It’s very daunting to launch a book in the current climate, but there are opportunities as well. I reached out to one of my favorite book marketing experts, David Gaughran, to talk about how authors can utilize digital ads to reach their first readers, the importance of Amazon metadata, the importance of your newsletter, and tips for engaging your audience.
Here’s a transcript of our conversation:
Nathan: Hi everyone, Nathan Bransford here, really excited to be chatting with David Gaughran about marketing and all the different things you can do to give your book a boost. David is a well known author and marketing expert. He’s the author of Let’s Get Digital: How to Self-Publish and Why You Should, which has a new edition out, which is free, and he’s launching a new free course called “Starting from Zero” so David, thanks so much for
having (oops meant “joining”) me.
David: Thank you very much for inviting me on and hello to everybody.
Nathan: One of the things I like to tell authors is that there’s lots of things you can do market a book. You can go talk to booksellers, you can do ads… there are so many different things in person… well, in a normal world in person, and marketing to give a book a boost. But whatever you do you have to do something to reach those initial readers to propel it with word of mouth.
So let’s say an author is just starting out with a new book. How do you reach those first readers?
David: You’re certainly right that you have to do something or somebody has to do something on your behalf to sell a book. Books don’t magically sell. And if you look at just the Kindle store there’s 8 million books there so you really do have to do something to stand out.
Finding your first readers is pretty tricky. I think people get overwhelmed with the amount of options and I think sometimes people skip a couple of steps and jump into something more complex like Facebook ads or Amazon ads, and I don’t think that’s a particularly good idea when starting out. To get value from those strategies you really need a few books out, you need a bit more experience, and you need a bit of money to spend on ads quite frankly. I think there are easier, cheaper, and more effective ways for a beginning author to get their books into readers’ hands.
I like authors to focus first on exploring the world of deal sites. I’m sure everyone will be familiar with Bookbub, but there’s a whole range of smaller and more affordable sites. They don’t have anything like the power of Bookbub, but some of these ads will only cost $25-$50, and that’s within the range of most people’s budgets.
Bookbub itself, if anyone’s not familiar with it just as a reader by the way, I highly recommend that you sign up for Bookbub as a reader. And what you’ll see is, and all the sites operate like this, Bookbub is just a bit slicker and a bit bigger, you sign up and give them your e-mail address, and it’s kind of like a Groupon for books. You indicate during the signup process that you particularly like science fiction, fantasy, books on history, or whatever genres you’re interested in, and every day you get a deals email.
The books will be free, $0.99, $1.99, $2.99, usually not more than that and it will be a mixture of some really big names. Sometimes you’ll see Dan Brown in there, people of that level. And there will be a lot of traditionally published authors that you might not have heard of yet, and quite a few self-publishers as well.
It’s a really good thing. As a reader I actually buy several books from them myself. Getting in emails like that can be very powerful for driving sales. I think that’s probably the first place that newer authors should look to drive sales because if you want to boil it down just to clicks to your Amazon page, those are the cheapest clicks. You can end up spending a lot more money trying to get people to visit your books page if you’re using Facebook ads, whereas these deal sites, they’re cheap, you don’t need any kind of special knowledge, anyone can book an ad. There are some that will accept almost any book once it’s well-presented so you don’t need to have a name or 100 reviews or whatever.
It really is an option that everyone should explore, and it’s something I still do now that I have the money and the knowledge to do large-scale Facebook campaigns, I still always include those deal sites in my marketing campaign.
Nathan: Awesome. One of the things you also impress on people is that there’s a lot that authors can do even just to make sure your book appears correctly on Amazon. What are some of the must-dos when you’re self-publishing to make sure that your books are appearing properly on Amazon, or even if you’re traditionally published and you want to make sure your publisher did it right.
David: There’s definitely a bunch of things that you need to have in place, and this is one of the steps that a lot of people skip, quite frankly. They want to jump towards the flashier end of things, the marketing, that’s kind of exciting getting your book into readers’ hands. But diving into something like metadata isn’t quite as sexy. It’s not as exciting. But the benefits are really huge.
