First thing to tell you guys: I’ll be keeping my novels in Kindle Unlimited for now. That was really up in the air until six weeks ago.
Can you see the scratches and bruises I’m carrying from my first six months in Kindle Unlimited? Some of them are from a few customers unhappy I’ve limited their options to one place to buy my ebooks—most have been very understanding, though—but the lion’s share of the wounds coming from learning with a capital L.
Recap: For several years, my sales had been in a free fall. Six-months into KU, I’m projecting to be back in 6-figure online sales this year. How did I make the transition back to a living wage (after hefty expenses, especially advertising/promo), and what lessons did I learn to arrive at something that works, and what 6 pro tips am I offering you as a result?
What I tried
I moved my books into Kindle Unlimited around August 1st of 2019. I then started experimenting with Kindle Countdowns on my mystery trilogies (all 3 novels at 99 cents for 7 days for some trilogies; first novel free and 2nd and 3rd at 99 cents with others) with brute force ad and promo spending of about $2k per promo to try to generate maximum page reads. I did the same with some of the box sets.
Two of my protagonists failed spectacularly: the two with the highest ratings on Amazon!
Katie (Saving Grace, Leaving Annalise, Finding Harmony, Box Set): break even. The failure of my Facebook and Amazon ads to generate the type of sales I have enjoyed with email subscription promos signaled that something was really wrong.
Emily (Heaven to Betsy, Earth to Emily, Hell to Pay, Box Set): almost breakeven. Verdict: She’s a great read through asset for Katie, if I can get her covers in line. I don’t think I need to promote her.
Michele (Going for Kona, Fighting for Anna, Searching for Dime Box): loss (I had an international Bookbub on this box set; I am glad I said yes to it even though I never make money on those, because it’s hard to get a US BookBub on a KU book, and I truly believe that this one was the loss leader for the one BookBub said yes in the US to six weeks later; more below; humans curate the picks for BookBub, and if you say no once to one you don’t want . . . well, did I mention they’re humans?). Anyway, I don’t think Michele’s promotable for me at this time.
Ava (Bombshell, Stunner, Knockout, Box Set): big loss. I don’t think Ava’s promotable for me at this time.
Maggie (Live Wire, Sick Puppy, Dead Pile, Box Set, prequels Buckle Bunny & Shock Jock): I didn’t promote Maggie during this time because I’m fighting with Audible about Findaway audiobooks. I wanted to wait until all the formats of all her books were fully loaded until promoting her, and the timeline on that has stretched out 9 months and counting now. Grr. More on audiobooks next month. But my consultant and I do think Maggie is promotable, especially because of her relation to the very successful new Patrick Flint series. She’s a good feeder to him, and he’s a good feeder to her. In fact, her sales have doubled since Switchback came out.
Patrick Flint (Switchback, Snake Oil, Sawbones): I didn’t promote until January, more below.
Note: I was working with a very good consultant on these strategies. But they only work if the the funnel between discovery and reading through to The End is frictionless. These below-expected results across the board pointed out issues at every point in my funnels. I had to fix them.
When I reached rock bottom
Since 2015, I’d gone from dizzying heights of financial success to implementation of a new business model where I trained employees to take over functions for me, then spiraling down to being nothing more than a healthy tax write-off against my husband’s income. I realized that unless I had a positive return, my poor husband could never retire, plus I *hated* where things were at.
I like to “win.” And to me, success was defined as being a career writer.
My first four months in KU didn’t inspire me to think I could make a turnaround without major changes, so…I studied my results and I followed my gut and my aching heart.
I made big changes . . .
I let my employees go. I let my expensive editor go and hired one that cost 75% less (and added a 750-person (not a typo) proofreading team of advance readers, see below). I took courses on ads and threw myself into doing them for myself on Amazon and Facebook for the first time. I eliminated every bloated expense I’d accumulated in the last 4.5 years as I’d handed over all the reins to other people, who, while caring and good at their jobs, weren’t me—I’m the only one I can expect to be 110% invested in my success and completely attuned to all my books, readers, and the junk in my brain.
