Book Advertising: Lesson 1

During the last week of Oct I ran a promotion on Murder In Absentia and In Numina, in conjunction with some advertising. This post is about my experiences, what I learnt, and what I will be doing in the future for book advertising and marketing.

(Note to readers: If you’d like not to miss out when I do book promotions (and get Felix’s adventures on the cheap — he’d appreciate that, cheapskate that he is), just join the mailing list!)

From here on, I assume that this will interest mostly authors looking to market their books, though of course any reader who’s interested in what goes on in the life of an indie author is welcome to stay for the class and ask questions. The “Lesson” in the title is about my own learning

The Plans

Back in the days when international travel was a thing and I was schlepping to the office on a regular basis, my projection was that around this time I’ll publish In Victrix. This year being what it is, that has been delayed. (Not that I’m complaining, but realistically I don’t have the capacity to finish that project right now).

As part of the plan, I had budget set aside to do a BookBub campaign around the launch. While we’ll have to wait for another year till that is released, I decided I could use the time and budget to keep the momentum going for the existing novels.

Given that October (Halloween) has usually been a good time for me with book sales, I had a Kindle Countdown scheduled (as part of several other promotions) and applied to BookBub book deals. I wasn’t selected for either MIA or IN (they accept less than 20% of applications, so no big surprise), and I went instead with paid advertising.

Generally speaking (and I will expand on this later on), online advertising is just a classic sales funnel: You use it to generate exposure, ie. drive people towards your product; you give them a convincing pitch at the point of sale; and you make bloody sure that your product is solid so that people will like it, come back for more, and tell their friends.

The process is actually built up in reverse: first you have a good book, by which I mean properly edited for story and copy, and with a good, professional cover. Then you work on your sales pitch by ensuring that your Amazon page is helpful to the right reader, with the right keywords to come up in searches and plenty of reviews to convince them it’s worth it; and then you use ads to drive traffic to it. When it all works well, the ads are generating interest, the pitch is resulting in sales, and the good product results in fans that will snowball your exposure. Marketing 101, really.

I’m pretty certain I’ve done well with the first two. I employ editors (story and copy) for each book, and I can see how they improved my writing. I optimised my Amazon page as much as possible. So now it’s time for the ads (which, as you’ll learn later, may also affect your page optimisation).

The Ads

The Basics

The first thing you’ll pick up when you start reading about online advertising is that you need to continually tweak and retry, to do A/B tests (comparative), and to rinse and repeat until either you run out of money or you hit on the formula that generates you enough sales to cover all costs and make a small profit.

It takes a lot of effort to hit that confluence of right audience targeting and message to drive people to click the ad and review your book. That effort comes in lots and lots of small experiments. And even though each experiment shouldn’t cost too much, it still adds up so you need to budget set aside for it.

BookBub have a lot of information about ads freely available, which I’d suggest as further reading to anyone interested in trialling it. Find it here, with an intro to the basics here.

The Tests


I chose to run fours ads (you can see samples here). These are BookBub’s in-built basic ads, with a cover and a short text. I decided to trust their judgement initially, though at one point I definitely will experiment with my own graphics.

The ads were two sets of A/B test. The first targeted Jim Butcher fans, with the message “Like Harry Dresden in a Toga”. (While I explicitly do not write thrillers but detectives, I think there’s enough allure and overlap of audience). One ad had MIA and the other an IN on the cover.


The other ad targeted several urban-fantasy authors, such as Ben Aaronovitch, Mike Carey (Felix Castor series), and Kevin Hearne (Iron Druid). Both sets of ads were also set to target fans of fantasy and supernatural suspense genres (in case any of the authors have other writings, like epic fantasy, though given the BookBub genre choices I don’t think that was a factor after selecting those authors). The message was “Urban Fantasy Detective – with an Historical Twist”, something I thought would do both appeal to fans of those authors and well represent my own writing. Again, two ads with MIA and IN covers.

Another way to look at the A/B tests was for the same cover but different targeting. Though it’s both targeting and messaging the test is more diluted, there is still value in it. Like I said at the start, I expect there to be a lot of tweaks and retests.


I gave each a modest budget, and set it to spread over the promotion period of 5 days. I chose the CPM model, where payment is per 1,000 impressions (number of times the ad appears in front of someone), rather that CPC where you pay per click as the profit margins from a $0.99 special are already very low. I gave it a maximum cost somewhere in the middle of the winning bids range.

One thing that’s not immediately clear, is how that is used. Say your budget is 10$, your max cost is $10, and yo spread it over 3 days. That means that BookBub will use $3.33 per day, by using up only a fraction of the 1,000 impressions. So even though your bid might have “won” at $9-$10 (your max cost), since it’s spread over three days they only used a the relative portion.

Which may sound confusing on first read, but it just means that you can still get a few hundred impressions for a small payment, which is perfect for testing. Once you try it, you’ll get it šŸ™‚

The Results

My results were just under 100 impressions per $1 spend. Remember, that’s the times the ad appeared in front of a potentially interested reader, one who likes similar books / authors. That, however, is only a very superficial statistic.

The most important in this initial trial was the CTR, the click-through rate. That means how many of those who saw the ads actually clicked on it. It therefore measures how effective the ad was in driving traffic to Amazon and your “sales pitch”.