This is something that actually doesn’t cost money, and it’s one of the few things that traditionally published authors can try to do. They can at least try to influence their publisher to do the right thing. Self-publishers of course can do it all for themselves and it doesn’t cost anything.
I think it was Seth Godin who said the best marketing is baked into the product and I’m a firm believer of that. It goes for everything, like your cover should really speak to your genre, your description needs to be really tight, and I think people need to spend more time on those details. Or if they’re with a publisher and they’re not happy about a certain aspect, I think it’s better to get that right than be worried about damaging your relationship too much, although you probably want to go via your agent for that conversation.
But in terms of things like metadata, there are a couple of simple things that everyone can do that will really really benefit them. For example, when you first publish your book on Amazon, they only let you pick two categories to put your book into. The menu that it lets you pick from is the industry standard BISAC menu. We don’t need to go into the details of that, but it just means that it’s more restrictive than what you actually see in the Kindle store.
The Kindle Store is broken down into a crazy number of categories and subcategories. I think the last count had 14,000 categories, so they get really niche, really granular. The cool thing about it is every single one of those categories has its own top 100 bestseller list for free and for paid books. It also has its own top 100 bestseller list for new releases, anything released in the last 30 days. So that’s a huge amount of visibility. I think I calculated roughly 4 million chart positions up for grabs.
Heavy power readers especially really do spend a lot of time on Amazon looking for new books to read. They get recommendations from all kinds of sources of course, but they will spend a lot of time going through the charts of their niche. If you’re really into bear shifter romance, the top 100 on Amazon is going to be a great discovery tool for you and a great place for you to find new books to read. The New York Times bestseller list maybe less so.
Amazon is aware of how important it is as a discovery tool, it builds a lot of churn into the charts so that people who do log into Amazon a few times a week looking for a new book see a fresh set of books. So it’s not like the front table of a regular bookstore that might change much slower than that.
What you need to do is, select two categories when you upload to Amazon, but after you publish your book you can add up to 10. Amazon has now finally been explicit about how many categories you can have for your book; you can have a maximum of 10 including paperback and Kindle categories.
The cool part is when you go to add those additional categories, which you can do via KDP if you’re self-published but you can also do it through your Author Central if you’re traditionally published, although you might need approval from your publisher. What you can do is add really granular categories at that point. So for example when you’re publishing your book on Amazon the choice you get is quite restricted, you won’t be able to drill down into bear shifter romances or whatever your target category is. But when you add them afterward, you can.
Let’s say you’re a fantasy author for example, and when you’re publishing your book you’re just putting it into the fantasy category. You need to sell an incredible amount every single day to stay in the top 100 overall for fantasy. But if you drill down to something like epic fantasy it requires a lot less, 30-40 books a day, starting to get a bit more reasonable than selling hundreds a day.
And if you look for something a bit more niche than epic fantasy like dark fantasy or I think there’s a category about dragons, some of those categories you only need to sell a few books a day. And that’s suddenly becoming more achievable especially for a newer author. So I really recommend trying to find up to 10 categories where your book really fits well. I wouldn’t throw it into any category just because it’s easier to get to #1, that will actually hurt you in the long run, you need to just keep it relevant.
So that’s one way that everyone can expand their visibility on Amazon. And the reason why that’s important is because when you do start selling books, all of a sudden you’re appearing in much more places in the Kindle store, you’re much more visible to Amazon customers who are looking for books. You’re much more discoverable, you appear higher in the search engine, there’s all sort of benefits. Amazon will then start recommending your book as well once you get a little bit of momentum.
Nathan: Well, I have some work to do after this interview, that’s awesome. So back to digital ads, there are so many options available. There’s Amazon ads, there’s search ads, Facebook, Instagram, Bookbub… Where’s the author going to get the best bang for the buck? Is it still Bookbub, or where do you think authors should focus when it comes to digital ads?