INDIE PUBLISHING RETREAT WITH PAMELA NEAR AUSTIN, TEXAS, APRIL 14-16, 2020, ONE SPOT AVAILABLE
FICTION WRITING INTENSIVE WITH PAMELA NEAR SHERIDAN, WYOMING, JUNE 23-27, 2020, TWO SPOTS AVAILABLE
And I returned to my pre-2015 roots. I can do my own bookkeeping. I can create and run my own ads. I can format and mange my own assets. I’ve started recording my own audiobooks, and I have also learned to write much, much faster. I’m writing better books now in less than time than I did in 2016-2018 with 3 employees.
When the lightbulb went off (and the tide turned, and other yummy cliches)
But just because I had reduced costs and taken things over, didn’t mean I was back on the gravy train yet. However, I expected a long slog, while things actually improved dramatically within six weeks.
After I released my first Patrick Flint thriller, SWITCHBACK, on November 15th of 2019, it was fizzling along (with no promotion). I had and have it priced at $4.99. It was a standalone at the time (although book #2 SNAKE OIL came out January 15th and book #3 SAWBONES comes out in April). I gathered my courage and ran my first “from scratch by Pamela” Facebook ad using a photograph of my husband that I filtered in Canva.com (based on lots of advice I had been getting about not using stock photos in ads). Heck, I even made a SWITCHBACK video trailer with my personal pictures!
Here’s the ad that launched a thousand ships. I have a better version now, but it doesn’t have all this lovely engagement:
The ad rocked. I mean, it really rocked. It has 140 shares and nearly 600 likes at the time I’m writing this (it’s 3 weeks old). Even better, it sold books and “reads” in KU. I added more ads (including one with the trailer!) and started some on Amazon. Amazon was slower to convert for me, but it’s chugging along nicely now.
Here’s the cool video trailer version:
Note: I’d been working off and on with a number of different consultants and ad managers. (Punchline: Nicholas Erik is wonderful (!!!!), Adwerks is too expensive for mere mortals such as myself, and Reedsy was too expensive for me, too, and also didn’t work on my books, but that may be timing/me too early in my journey.
Bonus pro tip: I can’t make money on ads if someone else is doing it for me, because that eats up all my profits. It may be the same for you unless your revenue is Mark-Dawson-like enormous.
At the same time, I invited all 18,500 of my newsletter opt-in subscribers to join a special “all my books free for life” advance reader proofing and reviewing team. I need reviews and proofreading! I didn’t arrive at this decision lightly. I evaluated my newsletter data and sales and realized I WASN’T SELLING ANY BOOKS TO MY LIST, EVEN THOUGH I WAS SPENDING $80 A MONTH ON THEM (and they weren’t reviewing my books either). At the same time, I’d been finding that KU readers leave fewer reviews than buyers, and more and more of my income is generated by those KU readers.
I was terrified, but I did it, and 750 people signed up for my advance review team. Gulp. I immediately shot up to 120 reviews (great ones) on SWITCHBACK, and I learned that several of my subscribers were Amazon Top Reviewers and Vine Voice reviewers. That was a nice surprise. The reviews helped the book perform, no doubt, which all in turn led to a CHIRP (BookBub) audio promotion deal for March 31st, my first ever, and on a book I narrated. I even did a 2-day price drop on my newest release and told my advance reviewers to post their reviews on those days, and to buy it if they were so inclined to get a “verified purchase” by their review, or to download it on KU and read it there.
Y’all, I made more money on those discount sales to 750 people whom I’d already given the books to than I had been making on my dang 18k list. Plus I got tons of super nice emails and some great error-catches 🙂
Also at the same time, to be ready to capitalize on new subscribers around these new releases, I put together a new subscriber onboarding sequence that lasts 70 days and leads subscribers through a four-volume free library and into opportunities (one email per protagonist) to purchase each of my first-in-trilogy books and nonfiction for half-price, and finally on to a survey where they have a chance to win some box sets and I get their valuable input.
