Another Look at Amazon Advertising (with someone who is having success)

| Posted in Advertising, Amazon Kindle Sales |


Last year, I did a blog post on Amazon’s then-new advertising program and whether it’s working for me. It wasn’t, and it still isn’t (I tried again recently with a couple of my pen name books, since they’re in KDP Select), but I had a recent comment from another author who is using Amazon ads to good advantage.

Since it was a useful comment, I decided to post it here where more people would see it, and I also asked the author, Yancy Caruthers, some follow-up questions (if you’re not already familiar with Amazon’s advertising opportunities for authors, check out my earlier post for more on the basics of what the program is and how it works).

Yancy writes:

As I read through the comments, the consensus seems to be that this is a waste of time, but I have had a very different experience.

First, connecting your book to specific titles doesn’t work. People go to that title because they care about that book, not yours. You can be creative with your genres – my book is a military memoir, and I advertise in action/adventure as well as military and medical biographies. Cast the net wide! If I was writing Sci-fi romance, I’d advertise in both sci-fi AND romance, and make sure my cover and title reflected my genre accurately. People who weren’t interested simply wouldn’t click. But some would be, and would want to read more.

I started out bidding at 5c, but wasn’t getting more than a few thousand impressions (in a month) and a handful of clicks. After a couple of months, I increased my bid to 8c and started getting more. Impressions don’t sell books, but they do give you data. Out of several thousand impressions, I was getting 0.8%CTR, and my conversion rate was about 5%. I calculated that at that rate, I could pay up to 12c for clicks and still break even, so I increased my bid to 10c. Realize that you won’t get any impressions at all until the Amazon computer connects your ad to a page or keyword.

I went from selling a handful of books per MONTH to selling a handful every day. I’m averaging between 100-200/month. I’m not getting rich, but for every dollar I spend on the ad, I’m making back about $1.50 (about 30c of that is from KU pages read). Those numbers bring reviews now and then for an added bonus.

The ads are flaky, and I think that’s Amazon’s formula – I’ll get sales every day for a week, then I’ll go a few days without any. It averages out – I even had two days when sales were so good, I hit #848 in the entire catalog. Then I didn’t sell any for almost two weeks and was back down into the high five digits with the one-book-a-day-ers.

A couple of things people should understand – The number of impressions you get is a result of your bid and in what market you are bidding into. Your CTR depends on having a great cover, title, and a catch phrase for the ad – and 1% is considered very good. Your conversion rate depends on having a good landing page with a catchy blurb that makes people who land there want to buy. They are already interested or they wouldn’t have clicked. Just reel them in.

So before you pass judgment on Amazon’s PPC, realize that it’s a lot more complicated than “Does it work or not?” The PPC thing now drives 75% of my online sales. Everything else I do drives the other 25% as well as my physical copy sales (about 10% of the total) but that means I’m spending 98% of my time on 28% of my revenue. I’m currently looking at eliminating my time-wasters (like Twitter – ugh – I’m obviously not doing that right) and focusing on things that I have figured out how to make work for me.

After commenting here, Yancy agreed to answer a few more questions:

You mentioned going really wide with your targeting (i.e. all of science fiction and all of romance if you’re writing science fiction romance, even though that’s a pretty small niche). When I used to do Google ads, I’d find that you would be punished (your ad would be shown less) if you had a low click-through-ratio. It seems that when you go really wide like that, there would be a very small percentage of people who would click and that your CTR would suffer. Thoughts?

Amazon doesn’t want ads that don’t sell anything, but those tend to weed themselves out.  It’s possible that somewhere buried in their magic formula is a mention of CTR and Conversions, but that hasn’t slowed me down as far as I know.

Targeting a wider audience makes sense, within reason.  I made the assumption that readers of fiction action/adventure would be potential readers, even though I wrote a piece of narrative military non-fiction.  Even people who read a narrow genre like sci-fi romance also read other genres.  Which other genres are the most common?

Since CTR is simply a function of the quality of an ad and where it is placed, one could certainly run identical ads in two different genres and measure the CTR.  If one is getting impressions but no clicks, you’re in the wrong market.  If neither is getting clicks, maybe the problem is the ad itself.  If it’s getting clicks but no sales, take a look at your landing page, cover, and blurb.

Do you have any advice for authors on how to measure what their earnings per click end up being? Since you can’t use your affiliates links, the way some do with Facebook ads, there’s no way to tell which sales came from the Amazon advertising campaign. If you weren’t selling any books, and suddenly you’re selling some at the same time as you’re getting clicks, I guess it’s pretty doable, but what if you already sell books, and the amount varies quite a bit per day?

Amazon tracks this data for you, independently of your other sales!  They list impressions, clicks, total spent, total sales, and cost per sale.  You can calculate your CTR by dividing the clicks by the impressions.  The number of sales can be calculated by dividing the total sales by the cost of the title ($2.99 in my case).  Cost of sale is also an important number, even though it’s misleading.  Since Amazon already takes 30% of my $2.99 sale, then 70% is the break-even point.

[Lindsay: Hah, I didn’t remember this feature from when I was tinkering last year, but maybe it’s just because I never got clicks! That’s excellent then.]

I assume you’ve played with ad copy quite a bit. Are there any tips or tricks specific to Amazon that you could share?

I have, but I know very little about it.  I think of it like a Tweet – there are a limited number of characters to tell the viewer why the book is interesting.  Play with it, but be patient and give it time.  No ad generates meaningful data until it’s been seen a few thousand times.  The quality of the ad is important, so check out what others have done.  Equally if not more important is the landing page. Back in September when I started my first campaign, I looked at the landing page and thought, “This is boring.  I wouldn’t buy this.”

It sounds like you also haven’t had much luck targeting specific books. Have you tried doing bestsellers or something that’s just gotten a Bookbub ad in your genre? (With sci-fi romance, I think there just wasn’t that much inventory to pick from.)

After I read your blog, I gave the title-linked ads a try. I chose the top 20 sellers in my specific category and added several more.  In the past 3 weeks I have gotten less than 100 impressions.  My theory is that the more popular titles require a higher bid-per-click.  If I could get impressions on those pages, I would probably sell books, but if I bid that high, then I lose money and I won’t pay people to read my title.

I have scaled it for demonstration purposes, but the CTR and Conversion Rates are actual:

Impressions     x    CTR    =   Clicks.    Clicks x Conversion Rate = Sales.

