Monday, June 22, 2015

Quest for an Audience: What marketing works for an ebook, and what doesn't?

I've found these methods are commonly pushed online:

1) WRITE ANOTHER BOOK. This advice is typically delivered in 36 pt font and in all caps.
2) Promote on social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
3) Create a blog.
4) Participate in online forums for the genre you're writing in, engage with the writer community, and help others when and where you can.
5) Write and submit short stories.
6) Run ads.
7) Run promotions with services such as Bookbub, FreeBooksy, etc.

I tried several. Grab yourself a cup of really hot tea, settle in, and let's take a look at my results, shall we?


Jury still out, but I suspect this is extremely helpful.

My first book was 100,000 words, and my second is likely to be roughly the same, so it's taking time to complete. Too much time, I know. I ran into a number of issues that derailed me for awhile as well, so things are proceeding more slowly than I might have hoped.

I am considering writing shorter 'novelettes' in future, or doing something serialized so I have a regularly updated presence. Otherwise, readers apparently forget you. Out of sight, out of mind seems to be very true in the fast paced world of online indie publishing, although results may vary depending on the genre you are writing in:

"Those who want to do best at self-publishing, they found, would be well advised to focus on romantic fiction. Romance authors earned 170% more than their peers, while authors in other genres fared much worse: science-fiction writers earned 38% of the $10,000 average, fantasy writers 32%, and literary fiction authors just 20% of the $10,000 average."

Many authors on the Kboards are switching from long winded tomes to short, breezy novelettes. Dean Wesley Smith has written about how the traditional publishing market pushed writers to aim for a certain length, and began to frown upon shorter books. Many classics, however, are actually quite short. They'd qualify now as novelettes. And some authors went in to completed manuscripts to pad them out to 100,000 words, which seems a waste of time and talent.

Smith is a proponent of letting a story find its own length, and I agree with him. From a financial point of view, shorter works can be put out more frequently and thus keep up a constant stream of income. Writing massive epics means longer between cheques. Not only that, if the epic flops, you've invested, and essentially wasted, a lot of time on it without reward.

So it makes sense to write shorter pieces and publish more frequently.

Practice makes perfect, as they say.

If you go by Kboards, you'll find those who are pursuing it as a career do so with almost demonic determination, pumping out full novels every three months, or even faster, which doesn't seem possible if I look at my own writing speed. Some of them seem to be doing quite well at it, too, income wise. Which just allows them to write more.

Making a living from writing seems real pie in the sky type stuff to me. The average, 'real' writer makes only $10,000 per year, which is under the poverty line.

Those claiming higher incomes, then, are the exceptions, not the rule.

And as expected, sales by people with multiple titles are often higher than those with just one book. Helps build an audience.

2) Social Media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc)

I started up a Facebook account solely to promote my first book. I haven't dived into Twitter. One social media account at a time. I haven't put much effort into it. It takes a lot of time and energy to build a social media presence, you need to post frequently. It also helps to be connected to a large social network of people who are similarly engaged in these communities. If you aren't, it doesn't do much good.

3) Create a Blog

The blog (Welcome!) hasn't helped build an audience but I've had fun with it. Of course, they say blogging is dead.

You need to be focused, have a unique angle, and offer readers value. If I had really valuable advice on writing, for example, or incredible recipes, or helpful tips for car maintenance, or real estate buying and get rich quick schemes, or marketing secrets that work, well, the blog would have more readers.

But I have no secrets.

Not interesting ones, anyway.

I post stuff vaguely related to the post-apocalypse, articles on writing in general, my own adventures, plus reviews. Which millions of other people post. I suspect a thorough, in depth focus on something specific, say a run down of every post-apocalypse novel ever written, or every issue of Kamandi, episode of Thundarr, or analysis of the all the Fallout games would yield better results, but do not feel I am prepared to write such a research blog.

Maybe you can.

4) Online Forums and Communities

I've participated in a number of forums, mostly for writers, but there are others who have far greater levels of knowledge and expertise than mine already contributing.

So mostly I just listen.

On the Kboards, several successful writers now post under pseudonyms for various reasons.

They may be a two-edged sword, even for experts.

5) Short Stories, Anthologies, Competitions

I've written a number of short stories and submitted to various magazines and competitions. Some are still under consideration, but so far no dice. Not surprising, given the number of writers out there, my own novice status, and how competitive it is. It'd be like winning the lottery to get into a short story collection or a sci-fi magazine.

