If you read a lot about marketing for authors, you might get the idea that things are changing like crazy all the time and it’s impossible to keep up.
My own opinion is that the basic principles haven’t changed much over the last twenty years. The tools change from time to time, but the core methods that actually work today will continue to work for years and years.
So I recommend that you create a small and simple marketing plan built around a few core methods. Then choose the tools you need to make those methods work. And stick with them until you find a better tool.
The Three Rings of Power
I believe there are three core elements to an author marketing strategy. I call them the Three Rings of Power, and they haven’t changed in a long time:
- An author website
- An e-mail newsletter
- Paid advertising
You may think that author websites and e-mail newsletters are boring. I say they aren’t boring if they pay your bills. Social media has gotten a lot of hype, but ask any author how well social media works. Ask them these three questions and don’t go away until you get an answer:
- What does it mean for a marketing method to “work?”
- How would you measure your marketing method to prove that it “works” according to your own definition that you just gave?
- What measurements have you made to verify that your marketing methods “work?”
My own experience is that you’ll be waiting a very long time to get any author to answer these three questions about social media. Whereas authors who use the Three Rings of Power can typically give you good answers.
An author website “works” if it builds your e-mail list. This is easy to measure and successful authors can show you their stats on the growth of their list.
Your e-mail list “works” if it gives each book a great launch when you release it. This is again easy to measure, because you can see how many of your fans click on your e-mails during Launch Week, and you can see how well your book does during Launch Week. Successful authors can show you their results for every launch.
Paid advertising “works” when it moves copies of your books during their launch and then forever after. However, please note that paid advertising is typically only cost-effective for indie authors, not for traditionally published authors. Indie authors can easily measure the results of their paid advertising, and they can show you their results.
In case you’re interested in how these Three Rings of Power work together to create your core marketing machine, let me refer you to my blog post “A Virtuous Cycle for Marketing Your Books,” which explains how the whole can be more than the sum of the parts.
So let’s now talk about the tools you can use for each of the Three Rings of Power. Please note that some tools are useful for more than one Ring of Power. I’ve tried to put these in approximately the order you would start using the tools, but in some cases you’ll need to do two things at once.
Please note that some of these tools are “standard”–meaning that practically everyone uses them. In other cases, you have many options, but the one I’ll tell you about is the one I use myself. These I mark with the phrase “My favorite” to make it clear that you do have other options. In these cases, I’ve usually done a ton of research to decide for myself which of the many options is best for me at the time I did the research. You should always use your own best judgment to decide if the tool I like would also be best for you.
Website Marketing Tools
Creating your website: WordPress software
You have several options for tools to create your website. Most professional authors use the free WordPress software. About 40% of the entire web runs on WordPress. It’s rock-solid and gives you great power–much more than you’ll ever need. I simply can’t recommend any option other than WordPress, because it’s such a standard.
And WordPress software is free. All of the common website-hosting companies will give you an easy way to install WordPress with one click. There are many companies that host websites. You’ll see my recommendation below for the one I like best, but there are dozens of good ones to choose from, and you can find them using your favorite search engine.
The only catch is that WordPress takes time to learn to use correctly. You can either read a book or an online tutorial, or you can hire a webmaster. My time is valuable, so I hired an experienced webmaster to put together both of my WordPress websites. The cost for this is variable, but you don’t have to start with a gigantic website. See my article “The Minimum Viable Website” in the February 2021 issue of my Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine. All back issues of my e-zine are archived here, so scroll down to the February 2021 link and dive in.
It often takes weeks or months to get an author website rolling. Not because it’s hard, but because the author rarely knows what they want. So I recommend starting small and then building from there. If you hire a webmaster, pay them to teach you how to make changes to your site.
If you have no website and you have no idea how to even hire a webmaster, then you should ask around among your author friends to get recommendations. There are tens of thousands of competent webmasters out there. Find one and tell them what you want and then answer all their questions and commit to getting a minimum viable website up quickly.