100,000           x     0.8%  =    800.        800 x 6.2%    =    49 sales…

Assuming a $2.99 title on which I make $2.05 in royalty, those 49 sales made me $100.45.  As long as I didn’t pay more than that for those 800 clicks, then I’m making a profit.  I currently bid a maximum of 10c/click, so my 800 clicks would cost $80 at the maximum and I still make $20.45.  Since my title is also enrolled in KU, then I also get paid for KU pages read.  This has varied, but covers the cost of almost 40% of my clicks.

You may also observe that a very slight variation in CTR or Conversion Rate will make a huge difference in sales.  If I could get my CTR to 1%, for instance, I would average 13 more sales per 100k impressions.

Yancy’s plan going forward:

I am going to stop my title-linked campaign at the end of this month.  It doesn’t seem to get me impressions since I am only bidding 10c/click.

I am going to split my current campaign into two parts.  I want to separate the fiction action/adventure from the non-fiction genres, to see what actually produces the most impressions.  I’ll use exactly the same ad, but I want to see if there is any significant difference in CTR and conversions.  It is possible that I am losing money on half of my campaign and making it back on the other half.

I’m also going up to 12c/click for a month.  If nothing else changes, I’ll be giving away a good chuck of my remaining royalty, but I want to see if I can get a substantial increase in impressions by bidding just slightly higher.

Yancy’s recommendation:

Start out at 5c/click in your own and substantially similar genres.  Be patient, give it a month.  See if you get exposures (some genres are more expensive than others).  Once you have some data (and hopefully some sales) then you’ll know more and can make adjustments.  Understand that none of this happens quickly and real data comes with time.  Steering an ad campaign is a lot like piloting a battleship in a crowded harbor.  I’ve been doing this for almost 6 months and am still making adjustments, trying to find that sweet spot for sales.

Visit Yancy at:



Check out his book on Amazon: Northwest of Eden.

Update: He’s provided an example of his ad for us:

NWoE ad

How to Appear in Popular Books’ Also-Bought Sections on Amazon

| Posted in Amazon Kindle Sales |


My January release, Shattered Past, has been getting a little extra advertising on Amazon. By that, I mean it appeared in the first slot of the also-bought section for several other fantasy books that were selling well because they were new releases or because the author was running a Bookbub promo. I’ll pretend it was planned and that I’m smart, but in truth, I noticed the effect later and realized what had happened. (Though I have theorized that this could work before on my podcast!)

Screenshot 2016-02-03 14.33.19I’ll tell you what I did, but before I jump in, let me fully admit that I can’t prove that being in the also-boughts actually led to more book sales. I figure it can’t hurt if people are seeing your book all over Amazon, but I have no way to track sales that might have come that way. Also, in order for you to do this yourself, you’ll need to have at least a small mailing list and/or social media following already built up, so it will probably be tough to do if you’re launching your first novel.

Okay, enough of that. The nitty gritty:

The TL;DR version:

If you plug other books in your genre at the same time as you plug your new release, and if people buy both, it’s likely that you’ll appear on the first page of those other books’ also-boughts.

The longer version with more explaining:

I’m in a new permafree boxed set with 14 other authors (if you like swords & sorcery, make sure to grab it!), and it happened to launch about the same time as my novel Shattered Past. We all plugged the set, Legends, to our lists, but I also plugged Shattered Past in the same newsletter announcement.

Even though we all presumably had readers who picked up the boxed set, my book is the one that’s been in that first also-bought spot since release (I’m sure that will change eventually, as my book isn’t a sequel to the one I have in the boxed set; it’s likely that those also-boughts will eventually populate with direct sequels to the various books in the collection). I suspect this is not only because a lot of people picked up both but because they were picked up at the same time, thus making a very close link in the eyes of whatever algorithm-bot figures these things out for Amazon.

The result is that Shattered Past was in that first slot during the main push of the boxed set. The collection reached as high as 16 in the free store, so a lot of people saw my book, if only out of the corner of their eye as they were clicking the download button for the freebie.

I don’t know how many people looking to download a freebie would randomly go on to buy a $2.99 book they’d never seen before, but that’s not the only book I plugged that week. One of my writer buddies, C. Gockel, dropped her urban fantasy boxed set to 99 cents because she had a Bookbub ad coming. She mentioned on Kboards that she was hoping to hit the USA Today bestseller list (and she did!), so I shared her Facebook post on my author page. Judging by the comments, several of my readers picked up her boxed set.

Don’t bother looking for me in the also-boughts on her book page now, because I just checked, and SP has been bumped all the way to the 22nd page, but that’s because her Bookbub ad ran last week, and thousands of people bought her book after that. You’ve probably noticed that anyone who runs a Bookbub ad will share the also-boughts with a lot of other Bookbub books from the previous days’ mailings — in essence, Bookbub does exactly what we’re talking about here.

But on the day of Gockel’s Bookbub ad, and I believe even the day after, those also-boughts hadn’t been reset with Bookbub books yet. Shattered Past, even though I’d only plugged it on Facebook and not to my mailing list, occupied the #1 slot for her boxed set, so I got some more free advertising. I’m not sure how high her book made it in the Amazon store, but I know that I was #1 in her also-boughts on that day that she got thousands of extra eyes on her book page. Essentially, I’ve gotten a lot of extra views of my book cover this last couple of weeks, even though I haven’t spent a dime advertising that book yet.

Here’s another book that I finished reading last week and plugged to my people yesterday, when I was again mentioning SP (just in case my readers had missed the last newsletter!):

Screenshot 2016-02-07 15.15.21As you can see, SP is already in the first also-bought spot again.

So, what’s the message here? 

Like I said, it’s unlikely that appearing on the first page of also-boughts for a book results in piles of piles of sales, even if it’s a popular book, but I do believe it’s likely that it will result in at least some sales over time. I know that I’ve grabbed samples of a lot of books I’ve seen in the also-boughts of other books I’ve purchased, especially if they have cool covers that really draw my eye.

So, not only does it pay to plug other authors in your genre, but it might pay to scheme a bit in the way you go about it. In the very newsletter where you’re mentioning your latest release, you might mention another new release by an author, one that you maybe read and enjoyed yourself. (I think you’ll get more mileage from plugging a newer release, because the also-boughts won’t have filled in with all of the author’s other titles yet, something that usually happens with a series writer.)