This is an area where persistence is a real virtue. It also has the side benefit of improving your writing.

The more you write, the better you get.

One can invest a lifetime into writing and achieve creative satisfaction and personal development but nothing else, neither audience or income, or you could write one story that goes viral and is a huge success. Of course, that risks being a flash-in-the-pan, as a lucky first break may bring success you aren't ready for.

Many authors who seem like instant successes spent years toiling away in obscurity before that one story hit an audience nerve and catapults them to success. Hugh Howey, for example. He's a great example of someone who worked hard not for the sake of success, but for the love of writing. And it all worked out. He's a cool guy too.

At the same time, full time writers have to be business people as well.

Writing is a craft and an investment. Some say it is easy (Iain McCaig) and others say it is extraordinarily complex (John Truby). But unlike studying medicine, or law, there's no guarantee of anything at the end of the learning curve other than self-fulfillment.

6) Online advertising

I've run a couple ad campaigns now using Google Ad Words (both text and image) and Amazon's own advertising system. They're kind of fun and exciting to do. But results wise? Crickets.

They are, in my opinion, entirely ineffective.

This may be due to the subpar quality of my ads, or perhaps ineffective targeting. I am writing for a niche audience.

Finally, many of my ads are probably hidden by ad blockers.

But what are the numbers, you ask? People love hard numbers. I get that. I also understand that people are often reluctant, for various reasons, to give them out.

In the altruistic spirit of this post, here they are: I have spent $500 on online advertising. Sounds like a lot, right?

For the results I got, it most certainly is.

First, I did a low burn text ad campaign I put $100 of funds into. $1 per day spending limit with bids set at 10 cents max. Some cost as little as a couple cents. On top of that I added two 'blitz' campaigns I ran only when the book was free. The idea was to maximize exposure and downloads and in so doing, gain reviews that are so essential to being regarded 'seriously' (as much as a flawed system can bestow legitimacy) and getting accepted by the book promotion services.

This is where you need to have more than one book. The first acts as a loss leader and gains interest. You only start charging with the second. But I have only one book so there's a conundrum. I figured I'd give away a short story or two but Amazon has cracked down on anything 'permafree', made it more difficult to make books/short stories permafree (it's a convoluted system where you have to list the story on another service, one that allows free listings, and then report it to Amazon, only it can't be you that reports it, or some such nonsense, what a headache, never mind) and as a result I abandoned the whole pain-in-the-butt idea.

I spent $400 on the two blitzes, split the budget between text and image ads. The text ads got higher click through rates, but the image ads got much higher views.

Neither translated into sales.

You can see the image ads here. Yes, this post is just chock filled with self-references.

Some of the ads have a a decent amount of text, but then, I am selling a book. I thought they were cheeky.

Well cheeky doesn't work, bucko.

On top of all of that, I gambled $100 on Amazon ads. In fact, I had to spend $100. You can only create an Amazon campaign if you invest the hundred buck minimum. It's that or no go. As I'd not tried them, I figured it'd be worth the attempt. Try, evaluate, refine, repeat.

I saw no movement with these ads either, so I won't be doing Amazon ads again.

It's all a little embarrassing. I feel like I just showed the world my underwear.

Perhaps better ads, or better targeting would yield better results. I don't know. But if you're going to run ads, make sure you've got good ones and that you use effective, targeted keywords.

On the plus side, it was fun. Kinda like gambling your savings away in Vegas surrounded by show girls and drinking scotch is fun. Which, come to think of it, might be a down side if you get addicted to that sort of thing.

7) Promotion Services (BookBub, FreeBooksy)

Several people online have said one should never use these services, ever, that they're just a waste of money and you'd be better to invest time in Twitter and social media instead.

I found the exact opposite.

I had a promotion with FreeBooksy (it isn't free for authors, it just lists free books) and a couple others, and had tremendous success, at least relative to all my other promotion methods. I'm writing in a very niche area, and every day there are over a thousand free books available for download. Several thousand I believe.

Competition to get in the promotional newsletter to their subscribers can be intense with the most recognized ones, such as BookBub.