My favorite website host: WPEngine.com
What is a “website host?” It’s just a company that you pay to hold your website on their hard drive system. They are connected to the internet at very high speeds and they can handle any amount of traffic.
You can use your favorite search engine to search for “best website hosting” and you’ll see hundreds of options. Most of them are probably very fine. I have hosted this website, AdvancedFictionWriting.com on several of them over the years.
The one I like best is WPEngine.com, and this website is hosted with them now. They are completely obsessed with hosting WordPress sites. They don’t do anything but WordPress, and their commitment to security and performance is fanatical.
I switched to WPEngine on a nasty day back in 2013 after several months of frustration with a different hosting service that seemed unable to stop denial of service attacks, and then kept halting my service because I was getting “too much traffic.”
So I switched to WPEngine, on the recommendation of my webmaster. My website has been rock-solid ever since.
WPEngine is not cheap. If you’re looking for cheaper providers, you can find them very easily. If cost is critical to you, do that. I consider WPEngine to have very fair pricing, but my highest priorities are stability and security.
The tool I’ve been using for years now is called Iubenda, and you can learn all about it at iubenda.com. (affiliate link)
In a word, Iubenda is awesome.
My favorite set of WordPress plugins: Thrive Suite
Early in 2021, a friend of mine asked for a recommendation for a particular WordPress plugin. I told him the one I was using, but then I wondered if there was something better.
I did some research online and discovered there was something a LOT better–Thrive Suite.
So on the spot, I bought Thrive Suite and installed it on both my websites. And I love it. I wish I’d had this incredible toolset 20-plus years ago when I started my first website.
Thrive Suite is a bundle of powerful plugins that do most of what you need to make your website an amazing marketing machine. Here’s what you get in Thrive Suite:
- Thrive Leads–one of the very best plugins for setting up signup forms for your e-mail list.
- Thrive Architect–a great tool for designing landing pages on your website that look EXACTLY the way you want.
- Thrive Ovation–a tool that helps you collect endorsements automatically, sort through them to choose the best, and then display them anywhere on your site, as needed, all with no muss and no fuss. Beautiful!
- Thrive Quiz Builder–a fantastic plugin that lets you put up cool quizzes on your site. Why would you want to do that? Because quizzes are fun, and people like taking quizzes. And also, some of the answers to quiz questions can help you sort your customers and show them whatever you’ve got that would appeal to them most.
- Thrive Optimize–a clever plugin that lets you display different headlines on a page to different visitors and automatically track which headline is the most appealing.
- Thrive Ultimatum–a plugin that lets you put countdown timers on your site. This is great when you’re running a promo that has a deadline.
- Thrive Apprentice–build your own video courses on your website. This is way cool.
The Thrive Suite tools do something I’ve been wanting to do for more than 20 years, but I never had the techie skills–the ability to do “split-testing.” What is “split-testing?” It’s when you display different variations of a web page to different site visitors. Then your system tracks which gets the best response, and automatically shows that one more often. Split-testing is complicated! But it can pay off big-time.
The Thrive Leads plugin (that handles your e-mail signup forms) has amazing split-testing built right in. If this is the only split-testing you do, it can easily be worth more than the cost of Thrive Suite all by itself.
You might think Thrive Suite must cost thousands of dollars per year. No, it costs a couple of hundred dollars per year.
If you’re serious about marketing, Thrive Suite is fantastic, and I consider it an absolute no-brainer purchase.
If you’re not serious about marketing, then you don’t need Thrive Suite because you’re not going to use it.
I am an affiliate for Thrive Suite, because I think it’s amazing. I use it myself, and I adore it.
To find out more about Thrive Suite, visit their website here. (affiliate link)
One of the things I love most about Thrive Suite is all the free educational information on marketing they have on their website. They call this part of their site Thrive University. You’ll be astonished how much great information is in Thrive University.
If you want to be inspired by how fast and how well you can create a landing page using Thrive Suite, watch this series of short videos on Thrive University on the subject of Rapid Landing Page Building. (affiliate link)
Filtering out spam on your website: Akismet
Years ago, I chanced to visit the website of an author friend of mine. At first, I was surprised to see how many comments he had on his blog. Every blog post had dozens of comments!