I haven’t tried this method yet with a real big name in fantasy (for good or ill, I tend to prefer the quiet little books that aren’t best sellers to the heavy hitters, and I’ll usually only recommend what I’ve liked, especially to my newsletter subscribers), but if I see the opportunity someday, I certainly will.

Can you do this with a small list?

If, as I mentioned above, you’re thinking that this won’t work for you because you don’t have many mailing list subscribers yet, I wouldn’t necessarily assume that. All I did with the Gockel book was share her post on my Facebook page, so I’d guess that a maximum of 10 people (10 people who also had purchased SP) bought her boxed set. That was all it took to get me into the first slot on a book that had been out for a while — who knows how long I might have hung out there if she hadn’t wiped the slate clean with a Bookbub ad?

I think you’ll find that unless people are actually doing what I described here, most of the typical also-boughts may only be linked by a couple of shared buyers. It shouldn’t be that hard to appear on the page of the book of your choosing, assuming some of your readers pay attention to and buy your recommendations!

Should You Go Wide or Join KDP Select/Kindle Unlimited?

| Posted in Amazon Kindle Sales, New Author Series |


When I uploaded my first book, The Emperor’s Edge, in December of 2010, it was a foregone conclusion that I would put it out there everywhere I could, in the hope that new readers would stumble across it and give it a try. Then, a couple of years later, Amazon introduced KDP Select, a program for self-publishers that requires exclusivity.

Right off the bat, Amazon introduced a couple of promotional tactics that are still available to those who are enrolled. Eventually, Kindle Unlimited and the ability to be paid for borrows also came along.

Here’s what the perks of KDP Select look like as I write this in October of 2015 (let me know if I’ve missed any!):

  • The ability to run a Countdown Deal once per quarter, a feature that, among other things, let’s you run sales on books (i.e. dropping them to 99 cents) while still receiving the 70% split that’s usually only available with ebooks priced between $2.99 and $9.99.
  • The ability to run a Free Book Promotion up to five days per quarter (The only other way to have a book listed as free in the Kindle store is to make it free elsewhere and hope Amazon price matches. This is unreliable and may involve being free longer than you wish.).
  • Enrollment in Kindle Unlimited, the Amazon lending library, where you’ll be paid for pages read and where ebook borrows can improve your visibility and sales ranking in the Kindle store (I did a big write up about this last year: KDP Select & Kindle Unlimited: Why Ebooks Not Enrolled Are at a Disadvantage).
  • Earning 70% on appropriately priced books sold in some of Amazon’s newer territories such as Japan, India, Brazil and Mexico (for some reason, perhaps to make KDP Select more appealing, Amazon decided not to offer everyone that 70%, as is the norm in other countries).

So, what do you lose? Obviously, if you’re exclusive with Amazon, you can’t receive ebook income from the other stores. Let me emphasize that we’re only talking about ebook income, as you can still have audiobooks in iTunes and paperbacks in Barnes & Noble and elsewhere. But, as you probably already know, ebook income is huge for self-published authors. Even though I’m working on getting more audiobooks out there, and I’ve done paperbacks for most of my novels, ebooks easily account for 95% of my income.

Are you wide or in Select?

Before I go further, I should disclose that I am not in KDP Select with any of the books under my name, but that my pen name is currently “all in” with KDP Select. I started the pen name books there, to take advantage of the sales ranking/visibility boost from Kindle Unlimited, and I returned them to KDP Select this August, after not gaining much headway in the other stores and after Amazon switched to Kindle Unlimited 2.0, a system that rewards novelists by paying based on total pages read.

For my LB books, I’ve been around longer, and my books do sell on the other platforms, especially on Barnes & Noble (Kobo has been coming on strong these last few months too). I also make some sales on iTunes and Smashwords, and through Smashwords, I make a nominal amount at Overdrive, Oyster, and Scribd. The Emperor’s Edge (Book 1 in a series that has grown to 9 books) and Flash Gold (the first in a steampunk series of novellas) have been permanently free out there for years, something that I’m sure has helped with finding readers in other places.

Still, even with all that, Amazon always seems to make up about 85-90% of my ebook income. In my case, if things are going well elsewhere, they’re going even better at Amazon.

There have been times that I’ve considered trying KDP Select with a couple of my series, to see how much it would affect sales and if I would make more overall with the borrows added in. But after almost five years of publishing widely, I’ve gained some loyal readers from those other platforms. It’s uncomfortable enough when I have to explain that my pen name books are only available on Amazon!

I also, from a moral and business standpoint, don’t like the idea of being exclusive with Amazon and relying wholly on one vendor for my income. I’m quite tickled to have reached the point, in the last year or two, where my non-Amazon income has grown to enough that I could still make a living at this if Amazon disappeared. (Of course, I hope it won’t!)

But I understand why some authors choose exclusivity and KDP Select. With 3-4 books out wide in all of the stores, my pen name made a little shy of $1,000 on platforms other than Amazon between January 2015 and July 2015 (that’s total, not per month). I had the first book in the series free, and I even managed to snag a Bookbub ad during that time. That helped a bit with sales on those other platforms, but not as much as I would have expected (I should note that my pen name writes science fiction romance, and Bookbub doesn’t have such a category–they put the book in paranormal romance, which I don’t believe was a good fit). The pen name gained some readers at Barnes & Noble, but barely sold any books at iBooks or Kobo.

Now, might things change if I had kept the pen name books in all of the stores for years and continued to have a permafree and continued to run promotions? Sure, it’s very likely that the income would have grown with time, but I do feel a little hampered with running ads for SFR, since it’s not a specific category for advertisements anywhere. Not all (or many) romance readers will pick up SF, and not all (or many) sci-fi readers will pick up romance. The niche does sell on Amazon, but it and romance > fantasy are definitely the smallest of the romance subcategories.

Since it’s tough to gain traction in that little category, I’ve found it easier to make headway by being in Kindle Unlimited, where those borrows help boost the book high enough in the rankings (at least when they’re new releases) that they can appear in the Top 20 of the SFR category for several weeks. I found it tough to stick in that Top 20 on sales alone (for a small subcategory, there’s still a lot of churn, and it takes around a 1000 overall ranking to hit that first page).

When KU changed to KU2.0 this summer, I decided to put all of the pen name books back into KDP Select. I’d probably recommend almost anyone doing a pen name start out this way, not only because it takes more effort to gain traction on the other stores but also because, if you’re publishing frequently, it’s more work to upload everywhere and keep the back matter updated. (I just did a serial with the pen name and was so pleased that I wasn’t putting up all six weekly installments everywhere.) As they say, time is money, and you want to make sure you’re not spending a lot of time on activities that don’t reward you with much of a payoff.