As of now, if they remain a subscriber after four months, I’m thinking of inviting them to join the advance reads/proofing team. HOWEVER, I will make that decision after I see how my next release goes and whether my mega list subscribers buy any books then. If they don’t, there’s no reason not to offer them the chance to work on reviewing and proofing which I hope eases them into becoming super fans who buy what I’ve already given them, like I’d seen happen with my review team already (and otherwise to cull them from my list because they cost me a lot of money).
Side note: I culled my 18.5k subscribers down to 13.5k and downgraded my “level” on Mailerlite for a savings of $360 a year. This should help my open rates and overall spam rating considerably. And I can plow that money back into ads. I’m open to getting rid of the rest of them (subscribers who don’t engage) if financials point me in that direction. Or at least archiving them somewhere for now so I don’t have to pay for them every month!!!
And my Amazon affiliate income tripled from December to January.
What was clear from my SWITCHBACK ads was that my Wyoming novel/cover and my ad image had a strong regional appeal. I was selling to people that like C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett—whose covers I had used as inspiration—and similar fiction. (It was a good surprise and also clear that those readers then circled back to my Maggie Killian books, also set in Wyoming, and with covers inspired by Craig Johnson’s Longmire covers.) According to Nicholas Erik, he has found that readers do read by region in Kindle Unlimited, especially in my genre (crime fiction). I’ve been targeting my successful Facebook ads to readers of Box and Johnson OR readers of crime fiction who like Westerns. My Amazon ads targeted toward Box and Johnson do great, but the other big surprise is how well category ads are doing for me there, as well as ads targeted at major thriller writers.
In the wake of this (giddy) success, I added ads for my What Doesn’t Kill You series lead, SAVING GRACE. It has nearly 3000 reviews and a 4.5-star rating, yet those ads didn’t do nearly as well. (However, the read through historically is insanely good and I have 15 books in that series, so the ads are still worth it, just far underperforming my hopes.)
Then I added ads for my first box set, Katie Connell. Those did well. In the meantime, I had put together paperbacks and audiobooks for each of the box sets (I have five) as well as an Amazon series and corresponding series page for just the box sets. That helped readers who like box sets to read through them. And then I got a 99 cent BookBub featured deal on the box set, which did fantastically well.
I relied heavily on ad performance metrics utilizing my historical read through data to calculate life time value of sales and KU reads, so that I’d know when to spend and when not to spend (see below). For my first month doing all my own advertising, I’m solidly in the black day-to-day on ad expenses versus revenue (so much so that I’m solidly in the black overall), and, even better, my LTV projections on these ads are through-the-roof.
But there was a fly in the ointment, and that was that the series lead SAVING GRACE was still underperforming. And, with input from Nicholas Erik, and with what I learned from SWITCHBACK, I finally understood why. I didn’t have a cover that made it easy for my niche readers to know it was their book. And Facebook and Amazon ads are dependent on a cover that converts with YOUR audience. I’ve redone my covers before, but that process only showed me that we’d gone the wrong direction again. This time, I have a clear vision and understanding of what to change, and I’m optimistic and excited. I’ll share the results with you when we have sufficient data.
BOTTOM LINE RESULTS IN JANUARY:
I released SNAKE OIL on January 15th after offering it for free to my list of 750 advance readers/proofers. I did nothing to promote it other than send out an announcement newsletter to my 18.5k subscriber list (which generated NOTHING). I did promote SWITCHBACK and my first box set, but only starting January 1st. Consider this a “from the bottom of the barrel” cold start (but I did have a good backlist to sell with a lot of reviews and good ratings).