Then I looked at the comments. They were all spam comments.
My friend had no way to prevent spammers from putting junk comments on his blog.
Don’t make that mistake. Use a spam filter. The standard spam filter for WordPress is a plugin called Akismet.
Measuring traffic on your website: Google Analytics
Many years ago, I noticed that one page on my author website was getting more traffic than all the others combined. It was a page about how to write a novel using my Snowflake Method. And it was getting hundreds of page views per day.
I realized there was a business opportunity there, and I spun off a new website with my article on the Snowflake Method as its central pillar–the website you are on right now, AdvancedFictionWriting.com.
That led to three books and several products that have earned me more money than I ever thought I’d earn as a writer.
Knowledge is power.
I noticed I had a winner because I looked at the traffic on my website.
And the tool I used then and still use now is a free tool called Google Analytics.
Google Analytics is simple to use. You create an account at analytics.google.com. They give you a little snippet of code. You install that snippet on every page of your website. (This takes five minutes if you know how. Ask your webmaster if you don’t know how.) Then Google Analytics tracks every visitor to your site.
And if you check your traffic statistics once a month on Google Analytics, you’ll see what works and what doesn’t.
If you’re not using Google Analytics, then you need it. Now.
E-mail List-Building Tools
My favorite e-mail service provider: ConvertKit
Years ago, I asked the marketing director at my publisher what was the one thing I should focus on to market my books.
She said, “Build your e-mail list.”
That was sound advice, and it’s still true, almost twenty years later. Social media platforms come and go, but you don’t own your social media account, and they can cut you off whenever they want, or they can go out of fashion.
But e-mail never goes out of fashion. E-mail is not exactly cool, of course. But everybody on the planet has e-mail, because they need it to do stuff. Nobody is going to quit using e-mail. You own your e-mail list, and it can’t be taken away from you.
If you’ve got permission to send your True Fans e-mails on a regular basis, you can reach them at any time, on your own terms.
So build your e-mail list. To do that, you need an “E-mail Service Provider.” There are a ton of these, some good, some cheap, some amazing. I’ve used several E-mail Service Providers over the years.
In the summer of 2018, I got fed up with the E-mail Service Provider I was using. So I spent a week researching all the top E-mail Service Providers and chose the one I thought was the best of the best–at least for me.
It’s called ConvertKit, and I love it. About half the members in my MasterMind group have now switched to ConvertKit, because it’s fantastic.
Here’s what I like best about ConvertKit. It’s simple. I like simple. I like easy-to-use. I like a tool where the Help pages are written in plain English. I like a tool where I rarely have to read the Help pages, because the tool thinks like I do and is intuitive to use. That’s ConvertKit.
Yes, there are other tools out there. Some are fancier than ConvertKit. Some are cheaper.
But I’m just not interested in them. I had a look at them all, and for my money and my time, ConvertKit is best for me.
I’m an affiliate of ConvertKit, because I am utterly in love with its ease of use. Every time I sent out an e-mail to my list, I find ConvertKit a pleasure to use. That’s gold.
You can find out more about ConvertKit on their website here. (affiliate link)
Promoting your e-mail list: BookFunnel.com
One way to build your e-mail list faster is to give away a freebie exclusively to people who sign up for your e-mail newsletter. This should be something that only your True Fans would want. If you’re a novelist, it makes sense to give away a free piece of your fiction. Maybe a short story. Maybe a novella. Maybe a whole novel.
You should give it away in e-book format (typically the .mobi format for people who read e-books on a Kindle device or Kindle app, and typically an .epub format for people who read e-books on any other e-reader).
The problem is that not all your True Fans know how to load that e-book freebie onto their e-reader device. And your time is valuable, so you don’t want to be in the business of constantly helping your fans figure out the techie stuff.