So, what was the result?

As I write this, we don’t know the September pages-read-payment-rate for Kindle Unlimited yet, but if it’s close to the .0051 rate of August, the pen name will have made over $10,000 just in borrows. A lot of that is thanks to a serial I published in August/September, but the books that struggled to make $1,000 all year in the other stores still accounted for about $3,000 in September. Sales took a slight dip from July, when the books weren’t in KU, but that only accounted for a $200 loss against that $10,000 gain.

In a situation like that, it’s hard not to sing the praises of Amazon and Kindle Unlimited, so I get it when people tell me they’ve tried both ways, and they’re sticking with KDP Select for now. Exclusivity sucks, but if you’re able to make orders of magnitude more within the program than you do outside of it, then it has to be considered. Against all logic, you could even be reaching more readers being exclusive with Amazon than you are being on all of the platforms.

Of course, this is not the case for everybody. That’s important to point out. I don’t want this to be like the “should I trad publish or self publish?” argument that goes around, as if it’s so easy to get those trad deals and it’s a simple either/or consideration.

If you can’t parlay those KU borrows into a Top 100 placement in your subcategories, then it’s becomes more of a toss-up as to whether being in KDP Select will help. The promotional perks (Countdown Deals and Free Promotions) aren’t without value, but KU earnings and the ranking boosts you currently get from those borrows are the reasons I’m there with the pen name (note: a borrow is always going to be easier to get than a sale, because it’s absolutely free to someone who’s paid their monthly subscription fee).

Now that I’ve shared my experiences, as someone who’s wide and who is also in KDP Select, I’m going to try and break things down a bit for those of you who might be trying to decide.

When does it make more sense to go wide?

Obviously, if you’re doing well on the other vendors, then you don’t want to give that up. It’s rare, but every now and then, I run into someone who’s selling like hotcakes at Apple (so far these have always been romance people — I’d love to hear from anyone who is killing it there in other genres!).

If you’re reading this post, I’ll assume it’s not so black and white for you.

In my opinion, if you’ve come to rely on your self-publishing income, and especially if this is your only source of income, being exclusive with Amazon should make you twitchy. You should be doing your darndest to diversify your income sources.

When KU 1.0 was introduced, it rewarded those who published short fiction and serials, because every single borrow was paid out at the same rate. Page length didn’t matter. All that mattered was if the reader made it past 10% (something that comes quickly in a short ebook). Some people started catering their work to KU, writing lots of short fiction and serialized fiction. When KU2.0 rolled around, and we started getting paid based on pages reads, people who’d been making thousands of dollars a month on short fiction were suddenly making hundreds, if that.

Obviously, one of the lessons is not change your writing style or quit your day job prematurely based on success in one program at one outlet, but I think the lesson is also not to rely only on one vendor, not when your income pays the rent and feeds the cats. What if Amazon decided to drop the split from 70% to 35% on all ebooks one day? Would you still be okay? Or would you be wishing you had income from other sources? (And if you think that can’t happen, Amazon started paying out only 35% in the old days.)

If you’re in KDP Select now because you’re rocking it, you might take a look at your books. Are they all rocking it or are some titles performing less well? It might be worth it to have some stuff in KDP Select and other books out there where you might gradually pick up fans on other platforms.

Also, like I said in the beginning, that exclusivity doesn’t apply to paperbacks and audiobooks. If you haven’t jumped into those arenas yet, this might be the time. Paperbacks do especially well in the months leading up to Christmas!

When does it make more sense to try KDP Select and exclusivity?

If self-publishing is hobby income right now, and it’s not a big deal if you lose it, it probably means you’re not selling that much yet. I think that’s the perfect time to experiment with KDP Select.

If you’re not selling much anywhere, you may find it easier to get those KU borrows when you’re out there promoting. As I said above, it’s easier to snag a borrow than a sale — it’s almost akin to having a free ebook up on Amazon, but you’re still making money from it. There’s no risk to the borrower to give it a try.

In the last year, since KU came into place, I’ve seen more no-name/no-backlist/no-mailing-list authors make it to the tops of the charts in the subcategories that I follow than ever before. Almost without fail, they’re in KU and they have an awesome cover that fits in with genre expectations. They don’t always have great reviews! Sometimes the blurbs are “just okay” too.

I believe this is a result of people being willing to borrow something they wouldn’t buy and those borrows counting for as much as a sale (it’s very possible borrows won’t always count for as much as a sale, as Amazon is always tinkering, but it still seems to be the case now). And once a book sticks in the sales rankings for a while, it gets rewarded by Amazon’s algorithms, and it gets plugged in Amazon’s newsletters. That stickiness is what we all crave!

(A side note: one of the reasons it’s almost always harder to gain traction on the other stores is that they seem to do more merchandising and hand selecting of items that will be promoted, as opposed to letting the “bots” make the decisions. I’ve had strong advertising runs result in stickiness at Barnes & Noble, but I’ve noticed it much less at Kobo and iBooks.)

Again, I don’t want to make it sound like everyone is going to have this kind of luck, but it does seem to be easier to manufacture some luck with the help of KU borrows.

Pen names

As I already explained with my own stuff, it’s easier to only have to worry about Amazon with the pen name. I’m still busy publishing as much as ever under my regular name, so it’s nice not to have upload new pen name ebooks at all of the vendors and change prices and blurbs across the board for sales.

If your pen name starts rocking it, you can always go wide later. But if you’re doing the pen name anonymously and don’t have your regular list to rely upon for sales, then that my be another reason to try KDP Select with it. (Here’s my pen name write-up from when I first launched it last year — I started out anonymously and, with the help of KDP Select, made some pretty good money out of the gate.)

For translations in countries where you don’t have a way to market

I know nothing about this personally, but Joanna Penn mentioned this last year when she was debating the pros and cons of KDP Select.

When you’re in a niche/category that’s hard to crack with advertising alone

As I explained up above, it’s hard to find ads that work for my pen name, since “she” writes cross-genre fiction. Many of the sponsorship sites now divide readers based on genre preferences, but broadly. They don’t target those small overlaps on the Venn diagrams. If ads aren’t working for you (or you don’t have enough reviews to get them), KU and the promotional perks from KDP Select could also be helpful.

