Does Advertising Work for Authors? (AKA We Wanna Sell More Books, Dagnabit)

| Posted in Advertising |


advertising ebooksI never thought I’d get a chance to work “dagnabit” into the title of a blog post (or, you know, anywhere), but it seemed to be an appropriate euphemism for the occasion. I asked what folks wanted to hear about on Twitter today, and a resounding number of people (okay, it was just the one) requested a post on online advertising for authors. Does it work?

Depending on who you ask, the answer could be, “No, it’s a waste of money,” “Yes, it made me a bestseller,” “I sold some books but didn’t break even,” or “Huh? Authors can advertise?”

In other words, your results will vary. Personally, I’ve found a couple of places where advertising has worked for me (it never made me a bestseller, but there have been times where I spent less on ads than I earned back on book sales). More often I’ve lost money.

Here’s more of a breakdown:

Types of Online Advertising Available for Authors

Pay Per Click Ads

Facebook, Google Adwords, and Goodreads are all pay-per-click options. You throw a certain amount of money into a campaign (or give them your credit card number so they can charge you whatever you spend each month), and you get to make a text-based ad that will be displayed on their pages. On some sites, you can include a little picture (i.e. the cover of your book), but usually it’s about the text. You get a few words for a header and a few more for the body of the ad. If you have a copy-writing background, it could come in handy here, because there’s not a lot of space to entice someone to click.

Did they work for me?

I’ve tried pay-per-click ads on Facebook and Goodreads. The latter handed me some of my early sales, and I wrote a long post on how to set up a Goodreads Advertising Campaign last year. My own daily book sales have increased a lot since then, so I can’t guess any more how effective the site might be (when you’re not selling a lot, it’s easier to see if one particular thing you do has an impact on sales), and I’ve stopped putting money into my campaigns over there. I think it can help out in the beginning though.

With Facebook, I tried some ads to direct people to the free-ebook tab on my Facebook Author Page. It didn’t cost me much (a couple of dollars most weeks), and it did get some people to click the links on the free-ebook page (since I give away those stories to everyone, I don’t use Smashwords coupons — coupons would have been a good way to see if people were actually downloading the books, though at the same time they make a potential reader go through more steps to get to your work).

I used to use Google Adwords when I was selling affiliate products for my day job, so I have experience with them, but I never considered trying them as an author. One of the problems with pay-per-click ads is that one click can only translate into one sale (and it’s probably going to be more like eight or ten clicks to get one sale), and, as an independent ebook author you’re only making a couple of bucks per book sale (assuming a $2.99+ ebook), so there’s not a lot of room for error. (The numbers are, of course, more abysmal for traditionally published authors who make far less per sale.)

With Adwords, you can’t target as specifically as you can with Facebook and Goodreads (i.e. age, sex, reading preferences), at least not the last time I looked (it’s been a couple of years, but I don’t think Google has implemented stats on what people are fans of the way other two sites have).

As you can see from the things I’ve talked about that did work (a little), pay-per-click is a dribble-drabble sort of system where, unless you’re spending a lot of money (and that can be hard if you’re targeting a specific demographic, such as your ideal science-fiction-romance-loving audience), you won’t sell a lot of books. The good thing is that you only spend money if someone clicks your ad. The bad thing is that you’re reaching a finite number of people, and it’s almost like hand-selling to one person at a time. Goodreads does have some viral potential, since people can add your books to their reading lists (lists other people can see), but it’s hard to gauge how helpful that is.

What to be careful with when it comes to PCC ads

Make sure to target your audience carefully, so you don’t waste money (i.e. when I was setting up my Goodreads campaign, I only had ebooks available, so I put ebook in the ad copy to ensure paperback-only people wouldn’t click). With Facebook and Goodreads, you can target, for example, science fiction lovers only and even advertise to those who are fans of authors who write in a similar style as you do. Make use of that.

Banner Advertising

With banner advertising, you pay for a graphic ad to be displayed on a site for a certain amount of time (you usually pay a flat monthly fee or for a certain number of impressions). They’ll usually appear in a site’s header or side bar. You pay whether they’re clicked on or not, but they tend to be less expensive than the other types of ads I’m talking about here.

Did they work for me?

I haven’t done a lot with banner advertising, because there are a lot of studies that suggest people have had “banner blindness” for a long time and text-based ads work better. That said, their cost-effectiveness can make them appealing.