David: I think they should primarily focus on three platforms and really pick one to start with. But the only really effective ones are Bookbub ads, Facebook ads, and Amazon ads. And that’s probably roughly my personal order of preference because I’ve never really been able to get Amazon ads to be able to work for me on a larger scale. I can eke out a little bit of success but I’m not very good at scaling it up. I’m much more successful with Facebook ads and Bookbub ads, but other authors are different, they try Amazon ads and the platform just kind of clicks with them and they have some success with it.
I would do an initial bit of research on all three platforms and see which one kind of appeals to you a bit more, which one makes more sense to you because they’re all complex in their own ways. You don’t really want to go that far into ads but you want to do something on that front, then maybe Amazon ads is the easiest just to get to a very moderate level of skill, but if you just want to dedicate yourself to the one with the most potential to grow in the future, then Facebook is the biggest by far. You can do so many different things with Facebook ads that you can’t do on the other platforms.
My actual personal favorite though is Bookbub ads, that’s the one I was able to crack quickest and again it has its own unique features. What I like about Bookbub ads is that you always know your ad is going to a book reader, and a passionate one at that.
Nathan: On Facebook, is there anything that you’ve found that works especially for you or any approaches you’d recommend to authors as they begin to kind of dip their toe in the water to Facebook and Instagram?
David: Here’s something that will work for everybody no matter how they’re published or even if they’re not published yet. Spending money on Facebook ads, it’s going to be tough to make that work for you if you’re traditionally published, quite frankly, even if you’re with a smaller publisher and you have a more generous percentage on the ebooks it’s still going to be really tough. It’s hard enough as a self-publisher with 70% of royalty rates to make Facebook ads work. If you’re getting a fraction of that it’s going to be really tough.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do with Facebook. Facebook’s audience is just so big. Even after the last 2-3 years of nonstop bad press, Facebook’s numbers have barely been impacted. The user growth every quarter has remained almost constant all throughout that. I think it’s growing 8 or 9% a year. The last figures I’ve heard, the whole Facebook family of apps if you want to include Instagram, WhatsApp, and everything else, has 3 billion monthly active users or it’s just about to cross that, so you’re going to see a whole slew of think pieces from like New Republic and The New Yorker, they’ll all be releasing articles about it so get ready for that.
So yeah, they’re at 2.99 billion the last I heard. If you even just drill down to Facebook and people who log in every day, so daily active users, which is probably a better metric to look at, there’s 1.7 billion people logging into Facebook every single day. That is absolutely crazy! What’s the world population, we’re coming near 8 billion or something? It just boggles the mind.
So when someone says “I write [whatever kind of book they’re talking about] and will Facebook ads work for me?” I always think, it’s not just where your readers might be, it’s where everyone’s readers are every single day.
There’s going to be a way you can make it work for you if you dedicate the time to learn the platform and you have the money to spend. But not everyone does, so what can you do to reach that audience?
I recommend that authors use a little bit of content marketing to start building up an audience on Facebook. And even more important than finding new readers, I think your author platform, and I would include Facebook, your mailing, your website in that, I think it’s important for deepening connections with readers.
We’ll probably talk about e-mail in a minute because that’s the best tool for the job, but I also use Facebook for that as well. Sometimes it’s hard for fiction authors in particular to figure out what do they talk to readers about, what do they post to Facebook. Because I recommend they do post content regularly to Facebook so that people have somewhere to follow them and so you can get new readers that way.
It can be tricky to figure out, but once you click into the mindset it actually starts getting really easy. So for example, I write nonfiction and historical fiction. With my nonfiction it’s easy, I can talk about publishing news, new marketing things, there’s a whole range of easy topics that I can talk about that authors will be interested in. But it’s a bit trickier for historical fiction, and people can be unsure when they start out what they should post on Facebook and they end up either talking about themselves too much or their books too much, or they end up talking about the craft of writing. You see sometimes people starting a blog on how to write books and they’re not writing books for that audience it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
For my historical fiction audience I share things like, if it’s the anniversary of the guillotine I might say happy birthday to the guillotine and give people an interesting story about the doctor who invented it and how appalled he was at the use his creation was put to eventually and the way they tested. Grim stuff like that that I know my readers will be into. If I see a deal on a Ken Follett book that I know a lot of people will be after, and I’m after his audience, so that’s definitely something I want to post on Facebook.
