Book Advertising: Not So Wonderful Anymore

book advertising girl-1012862_960_720About four years ago I told you about an organization called Project Wonderful that was an alternative to Google Adsense for selling advertising space on your blog or website.  (Yeah, I’m amazed I’ve been around for four years, too.) It continued to work well for me after that post. Unfortunately, last month I received an email announcing that they were shutting down. I found part of their explanation disconcerting, for its more far-reaching implications, assuming they’re correct. This excerpt is the part that got me thinking.

We’d hoped that would be enough, but in the past several years, the internet has changed. Large sites like Facebook do all they can to keep readers on their network, rather than sending that traffic out to individual websites. As such, many readers – who used to visit dozens if not hundreds of websites a day – now visit only a few sites, and things like the indie “blogosphere” (remember that?) are disappearing. We’re hopeful that individual creators can adapt – either by embracing these walled gardens in a way that protects themselves, or by finding other ways to draw attention to their work – but as a network founded on supporting independent websites, our options were limited.

I’m guessing many of you aren’t concerned with ads on your websites, but the implications of getting attention for your books via your website with affordable advertising are a problem. Couple that with the issue regarding Facebook, that many of your followers seldom, if ever, see the things you post, and getting eyeballs on things promoting your books is getting more and more difficult. (Or more and more expensive.) Doing what you can to get newsletter subscribers is one obvious step to keep those who are definitely interested easier to connect with. But getting their attention to begin with is a problem

I know many of you have had some success advertising on Amazon, but just a few days ago I had one friend who is an avid, high-volume reader complain about Amazon’s advertising, saying they were targeting her with things she wasn’t interested in and that also boughts, which she had used for suggestions often in the past, were way down on the page, and sometimes didn’t even show up. (One more item authors have tried to use in the past, getting on the right also boughts, is now not as effective.)

I may be a curmudgeon, but I try not to complain because things change. They always have and always will. To survive, we have to adapt. But I thought many of you would have ideas and we could potentially get a good discussion going on this subject. Do you agree with the contention that it is becoming more difficult to get attention to your books via websites and blogs? Are the things that worked for you in the past continuing to work, or not? What have you done in response? What’s working and what isn’t?

Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

24 thoughts on “Book Advertising: Not So Wonderful Anymore”

  1. I’m still posting my weekly blog posts both on my blog and as a Facebook Note on my personal timeline. (The Notes never seemed to get any traction on my author page.) I get a ton more comments on the FB note than I ever have on the blog itself. Sometimes lately it seems like I’ve only gotten blog traffic from people who’d like for me to update my writing resources page with their pet service.

    I’ve only dipped my toe into FB ads. But it only makes sense to advertise where the people are.

  2. It’s difficult to find current data on how many books are published each year in the United States, but data from five years ago will give us a sense of the competition we face in the marketplace:

    “There are somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books published every year in the US alone, depending on which stats you believe. Many of those – perhaps as many as half or even more – are self-published. On average, they sell less than 250 copies each. Jan 8, 2013” (source: general Internet search)

    Now, try and make your voice heard above the crowd in that marketplace, especially given the presence and clout of the legacy publishers!

    Unless you’ve paid the piper, your books aren’t returnable, which means all but a few local bookstores won’t even give you the time of day. As for Facebook (which I assiduously avoided for security reasons (now validated)), Twitter (pretty much worthless because of clutter), and blogging (again, losing its punch), the opportunities, as lamented above, are dwindling fast. Still, the number of people out there offering to separate you from your money with promises of advertising nirvana are legend. It’s truly amazing how creative they have become, but they are challenged to prove, except in the rarest of circumstances, how their clients have even recouped their initial investments when a promotion was undertaken.