I tried a banner ad for Encrypted and also for Ice Cracker II (a free short story) last year on the Nookboards, because I was trying to figure out how to target those Barnes & Noble Nook folks. My banners were part of a rotation of ads for about three months. The campaign didn’t cost a lot, but I’m also not sure if I can attribute more than a handful of purchases/downloads to the experience.

I’m about to try a banner-advertising campaign with someone who emailed me when I started my Kickstarter campaign. His ads run on a number of gaming sites, and since there’s a lot of crossover between people who game and people who read fantasy, I thought, “Why not?” Also, I’ll be advertising the first Emperor’s Edge novel, which is free (on sites such as these, I’d think it would be a lot easier to get people to check out something that’s free than something that’s $5, and, of course, people who try the first book might want to go on to try the rest of the series).

In the end, though, I don’t expect much. For me, no form of advertising has been a knock-it-out-of-the-park success (and there haven’t been many base hits either). The main reason I’m still tinkering with it at all is that I’m making enough now that tax-write-offs are nice. Also, I like to experiment with things so I can post about them on this blog.

Sponsored Posts or Daily Blog Spots

Sites such as Pixel of Ink, Kindle Nation Daily, and Ereader News Today are blogs (sometimes with newsletters) that offer a variety of daily sponsorships where your book can be featured in a post and/or email.

These blogs have large audiences, but they’re general readership audiences. As someone who writes steampunk/high fantasy, I haven’t found these types of sites to be particularly effective, but I’ve heard of people who write in genres with a broader appeal (i.e. thrillers, mysteries) having good results. (Note: I tried KND when their rates were cheaper and I broke even with a $2.99 high fantasy ebook — I tried again recently, and I paid more and didn’t come anywhere near breaking even. I believe the proliferation of free ebooks — many of which these blogs promote — is making it harder to sell an ebook through these sites.)

I’m ambivalent about these types of sites for other reasons, too, in particular that they charge a fortune (KND especially has hiked its prices way up in the last year), and I think there’s a lot of authors paying against their better judgement, hoping against hope that it’ll somehow be worth it. I used to work in online advertising and affiliate marketing, and I’m floored by the going rates for daily sponsorships in the ebook-sphere ($200+ in some cases). Even sites with little to no traffic are charging $40-$50 for daily sponsorships. But I guess as long as authors are willing to pay such rates, the high prices will continue (these sites are all booked far in advance).

Personally, if you want to try advertising, I’d recommend thinking outside of the box and getting away from the sponsored-posts sites. If you’re a science fiction author, for example, it might be better to hunt around and find a popular SF blog that isn’t necessarily in the ebook sphere but is a place where your fans hang out. You might be able to get a text or banner ad for $50 a month.

What Really Works in the Modern Era

So, as you can see, I’m not against advertising, per se, but I’m not a huge fan of it either. There have been times where it’s helped me out (especially in the beginning with Goodreads) and more times where it’s been a waste of money. I will say something I’ve pointed out before, though:

I’ve found that once you sell your first 1,000 books or so, Amazon’s algorithms start kicking in, and your book will show up in people’s recommendations and in the also-boughts for a lot of other authors. Because of that, it might be worth losing a little money early on (if you have it to spare) if it’ll help you get to that point.

That said, the 100% most effective thing I’ve done to increase my sales is giving ebooks away for free. Long-time readers have seen me say that a lot, and it’s because it’s true. For me, it’s blown everything else out of the water.

First, I gave away that Ice Cracker II story (something that was effective in helping me sell my first book because it stared the same characters and I included an excerpt to the novel). Then, at the end of November, I decided to go ahead and make my first full-length novel free (since, by then, I had two other novels out in the series). It’s no coincidence that that’s the month this author thing went from being a part-time gig to my primary source of income.

Free works best with serial stories, though, so it’s not necessarily going to be as effective for everyone. Advertising can be worth trying if you have the money to spare. Some folks will argue, though, that the best “advertising” you can do is to buckle down and get more books out there (I don’t disagree with this sentiment).

All right, I’m done talking for the day. Do you have any thoughts on advertising? Is there anything you’ve tried that I haven’t covered? Let us know below!


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Comments (36)

Thank you SO MUCH for this! These are many of the questions I’m grappling with while approaching my ebook release. I’ve been uncertain if successful promotion is strategy, luck or a bit of both most the time! So any information provided in seeing the different options and how well they work is a HUGE help to me! I don’t have a lot of money to spend on advertising, so I want to make what I do have count.

