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Leaky pipes

Last week, we talked about how you can manage your affairs effectively even if you feel daunted by the potential scale of the marketing challenges involved in modern bookselling.

This week I want to pick up the thought I ended with: leaky pipes and thirsty sweet peas.

Let’s assume your book is on sale on Amazon. Let’s assume you can throw as much traffic as that page as you could reasonably wish.

I don’t know whether your book is for sale yet, but the second assumption is certainly true. You can throw traffic at your Amazon page. As much as you want. You can buy advertising on Facebook, on Bookbub and on Amazon itself. There are dozens of other traffic sources available too.

So the two basic needs for any sale campaign are perfectly doable. You can create the product and you can generate a flow of potential buyers.

So is there anything to stop your book selling well, pleasing readers and putting money in your pocket?

Well: yes and no.

No: there’s no reason why that shouldn’t be possible in theory.

But yes: most indie authors (and plenty of trad publishers) foul it up in practice. And it’s not too hard to figure out why. 

Let’s start with a simple thought experiment. What would it be for a book’s marketing campaign to run perfectly? What would perfection actually look like? And to simplify the thought experiment, let’s refine that a little. Assume all your book sales are on Amazon – or at least, let’s ignore other retailers for now.

So, a perfectly tuned marketing machine would look like this:

  • Have you visible on any Amazon search page where your readers are likely to gather
  • Convert 100% of those readers to visit your book page
  • Induce 100% of those readers to buy your book
  • Compel 100% of those readers to read your book right to the end
  • Complete their journey by (a) reviewing the book, (b) buying the next in the series, and (c) signing up to your readers’ club
  • Get readers to open and read every email you send
  • Get 100% sales from your mailing list when you next launch a book

If 1000 people saw your book listed on an Amazon search page, that would convert into 1000 sales, 1000 reviews, and 1000 additions to your email list.

Now, OK, that won’t happen, but the thought experiment is still useful. Let’s look again at the marketing funnel and identify what the key conversion points are:

  1. Have you visible on Amazon search.
    You need to fully optimise your title, subtitle, categories and keywords to achieve this. That means identifying the key bestseller lists where your readers are likely to assemble and figuring out what search terms people actually use to find books like yours.

  2. Persuade those readers to visit your book page.
    The only conversion tools you have here are title, cover, price and reviews. Price isn’t really a factor on its own, in the sense that you’ll be competing against other similarly priced titles. Equally, you’re not very likely to stand out from the competition via title alone or (in the early days) reviews. So that says that getting your cover right is a vastly important factor. Perhaps the single most important one in selling your book.

  3. Induce 100% of those readers to buy your book.
     OK, so now you have got potential readers to leave the search page and arrive at your book page. Great. That’s a key step in your conversion channel. And please note, that while a lot of readers will find your book page via some kind of Amazon search, plenty of readers will arrive directly at your book page from somewhere else completely: a social media post, a link in an ebook, an email, a blogger talking about your book, or anything else. So for some readers at least the Amazon leg of the marketing journey starts right here, with your book page.

Amazon, of course, controls most of the real estate of your book page, so you have a limited number of elements under your direct control. The key ones there are: cover (again, and in a larger size this time), title, blurb, price and reviews. Of these, the two critical ones are going to be blurb and cover.

Oh yes, and for plenty of readers, but not all, the purchase decision will be swayed by a quick visit to the “Look Inside” view of your book. The key conversion factor there? A blindingly good bit of opening text.

4. Compel 100% of your readers to read your book right to the end
 No doubt about what the key factor here is: does your book please the reader? Most books aren’t read. According to data gathered by analytics company, Jellybooks: “On average, fewer than half of the books tested were finished by a majority of readers. Most readers typically give up on a book in the early chapters. Women tend to quit after 50 to 100 pages, men after 30 to 50. Only 5 percent of the books Jellybooks tested were completed by more than 75 percent of readers. Sixty percent of books fell into a range where 25 percent to 50 percent of test readers finished them.”

That’s scary stuff. Most readers don’t finish most books. But the absolute key conversion factor in terms of your longer term career is simply this: Does your book get read? Would anyone want to buy another book by you?

5. Get all your readers to (a) review the book, (b) buy the next in the series, and (c) sign up to your readers’ club
 Writing an amazing book will be the biggest conversion factor here (and by a mile), but how good is your ebook at performing those other chores?

It’s not uncommon, still, for trad-published books to do an appalling job of hooking readers in for the long haul, but plenty of indies mess up as well. If you only have a timid “Please subscribe to my newsletter” somewhere in the copyright notices and other boring rubbish at the back of the book, then no one will subscribe. So your mailing list won’t grow. Similarly, if you don’t ask for reviews at all, or don’t ask in the right way, or don’t supply a one-click link to the relevant review page, then you’re not likely to get reviews.

6. Get readers to open and read every email they send
 It’s not uncommon for big publishers to have a single-digit open rate on their emails. Open rates for individual authors writing to their readers should be thirty percent or more. A really well-curated list can manage 50%. And those open rates matter, because when you come to send out the email that really matters to you – the launch email, the buy-my-book one – it’s not the number of names on your list that matters. It’s the number of people who bother to read what you’ve sent them.