The solution is to use BookFunnel.com to deliver your e-books for you. You can easily set up your E-mail Service Provider so that once your True Fan signs up for your e-mail list, they’ll be automatically sent to a page on BookFunnel to download your freebie.
Then BookFunnel takes it from there. They walk your True Fan through the process of loading your freebie on their device–their Kindle, phone, tablet, Nook, Kobo, computer, or whatever your True Fan uses to read e-books.
If your True Fan has technical problems, BookFunnel has tech support to help them out. (Which means you can spend your time writing, not doing tech support.)
Most successful writers give away some sort of e-book freebie to their newsletter subscribers. And a very large fraction of those writers use BookFunnel. It’s awesome.
I‘ve been using BookFunnel for years, and it does a complicated job well.
Making beautiful book-based graphics: BookBrush.com
If you do any kind of promotion of your books on your website, guest blog posts, social media, or paid advertising, you’re going to need some sort of graphics to show off your book.
And that’s hard. Not all writers are good at graphics. Some of us are downright awful.
But now it’s easy to create great graphics with very little training and very little work.
The tool many authors have become addicted to is called BookBrush.
BookBrush is amazing. You can learn it fast and use it fast.
And the results are stellar. Even I can make really good graphics for my books.
Paid Advertising Tools
Warning note: Paid advertising works, but the profit margins are often not very high. The key number to look at is ROAS (Return on Ad Spend). If you spend $100 on ads and your book sells an extra $1000 at the cash register, a big chunk of that $1000 goes to the retailer (the physical bookstore or Amazon or Apple Books or Kobo or B&N or whoever). What really counts is how much money trickles back to the publisher, and then how much of the publisher’s revenue actually comes down to you.
You will be doing well if a $100 ad spend results in $400 in return to the publisher. If you are an indie author (meaning that you act as your own publisher), that’s wonderful. You have a ROAS of 400%. After subtracting off your initial $100 cost, that’s a profit of $300 for every $100 you spent on ads. You can make that kind of investment all day long.
However, if you are a traditionally published author, you will be lucky to see 25% of the money that the publisher gets. (25% is the usual royalty for e-book sales.) However, some of your sales will be paper copies, and the royalties on paper sales will be much less–generally less than 20% of what the publisher receives and often a lot less than that. And if you have an agent, they’ll take their 15% cut of whatever is due to come to you.
So if you spend $100 on ads, and your publisher receives $400 in extra revenue, you’re going to receive less than 25% of that $400–that is, you’ll receive less than $100 for your investment of $100. That is a bad deal for you every day of the week.
The bottom line is that it hardly ever makes sense for a traditionally-published author to pay for advertising. (Your best hope here is to ask your publisher to pay for it.) But it makes all kind of sense for an indie author to pay for advertising, and the great majority of highly successful indie authors use some or all of the following paid advertising tools.
Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) ads
Indie authors who publish their books on Amazon use the Kindle Direct Publishing (usually called KDP) website at kdp.amazon.com. You can publish a book there if you own the rights to the book (meaning that you haven’t sold the rights to a publisher; or you’ve sold the rights to a publisher who later reverted rights back to you with a reversion-of-rights letter).
If you publish a book on KDP, you can easily set up paid ads on Amazon using their Amazon Marketing Services (usually called AMS) ads. Just log in to your KDP account. You’ll see your Bookshelf page, which displays all the books you’re publishing on KDP. Each book has a “Promote and Advertise” link. Click that link and you’ll be taken to a page where you can either run a price promotion or run an ad campaign. Choose the option to run an ad campaign and follow the directions.
AMS ads are very profitable for some books and not profitable for others. So you should be cautious about how much you spend until you know that you’re getting a good return on your ad spend.
You can find many books on how to run effective AMS ad campaigns. You can also find numerous expensive online courses. Be aware that anyone can write a book or a course. Check out how successful the author or course producer is with their own books and draw your conclusions accordingly.
If you are traditionally published, you can ask your publisher to run AMS ads for your books, and they’ll do so if they think they can do it profitably.