I’m going to go back and read over this real carefully! Always appreciate you taking the time to share your experiences! ๐Ÿ™‚

You’re very welcome, Erin! Good luck with the new release. ๐Ÿ™‚

Lindsay, how do you go about giving away a story for free? On Amazon, I’m pretty sure, you can’t do it. Or am I missing something there?
On another matter, I recently set up a few Google Adwords ads because my web host sent me $100 worth of credits. Set them up, forgot about them, and by the time I checked in again, I owed Google a fair amount of money. Lesson learned there โ€“ don’t forget to pause your campaign when the funds are getting low. I never claimed to be smart.

Two ways to have a free book on Amazon:

1) Join Kindle Select. For each 90-day period you are in the program, you will get 5 free days to use as you please.

2) Set your book up for free on Smashwords. Amazon will price-match your book down to free once their bots figure out that you’re selling it cheaper elsewhere.

Kindle Select has the drawback that you can’t have your book anywhere else for the 90-day period. On the plus side, prime members can borrow your book and it seems Amazon’s algorithms may favor Kindle Select books slightly. No one knows for sure because Amazon doesn’t reveal the magic.

Price matching has the advantage of maintaining wider distribution but the drawback is latency. Price matching isn’t instantaneous, going both ways. So your book could end up being free longer than you intended. If you’ve got it going to Kobo and Sony through Smashwords, it could take 2-3 weeks to change the price.

When I removed a book from Smashwords to put it in Select it took Kobo 25 days to pull it down. The second book came off Kobo in 8. So random latency.

Thanks for taking the time to post such a thorough response, David. That’s everything I would have said (and then some!).

Excellent into. I appreciate it.

It’s nice that Facebook, at least, emails you weekly updates on your advertising campaigns so you know how much you’re spending. Google, not so much.

Mark, I’m so glad you brought up this point! I, too, just received a $100 credit from Vista Print and set up my adwords account. At first, they told me I could not use the text ads for my wordpress blog but after they emailed me a survey and I filled it out, I miraculously got another email saying I was back in the program. Good, I guess? Anyhow, I didn’t realize that I would need to pause or delete the campaign, so Big Big Thanks for that heads up. In fact, I just scheduled it to end longgg before the $ run out, just in case:)

Ah, good. If someone else was able to avoid the same financial pitfall, it was worth it. Sort of. Heh. Glad you caught in time.

I tried several ads on Goodreads last fall but it didn’t make any discernible difference to my, at the time, significant lack of sales numbers. Even there, the broader the appeal the better the ad will do. Or luck. There’s always luck.

Free books are the best ads of all.

Having a free book (for just 2 days!) in Kindle Select made an enormous improvement in my sales of The Storm Dragon’s Heart. Can’t wait until Sony releases the White Tigress so I can do the same with it.

My advice for someone who has only one book, or maybe two like me where the second isn’t a sequel, would be to try Kindle Select. If you have a number of books, especially in a series, you have more options. Price matching the first book to free might be a much better way to go.

Thanks for the tips on this! I’m going to look into Kindle Select with my upcoming release. It seems a possible good direction to go in with a newly published ebook(?)

I know nothing about the program at all, I admit. Time to get researching!

Some people freak out about the exclusivity, but it’s only for 90 days, unless you want it to go longer. If you’re in this for the long haul, a 90-day experiment is worth it. Especially to kickstart things on Amazon.

This is a different issue for writers with an established audience already in place at sites like B&N.

Gotcha! Thanks so much for the follow up on this! It does look like a good starting point for a newcomer. ๐Ÿ™‚

I probably would have tried KDP Select if it had been around a year ago, before I had folks (some Smashwords, B&N, and iTunes folks) following my series. I’m not going to make people wait for a new book just because they don’t buy from Amazon.

That said, lots of authors have had success working the free days over there. For whatever reason, Amazon treats the free downloads like sales, and books come off of free and jump up the bestseller lists (if there were a lot of downloads — good cover art and a few good reviews can help that).

Thank you to all! I now have a clear plan of what I am going to do. Since my book only came out yesterday and I debuted it at only $.99 thinking that was THE way to get it seen, I realize I may want to consider the FREE option- say over a weekend or so. I am writing a short story that will fall between books 1 and 2 that is to be free, but perhaps getting folks hooked on book 1 is a better idea:) I will try that this upcoming weekend…

Free is a better promoter than $.99, which doesn’t make much profit anyway. I think $.99 worked for a lot of people a year ago, but I’m not sure if it still does. Didn’t help me much when I tried it. Maybe for a first book in a series.

I had success with my book as free on Kindle Select for 2 days, a Thursday and a Friday. I’m going to experiment with other days of the week and longer periods.