My results were 0.72% for the ads targeting Jim Butcher fans for both books. With the ads targeting the other authors, the CTR was 0.56% for MIA and 0.24% for IN. That gives a pretty clear ranking (even if numbers are generally small, and probably within statistical deviation), one that was generally expected. I did anticipate MIA to have a slight advantage over IN (due to the award medals on the cover), but that didn’t seem to carry for the first ad.

Now, the industry average for a good CTR is 2%-4%. (Yes, there are differences between adwords on Google searches vs Facebook display ads etc; but judging from several articles and forum posts both in general and for BookBub, that should be a good base to aim for). That means that my ads weren’t that effective in getting people to click them, and that needs to be improved first.

The CTR also affects the effective CPC. Say what? Simply, CPC as I mentioned above is the Cost-Per-Click. The more clicks (higher CTR) the less the average cost is per click. ie if you spent $10 and got 1,000 impressions and 10 clicks, that’s an effective CPC of $1 (you paid a dollar for every click). If you got 20 clicks out those same 1,000 impressions, that’s an effective cost of $0.5 per click.

Considering that not every click results in a sale and book margins being what they are, you definitely need to drive that as far down as possible. Only when I have a solid CTR, ie when my ads are effective at driving people to click through and look at the books on Amazon, can I worry about Conversion — the ratio of sales out of those clicks.

Next Steps

As implied above, I need to improve the effectiveness of the ads. That means playing with targeting (authors and genres) and the message (text and graphic of the ad). while I can do those tests with relatively small budget, it’s important to remember what the BookBub users come to it for — i.e. discounted books. I can do this with a full priced book, but the CTR will be much better when the ad reads “Only $0.99!” rather than anything over. It’s a no-brainer that people like “free” best, and interest declines as price increases. BookBub even give you the same stats themselves.

If I choose to only compare CTR when the book is 0.99, unless I put it permanently on that price point (I won’t, neither will I ever make them free) I am constrained to the times I can run the occasional Kindle Countdown. The other option is to baseline the ads on the full price, just so I can figure out the best targeting and messaging. This will be useful when I release In Victrix, as apart from discounted books the other big attraction to BookBub readers are new releases. While not exactly the same as MIA, I do hope it will be useful for that as well. I just need to do it with very small budgets, and not expect a return-on-investment in terms of, y’know, actual sales. (I do attribute most of the sales I made during this promo to either my mailing list, or the StoryOrigins promotions I participated in).

A tad depressing, I know, but consider this the price of learning the ropes and getting better at the business side of book writing and publishing.

Which neatly brings me to this:

Long-term strategy

That hasn’t actually changed. Ads are costly, and it’s very hard, even unlikely, to break even with them. Definitely so as an indie publisher with a small budget and no big marketing options like existing large mailing lists and shelf-space in physical stores.

Not that the big traditional publishers are raking it in — the whole industry is undergoing upheaval at the moment, akin to what music and videos were going through a decade or two ago. And don’t even get me started on self-styled gurus that will sell you a SureWay!!!ā„¢ to write 30 books a year and make 8-figure profits. Most of those are just that much better selling dubious services and promise to starved and desperate authors, then in actually writing and selling their own fiction.

So while I have the budget to play a little bit with ads to learn and improve what works for my books, the long-term strategy is based on series. Get at least another volume (In Victrix) published, ideally another one or two, then put the price for MIA down and concentrate on low-budget, constant advertising to drive interest to it. Then increase the conversion rate (ie ensure the Amazon page does a great job in getting people to actually buy the book. Once they’ve done that and read it, I can only hope that they’ll be interested in buying the next volumes (at full price), so that overall the series will make enough money to cover the cost of advertising.

Well, cover the cost of advertising as well as the cost of editing, and cover design, and all other incidentals like this blog. I have no illusions that writing is any sort of retirement plan, but at least writing and publishing is a self-funding hobby (unlike golf), and I do love the stories I get to tell šŸ™‚

You should also remember that advertising is only a subset of marketing. There are plenty of other strategies, and everything works together. Advertising is an aspect that only makes sense after you’ve paid for proper editing and covers, have a backlist of novels, and have used other strategies to garner the initial reviews that potential readers will judge your book by. And, of course, that writing-craft is a completely separate subject. That, like most art, improves with the practice; storytelling is why we got into this in the first place, and one should never lose sight of that.

So one could say my real long term plan is simply: write the best stories I can, because I enjoy it. Marketing and sales are a secondary exercise, which, one, I also enjoy to a degree, and, two, is simply there to support of the main goal of enjoying the creative process.

And, of course, any new readers I reach along the way and friends I make because of the books are just the icing on the cake. Perhaps with my next series, if I think my writing has improved enough, I’ll try submitting to a traditional publisher and reach some sort of hybrid model using influences and reach of both to make my own my. But the important this is always, and always will be, the fun of storytelling.

That’s it for now. Hope you found something useful, and it has given you food for thought. If you have any questions, feel free to comment! I’m not promising anything (certainly no magic bullets), but I’ll do the best I can to answer.


  1. Thanks for sharing your experience with ads and all the testing and tweaking that is needed. Your experience will help other authors tackle the business side of being an author better. I will share this widely.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. An interesting break-down and very useful for published and aspiring writers alike. I can confirm that, personally, I bought book 2 (already had MIA) based on the announcement on your mailing list, and not one of the other ads.

    Liked by 1 person

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