All right, there’s my take on this all. I would love to hear from you. Are you in KDP Select? Are you wide? Have you tried both ways? What was your experience?

Can Serials Still Be Profitable in Kindle Unlimited 2.0 (and elsewhere)?

| Posted in Amazon Kindle Sales, Pen Name Project |


I’ve interviewed authors about writing serials in the past, and it’s something I’ve been interested in trying for several years. The novel is my favorite medium, and I think novels are the easiest thing to sell in the long run, but there are some reasons you might want to consider trying a serial, if the notion intrigues you. I finally published my first one this summer, under my pen name. I’m going to talk a bit about what my plan was, what went right, what I could have done better, and whether I think serials are still worth trying.

Why try a serial?

As I said, part of it was just the muse. I’ve been wanting to try one, to see if I could pull it off and if people would enjoy it. The other reason was strategic.

Last year, when I launched my pen name, I enrolled her books in KDP Select (requiring Amazon exclusivity), even though I’ve never touched it with my regular stuff. It was easier to get started and build an audience quicker in the Kindle Unlimited world, where borrows counted as sales insofar as Amazon sales rankings were calculated, and quite frankly, it’s easier to just have to make mobi files and worry about uploading and making changes in one place. (I don’t recommend going exclusive for authors who want to make a career of writing and — you want to build a brand and a business and extend your reach everywhere — but for a side project you don’t want to devote as much time to, it can make sense to just focus on what’s likely to earn you the most money.)

When I started plotting out my serial, around May of this year (2015), Kindle Unlimited 1.0 was firmly in effect.

If you were willing to sign up for KDP Select and go exclusive with Amazon for a quarter, your book (or serialized story) would go into Kindle Unlimited, where you were paid for every borrow that was made, so long as the reader consumed 10% of the ebook. In KU 1.0, doing a serial actually made more sense than publishing a novel. In my case, I would have been paid six times for the six installments for my serial, versus one time for a novel. Since the KU borrow payment for an author was around $1.30, this would have been $7.80 for me for every person who read all of the installments. That’s a heck of a lot more than I or my pen name make on individual ebook sales (my pen name novels are priced at $3.99, so I make around $2.70 per sale).

With this kind of incentive, it’s no wonder that people were hitting KU hard with serialized work. But, as usually happens when I decide to jump on board with something like this, a change came around.

As you probably know, Amazon announced in June that, starting July 2015, Kindle Unlimited would change. Now it pays based on pages read rather than on books borrowed. So basically, assuming borrows and read-throughs are the same, a 100,000-word serial isn’t going to make any more than a 100,00o-word novel. I think the new system is more fair than the old, but it removes the one big, obvious incentive for creating a serial. 

Why I continued on with the serial plan, even though Kindle Unlimited changed

At the time of Amazon’s announcement, I had finished the rough of my serial and was editing it. I debated on throwing it all together and calling it a novel, but I had already ordered the cover art, and I had also designed it to be a serial, meaning it had more of an episodic/television feel. This was a science fiction romance, and I’d ended each section with a cliffhanger, and I’d also included action and naughty bits (I figured that was a requirement with a “romance” serial) in each section.

I was also curious as to how a serial might perform differently from a novel, specifically how I could market it differently. This was a stand-alone adventure only loosely related to my pen name’s Mandrake Company books, which are set in the same universe but which don’t share any common characters. It’s tough to market and sell a stand-alone anything–series are much easier since you can play with permafree or discounted Book 1s.

With a serial, I figured I could market it like a series, running frequent sales on Part 1 in order to get more people into it. Also, I planned to release an episode once a week (during August and into September, I published one every Friday), which meant I could conceivably end up with multiple ebooks in the Top 100 for my subcategory. Here are the covers, in case you’re wondering whether I made them all the same or not. (The answer is basically yes–I just changed the titles.)



The challenge?

I wasn’t sure how to buy advertising for a serial, since most places only want to plug discounted full-length novels. I was hoping that “Ruby” had enough of a following that there would be some initial sales and borrows, hopefully enough to get into the Top 100 of the Sci-Fi Romance category. (Ruby’s mailing list has a little over 500 people on it currently.) I was a little worried, though, because I knew that some people hated reading in installments and wouldn’t buy the story until it was complete. When I had episode one ready to go, I sent out the email and crossed my fingers.

I didn’t announce the serial to my regular LB fans, since this was quite frankly smuttier than any of my other stuff (even most of the Ruby stories). I’m usually an adventure first and romance when it makes sense type, even with the pen name books, but since, as I mentioned, this was a serial, I felt I had to have some sexy stuff happening in each section.

In short, I was relying a little on the mailing list somewhat but almost entirely on the cover/blurb/story to appeal and catch on, something I hoped would happen more easily with numerous installments as opposed to one book.

I figured the serial would have more time to catch on and would possibly appear in the rankings for longer than a single novel might. I was also counting on Kindle Unlimited to make it easier for people to jump in–not everyone wants to pay 99 cents every week to get stories in dribs and drabs, but KU subscribers can borrow as much as they want at no extra cost. I fully expected more people to borrow these than to buy them (I honestly wanted buyers to wait until the complete serial was available in one ebook, as that would be a better deal for them and for me, too, since I could get the 70% split on that).

So, did it work?

I think things went fairly well, especially considering I was deep in the writing of Dragon Blood 6 at the time and also road-tripping across the U.S. and going on family vacations. It was a busy month and I did next to nothing to promote the series except sending out the original announcement to my mailing list. I believe I bought an ad from Bknights on Fiverr when I released the first installment, but not much came of that.

As the installments came out, they did indeed climb into the Top 40 of my category and eventually Part 1 made it into the Top 20. I should point out that the science fiction romance category on Amazon isn’t as competitive as the other romance categories (it usually takes about a 10,000 sales ranking to break into the Top 100), but it’s also a little tough if you write far-future space-based stories. If you scan through the Top 100, you’ll see it’s largely weighted toward human-women-kidnapped-from-earth-by-sexy-alien-men kind of romances. I think sci-fi that starts out on or takes place on modern-day Earth is probably more accessible to readers that didn’t necessarily grow up adoring Star Trek and Star Wars. But I digress. My main point is that I’ve found it tough to stick at the very top of the category rankings with the pen name, even with books that are well reviewed and receive encouraging fan mail. I consider hanging out in the Top 20 for a while to be a pretty good showing.