I’m hesitant about doing free just over the weekend. It would likely maximize free downloads, a good thing, but I’m not as sure about the sales transition immediately afterward. Monday-Wednesday are the weakest sales days for me. Given that my rankings stay about the same, I’m thinking that’s true for most people.

My next free I’m going to try Tuesday through Thursday to maximize sales on the weekend, theoretically.

Incredibly valuable advice! I will take it:)

What I’m hearing is: Write More Books

Simple enough, I guess. But, can you blame me for wishing there was a magic bullet?

Well, some people do get lucky and hit gold early on, though I’ve seen the same folks not have any luck with subsequent books and then not know what to do. The downside of fluke-based success.

I’d just plan on having to do a little bit here, a little bit there, and for it to take a few years and a few books before you make a lot of headway. Then it’s a pleasant surprise if success comes your way more quickly.

I’ll now stop stating the obvious and will go back to work on my next book. ๐Ÿ˜›

Good post! I’ve tried Facebook ads and all it has produced so far as I can tell is “Likes” to my Facebook page. This seemed an okay outcome given that I’m just starting out with publishing fiction until the stats (insights) showed that people clicked to like directly from the ad and not the page! Whatever sales have arisen they have not covered the cost of advertising.
Possibly the situation is that the supply of new books that are either free or 0.99c probably makes pricing the key thing for (so far) unknown authors. Making books free definitely leads to lots of downloads, but for me (without a series) very few sales have followed on afterwards (I had prices set at $2.99) . I’ve now dropped everything down to 0.99c for a few days and might leave it there or increase next week to only $1.49.
Given the need to become “known”, I suspect one key issue must be good reviews. I know when I shop online I look first at items with 4 and 5 star reviews, and I suspect most people do do the same. Amazon even uses review rating as a filter. This might be a reason for giving books away even if they are not part of a series. I don’t know what the average ratio is for downloads vs reviews, but I suspect it is somewhere in the hundreds.

The whole issue of reviews and reviewers is an interesting one, especially given the importance they have in art, literature, film etc. I’ve seen lot of films and read very many books over the years, and yet I have never written a review, not even when a book or film has made a big impression. In fact I don’t know anyone personally who has written reviews – neither friends nor family. They are self-selecting and often (outside traditional publications) anonymous, and yet their views are very influential. I suppose over time there are reviewers we begin to trust, or at least understand (such as Kermode with film), but mostly we trust strangers, working from some principle relating to the belief that if enough people say something is good then it must be? I guess we accept them because at least they will, in most cases, help us reduce our mistakes? Is it really all about risk aversion?

I think risk aversion may be part of it, but we also use social proof as a way to short-cut the decision making process. It’d take a long time to choose books if we downloaded samples and tried them all. Reviews serve as a way to help us make our selections more quickly.

It doesn’t really matter who left them (I think there are some studies out there about how we’re more likely to take advice from our peers than experts in some cases), just that they’ve been left, proving that others have read the book (therefore maybe it’s worth checking out).

I think this explains why some books sell tremendously well even though they have as many one-star reviews as five-star reviews (check out some of John Locke’s books). Apparently, if 600 people have reviewed it, it *must* be worth reading. ๐Ÿ˜›

As a reader I generally only buy books if there are at least 7 or 8 reviews of 4 or 5 – even cheap books (say less than $5.00). For anything pricier I look for about 20 reviews with an average of 4 or more. Obviously if I like author’s previous books I usually get a sample and if OK, buy almost regardless of cost. If a book is free, I actually look for higher average ratings b/c it seems to me that people inflate their rating of a free book almost to payback the author – the exceptions are if there are even 3 or 4 well written reviews that give good information about the book. Then I might try the sample and go from there. I would think I am a fairly typical consumer except that I read alot (maybe 5 or 6 books per week). Because I read so much, I probably look for books 1/2 hour per day. (yes I have a job and even a husband and kids – I just don’t sleep much) I check out the kindle bookstore the most, followed by the apple bookstore, smashwords and goodreads. I never look at banners but would check out a book rx by a preferred author on their blog/webpage. Also I totally agree with the advice to get an editor and decent cover art – not fancy just not cheap looking with the editing being the more important – if a book’s sample is poorly edited it is unlikely I will buy it. hope this info helps aspiring authors because I need more books!

