’m not really spending that advertising on one book, I’m spending it on three, or seven, or ten.
- I can afford a much higher CPC. This is the important part: I can afford a higher CPC than authors advertising a single book, or a cheaper book.
By giving myself a much higher breakeven point (again, by combining higher-priced books with a longer series), I can afford to spend more on advertising.
And spending more on advertising means I have more data, quicker, which leads to spending less on advertising, quicker.
So: how do I do it?
The nuts and bolts (how to actually set up these ads) of AMS aren’t going to be covered here, but I’ll give you a few pointers.
I use mostly Sponsored Product Keyword ads.
I have lists of keywords I’ve picked up from PublisherRocket, Amazon’s “Also Bought” sections, and by simply thinking of them while I’m browsing books on the store.
The majority of the ads I set up are SPK ads, but I do still test Lockscreen (LS) ads. LS ads are generally going to have a higher clickthrough rate, but for some reason they don’t translate to as many sales.
I use 1,000 keywords per ad.
I have a Master Keywords List spreadsheet I keep updated with up to 1,000 keywords per tab (SPK ads only allow up to 1,000 keywords).
However, I may have 7,346 keywords total that (I think) relate somewhat to the book I’m advertising. So I’ll typically create 8 different ads for that keyword list (7 ads with 1,000 KWs each, 1 ad with 346KWs), according to the “campaign set” configuration below.
I think in terms Campaigns, Ad Sets, and Ads.
Just like Facebook Advertising, I think of my AMS ads as a hierarchical set of individual ads. Ads for the same book are collected into a single campaign, but there may be different ad sets within that campaign for each of the different dates I’ve set up those ads, or perhaps a different ad copy.
(This isn’t hierarchy is impossible to actually build in AMS; this is just the way I think through them).
I build Ad Sets of different bid levels.
An “ad set,” in my mind, is a set of ads that are all exactly the same except for the bid price. For example, I may want to test a 4,000-keyword list over 10 different bids spanning from $.46-.55. That means I’ll create 4 ads at $.46 (1/4 of the total KW list each), 4 ads at $.47, 4 ads at $.48, and so on. These ads will all have the same copy, same dates, and be for the same book.
After a few days I’ll be able to tell which bids are working (usually the more expense bids take off sooner), and I may want to build another ad set at a lower bid range (maybe $.24-$.33 this time, to see if AMS will still serve them at a lower bid.
I don’t pause or terminate old SPK ads.
Impressions are free, clicks are what we pay for. So I don’t need to pause or terminate “dead” ads (ads that are generating fewer than 1,000/day) unless I need to clear up space in my spreadsheet.
I have a simple naming convention.
Book Title Shorthand, Keyword List, Bid Price, Date becomes something like “TES KW1 .21 4/5/18.”
Ditto for any other type of ad. Lockscreen ad for the same book, action-adventure genre targeting: “TES LS ACT-ADV .21 4/5/18.”
I track data daily.
I use a spreadsheet that lets me dump in my daily numbers, and then extracts that data so I can see an individual ad’s performance over time. That tells me if a particular ad set is starting to die off and needs to be replaced (“Oh, looks like those ads I built on the 4th are starting to wane, let me make new ones with an updated date, keeping everything else the same.”).
Having this data on-hand allows me to see my overall performance (“I spent about $6k last month and had 100% ROI, whereas this month I spent $7k and am on track to have a 150$ ROI”) as well as the granular data (“Hmm, it appears that anything below a $.20 bid isn’t worth my time — those ads never generate enough impressions”).
My goal is to spend $500 in a month on that one book.
When I launch, I want to generate $500 worth of clicks in 30 days to that book. That will give me enough information to determine whether or not my bids are too high/low, my clicks/sales ratio, and if my description or cover needs to be updated.
How? Well, by figuring out how many sales (including KU pages read divided by the number of pages in the book) that book has made, then comparing it to the number of clicks to that book’s sales page, you can determine if you’re on track or not. My “good” books generally do somewhere between 1:8 to 1:10 (one sale to every ten clicks), and I’m going to be seriously considering changing the cover or description if my ratio goes beyond 1:20.
Also, by aiming for $500 instead of $30 or $100, it takes me out of the “entry level” league of advertisers and into the realm of “professional” advertisers. The truth is: there’s just not enough information we’ll have spending less in one month. Not enough clicks, not enough impressions, too many “cheap chasers” looking for rock-bottom click prices that skew results for other books on the carousel. $500 is enough for me to know that my data is “clean,” that I’m bidding high enough to get some results quickly, and what I’ll need to do next month to continue the success.
Finally, that $500 isn’t a waste — I’m earning data, but I’m also most likely going to make that money back. Because I know people are reading the series, and I know the cover’s good, and I know the description is solid, I know that some of those clicks are going to translate to sales or downloads.
Remember, we don’t pay for eyeballs (impressions). We pay for clicks.
That’s crucial to realize, because it means that we can usually afford to spend more on a higher CPC than someone else. Why? Because we don’t actually pay that CPC — we pay a penny more than the next-highest bidder.
Example: let’s say you’re using a $0.06 bid. You’ll sit there for weeks waiting for enough impressions to determine anything useful about your campaign, because guys like me are coming along and bidding ten times that, winning all of the impressions on the Also Bought carousel.
But if you’re using a $0.60 bid to target the same carousel (same keywords, ad copy, etc.), you’re now going to be shown on that carousel a lot more. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll pay for it, though. Impressions are free, remember? But the higher you bid for those impressions means the more likely you are to be shown.
And if your ad is clicked on, you’ll only pay up to $0.60. More than likely that particular carousel is “selling” for half that at any given time — $0.30 or $0.40, meaning you’ll spend $0.31 or $0.41, respectively.
Translation: more clicks, more faster.
I scale by making more ads.
I don’t believe my ads “compete” with each other. By having a ton of keywords and inundating their system with copies upon copies of ads, it gives Amazon more information about where my ads and books should show, and there’s more of my own inventory available in their ad “store.”
I’ve tested re-running a copy of an ad set (on a later date) that didn’t perform well the first time and had them take off. Why? Who the hell knows. Maybe it was a big ad inventory day that first time I tried. Maybe Amazon was being Amazon. But then I’ve seen that same ad set take off later, after its clone was launched. Now I’ve got two ad sets running and generating impressions and clicks. Boom.
I’m tired of writing, so this is the conclusion: advertising is really the only way you’re going to compete in this new landscape. Sorry. It sucks.
But the good news is that readers are still starved for good books, and I believe they always will be. Find out how to create those, and then figure out how to get them in front of your readers, and you’re going to be set.
I recommend picking a strategy (or designing one yourself), then committing to it for at least a month or two. Anything less doesn’t give you enough juice to work with, and anything longer might just prolong a losing strategy.
When you’ve deciding it’s not working, don’t toss the whole thing: change or tweak one element of your strategy (change the cover, the description, your bidding strategy, etc.) and give it another month. It’s a long and sometimes agonizing process, but it works.
Trust me. I’ve done it.
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