2018 was the year that I started to look seriously into buying ads for my books.
Book promotion is notoriously difficult. Most books sell based on word of mouth, or recommendations through various media, rather than by advertising. Because the product is inexpensive and even consumers who want it are generally only going to buy one copy, no publisher can afford to pay a premium for individual views or clicks.
Most advertising channels for books are Very Bad at selling books. There are many venues, most of which have negligible impact on sales. Back in 2017, I tried buying a Bargain Booksy ad for Silver Scales
in the week after its release, and it had zero impact: I sold three copies the day before the ad, and three copies the day of the ad. That ad was for the book at its full price ($4.99). Bargain Booksy might be more effective at a lower pricepoint, but based on other authors' experiences, they are unlikely to be profitable. In point of fact, I unsubscribed from all but Bargain Booksy's "LGBT" category for my own reading, because Bargain Booksy accepts unlimited numbers of promotions per day and its daily emails are overwhelming: twenty or more fantasy novels in one email. I am not surprised it doesn't work.
I might try E-reader News Today at some point: they at least had a noticeable impact on sales for one author's ad, although not nearly enough to cover the cost of the ad.
The gold standard of book advertising -- the outlet most likely (though not guaranteed!) to turn a profit -- is Bookbub. Bookbub is a discount email newsletter. Readers sign up for the categories they want to see and pick whether they want to get emails daily, weekly, or not at all. (You can look at the site to see what's discounted in your genres instead.) Bookbub runs a single deal each day in each category, for a book priced between $0.00 and $2.99. Publishers pay for slots, with slots being cheaper the lower the price point they pay.
Because Bookbub is a discount-books outlet, much of the profit in advertising through them relies on follow-on sales. The book you advertise is a loss leader, and other books in the series or your catalog (hopefully) make up the difference.
Since Bookbub is committed to "one slot per genre per day", advertising space in their newsletter is limited. They turn down a lot of books: 80% is their advertised standard. I've applied twenty-three times for slots. All of my submissions have been for:
- One book (you can also discount a box set)
- Sale price of $0.99
- Both US & International (you can pick one or the other or both).
- Genre: either "fantasy" or "LGBT".
None of my books have been selected for a US Bookbub, but four of them were selected for international-only Bookbubs. In order:
- July: Silver Scales (fantasy, $188)
- October: Demon's Lure (fantasy, $188)
- November: The Moon Etherium (fantasy, $188)
- December: The Sun Etherium (LGBT, $52)
Conventional wisdom holds that you run discounts only on the first book in a series. Once people buy the first book, if they like it, they'll pay full price for the others. Some publishers make an exception for romance novels, because romance readers understand that a romance "series" can generally be read in any order and that each book is a standalone story. Moreover, since most ad requests are rejected, being able to submit more books than just the first in a series is helpful in getting your books out there.
That was partly my logic in submitting The Sun Etherium
for a promotion. The other part is that The Sun Etherium
is the queerest of my books: it features two genderfluid protagonists, both of whom most often present as male: one cannot mistake this for a heterosexual pairing. Part of me wanted to submit The Moon Etherium
in the LGBT+ category, but The Moon Etherium
is an M/F fantasy romance. Yes, the female protagonist is bisexual, and yes, the setting presents gender as a spectrum where individuals determine for themselves where they belong, not a binary that people are born into. But a 40-word blurb for The Moon Etherium
is not going to capture why a reader looking for an LGBT book will want to pick this up.
Speaking of which: Bookbub writes its own blurbs for every book featured in one of its emails. These are short and punchy, and based on Bookbub's market research of what sells books.
These are the Bookbub blurbs for my ads:Silver Scales
: To escape the legions of hell, Sir Damon Kildare has to succeed in a seemingly impossible quest. But Zenobia, a dragon-slayer’s daughter, will stop at nothing to find the key to saving his soul…Demon's Lure
: When Sunrise agrees to help a team of hunters catch a demon, she thinks it will be simple. But the demon is nothing like she expects — and neither is the future that awaits her… An enchanting fantasy!The Moon Etherium
: On a quest to secure his father’s freedom from slavery, Prince Mirohirokon enlists Ardent’s assistance. Bound by duty, she agrees to help and soon the duo is swept up in betrayal and intrigue — with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.The Sun Etherium
: Fey immortal Jino, ruler of the Sun Etherium, needs to make sure this year’s Founder’s Festival is a success. But will his trysts at a new club, coupled with his deepening desire for ex-prince consort Kireki, risk everything he’s worked for?
You'll note that The Moon Etherium
's blurb doesn't even mention the romance -- it's an ad in the "fantasy" genre, so Bookbub is pitching its fantasy/intrigue plot.
Also, I was totally guessing when I said Bookbub's blurbs were 40 words, but looks like that is around their max length!
Most of Bookbub's subscribers are in the US. The other countries where they have a presence are the UK, Australia, India, and Canada. Their international-only ads usually, but not necessarily, include all four of those countries. In my case, I got all four countries for each promo.
Unit sales from each promo are a little squidgy, because some sales are clearly not from Bookbub and probably unrelated to the promo ("this was an international-only Bookbub and these were US sales"). Others can't be Bookbub but are probably Bookbub-influenced ("Demon's Lure
is selling twice as well at its regular price, two weeks after the Bookbub, than it was before the promo.") And whether or not follow-on sales are due to the Bookbub is purely guesswork. So I am giving exact unit numbers, but honestly, they are guesstimates.