  • As far as sales numbers go, the first five installments had just shy of a combined 400,000 pages reads in August in KU in the U.S. (I started publishing on August 7th, one a week, so the 5th installment didn’t show up until the end of the month) and about 1600 sales at 99 cents in the U.S.
  • In September, as of the 22nd (I’m writing this on the 23rd), with all episodes out and the Complete Series ebook released at 4.95 on the 6th, I had about 1,100,000 page reads, 1200 sales at 99 cents, and 850 sales at 4.95.


I won’t know how much I earn from those September page reads until the rate comes out in October, but in August, I earned enough to pay for the editing and cover art and then some, so I’m considering this a success. The sales of the full-priced boxed set in September are nothing to sneeze at either.

As I write this, the boxed set is dropping in the sales ranking at Amazon, but it’s just under 1,000 after being out for 2.5 weeks. It hit as high as 500, which is actually lower (better) than any of my other Ruby books have done. I did make the first episode free for 4 days at the same time as the complete serial came out (those 740 downloads are from that), but I actually think that was a mistake, that I should have waited longer, especially since I was super busy that week and didn’t have any ads lined up.

I might as well go into some of my mistakes, in case you’re thinking of trying a serial (or in case I try another one!):

Mistakes (or things I could have done better)

  • I released the six installments at 99 cents, one week apart, and I think that was a good thing (I’ve seen people make their installments further apart, releasing at two week intervals, but I think there’s more of a chance that people will forget about you or forget what happened in prior installments that way). However, I released the complete serial in one ebook only two days after the final episode came out. My reasoning in doing this was that I didn’t want the people who were opting to skip the installments in favor of getting the whole thing to have to wait long. I had the complete serial finished before I started releasing things, and it was hard not to just put it all out there for people. The problem is that I think I cannibalized my own sales by doing this. Almost as soon as the complete serial turned up, the individual episodes dropped out of the rankings. At one point, I believe I had all six installments in the Top 100 of my category, and they were selling fairly well. I probably should have waited at least a couple of weeks, until the installments had started to drop down in ranking and the first one, in particular, was out of the Top 20.
  • I should have waited until the rankings slipped to run a free promo on the first installment. Because I was busy that month, and you set things up in advance for KDP Select free runs, I set the dates ahead of time, figuring I’d give things a boost at the same time as I released the boxed set. I do think making 1 free for a while helped with sales of the complete serial, since it debuted fairly high, getting that 500 sales ranking, but 740 downloads is nothing, really. That’s a result of not having any ads linked to it. And also, as I said, Part 1 was still in the Top 20 at 99 cents, so it was really too early to use that boost.
  • More of a marketing plan and some advertising could have helped. I had two things working against me. First, as I said, I was more focused on other projects and family stuff during the time this was going out, so it was almost a set-it-and-forget-it thing (I used pre-orders to schedule the latter releases ahead of time). Second, because I haven’t invested time into building a social media following for my pen name, she couldn’t do promoted posts or tweet freebies every week to pimp the new episodes — I definitely would have done this with an LB title. I do think the serial format itself helped with the marketing, though, since I had “new releases” every week, and they were sprinkled throughout the SFR Top 100 as well as in some other sci-fi categories. Also, being in KU definitely helped, since those borrows increased my sales ranking. (Some people will tell you that borrows cannibalize sales, but you have to remember that not everyone who borrows would buy.)

Things I did correctly (and would repeat)

  • Overall, I think I put together a pretty entertaining story, for a serial newbie. It’s not great literature that’s going to win a Hugo (that can be said for any of my stuff), but a lot of people who picked up Part 1 went on to buy the other installments (it’s hard to judge that, just looking at page reads, since the installments were all different lengths, but when I look at the purchases over the entire time, I can see that people who went on to Part 2 tended to end up buying all of the parts). There’s action (and, ahem, action) in each segment, and I tried to set up the end of each segment to be cliffhangery without seeming forced or gimmicky.
  • Solid cover art without spending a fortune. I don’t know if I would have gotten more mileage out of doing different covers for each episode, but that would have been more work and a bigger expense. The folks over at Deranged Doctor Design put this together for me quickly and inexpensively. It’s obviously just using stock art, but that’s typical for the genre — if you surf through the Top 100, you won’t find much custom artwork, and you will find some fairly dreadful photoshopped stuff. As I’ve also found with steampunk, it’s tough to find stock photos that work in this genre, so kudos to the people who can make decent sci-fi romance covers!
  • Fair length for the price. I hardly ever write anything less than 40,000 words these days, because I want to be able to make the price at least 2.99, so I can get the 70% split from the retailers. With a serial, there was no way I was going to charge 2.99 an episode, and I didn’t feel I needed to, since I’d be focusing on getting those KU readers. The installments ranged from about 15k to 28K words, with the first one being the longest. The entire serial came in around 120K words. Since authors often charge 99 cents for short stories under 10K words, I thought my serial was fair, even for people who bought the parts individually. They would end up paying a little under $6 for the complete story. Those buying the complete set at $4.95 got a deal. Most of the Ruby books range from 70-90K and are $3.99, so this was in line with the pricing structure I had set up. I’ve seen people do 2.99 installments for serials or charge 99 cents for episodes that are only 5k long (or their serial runs 10+ episodes so people are paying a lot for the complete story), and I think that can breed resentment. Six parts at 99 cents seemed to work well.
  • Enrolling the serial in KDP Select/Kindle Unlimited. I’m positive that this serial wouldn’t have done nearly as well if I’d gone wide with it, especially given how little promo I did for it. The ability for readers to borrow it without risk on Amazon brought in a lot of new readers and it helped me stay higher in the sales rankings for longer. Also, going wide would have meant a lot more work, since I’d be uploading seven books (the six installments, plus the boxed set), including artwork and description, on every platform. If you’re someone who updates the back matter for each retailer, that would be even more work. If, at some point in the future, I decide to go wide with Ruby, I’ll probably just put the complete serial out there and not bother with the individual episodes (I may eventually take the individual episodes down from Amazon, too, especially if I write a sequel and then don’t need Part 1 for loss-leader/marketing purposes).

What about running serials on other platforms?