Sue–how nice to have a reader’s perspective and some insight into how at least one person chooses books to buy. As a writer who’s very happy to have great reviews from bloggers (and even USAToday), I’m terribly frustrated by slow sales. I don’t expect the sequel to my first novel to be ready for at least six months and my plan then is to offer book #1 free and hope readers enjoy it enough to buy book #2. I tweet (!) and participate in many forums, but have not advertised. After reading some comments here I doubt I will. One commenter had it right: keep writing!

When I first researched selling ebooks, one of the main things that kept coming up was “Start a blog”. After several sources repeated this (I don’t have the links to them! Ironically, I would if I had been blogging at that point), I decided to start one. Went cold turkey, and I’ve been learning about the blogosphere ever since.

Personal experience: Does it work?
I’d say that is does, if you use it. It might not translate into direct literal sales, but it makes you learn, introduces you to a community of writers (or of genre fans), makes you accountable to continue writing, and it is a source of encouragement to have a random someone ‘like’ a post, leave a comment, or click ”follow”.

I recently found this article:
I’d say that her experience was a phenomenal success, and not what you’d expect from most bloggers, but you never know. And it is free to blog, given that you take the time to make regular updates.

What are your thoughts of blogging as a marketing tool?

I blogged for a living for several years before switching to writing fantasy, so naturally I think blogs are great, Nichole! ๐Ÿ˜€ I’ve blogged about it too. Most recently: How to Use Your Blog as to Sell More Books.

Blogging does take a lot of time, though, and getting to the point where you’re receiving enough traffic to justify the time spent can take a while. Some authors forgo it in order to focus on getting more books out, but having a visible “platform” is something that can help you if you ever want to get an agent/publisher and go the traditional route. They seem to be looking at an author’s ability to market/promote these days. And, of course, I do actually sell books via the links on my blog, so that makes it even more worthwhile. ๐Ÿ™‚

Yeah, I saw that you were a blogger on your Amazon author profile. And thanks for the link! It’s going into my bookmarks.

My greatest hesitation about blogging was exactly what you stated: the time it takes before you get enough traffic to make it worthwhile. I decided that I wanted a platform, I had the time, and I couldn’t come up with a good reason to NOT start a blog.

So, you’re totally awesome. I have a few more questions, do you mind if I e-mail you in the next day or so?

Sure, Nicole. Feel free to send me a note!

[…] Buroker presents Does Advertising Work for Authors? (AKA We Wanna Sell More Books, Dagnabit) posted at Lindsay Buroker — Fantasy Author, saying, “Full-time indie fantasy author […]

[…] Fantasy and steampunk author Lindsay Buroker suggests that permanently or semi-permanently offering a title for free might even beat out all other advertising avenues. See her great postย Does Advertising Work for Authors? (AKA We Wanna Sell More Books, Dagnabit). […]

saw your article via a post by matthew iden, so much thanks to him, and to you for such a helpful article

deciding the best routes for me to either advertise or offer free, and learning to handle reviews from people who get my free books but aren’t in my target reader group (and thus are sometimes disappointed) are my two big learning curves right now – so this has been very helpful

am signing up for your newsletter, thanks again ๐Ÿ˜‰

[…] Does Advertising Work For Authors? by Lindsay Buroker. […]

Thank you for such an informative post! I’m a newbie self-publisher and I found this invaluable. I’ve had very few sales in my first month, despite running Facebook ads. I have 2 running, one that points to amazon and one that points to my Facebook book page. It is hysterical how many teenaged girls “like” me without reading the book! Maybe Goodreads is a better venue, as I’m assuming members actually read!

Lindsay, Joel Friedlander just tweeted this link. Do you have any updates on the topic? I believe the effectiveness of ebook giveaways changed dramatically in the 3-4 months after you posted this. Do you still feel they are working for you?

Peace, Seeley

The free ebook continues to work for me, Seeley. I never dickered around with KDP Select; my Book 1s are just permanently free through price matching.

Every couple of months, I’ll buy a sponsorship somewhere to plug a freebie, and that’ll help get it back into the Top 20 Free for my category and increase visibility. I think the best “sales” come from people who are surfing the categories and see it there, but the people who download it via the sponsorship site help get it there.

Here’s a post I did on some of the sites that sell inexpensive (or free) sponsorships for free ebooks:

I’m also now having the problem of how best to market a book. After all the hard work of actually getting it into print, it feels like I have hit a brick wall in terms of getting it sold. I found this post helpful as I have been considering paid ads, but it seems like such a minefield. With only a limited budget I don’t want to risk wasting what I have, but of course nothing is certain anyway… I sometimes think that a lot of it comes down to luck, or even ‘right place, right time’.

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