Translating unit sales into dollars is even squidgier, because these are international sales. The actual price was 0.99 in the local currency (or 65 rupees for India, but I only had a few sales in India so those have a negligible impact.) Amazon then gives 35% of that 0.99 of local currency to me, converted to US dollars, two months later, bundled with all my book sales in that market. Kobo, Apple, and Barnes & Noble give me between 60%, via Draft2Digital. And while D2D's markets are negligible for my non-promotional sales, they are significant during promos and releases. Kobo is especially a big market for an international Bookbub: in Canada, Kobo is a much stronger competitor with Amazon. The upshot is that a single unit sale could net me as little as US $0.22 (Australian dollars, via Amazon) or as much as US $0.63 (UK sale via Draft2Digital). That is based on conversion rates back in December; it will have changed again by now, and will probably be different by the time I am actually paid. It is theoretically possible to parse out exactly how much each sale made and add it all up, but I have not done so.JulySilver Scales
: 210Golden Coils
This was a modest failure. I lost probably $30-$40 net on this promotion. I am fine with this: it moved a couple hundred books into people's e-readers and bumped my visibility a touch. I am willing to assume I got some long-term vigorish from this.OctoberDemon's Lure
: 382Angel's Sigil
This was a definite success. The sales of Angel's Sigil
are especially hard to calculate, because Angel's Sigil
had only been out a couple of months and was still benefiting from its new-release bump. But percentage-wise, my guess is that the immediate sell-through on Lure
was definitely worse than Scales
. Nonetheless, very happy with this promotion and would be glad to buy a US Bookbub for this book. NovemberThe Moon Etherium
: 110The Sun Etherium
This was just abysmal. Few sales and almost no sell-through. Big money loser.DecemberThe Sun Etherium
: 83The Moon Etherium
In case you are looking at this and thinking "oog, that's even worse than The Moon Etherium
": no, actually this is the best ROI of all four promotions. TSE was promoted in the LGBT category. Bookbub has many fewer LGBT readers than fantasy readers, and the ads are correspondingly cheaper. This ad was only $52, as compared to $188 for the other three. Moreover, the sell-through was unexpectedly good. 15% of readers either looked at the blurb for TSE and decided immediately that they wanted the first book too, or they chewed through TSE in under a day and then bought TME. Last: this promotion was on 12/31, so it's likely that a few more sales will still trickle in. So although this was comparatively low-volume, I'm excited about the possibilities.
The disparity in the performance of the Etherium novels in the fantasy vs LGBT categories makes it clear that I want to market these books as LGBT+. Which is how I've always wanted to market them, to be fair. On the other hand, marketing The Sun Etherium
as LGBT+ and hoping people will then pick up The Moon Etherium
is not, in my opinion, ideal. For one thing, just the blurb for The Sun Etherium
has spoilers for The Moon Etherium
. But The Moon Etherium
is, as previously mentioned, difficult to position as an LGBT+ book.
So the logical solution to this problem is to write an EXTREMELY GAY prequel to The Moon Etherium
, and then market THAT as the first book in the series. n_n
Overall, Bookbub works much better as a marketing outlet if you have several books in a single series. I haven't really seen an impact on sales of my other series based on a Bookbub promo. So because I only have two books in each series, I've lost a little money, net, on the four promotions I've bought so far. If I were promoting the first book in a series with four or more installments, it'd be much more clearly profitable. The good news is, I'm finally working on the third book in a series! The bad news is, it's a third Etherium book, and nothwithstanding the successful promo on The Sun Etherium
, the Etherium books are my worst-selling series.
I still haven't landed a US Bookbub, and the US Bookbubs have a much bigger impact on sales than the international ones (and are correspondingly more expensive -- they cost about four times as much.) I am still submitting to Bookbub for one of these. Bookbub won't run an ad for the same book in the same market more often than every six months, so most of my catalog doesn't qualify for another international Bookbub yet. Except A Rational Arrangement
; I am amused that I still haven't gotten a promo for it, since it's my most-reviewed and most-sold book.
Those who've been following my blog since I first released A Rational Arrangement
may have noticed that none of the promotions reach the heights of my first couple of months of ARA's release. Alas, ARA remains an outlier in my catalog. ARA has received no promotions, and has sold three times as many copies as anything else I've written since. On the other hand, outside of promotions and recent releases, all of my books are selling 10 or fewer copies a month at this stage: it's not as if ARA is continuing to outsell the rest of my catalog now. It just has a big head start from 2015-2016. Arguably, I should be writing more books set in Paradise. I have not been inspired to write more books in Paradise, however. Also, Further Arrangements was not a stand out in terms of sales the way ARA is, and even ARA did not make full-time-writing-income money. Hence, I am continuing to write books based on my own interests rather than being strongly influenced by "what's selling."
My general experience with Bookbub has been positive: it sells books and it's low effort on my part. Yes, I have to submit a bunch of books for every one they accept, but the submission form only takes a couple of minutes to complete. There are other advertising options I should try, especially since Bookbub is so exclusive. But since Bookbub is the industry leader and even it has not been consistently profitable, I am still at the stage where focusing most of my effort on "write more books" feels right. Advertising one book will have a better ROI when I have more books to sell after new readers finish that first one.