What makes the difference here? It’s how much value your emails generally deliver, plus some technicalities around avoiding users’ spam filters and that kind of thing. Mostly though, it’s content, content, content. Do you write stuff that readers want to read?

7. Get 100% sales from your list at launch
 The conversion factor here will be an accumulation of everything else. But really? If people love your books and open your emails, they’ll buy the next book when you tell em it’s ready to go.

Now, pretty obviously, no one has the perfect marketing system, or anything close.

If your book page converts at even 20%, that will be an excellent result. (In other words, 1 in every 5 readers will end up buying your book having landed on your book page.) If you are selling your ebook at $4.99, you would do well to achieve even that conversion rate.

If 75% of readers actually finish your book, that will place you amongst the most successful titles out there.

As for email list sign ups, you would do well to get 1 in every 10 people signing up for your list.

An open rate of 40% on emails would be strong.

And what about the percentage of people who, having bought book #1 in your series, go on to buy books #2, #3 and #4? That’s a massively important stat. If you have a series that is three or more books long, then you should be aiming for a series readthrough of 50% or better. (ie: if you sell 1000 copies of book #1, you sell at least 500 of book #3.)

These things matter a vast amount.

Go back to the idea we started with: you have a book. You can easily generate traffic to the relevant sales page. Bingo. Your career is made.

Except that it costs you money to generate that traffic. And whether that traffic will end up generating revenue depends entirely on how leaky your sales system is.

And when do you think paid advertising is likely to work the best:

  1. When your marketing pipes are leaking paid traffic all over the place?
  2. Or when each one of those joints in your marketing network are as watertight as humanly possible?

Put like that, it’s really obvious that advertising just can’t work if the rest of your system is leaky. Indeed, since the price of ads will be driven up by professional authors who have a non-leaky system, there’s no chance at all that authors with a badly leaking system can make money.

And that’s why, in almost every case, when people tell me “I tried advertising but it didn’t work”, the principal issue doesn’t lie in the advertising itself. It lies in all the stuff that has to be right before any kind of marketing activity is going to succeed.

That’s why most people fussing over their blog tour, or their social media posts, or their CPC on Facebook ads are simply looking at the wrong thing. Those things matter only if the rest of your system is already up to scratch.

These considerations are most keenly felt by indie authors, as they have all the levers of marketing power under their own direct control. But trad authors face the same basic challenge: building a leak-proof marketing system. Yes, it’ll be their publishers who face the challenge of driving traffic to a page, but in the end, it’s the author who cares most about the end result.

Is your book good enough?

Is your cover strong?

Is your blurb attractive?

Do readers sign up to and engage with your mailing list?

You need your answers here to be emphatically positive. If you are an indie, and you recognise that you could do better on these issues, then your first task is to fix them.

If you’re trad-published, and these things aren’t right, then you need to do what you can to secure the changes you need. (Which will be harder, because you don’t have direct control.)

These things are hard. And they are time-consuming. And some of them cost money. (Primarily editorial help and book covers.) But you have to do them anyway.

If your irrigation pipes leak, your plants won’t get watered, no matter how wildly you turn the tap.

If your irrigation pipes are reasonably watertight, then watering your plants is child’s play.

Sermon over.

I am now going to supervise my children using a real and actual hose to water some real and actual sweet peas. My prediction? We will all get very wet.

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Comments (3)
  • Great post, Harry. Very much the bottom line of what needs to be done in self pub and the essence of this fun and interesting month. When it is put like this/that, it would be daft not to try to do the best one can from the start. Many adages I am sure apply, like fail to prepare then prepare to fail, and my favourite – getting it right first time saves time and money in the long term.

    The facts or rather stats on finished books is both very interesting and worrying. I wonder if there is a break down across genre and age groups and the reasons why? I would love to know if they researched MG and YA books, or if not, why not.

    Anyways, thank you, and I hope the plants enjoy the change from the stray mugs of tea, and that they bloom and you get a fresh supply of optical glasses. Till next week, and next month!

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    • The stats on book completions tell you that the books that are least read are ... surprise, surprise ... literary fiction. Good lit fic is great, but far too much is just dull to read and the book completion stats show it. There are no real published stats on these things, because they're proprietary, but yes, JellyBooks and other analytics firms will certainly look at MG / YA books too. They can only look at books being read on e-readers though. Readers get a free ebook and in exchange publishers can see the data. Amazon has that data anyway, of course.

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      • Thank you, I shall enjoy looking into the MG/YA figures if I can find them. I hadn’t realised the figures were electronic books based. Given most  of my books are paperbacks I bet I’ll just have to rely upon what’s in the best seller list as a pointer rather than hard fact. I seldom put down MG or YA books. Maybe because they are well presented and reviewed by teachers, bloggers and peers.  I seldom now look at adult books. So far as I can tell the covers are formula driven, stereotypes that lack inspiration. Same with back page text. I did a focus group for Harper Collins recently, The End of Men. Great story, well balanced between multiple lead characters. Interesting cover and insert, but I wouldn’t have pulled off shelf to read. I still wouldn’t either.  

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