Obviously the service picks books according to what they feel their audience is going to enjoy reading. That means books in popular genres are more likely to be listed, as are those that have overwhelming positive feedback (reviews, ratings). The promotion service's own success depends upon their subscribers having a positive reaction to the material they promote, and every bad book that gets in damages their brand. So they are understandably picky and will veer towards mainstream sensibilities, as that will elicit the strongest and broadest positive reaction. Niche material, or anything controversial, will be riskier to promote as it has the potential to harm the service.

Smaller services are more likely to take risks in their recommendations.

There's some negativity directed at popular writers from the literary crowd. At a writer event I went to (incognito), for example, they divided books into two groups: literary and 'crap that sells'.

My book would be classified as 'crap that doesn't sell' which is the worst of both worlds.


Personally, I enjoy reading in both areas, and I'm not about to begrudge someone for trying to make a living in a difficult market, whether it be by grants, fanfic, romance or whatever. Ya gotta do what ya gotta do.

I spent $70 on FreeBooksy (and, I think, a couple others) and got 1,500 downloads from their promotion. For a free book, mind you. And in such a crowded market, I consider that, from what else I've experienced in my self-publishing journey, very good. And from that set of free books, I got several reviews. Authors on the Kboards say you get about 1 review per 1000 copies downloaded. So I did fairly well with 4 reviews.

Reviews are necessary if you want to apply for many of these promotion services. Some require a minimum of 6 reviews and a 4 star average. A few bad reviews and you're out of consideration.

This means that there are strong incentives for people to try and game the system by having people they know give them five star reviews. And of course it is also easy to sabotage a book.

All my reviews are from strangers as almost all of the people I know don't read novels, and those who do aren't sci-fi buffs. It's ironic: they say no one reads anymore, yet there are more writers than ever.

We're just reading short articles and Twitter posts instead of novels.

Will there be a Best Twitter Post award eventually? Will the Great Tweeters rise up to take their place beside literary luminaries such as Victor Hugo, Hemingway and Poe? In a hundred years, will english classes be studying the greatest tweets alongside Shakespeare? Will anyone then have the attention span necessary to read Shakespeare, or will his plays have been translated down into 140 characters by then?

Yet, in all seriousness, Amazon sells over five billion worth of books every year. So somebody is still reading.

I got a couple more reviews by soliciting on a Google review community. So you can try that.

The majority of ebooks I've gotten out there have been given away for free, so I'm not making any money at this. My primary goal is to find readers. It will be a long term investment if it's anything.

Many authors give away their first book, just to gain traction in a crowded market. But it leads immediately to the first point, if you want it to work: WRITE ANOTHER BOOK.

There you have it.

Hope this was helpful, at least a little, and I wish you all the success with your (e)book(s)!

For some excellent advice on marketing, check out what Michael J. Sullivan and Chris Fox have to say. These are two smart cookies with lots of valuable advice.

Sullivan, for example, has this juicy morsel:

Before doing any serious marketing you need to get your Amazon reviews in the double digits. At least 10 but probably more like 12 - 15. Until you do that you, don't do any marketing of your book because people will land on your Amazon page then walk away as they don't want to take the risk if they see no or only a few ratings. See my posts above on getting reviews for tips. But bottom line: don't buy reviews, or trade reviews with other authors, get them by offering free review copies only.

Makes sense.


  1. Thanks for all this useful information! I haven't actually published anything yet but it's helpful to know what's been working and what hasn't for you.

  2. Hey Gene, you've just put everything I've been thinking into words! I released my first traditionally published book on 1st August, and self published a 2nd one 10 days later. Problem is, they're both the first books in different series. I'm told I'm doing really well because I've sold 11 copies of each this month. The 64,000,000 question, as far as I'm concerned, is how to reach the readers?

  3. Thanks Emily!

    Hi Justjen49,
    Congrats, and yes, I think that sounds excellent! And if you can put out two series at the same time, more power to you. If I might make a suggestion though: by doing both series at once, it'll take twice as long to complete either. If you focus on just one and finish it, you can use that to support/promote the second series. Readers will have a full story from you, and that will reassure them that you can write endings (and complete your projects), which will make them more likely to invest in the second series.

    At least, that'd be the idea. There are lots of successful series writers on the kboards who could offer you advice on this sort of thing, and they're better informed than I. =)

    Best of luck with your books! What are the titles, by the way?