In the final two weeks of January:
I got 86 reviews on SNAKE OIL
I got 85 organic subscribers to my newsletter (who are going through my new on boarding sequence now)
For the month, including my Facebook & Amazon ads on SWITCHBACK, my Amazon ads on SAVING GRACE, and my BookBub promotion of my first box set (I did Bargain Booksy, ENT, Facebook, and Amazon ads along with it), I cleared nearly $4350 from online sales after paying for all the ads and promo. If you’re into ROI, that’s a 69.93% return on promotional investment in January. In comparison, I LOST $50K IN 2019 even though I had doubled my revenue over 2018. (Those are not typos)
(I had other expenses, of course, but not bank breakers, and they’re getting smaller all the time.)
I can live with this result. And I have 2 more novels and 1 box set to release this year, and plenty of time to fine tune what I’m doing in the meantime. (My notes-to-self here : middle column—promos is spend for the month on subscription newsletter promotions (like BookBub, Bargain Booksy, and ENT), am is Amazon ads, fb is Facebook ads, and bb is BookBub ads—and the right column tells me what I was spending it on: my KBS box set, SAVING GRACE, SWITCHBACK, subscriber lead generation, or ad testing)
My ads are performing far better than when other people were doing them (for example, Adwerks averaged 650% ACOS on their Amazon ads for me; I’m averaging less than 250%, and since that is about cost as a percentage of sales price of books, it’s important to keep that number low–there’s a lot more to how KU reads and the LTV of each book plays into profitability vis a vis ACOS, but it’s beyond the scope of this post), plus I understand them so I can be quick/lean/responsive. I’ve eliminated a lot of overhead so I can reinvest that money without fear in promoting my books.
I hit #64 overall with a box set, my author rank climbed to its second highest level in my entire career while staying steadily around 2000 overall in January, and I had four books in the top 15,000. SWITCHBACK has stayed in the top 5k for the entire month. My page reads have climbed to over 40k daily (and up to 50k for the first time for me — heck 30k and 40k were firsts for me this month, too), and I know I can keep building on that.
My analysis: I can do this. I even think I can keep improving on these numbers. It’s modest, still, but it’s a humongous turnaround, and I’m proud of where I’m headed.
Six Pro-Tips I’ve learned/earned
Get clean numbers and trust them
Positive ROI advertising and overall financial success are almost impossible with only one book for most of us. But once you’re past one book, in order for ads to work, you have to know what a sale means to you in terms of all other possible income it will generate. (If you want to learn how to do this with your books, lookup Mal Cooper, an author who specializes in this, or wait for me to blog on it later. Or come to one of my retreats in Wyoming–2020 dates TBA soon—and learn allllll of this stuff!).
If you don’t know how much you will make, you don’t know how much you should spend. (These are my January numbers through the 30th, and if you click the image, it will take you to a “view only” look at my actual spreadsheet.)
I have a $3.99 mystery with nearly 3000 reviews and 4.5-star rating—the lead to a 15-mystery deep series with good read through—that I cannot sell on Facebook for the life of me. I have a $4.99 book with only 120 reviews and a 4.7-star rating that sells like mad (and profitably) from Facebook, with only 1 other book in its series. The difference for me is covers that cause the behavior of BUYING in the niche market for one book , and the failure to find that market/cover match for the other. (I’ve also really tweaked the first three lines of my descriptions, because that’s all people see when your book page pops up).
If it’s not working, then dig to figure out why. Need more books for read through? Need reviews? Need to improve your book for better ratings? Need a better description? Need a better “Inside the book”? Need to figure out your market-to audience? Need a cover to match that audience? Need to know your also-bought and categories better? Need a better ad image? Need better ad copy?
If any of those things aren’t optimized, you may not find advertising profitable. But if they are, you can advertise full price books.
Note: the only forum I am unable to advertise full price books profitably on is BookBub since it caters to deal-seekers.