    The only (ONLY) successes I have ever had in advertising over the last several years (and by successes I mean my returns on investment (ROI) exceeded the costs) were when I ran Kindle Discount Sales linked to eReader News Today (ENT) listings, including ENT Book Of The Day listings. I have run many of these for several genre (mystery/thriller, YA, literary fiction, flash fiction), sometimes selling as many of 250 books on a sale. (NB: I usually leave my books on sale for a week.) This said, I have the following observations:

    1. The number of books sold on any given sale using ENT has gone down over time. This may in part be caused by my moving from mystery/thrillers to short stories and flash fiction. I intuit that the former (mystery/thrillers) has a wider audience. As well, I intuit romance books would do even better than mystery/thrillers, given most readers today are woman. My Young Adult (YA) novel (written under the pen name “Alyssa Devine” did not do well on ENT).

    2. I also suspect that readership, in general, is declining. This was confirmed recently by an article in The Washington Post. I only makes sense: fewer readers, few people responding to advertising.

    We have a tough row to hoe. All the more reason to husband our meager marketing and advertising dollars carefully.

    1. I’ll start this comment with a blanket apology to everyone for being so negligent in responding to all these great comments.

      As for Theodore’s comment, you’ve got a point. I can remember in the early days of what I’ll call the Indie Explosion many, especially the trad publishing folks, talked about how having so many books to choose from meant that unless there was an unlikely explosion in book sales that it would fragment the market. Instead of a few big sellers and a few okay sellers, there would be a ton of marginal sellers. I’m not sure that’s correct. Some books still catch on and take off, but it is harder to get any traction at all, let alone get the right combination of books, timing, and exposure to have sales really take off.

      Along with more books coming out we also have more books, at least as ebooks, that are “in print.” An ebook is (or at least can be) forever. No reason for a trad published book to go out of print. So that exacerbates the problem. With things like Project Gutenburg bringing older books back from the dead we have even more possibilities for readers and more competition for authors.

  3. It’s gotten steadily harder over the past 3-4 years. I’ve heard multiple times in multiple places the last few years that if you want to sell, you have to publish quickly. I see authors all over the place churning out a book per month. Unfortunately, I don’t have that ability. My creative juices run more on the molasses side of things.

    My group of authors and I don’t put out books monthly, or sometimes even yearly, so the marketing strategies we used to see results from (ENT, KB&T, etc.), have already seen us, many times. It’s the same for our newsletter – during the two years we’ve had the newsletter, subscribers have had ample opportunity to buy our books on sale. If they want them, they already have them.

    What I’ve been doing the past year or so is keeping steady AMS keyword ads running, rotating through our books every couple of months. It doesn’t always result in sales, but does at least keep us somewhat visible.

    1. Yeah, Melinda, that’s one of the theories out there and, I suspect it has some validity. Maybe. Sometimes. 🙂 I’ll have more to say below on Shawn’s comment.

  4. Hey, Al. Thanks for the timely and thought-provoking post.

    Things have definitely evolved, and it is more challenging to deliver eyeballs to our books’ pages. There was a time that you could just schedule a spot on ENT or Free Kindle Books and Tips, get a visibility boost, and ride that wave to the next promo. Those days are gone.

    Today, a writer needs to be savvier about advertising. Cost Per Click ads like Facebook, AMS, or Bookbub CPC ads can be highly effective at moving units, but there’s definitely a learning curve. The big upside to CPC ads is that you are selling product at full price, instead of moving units at .99 or Free.

    I think it’s a lot easier to move a buyer into the rest of a series of they paid full retail on the first.

    These days, writing in series, and publishing often is the best promo available. I publish every other month, which is a lot of work, but it really keeps the Amazon algos flowing.

    1. Right, Shawn. A book can live or die by the algorithms and if that’s what it takes (more frequent publication) you can’t blame an author for taking that approach. Especially if you hook a reader and keep them coming then they don’t lose interest like they might with a long wait between volumes. However, I think in some cases (definitely not your books) that some authors focus more on volume and ignore quality. Long term I think (hope?) that backfires. I also thing some of the things authors have tried (really short episodic type books to build book count fast, but not page count that fast, for example or ending every episode with a cliffhanger) will also alienate readers although to be fair that’s what really got Hugh Howey rolling, but I think a lot of writers latched on to that episodic thing and didn’t realize that it was only part of Hugh’s success. A unique engaging story that grabbed readers was a big part of the equation.