I guess I already answered this in my last bullet point there, but unless you already have a following on the other platforms, I’m not sure it would be worth the extra work. I don’t think it would have been as easy for me to do well with this without the KU/borrow thing working in my favor. That said, if you’re already wide with your other books, and you do have a following, it could be worth trying the serial at the other retailers for the reasons I already mentioned:

  • You basically have a little “series” in your hands with a serial, so you can make the first installment free or inexpensive to spur sales of the rest.
  • More frequent releases means the opportunity to potentially take up more spots in the charts. My serial is clearly science fiction romance, but it could also be plugged into the space opera, genetic engineering, and exploration subcategories under science fiction. One of the installments went under “pirates” too. The serial can let you stick different episodes into different categories, if they fit, thus possibly helping you be discovered in more places.
  • Having the installments out at 99 cents can make the complete story version look like more of a deal. In my case, 4.95 is actually higher than my average pen name novel, but because it was $6 to buy the individual episodes, the $5 boxed set looked like a deal.

If you’re reading this and you’ve tried serials on other platforms (and also if you’ve tried them recently on Amazon), I would love for you to leave a comment and share your experiences.

Would I do another serial again?

I don’t have plans to write another one right now, but I may indeed try it again, especially in cases where I want to do a stand-alone story that isn’t related to my other works and thus isn’t an “auto buy” for fans of my other series. If I did one with my regular name, I would be tempted to use KDP Select/KU for the first 90 days, even though I usually shun the program because of the exclusivity requirement. With the serial, the benefits of being in KU were that noticeable.

Comments? Thoughts? Questions? Please share below. Thanks!

Pre-Orders, Sticking on Amazon, and Hitting Best Seller Lists

| Posted in Amazon Kindle Sales, Tips and Tricks |


For a while now, you’ve been able to upload your ebook early on Amazon, Kobo, Apple, and some of the other sites, listing it for pre-order 90 days (Amazon) to a year (iBooks) ahead of time, as many of the traditional publishers do with their titles.

In most cases, you need to have a dummy file as part of the process, but some of the distributors are able to get you into stores now with “asset-less” pre-orders, meaning all you need is the title and book description. You don’t even need a cover.

As I write this, you still need a complete .mobi file for Amazon. Lots of people use temporary files (I put a rough draft up there when I did the pre-order for my last Dragon Blood book). You just need to make sure you upload the final draft at least ten days before the publication date on Amazon, because everything gets locked up in that last ten days.

But the real question is…

Should you list your ebooks for pre-order?

I’m going to make part of this equation easy: for all other sites besides Amazon, the answer seems to be yes, if you can swing it and deliver it on time (even if you don’t deliver it on time, there’s not a huge punishment for a delay at those stores).

It probably won’t make a difference if you don’t have a following yet, but if you have a series that’s selling well (or selling at all) on Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and/or Kobo, then having a pre-order can help you get sales while you’re fresh in the readers’ minds (i.e. If they finish Book 3, and see Book 4 available as a pre-order, even though the publication date is two months away, they can commit to it right then, instead of possibly forgetting about it by the time it’s released.)

On Amazon, there’s a little more to consider.

Pre-Orders on Amazon, Extra Considerations

On some of the other sites, your sales supposedly don’t count until release day, meaning you can get a big rankings boost on release day, perhaps enough to propel you to the top of the charts in your category, thus resulting in more visibility.

I say “supposedly,” because when I had Blade’s Memory up for pre-order on Kobo and Barnes & Noble, I peeked into those stores, and the book did have a sales ranking and was already showing up in the steampunk categories. I didn’t notice a huge surge on release day in either of those stores. (I never bothered looking in the iBooks store, because the Dragon Blood books have never sold as well there as they did on Barnes & Noble and Amazon.)

So I can’t say from personal experience that you’ll get a big boost if you sell hundreds or thousands of early copies in these stories (but I’ve never sold thousands anywhere except for Amazon, so maybe that’s part of the deal). I would love to hear from others on this matter, so please leave a comment with your results, if you’re doing well with pre-orders in the non-Amazon stores.

But to get back to Amazon…

When you list your ebook for pre-order there, it gets a sales ranking, as soon as you start selling copies. Even though you don’t get paid for those sales until the book goes live, it’s moving up and down in the charts, based on how it’s doing from day to day. You will not get a big surge in ranking when all of your pre-orders turn into sales on release day. You’ll just get credit for whatever sales you make that day.

This means that if you have a following and usually sell a lot of books on release day, it might be better not to do a pre-order on Amazon.

This is because if you can sell a lot of books over 2+ days there, you have a better chance of sticking, thanks to higher visibility in the charts, a surge of also-boughts (possibly with other new books launching at the same time), and the way their algorithms work in general. Nobody knows everything about those algorithms, but we have a lot of data to suggest that they’re designed to help books that already sell well. In addition to appearing in also-boughts and in charts, those high sellers can expect emails to go out recommending them to readers who have bought similar books.

However, if you’ve been running a pre-order, and all of those guaranteed sales from loyal readers have been spread out over a month or more, you may be less likely to stick in the rankings. You can sell a lot of books on release day (more later about when this can be super useful) and get a really nice paycheck, but you may lose out on visibility in the long run.

This is a big part of why I didn’t, until Book 5 in the Dragon Blood series, give pre-orders a try, except in the other stores and only to make sure the book released everywhere on the same day.

Why I Chose to Do a Pre-Order on Amazon for Book 5 in My Series

There are a couple of reasons why I decided to try it with Blade’s Memory (released on June 12th of this year).

First of, thanks to a BookBub ad back in January, the Book 1-3 bundle was still selling well this spring. I had a fourth book out in the series, and that was selling well too. I took some screenshots of my books hogging up the top slots in the steampunk category on Amazon there for a while. (Granted, steampunk isn’t a very competitive category, but slot hogging makes you feel good no matter what genre it’s in.)

In other words, I had a lot of people reading 1-4, but I didn’t have 5 ready yet. Since I figured it was only a matter of time before the earlier books dropped and stopped selling as well, I decided to get the cover done for Book 5, so I could take advantage of the other books’ popularity. Let people grab Book 5 while they’re still thinking of Books 1-4. So I put it up in early May and had it on pre-order for about 5 weeks. I ended up selling over 4000 early copies on Amazon (more than a thousand of those being in international stores — it was fun watching the sales drop onto my dashboard first when New Zealand hit midnight and then so on around the world).

