TANSTAAFL: Marketing Edition


Author Russell Newquist highlights two vital principles that all authors must embrace: marketing is not optional, and you have to spend money to make money.
But going into business for yourself means that you want to make money. And if you want to make money – real money – in business, you have to do marketing. It is not optional.
Now, some forms of marketing are cheap. I run this blog for an annual price tag lower than what it would cost me to take my family out for a single nice dinner – and even that is a cost that I mostly share with two small businesses. It’s cheap. But cheap marketing brings two issues.
  1. Spending less money means working harder. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. You’ll pay one way or another. Less money means more time and sweat equity.
  2. Spending less money often (but not always) means the marketing is less effective.
Now, rule 2 isn’t magic. You can’t just drop a million dollars on advertising and expect to just get it back. You still have to work at it, be smart about it, and choose the right kind of marketing. But if you want to make money, you have to spend money.
The "Should I spend money marketing my books" question was a hot button issue when I first got into self-publishing. Guys like Joe Konrath answered with a firm "no". Since then I've proceeded with the understanding that ads don't sell books, and that building a big blog while filling out your digital bookshelf was the path to making a living as a writer.

Those same indie publishing gurus also said to keep experimenting, so I've tried my hand at Twitter, Facebook, and Amazon ads. As far as I can tell, paid ads never got me a single sale. Interacting with readers on social media proved far more lucrative.

However, working authors like Russell and Nick Cole have started to bring me around on this point, for reasons that Russell lays out below:
Here’s the thing about the publishing market: spending a lot of money marketing one, single, solitary book is almost always a waste of money. If you only have one book, it’s very difficult to get a good return on investment. It can be done – especially if you’re very good at marketing, or if you’ve written a very good book. But it ain’t easy.
Let’s run through some math as an example. I’m not the best Facebook marketer, but neither am I the worst. And I don’t have the best web sites for my businesses, but again, neither do I have the worst. I’m in the somewhat typical range. So this is actually a pretty reasonable example.
On my typical Facebook ads these days, I can usually achieve a click through rate between 4% and 8%, discounting the occasional outliers in either direction. That means that out of every 100 people who see my ad, 4 to 8 of them will click through to my web site. This is a pretty decent rate in the marketing world.
Depending on the ads, the targeting options I’ve selected, the product I’m marketing, etc, those ads usually cost me between $0.50 per click and $2.00 per click. That’s not really terrible, either.
The next step of the funnel is conversions. For every 100 people who click through my ads, typically somewhere between 4 and 8 will actually buy a product afterward. That’s also pretty typical.
But it’s also the problem.
Let’s assume the best case scenario on both fronts.
  • 1250 people see my ads.
  • 8% (100 people) of them click through to my web site.
  • 8% of those (8 people) buy my product.
  • My ads cost $0.50 per click.
  • I’ve now spent $50 on ads to get 8 sales.
Now first of all, this is a best case scenario. I, personally, rarely have a marketing campaign do this well. If I could pull it off every time, I’d be quitting my day job and working at the dojo full time.
Second, this is fantastic… for my dojo. A typical new customer at the dojo nets me either $95 (ish) or $250 (ish). Let’s take the worst case number here: $90 per sale, or $450. I spent $50 for that. That’s $400 in revenue increase, and that’s fantastic! Seriously, if I could do this reliably I’d quit my day job.
Now, let’s talk books. Say I’ve sold 8 e-books for this at a cost of $4.99. Amazon gives me 70% royalties, so that’s $3.493 per book. For 8 sales, I’ve made $27.94 – well less than the $50 I spent to get it. At this rate, the more I advertise the more I’m losing money.
And, remember, this is a good ad campaign.
The secret (It’s not really a secret – you can find this all over the internet) to making money off of this in the book world is to have lots of books – preferably in the same series. Then, some portion (but not all) of the customers who pick up one book will buy all of your books, or at least all of the series.
So let’s add one more assumption: let’s assume that 12.5% of the people who buy book one in my series will end up buying the entire series, and let’s assume that I have 10 books. Note: I don’t have many books out yet, and I don’t have good figures for this rate. I’ve completely made this number up for my example.
Now I’ve sold 8 books at $3.493 per book, for $27.94. And I’ve sold one of those people (12.5%) another nine books ($31.44), for a total return of $59.377.
My return isn’t great in this example, but at least I’ve made a profit. Multiple books change everything. And in this example, now I’m at a point where I can start tweaking every step of my process in the hopes of improving my return.
Now, I'm a category best-selling author who consistently ranks in the top 1% on Amazon, but my sales charts have always looked like a roller-coaster track of sharp peaks and valleys. I might sell 25 books one day and zero the next.

That's why I'm giving Russell's advice serious consideration. The odds look good that he knows the secret to reliably steady sales that has thus far eluded me and many authors.

Elsewhere, Russell recounted hearing a panel of pro authors--people who write for a living--discussing how they do it. A major takeaway from the conversation was that none of them had achieved best seller status until at least their fifth book, and sometimes their tenth.

The tenth book benchmark resonates with Larry Correia's advice to be prolific. Russell explains why. Having multiple books available effectively boosts the conversion rate for an ad promoting one of your other titles.

Right now I have author credits on four books in KDP: Nethereal, Souldancer, The Secret Kings, and Forbidden Thoughts. The first three are part of a planned four-book series. FT is a best-selling SF anthology that accounts for a sizable chunk of my income (thanks largely to the involvement of some truly heavyweight authors, especially Milo Yiannopoulos).