  5. Best I can tell, most self-published books don’t sell. Many, perhaps, aren’t very good. Many mid-sized and large-size press books aren’t very good. Some indie books make a lot of money. When they do, a lot of us go galloping after what ever promotion secrets those books may have had, and try to do the same thing. I see a lot of writers of successful indie books selling podcasts, books and webinars to tell us how they made a million bucks. Seems to me, most of the big-money self-published books were nonfiction, often tied to an author’s website/career wherein s/he already had a following, platform, and credentials.

    It’s hard for fiction authors to duplicate that even if we write in a niche. My primary objections to many ideas circulating for selling indie fiction is that they scream “this is an indie fiction promotion.” Many of them work anyway. Most don’t, because they look like an amateur doing what a mainstream author would never do. So, I conclude that if the promotion looks indie, it will fail by calling attention to the fact it’s not a mainstream book.

    Platforms take a long time to build, especially if one isn’t sticking to one particular genre. Still, I don’t know what else to do.


    1. Great comments, Malcom. You said what I was going for in the response to Shawn in a different (probably better) way. The success of any one book or author is for multiple reasons and it is easy to think it was one reason that people latch onto. Sometimes that can even be the author who thinks they’ve found the magic formula, but probably don’t really understand the reason for their success.

    2. Which is why it is SO difficult for an indie author going after the mainstream novel slot which traditional publishers try to claim belongs only to them. Advertise like an indie, and readers won’t bite. Don’t advertise, and they will never even hear of you.

      I have gone after readers one at a time, and have found a small group who leave lovely reviews and say they are annoyed because Book 2 in the mainstream trilogy isn’t ready yet. But that is no way to get a wide following.

      And it takes a lot of time to write well, so I can’t compete on volume.

      Haven’t figured out the answer yet, but I will some day. I believe quality is worth aiming for and can be achieved with work (and a lot of prior reading of good books, to set one’s standards).

      I’m still at the stage where I need readers more than sales, but it gets lonely sometimes.

  6. It’s early days for me. I’ve published my third novel. It’s only the first in my real name. My website exists but is quite bare. My mailing list, built from an ebook giveaway, dwindles with each message I send and since GDPR, 80% of the messages went unread. Until recently, I failed to sell anything during a promotion and I have certainly never made my promotion costs back. I’ve read various posts from people saying for only this many hundreds of dollars I promoted my free ebook and got to this high in the rankings etc. Firstly, I don’t have hundreds of anything to spend. Secondly, I’m always going to miss out because I won’t pay hundreds of £s (I’m British) for a promotion on a free book that therefore will never earn me a penny. That’s just me. I’m a firm believer that no one approach will work for everyone. That way, I don’t feel like a failure when I try something and get nowhere 🙂

    1. You’re right, DJ. What works for one might not for another. There isn’t a magic formula, IMO, and if there is as soon as everyone learns it chances are it won’t continue working.

  7. I’m an author — hardly a household name — and I’ve tried various approaches over the years in efforts to advertise and market my books. These days, I’ve adopted a radical new approach, which is to just write more books and hope for the best.

    It’s hardly an inspired strategy. I do maintain a website and put out a weekly blog (which often doesn’t have anything to do with writing or my books). But I no longer buy ads. I don’t do more than tweet and FB post once or twice when a new book comes out. Why?

    I simply didn’t see any tangible returns on ads or social media campaigns. I do see upticks when a review comes out. But other than that, sales appear to be uncoupled from any effort I might make to increase them.

    I looked at what drove me to buy books. Reviews were the main factor for new titles or new authors. I’ll buy anything by an author I already like. I’ve been persuaded a few times to try a new name because I found them funny or engaging online.

    But ads? Social media campaigns by strangers? Nope. I’m numb to both approaches.

    I suppose the big question is this — has my minimal effort strategy worked?