Nothing good happens without testing
Don’t guess what your market-to niche will respond to. Generate different images and test the ads on them. Let them vote with their engagement. Do the same for copy. Then pick the winning combos. And keeping testing and picking, since Facebook ads need creative refresh. Test different audiences, too. (Again, if you want to learn more, pick a good consultant, wait for me to blog more on it or update my book Loser, or come to one of my retreats)
Find your market-to niche
Everybody thinks that everyone should buy and read their book. But, honestly, folks, when it comes to advertising, you can’t advertise to everyone or a) the cost will be too high and b) you won’t be able to optimize your funnel to create buying behavior for your best audience. See above. Scour your also boughts. Survey your readers. Test different audiences. Only then will you find that sweet spot where you can have positive ROI ads.
You won’t make money without advertising
By now you’re saying, ye gads, this is too much. I can’t do it. Unfortunately, if you want to make money as an indie on your books, you don’t have a choice (If you don’t want to make money, that’s cool; you do you!).
I’m sorry. There’s just no other way to create and sustain discoverability in the world of online buying and sales site algorithms. Believe me, I tried that method for a few years, LOL.
Spend until your ads won’t scale
I’ve been really struggling on deciding how much to spend. Do I spend until my ROI drops to some minimum-but-still-positive level? Do I set a budget and stick to spending no more than that? It kills me that I can’t just say, “Oh, I’ll spend X amount per click with a set budget of Y” and have that be all the analysis that is required. But that’s impossible because each author (and each book an author has) will have a different LTV, plus you also have to factor in how well clicks convert to sales or KU reads (which can be tricky), and it is only then that you know what you should pay per click for that ad on that book. Much less what to budget overall.
Bonus pro tip: spending the least amount possible per result is good, but it’s not enough—what you’re looking for is highest possible ROI.
The answers for you will depend on your goals and resources, of course, but, assuming they are not limiting you, then I recommend you spend until your ads won’t scale. Which you won’t know until you generate YOUR numbers.
(What do I mean by scaling? Scaling is when you can increase ad spend and your ad cost and ad results/ROI stay steady.)
Facebook scales pretty okay, but you’ll find that the cost per result climbs as you increase your spend. (Other things affect cost, lots of them, but those are topics for another day.) But if the cost per result is climbing too much, then you need to find more profitable ways to spend that money. If you don’t have them, then you face the hard question of whether at the increased price of your results, you’re making more money than if you didn’t spend those incremental dollars. The best way to figure this out is to increase spend on your ads slowly and watch the numbers and trends. Then you’ll “know when to say when.”
Here’s an example of me overspending the scaling of my SWITCHBACK ads, then pulling back on spend to achieve more profitability and better ROI. My ROI & Margin are on the left and the corresponding ad spends on Facebook & Amazon are on the right. If I hadn’t decreased my ad spend, I wouldn’t have made more money 🙂
That’s what’s working for me, and why. What’s working for you????
Next month: I’ll be talking to you about my similar rock bottom, a-ha, and springboard moments in audio. I have my first Chirp promotion via BookBub scheduled for SWITCHBACK for the month of April and I CAN’T WAIT!!!
I also feel like maybe I need to break all this into micro topics, so stay tuned for me to go in-depth on all this scary confusing stuff I ran through at breakneck speed today.
Good luck out there! Let me hear from you.
Pamela Fagan Hutchins, USA Today bestseller and winner of the 2017 Silver Falchion Best Mystery winner for her mysteries, including thrilling new release SWITCHBACK, writes hilarious nonfiction (What Kind of Loser Indie Publishes, and How Can I Be One, Too?), too. She teaches writing, publishing, and promotion at the SkipJack Publishing Online School (where you can take How to Sell a Ton of Books, FREE) and in her writing and publishing retreats in Wyoming and writes about these things and more on the SkipJack Publishing blog.
Pamela resides deep in the heart of Nowheresville, Texas and in the frozen north of Snowheresville, Wyoming. She has a passion for great writing and smart authorpreneurship as well as long hikes and trail rides with her hunky husband, giant horses, and pack of rescue dogs, donkeys, and goats. She also leaps medium-tall buildings in a single bound (if she gets a good running start).