As of this writing I'm putting the finishing touches on my debut novel with Castalia House. It's part of a three-book deal that will kick off a new space opera series. If we call that book five, I'll have reached the standard minimum output to make a living at this game.

Watch this blog to see what happens.


  1. Brian

    Yhanks again for an informative article. So an important takeaway is to have a large backlist of a series. Makes sense. Look at Agatha Christie her biggies were Hercules Poiroit and Mis Marple folloed by Tommy and Tuppence. There's Parker pine.

    Tom Clancy is another with multiple series.

    Another takeaway is bundling. For example i got a series of first 3 books at a super cheap price and i liked the series that i'm saving up money to buy 6-8 individually ( i have 4 and 5 sold seperately)

    And the authour is prolific he has 120 books of all kinds published. Not all his books are in print but enough


    1. FYI, while Clancy wrote the Jack Ryan series himself and was fairly prolific with them, most of the other series that bear his name were actually ghost written by other authors.

      But that's the even better way to make money: make money off of someone else's labor.

    2. Yup i did forget that and doesn't James Patterson do similarly by co writing books with other authors?
      I guess that's also a good way to make cash and entertain.

  2. Elsewhere, Russell recounted hearing a panel of pro authors--people who write for a living--discussing how they do it. A major takeaway from the conversation was that none of them had achieved best seller status until at least their fifth book, and sometimes their tenth.

    A bit more context on that (since Twitter's 140 characters isn't the best medium for excessive context):

    The authors on the panel included Kevin J. Anderson (who makes a freaking fortune writing these days), Jim Butcher, Laurel K. Hamilton, and I think Brandon Sanderson (it's been a few years, forgive me if my memory isn't 100%).

    The specific point of my tweet was that none of them had a New York Times bestseller until book five.

    However... your paraphrasing that I quoted above was also pretty accurate: it took about the same amount of time before they could quit their day jobs - and sometimes longer. For some of them (Butcher in particular, IIRC), even achieving their first NYT bestseller didn't let them fully quit their day job.

    Also, a point of note: I haven't achieved regular, smooth book sales yet. But I'm fairly certain this is largely because I'm not spending the ad money yet. I spend some here and there in strategic ways, and I experiment here and there to collect data so that I can plan for the future. But until I have at least three novel or novella length products out, I don't plan to do a lot of *regular* advertising. Even then, I'm not sure I'll get good ROI at it - but at that point, I'm laying the groundwork for phase III, which is when I hit 5+ books.

    One other comment to make... this is why you see authors writing a single series with 15+ books. It's a lot easier to convert a "first novel reader" into a "series reader" than it is to convert a "single novel reader" into a "buys all my books reader."

    It's also why I've seen one or two authors write independent series... that it then turns out decades later actually take place in the same shared universe. "Oh, look, your favorite character also shows up in this new book in another series! Why don't you check it out, too?"

    It's the Marvel Comics mega crossover marketing approach... and it works.

    1. >It's also why I've seen one or two authors write independent series... that it then turns out decades later actually take place in the same shared universe

      Is Brandon Sanderson's Cosmere an example of that?

    2. Don't know - haven't read it. The example in my mind was Jonathan Maberry. He's written at least three different series that later turned out to all be in the same universe (as evidenced by characters meeting, referencing each other and events, etc).

      I'm doing it the other way around. I'm about to publish book one of one series, start writing book one of another, and they're intertwined right from the start.

    3. A strategy I've just adopted is something that Sarah Hoyt recommended: have two main series in different genres and alternate your book releases between them. That's my current plan for the Soul Cycle and the Castalia House series.

  3. As usual a great resource for aspiring writers trying to figure out what it will take for a writer to 'make it'. Russel's article is great since it gives some hard numbers. All this advice seems to match what Nick Cole said on your On The Books on self marketing. (For those who haven't watched it, he basically echoes that an author needs to be prolific, and says that those who are doing the best right now are releasing a book every 30-90 days. Granted this strategy might now work for everyone. Myself included.)

    I do want to ask one question, if it's not too personal, or prying too much.

    > If we call that book five, I'll have reached the standard minimum output to make a living at this game.
    I know you have said you are on Larry's J List, and writing is your only job (I know this one is complicated due to writing being your only choice since your other opportunities in other fields have been sabotaged)

    In your own personal definition, what will it take for you to consider yourself having 'made it' as a writer? I'm not necessarily looking for something as exhaustive as https://bradrtorgersen.wordpress.com/brt-success-a-definition/ or asking for hard numbers, just looking for your own definition of success.

    1. "In your own personal definition, what will it take for you to consider yourself having 'made it' as a writer?"

      I don't even think in those terms. Because like you said, failure isn't an option. I think: "Can I pay the rent this month?" So far, the answer is yes, thank God (and my readers).

      My definition of success is a different question. I assign that on a project-by-project basis. For the Soul Cycle books, I define success as breaking even on production costs. Thus far all of them have not only broken even, but have turned a profit.

      I had this discussion with Jagi a while back. She was astonished that I'd made the J list until I pointed out the vast differences in cost of living between someone who's got a mortgage and several mouths to feed vs. a single guy who lives like an ascetic. To get specific, I can do J list on less than ten grand a year.

  4. Excellent information - I wish I'd realized all this earlier. I spent six months trying actively to promote my first book before I realized my time was better invested in writing the sequel, so I could start working my way up the series ladder to success. Thanks for sharing Russell's and your insights.

    1. Good for you. Marketing is mandatory, but there is no more profitable use of a writer's time than writing.

      You're welcome.