    Hard to say. I can say it hasn’t hurt me. I’m selling books –not by the tens of thousands, no, but on a good day I might sell 50, and on a day like today I might sell 2. Those are Amazon sales, by the way. Sales via Kobo and B&N are nearly nonexistent.

    Anyway, that’s my input. Thanks for the space to talk.

    1. Well I know your name, Frank. 🙂

      I think your approach which I’ll describe as just keep putting out good books that appeal to a decent number of readers. I know a few readers who are always looking forward to your next book.

    1. I know what you mean about Facebook, Deb. I resisted it for a long time because I knew it was going to suck up a lot of my free time. I was right. 🙂 (It also had a lot of positives for me I hadn’t anticipated, but whether the tradeoffs are worthwhile, I don’t know. Plus, I didn’t have the security concerns initially that I suspect might be at the root of your concerns and are reasonable.)

  8. Thanks for the comments Lynne and Yvonne. Your experience with Facebook notes is interesting and helpful to be aware of.

  9. Great post, Al, and thought provoking indeed, especially for people like me who have turned their backs on Facebook. Well, to be honest, I never really used Facebook, so deleting my account wasn’t that hard. As for getting eyes on my books, that’s tricky. I still get a fair bit of traffic to my blog, much of it from other WordPress bloggers, and I’ve become much more active on Twitter, but… -shrug-
    I suspect a writer’s ‘brand’ has to reach some kind of critical mass before word-of-mouth really kicks in. As always, getting to critical mass is the trick.
    Will be interested in reading what others have to say.

    1. Good observation, AC. What Malcolm Gladwell in his book of the same name called “The Tipping Point.” Anything that catches on in a big way is almost always going to seem like it happened overnight, but almost never does. What some people have described as a 20 year overnight success. (19 years of build up and a whole lot of movement in that last year.)

  10. There are just so very many books for readers in the marketplace, now that self-publishing is so straightforward and inexpensive to do. I think it may be true (currently) that publishing often and publishing series are a way to keep your work in under the reader’s nose. But in the longer term that may just increase the problem by making the number of books available even more unwieldy.

    I suppose it was inevitable that FB and Amazon would find ways to restrict free advertising. One of the problems of the intyweb is that it started with so much of it being free that we millions of users expected it to go on being that way (I know I get very antsy when asked to pay for internet services, whilst simultaneously bemoaning the expectation of free content which means people want to read my books for free).

    I think Big Al is right: our avenues for reaching readers and selling them books has started to change again. This time it is going to need to morph into something that can cope with the availability of many millions of books (back catalogues are muddying the waters, as well as new work) rather than the relatively small numbers that used to come through conventional publishers, large and small.

    I have largely accepted, for the time being anyway, that I publish as a hobbyist. Which is to say I have no expectation that I’m going to break even, let alone make a profit on my books. |(Fortunately my method of publishing is inexpensive.) I’ve been thinking that the end of last year. It may be coincidence, or not, but this year I have not touched any long fiction projects. Instead I’ve been working on short fiction and a lot of poetry for local outlets, often as part of a collaboration, leaving someone else the headeache of the actual publishing.

    1. Good thoughts, Judi. I think the way an author comes at their writing and their expectations vary a lot from person to person, but your approach is a good one. I know this doesn’t apply to you, but about five years ago I took an author to task for using the “I’m just a hobbyist author” as an excuse for lack of quality control which is the kind of thing that were giving indies a bad name. (He’s now a very good friend, so I know he took what I had to say in the spirit I intended it, TFSM.) But it’s hard to invest much in something that you can have no expectation of recouping in sales. It’s a bit of a balancing act for many.

  11. You’re right, Al. The days of just tossing a 99c book out there on ENT, etc. and expecting to ride it to the next promotion are long over. At the moment, I’m puzzling over my next move. I’m not a fast writer, and my quality standards for my own work are ridiculously high. So I may have to get more creative or learn some new skills, in order to get eyeballs on my books.

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