Zachry Wheeler, Science Fiction Novelist

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A Marketing Breakdown for Indie Authors
Posted on February 1, 2020
Category: Zeedub Inkwell
Zachry Wheeler, Science Fiction Novelist

Ah, marketing. We all hate it. Seriously, I have yet to encounter a single author who can utter the statement “Why yes, book marketing is a rip-roaring good time and I enjoy every second.” At least, not without immediately rolling their eyes. It’s a mentally exhausting hate-slog filled with dramatic sighs and grumbled curses.

But as much as we complain, it remains a necessary evil. Authors have to market their books if they hope to build a readership. This is a non-negotiable part of the writing process and it can suck up more time than actually writing the books. It’s a never-ending quest to hook readers into your growing backlog.

One of the biggest questions for any new authors is, “What are the best ways to market my book?” And like every other question in the writing world, there are a million different answers that may or may not work. Certain strategies are useful to some, but not to others. Different genres require different approaches. Age plays a big factor, as younger readers look for new books in trendy ways. So yeah, the answer is as clear as mud.

I spent years in the marketing trenches before I figured out a strategy that works best for me. As you can probably guess, some things worked and most failed. I pissed away piles of money on promo avenues that never paid off. (And for the record, most don’t.) So instead of writing another “Top 10 Marketing Tips for Authors” click-bait post, I thought it would be more useful to outline what I currently do, complete with effort ratios.

The following breakdown will highlight the most common marketing tools used by authors. Efforts may vary based on opportunities, but my overall strategy has largely solidified. With that said, let’s get started.

Quick note on budgets: given any dollar amount, some will see it as beyond reach and others will see it as a drop in the bucket. This is why I break it down by effort, as everyone’s coffer will be different. The actual amount is less important than how wisely it’s spent.

Amazon Ads  (50% effort)

The ultimate marketing rabbit hole. It’s one of those “difficult to master, but highly effective” strategies. There are countless how-to guides out there, none of which are comprehensive. It took me a solid year of trial and error to start seeing results, but I finally managed to figure out a strategy that worked for me. If you want to delve into Amazon Ads, then my advice would be to read everything you can about the subject in order to identify the key factors that apply to you. I know that sounds vague, but Amazon Ads are notoriously fickle and require constant maintenance (hence the high effort). But, you get to see the ROI in real-time, so the effort is worth it. I recommend starting with Dave Chesson’s free intro course.

Paid Ads  (20% effort)

Think promo sites like BookBub, Freebooksy, ENT, and The Fussy Librarian. They generate thousands of downloads for a reasonable investment of time and money. A single BookBub promo will be the most effective ROI for the entire year. In fact, it trounces everything else combined. But, they are very expensive and hard to get, hence the other sites. I run promos every quarter while rotating services. A typical year might look like this:

January : Freebooksy, Fussy Librarian, plus a tryout site
March : ENT, Book Barbarian, plus a tryout site
July : Freebooksy, Fussy Librarian, plus a tryout site
October : ENT, Book Barbarian, plus a tryout site

Keep in mind that this is for multiple books in multiple genres. I may run concurrent ads for Max and the Multiverse in the humor category and Transient in the suspense category. I will then select different categories on the next runs in order to capture the most readers. I do not run promos with the same service more than once in a six-month period because the ROI greatly diminishes. The services need time to expand their readerships. Even so, the overall cost can add up quick, so it helps to divide your budget and plan the year accordingly.

Newsletters  (20% effort)

Newsletters went from one of my least favorite marketing tools to one of my favorites. I have owned and operated several online businesses in the past, which gave me a “been there done that” aversion to them. But, I have since changed my tune because sending author mailers is a much more personal experience. As with most things in advertising, a genuine persona is far more effective that a hollow handout. Newsletters are a great way to keep readers up-to-date on events, happenings, and special offers.

I currently use MailerLite, which is a sleek and powerful option for small businesses. Many authors start with MailChimp, due to its zero-cost plan up to a certain threshold. I have long since surpassed that threshold, which accounts for a large chunk of the budget. The rest is spent on GDPR-compliant builder services like BookSweeps. Newsletters are a vital part of your online ownership, which you can read more about here.

Note: I also include reader magnets in this effort, which go hand-in-hand with newsletters. They require some initial setup, but are then largely hands-off. I recommend using a delivery service to help with automation, like BookFunnel or StoryOrigin. From there, you can submit magnets to group promos, which is an easy way to grow your mailing list.

Conventions  (10% effort)

Think comic cons and literary events. They used to be a much larger chunk of my overall cost and effort, as conventions can be a very effective strategy for new authors. It’s a great way to get in front of eyeballs and start building a readership. But after a while, the ROI will bottom out because you see the same people over and over. I decided to ratchet back to a handful of events per year (about one per quarter), which greatly improved my profit margin. I also stick to regional events, because travel and lodging can suck your budget dry. The only exception is if I am invited to attend as a guest speaker, which evens out the cost.

Note: conventions require several up-front costs (see this post for further detail). The budget in this case refers to the booth price, which varies based on popularity. I prefer mid-level events, which tend to have the best ROIs. Cons serve as regular meet-n-greets for fans of your books, which is far more effective than …

Book Signings  (0% effort)

Totally useless. So beyond useless are book signings that I have stopped reaching out to bookstores altogether. I did several before I threw in the towel. The biggest issue is that it forces you into a double-market situation. You are responsible for setting up the event AND promoting it, which rarely works out for anyone involved. The bookstores don’t care because it’s business as usual for them. Better to do your signings at large conventions and take direct advantage of their big-budget marketing teams.

Google and Facebook Ads  (0% effort)

Some authors have success with these and some don’t. I fall into the latter camp. One of the biggest issues is that you’re advertising to everyone, readers and non-readers alike. In addition, these platforms will happily spend the budget you give them, unlike Amazon Ads, which are far more conservative. The ROI was a bit too wonky for me, so I abandoned the effort.

BookBub CPC/CPM Ads  (0% effort)

This venture was a total head-scratcher. When I first learned about BookBub CPC/CPM Ads (their equivalent of Amazon Ads), I was super excited. Serving ads to massive reader pools is a no-brainer, so it was a bit jarring when the ROI tanked. Ad after ad, tweak after tweak, nothing I did made a difference. I thought I was doing something wrong, but after reaching out to some author friends, they all cited the same frustrations. I may revisit this later, but my initial efforts failed to crack the nut. (Not to be confused with featured ads, which are fantastic.)

Print Ads  (0% effort)

Don’t bother. Print ads are dead. You may as well record a book trailer on a VHS tape.

Social Media  (0% effort)

Probably the most controversial section in this post, but I stand by it. Social media is not an effective marketing tool, and it boils down to a single metric: time. These platforms demand your attention without offering a measurable return. I wasted so much time trying to unlock the secrets to engagement, which taught me a harsh yet valuable lesson: unless you have an established brand with a massive following, the time you spend on social media is better used elsewhere (like on writing the next book).

And so, that’s a decent synopsis of my marketing strategy for any given year. I hope that helps to clear some of the promo fog. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me directly. I also have several related posts for further reading:

An Author’s Guide to Comic Cons
Embrace the Trinity of Ownership: Website, Blog, and Mailing List
Rethinking Author Branding: Why Social Media is Marketing Poison

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