In addition to striking while the iron was hot, I realized I didn’t really give a #*(@ about the sales ranking of a Book 5 in a series. I’ve heard other authors talk about how releasing new books in their series gives them a big boost in sales series-wide, but I’ve never noticed much of an increase in sales from that alone. I get boosts when I run advertising campaigns on the first books. Maybe a few people here and there notice a Book 5 and go back and check out Book 1, but I doubt anybody is going to jump into a new fantasy series there.

So basically, I had nothing to lose by doing the pre-order on Amazon and possibly had some sales to gain.

Here are some of the things that came out of the pre-order (in addition to sales) that I hadn’t considered ahead of time:

The book spent much longer than 30 days in the “Hot New Releases” window

Usually, a book gets 30 days to appear in the “hot new releases” window over in the sidebar of its category lists (assuming it’s first, second, or third in sales among the other new releases in that category). But my 30 days didn’t start ticking down until the official release day. My ebook was selling well enough (remember, this isn’t that competitive of a category) to hang out there from the time that I put up the pre-order in early May until mid-July when it hit 30 days after the release.

I have no way of knowing how many bonus sales you can get for appearing in that slot (and I’m sure it varies by category and book), but I always figure that any extra visibility, especially on Amazon, is a good thing and will probably result in some sales.

The also-boughts populated earlier than they would for an out-of-nowhere new release

If you publish a book through the KDP dashboard, even if you announce it to your mailing list and sell piles right off the bat, it usually takes 1-2 days for the also-boughts to populate, meaning that books appear in your book’s “also bought” window and (more importantly) your book appears in other books’ also-bought window.

In addition to wanting to appear in the Top 100 lists for your categories, you want to be in as many other authors’ also-boughts as possible, since it helps readers find you, even if they don’t browse those lists.

Lots of purchases before any reviews showed up

I’m fortunate that the reviews for the DB series have been fairly solid so far, but you never know when a reader who doesn’t like the direction you’re taking a series is going to jump in and leave a one-star review (and be the first one to do so) on a new release. That could make potential buyers hesitate. With a pre-order, you get people buying the book without being able to pre-judge it based on existing reviews. If you’re doing something drastic with the new title (cliffhanger! major character death!) and anticipate some grumpy readers, it might not be a bad idea to collect those sales before the reviews start showing up.

Now, you may be asking, were there any cons for me with the pre-order? Not really, but as expected, the fifth book never did get a big jump into the top slots on Amazon. I don’t think it did better than 600 or so in the overall sales rankings (I’ve had other things debut at sub-200), and it soon fell to 1200-2500, about the level that the fourth book had been selling at.

As I said, that was fine for me in this case, because I wasn’t expecting much of a benefit from appearing up high with a Book 5.

Would I do an Amazon pre-order for a brand new Book 1 that I was hoping would stick and sell well with the help of the algorithms? No, I would not.

Pre-Orders and Hitting Best Seller Lists

My nice little steampunk books aren’t in much danger of hitting the New York Times Bestseller list, but I can talk a bit about USA Today. Thanks to that Bookbub ad, my 99-cent boxed set hit the USA Today Top 150 list back in January. Also, I recently participated in a multi-author boxed set that allowed my lowly pen name to hit the USA Today list (the pen name only has about 500 people on her newsletter, and has been largely ignored of late, so hasn’t been selling in spades).

Pre-orders were key in making that list with the pen name boxed set.

Since all of the pre-order sales are reported on release day, this is your best bet to make a list outside of a BookBub run. Sales for consideration for a list have to be made during their less-than-one-week reporting period. It’s a very small window for USA Today and NYT, so you’ll also want to release on a Tuesday and try to get all of the sales in those first few days.

How many sales it takes to make a certain list varies depending on the competition, but to be safe, from what I’ve read, you probably need to plan for ~7K for the USA Today list and 15K+ for the NYT bestseller list. IIRC, I had about 6k in the week that the DB set made the USA Today list, but that was in the middle of January, so a time when book sales weren’t super high in general.

For the romance boxed set, even though we were doing all-new novellas, we didn’t have a lot of huge sellers in the set, so getting 7K sales during launch week seemed pretty daunting. But we put the set out at 99 cents more than two months before the release date (using a dummy file), and it gradually accumulated sales in the various stores.

I should point out that the sales ranking during the pre-order time wasn’t anything amazing (2-3K overall in the store), considering it was a 99-cent title with 12 authors. My fifth Dragon Blood was in pre-order status for part of the same time, and I remember that it was doing better in the rankings. But my book had a shorter pre-order period. A longer pre-order period can only help if you’re trying to accumulate sales before release.

The romance set ended up selling around 5200 copies before going live (about 4000 of those being in the U.S. and numbers that would count for a U.S. list).

For the release day (and a couple of days after), we had a lot of ads booked, and all of the authors plugged the set to their mailing lists. We ended up selling around 10,000 copies by the end of the week and hit the USA Today list at 88.

Is it possible we would have made it without pre-orders? It’s possible, but when you send out newsletters to your list, you never know if people will buy right away. They might wait for paydays or set the letter aside for later. With the pre-orders, you know those sales are going to drop right on release day. You also miss out on people who might have randomly come across the book during the pre-order period.

Note: You have to go wide if you want to make a list in the U.S. as Amazon sales alone aren’t enough to get you accepted. Your book sales also have to be reported by at least one other store (basically Apple or Barnes & Noble). I don’t know for sure, but I’ve heard you need to sell at least 500 copies in a week for the stores to bother to report.

Making Lists vs Sticking on Amazon

Before I sign off, I should point out that our boxed set hit as high as 94 in the overall store, but started to drop fairly quickly. I think this is in part because it was a pretty eclectic boxed set (we gave it an action-adventure-romance theme and had everything from modern day treasure hunters to my far-future space opera romance) and didn’t really hit on the popular tropes in the genre, but I’m sure part of it was also that thousands of those sales were spread out. Had we gotten all 10,000 sales in a couple of days, we might very well have stuck up higher for longer.

Let me wrap up this long post by summarizing:

  • Pre-orders are probably a good idea, no questions asked, on the non-Amazon stores.
  • Pre-orders can be a good idea on Amazon if you’re trying to get people to buy while earlier books in a series are hot or if you think you have a chance of making a list (for most of us mere mortals, they’re probably close to required to make a list).
  • As of the time of this writing, pre-orders can hurt you on Amazon if your goal is to stick and get algorithm loving — that’s where you want to sell piles of copies over just a few days.

If you have thoughts on pre-orders or any experience with hitting the lists, please leave a comment with your thoughts!