If you write time travel romance you might do a recap of the Outlander show, if you write science fiction there are all sorts of movies you can talk about. Basically put on your fan hat and remember that you’re talking one fan to another to core fans of your genre and then it gets easy. What do you talk about when you’re with a bunch of fellow nerds?
Have that conversation on Facebook, share that stuff regularly, especially stuff that keeps people on Facebook because that gets a lot of free organic play and Facebook likes that and will give it a bit more of a boost. Sometimes I’ll just put a photograph up of a book, like a paperback from my collection, and talk about why I liked it or something like that and Facebook will give that a lot of free airplay because it’s keeping people on the platform.
You just gotta start thinking like a reader, talk to them like one reader to another, and then every so often work in mentions of your books. I don’t not talk about me or not talk about my books, every so often I’ll say, “Hey, I got a sale on this” or if it’s a launch I’ll definitely be talking about my books a lot. But I think you should lean towards just sharing stuff that a fellow fan of your niche will like.
Nathan: That’s very good advice, yeah. So back to that mailing list, the newsletter, you talk a lot about the importance of the newsletter. Can you talk about why it matters so much, some tips about how authors should go about thinking about their mailing list, and building up a newsletter base?
David: I think it’s important to stress this in the age of everyone being obsessed with Facebook ads and Amazon ads and all that, even despite all the things you can do with those platforms, the number one marketing tool, your number one focus at all times should be growing your mailing list with happy and engaged subscribers. It’s not just a number chasing game, it shouldn’t be in fact. The moment you stop looking at your subscribers as people and thinking about them as numbers in a ledger, then you’ve taken a wrong turn.
What you’re seeking to do with your email list is really building a community of readers and start a dialogue with them. The reason why email is so good at that, basically, let me put it this way. Every business knows that it’s much easier and cheaper to retain a customer than to acquire a new one. I was actually looking at some research recently from the Harvard Business Review, and they said it was 5-25 times more expensive to acquire a new customer than to keep an existing one.
Now, authors especially should be seeking to cultivate a readership that comes back and buys all their books. It’s hard enough to get discovered when there are 8 million books in the Kindle store when you do manage to close a sale with a reader, you desperately need as many readers as possible signing up to your list. What you see when you start to do that, your email list grows with every promotion you do, every sale you have, every book that you launch your email list will be growing.
Every time you launch a book, every time you promote one of your backlist it will go higher and higher in the charts. It just gathers a lot of momentum. It can be slow to start and frustrating and you can get frustrated with the pace, but it will gather pace over time.
What you really need to do is not just seek to boost the numbers, because the real job of a mailing list is to deepen engagement with your existing fans and your existing readers, and perhaps turn them into super fans, the kind of reader who will go out and be your unofficial sales force recommending your book left, right, and center.
I used to do email all wrong. I did it wrong for 8 years, and it’s probably the biggest mistake I made in my career. What I used to do, I only used to email people when I had a new book out. And I thought I was being considerate. Everyone gets too much email, I’ll only bother them when I have really big news like a new release.
What happened was, I could see over successive book launches that my open rates were falling, less people were clicking on the emails, less people were buying the books, a pretty bad sign, and less people were engaged in the content. I was getting less replies. I released a book a few years ago and I was really proud of it, the best book I’d written. I think it took 24 hours or something just for someone to reply to the launch email and I was like, “What’s going on here, there must be some error?” And there was, my whole approach to email was wrong.
Basically I had developed a relationship with my readers where I only turned up at their house when I wanted money from them. I never spoke to them outside of that. And I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing, so even with the best of intentions you can mess this stuff up.
What I started doing after, I took a course on email by Tammy Labrecque and she’s now turned it into a book, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in newsletter marketing, it’s called Newsletter Ninja.
Nathan: Yeah, it’s really good.