Tracking AMS ads: ReaderLinks.com
If you’re an indie author publishing on KDP and running AMS ads, you may want an easy way to compare your ad spend to your royalties earned. Amazon doesn’t actually make this very easy to do. That is, they don’t link your KDP sales reports to your AMS ad-spend reports.
The solution is to use ReaderLinks.com, which makes it fairly easy to display your earnings and your ad spend for any book or set of books that you sell and advertise on Amazon.
One of my friends in my Mastermind group recommended ReaderLinks to me in January of 2019. I instantly saw how valuable it would be, so I signed up and have been using it ever since. I really like the tool. I update my data every day and check my numbers for all my books. It takes me about 5 minutes per day, and I am always up to the minute on how my books and ads are doing. I highly recommend ReaderLinks.
Numerous websites allow you to pay for a one-day-only ad in which your e-book is priced at some super low bargain prices–maybe free, or maybe 99 cents or maybe $1.99 or even as high as $2.99.
BookBub.com is the king of these “deal websites.” I have run ads on BookBub several times and always saw a good return on my investment. In August of 2014, I ran an ad on Book 1 in my City of God series, with the price set to free. I moved about 25,000 copies of the book that day, and sales of Books 2 and 3 in the series went through the roof and stayed high for months. Book 1, in fact, was ranked #3 on the main Amazon Bestseller List for Free Books that day.
BookBub is expensive, and they have become intensely selective. It’s very hard to get them to choose your book for one of their daily deals. But if your book is chosen, it will move a lot copies.
If you’re an indie author, it can make good sense to submit your books to BookBub (and other deal sites). However, nothing is ever guaranteed, and it’s possible that a BookBub deal will not be profitable for you.
If you’re traditionally published, you can ask your publisher to run a BookBub ad on your book, and they’ll do it if they think it makes financial sense. One reason it’s gotten harder for indie authors to run BookBub ads is because a lot of traditional publishers are now paying for them.
BookBub pay-per-click ads
BookBub has a gigantic email list, and they send out a daily email with deals of the day in various categories. At the bottom of each e-mail is one ad that’s different. It’s not for a daily deal. Instead, it’s a “pay-per-click” ad, which means that publishers and authors are bidding for the right to put an ad for a book in that spot.
You can run BookBub pay-per-click ads at any time. Readers of the BookBub email newsletter are highly price-conscious, so you won’t usually do well running pay-per-click ads for a full-price book. But if the price is low and the ad copy is excellent, you can do well with BookBub pay-per-click ads.
I’ve never personally run BookBub pay-per-click ads, but I intend to in the future, because I think I can do it profitably. However, what I hear is that there’s a fine line between a successful ad and a loser ad. So be cautious here and test things well before you invest heavily in these.
Facebook has billions of users, and those users are used to seeing ads in their newsfeed.
Anyone who has a Page can run Facebook ads.
Facebook ads can be highly profitable to you, or they can be an utter failure. It depends how well you execute your ad campaigns.
Mastering Facebook ads is complex and difficult, but it’s well worth doing.
It’s not possible to give you a decent introduction to the subject here, but see my recommendation below on Perry Marshall’s book, if you’re interested in studying how to run Facebook ads profitably.
Learning to run Facebook ads: Perry Marshall’s book
Perry Marshall is an internationally respected marketing consultant who lives in Chicago. One of my good friends grew up with him and introduced me to him several years ago. I’ve been to Perry’s house for one of his celebrated “Four-Person Intensives”–two days in which four selected students get together with Perry to thrash out business plans.
Perry became famous as the king of Google Ads in the early part of this century.
More recently, he’s also coauthored a book with several Facebook experts. I have read this book and found it very inspiring. Facebook ads are on my plate in the near future, mainly because Perry’s book has given me the confidence to think I can tackle this very competitive advertising environment.
So I can strongly recommend Perry’s book Ultimate Guide to Facebook Advertising, Fourth Edition, which he coauthored with Bob Regnerus, Thomas Meloche, and Mark Ingles.