David: Yeah, it’s amazing. And that just changed my whole approach to email. Usually when I read a book on marketing or publishing or writing, I’m always just nitpicking. “Oh this wouldn’t work for me” or I try to adapt something for my circumstances, but for this I realized I had been messing everything up so badly I’m just going to do everything she says and not mess with anything. I’m just going to do everything she says, and this is not normal for me. Maybe I should do it more often because it was hugely successful.
I started emailing people regularly, so my historical fiction list, I emailed them once per month and that’s regular enough for fiction. For most authors that will be regularly enough. For my nonfiction, for my author site, I started emailing people weekly and I started offering a free book for people to sign up. I started prioritizing my list. I started trying to make it feel like a VIP club that people would want to join, that people would be missing something. People might be having conversations saying, “Oh did you see this email” and they’re not part of it.
If you can create that feeling of exclusivity… I wrote a book and I could have put it on sale on Amazon and made some money out of it but I gave it to my list for free and you couldn’t get it anywhere else, even for money. You couldn’t get it anywhere else without signing up to my list.
And then I made sure that there’s value in every email going out every week. And if I couldn’t summon up an e-mail with value by the time Friday rolled around I would just skip it and apologize the next week saying, I’d rather not send an email unless I knew it had real value in it for my subscribers.
I’m trying to treat them with a bit more respect, trying to make sure there’s value in every communication, trying to make sure the contact is regular. And the results were absolutely stunning. My list grew 600% in the first year, still a crazy rate the next year, something like 400% or 300%. It wasn’t just that more people joined the list and more people were opening and clicking and buying, and that’s all super welcome believe me, it’s just internally I felt like I actually had a readership rather than this abstract thing on the internet somewhere. I felt like I had a community of people that I was conversing with.
I got so many other benefits out of it. Even just psychologically internally. So much of what we do is on our own, we don’t even touch the money we get paid before it goes out on bills, it’s so intangible, especially for a self-publisher where most of your sales are online, most of your sales are e-books, it’s a very intangible experience. You don’t have the book signings, the galleys sent by your publisher and all of that. So it’s good to have something a bit more tangible where you’re actually having conversations with your readers, so I think internally that’s personally something I found very positive.
And then all these amazing things started happening from taking this approach. I’d been using my list… “using” is a horrible word to use, but I’ve been using my list as a giant beta reading tool. So I gave away a book for two years and I had 10,000 people downloading it, lots of people gave me feedback because I asked them to email me directly because they couldn’t review it on Amazon or whatever, and I used that to rewrite the book and turned it into a paid edition that’s going on sale in a few weeks.
I’m getting a lot of benefits it personally, they’re getting a lot of benefits I think from just looking at the numbers and everything else and the feedback I get, so it’s something that’s working out great for everybody and my only regret is that I didn’t do it 8 years beforehand.
Nathan: Totally. So one of the things I keep hearing from authors is that it feels challenging to launch a book right now in this climate between the pandemic, especially in the United States the political distractions… What advice do you have for authors who feel daunted by launching a book into this period of uncertainty and to learn these tools that might be unfamiliar? What would you say to an author who feels kind of daunted by this entire process?
David: Well, without making light of anything that’s going on anywhere and the struggles that people face, we should recognize that parts of publishing are not going to be ravaged by the current economic and public health crisis and political issues that are going on everywhere. While certain aspects of the publishing industry are exposed to a little disruption in terms of physical bookstores or anyone depending heavily on print sales might have a tricky time ahead, but that doesn’t describe all parts of the publishing industry and doesn’t describe all authors and publishers.
I’m certainly seeing, and from talking to my friends, that there hasn’t been any abatement in reading. People seem to be reading more than ever. Anyone I know that has a free book out there or some kind of easy offer for people has seen a massive increase in downloads of that free book, and that’s certainly something I’ve witnessed myself. I just did a Bookbub promotion on a free book myself a month ago and the numbers were well ahead of what I expected and well ahead of the averages there. I don’t think that was down to my literary brilliance exclusively, Nathan.
Everyone seems to be reporting the same thing. People seem to be reading more than ever, they might be reading in a different format, I’m certainly seeing comments from authors saying that they’re seeing a lot of first time e-book readers coming into their email asking technical questions about how to open an e-book and things like that. So there seems to be a lot of people switching to digital readers.
It will be tough for certain sectors but the first thing I’d say is, the readers aren’t going away, you might just have to switch up how you reach them, you might have to switch up how you’re publishing or what effort your publisher is putting their marketing dollars toward, maybe they need to switch more to online stuff.
Here’s an interesting opportunity, if you can use that word during this crisis. One thing a lot of us have noticed in the last few months is that the price of Facebook ads has dropped considerably.
Now, I haven’t noticed this with Amazon ads personally, maybe not so much with Bookbub ads, because I think indies will use those platforms a bit more heavily than the Big 5 publishers. They seem to spend more on Facebook ads, and a lot of big companies, including the bigger publishers, seem to have scaled back their Facebook campaigns. That’s the only explanation I have for seeing quite a significant drop in cost per click, and that’s something I’m seeing reported across the board. It’s not just the cost per click that’s dropping, conversions seem to be rising too, which is a wonderful combination when the ads get cheaper and people do more buying when they click as well.
If you’re in a position to push your work online if you’re in a position to self-publish, if you’re in a position to convince your publisher to focus on e-books, I don’t think it’s all bad right now, in fact I think there are quite a few positives.
Nathan: Awesome, well anything we didn’t cover or any last word you want to give authors? You have a new book coming out…
David: Yeah I have a bunch of stuff out now! If people want a guide to self-publishing, the latest edition of Let’s Get Digital just came out like a week ago or something. That’s been completely revamped and comes with a bunch of bonus resources for people because I really want to give people a roadmap for going all the way from the end to selling their first books. I want them to have help at every step of the way.
Aside from that, I also have a weekly marketing newsletter that has a ton of information on it. One cool thing is that when you sign up for that, well, you get a free book for signing up so that’s pretty cool, it’s a book called Following which is all about platform building. For those pursuing traditional publishing, this is the one book of mine that will be most useful for you, I think, because it covers how to set up your Facebook page, how to run your email list, how to build your website, what hosting package I recommend, where you should buy your domain name, and how you should set up the technical parts, which I think will be useful.
Once you sign up to the list you actually get access to all the old emails, there’s an archive of all the best emails. So anything you missed, like I did a whole twelve-part series on Facebook ads explaining the method that I used, you get access to all those old emails during the welcome process as well. So I really do recommend signing up to that.
And then, if you’re more interested in Amazon and the algoirthms of Amazon, I have a book coming out called Amazon Decoded, which I think as we speak it might be out in two or three weeks, it’s hard to say now with coronavirus delays and everything. But it will be out soon enough, and if you sign up to my list you’ll definitely get an email from me when it launches, and that’s all about how the Kindle store works, breaking down how all the different algorithms work, all the kind of things you can do with categories.
We only spoke about categories, there’s so much you can do with keywords, even the series name, even the author name you pick has implications. Especially if you write in more than one genre, there’s a whole section on that now, on pen names. When you should use them, when it may be too much hassle for you. The way Amazon looks at different names and how that can affect you. I used to publish everything under the same name, and that actually ended up hurting me. Even just putting an initial in between, so I think I’m David N. Gaughran for historical fiction, even that is enough to make you distinct in the eyes of Amazon’s algorithms.
And also how you can arrange your promotions, so what kind of a marketing plan you need to try and get the best chance to convince Amazon to take over and do the selling of your book for you. Ultimately it mightn’t sound like it but I really am quite a lazy guy, so if I can convince Amazon to take over and do the selling for me, I’m more than happy to chill out instead.
Nathan: Absolutely, good note to end on. Thank you so much for joining me, I really appreciate it, a lot of great information.
David: Alright thanks so for having me.
Thanks again to David, and don’t forget to sign up for his newsletter!
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