Last week my ARKANE box-set hit the USA Today bestseller list at #121.
This is a case study describing how I did it in case you want to try it yourself.
But remember, this is only an anecdote and one person's experience, so results will depend on each individual situation.
Why bother trying to hit the list anyway? What does it even matter?
You don't need to hit a list to make a very good living as an author, and many authors just get on with reaching readers without caring about them at all. Authors who are in KDP Select may also be selling FAR more than is needed to hit the list, but the criteria involves selling on multiple stores.
The lists are widely understood to be ‘gameable,' so the results are more like an IQ test. They measure something – but not what you might think 🙂
However, there are a few reasons to want to hit the USA Today list or the New York Times list:
- I was on the USAT and NYT lists as part of a multi-author boxset and I wanted to do it with a single author name
- I see romance authors doing it all the time, even with brand new titles, but there are fewer indie thriller authors who hit the lists. Recently, Michael Lister and Mark Dawson did it as thriller authors with box-sets, so I wanted to see if I could do it too
- I don't like to constantly promote my fiction so I needed some kind of spike promo to aim for. It's good to have a goal like making a list, and then even if you fall short, you still have the benefits of visibility and sales
- It's an interesting demonstration of how fiction book marketing is working right now in terms of paid advertising. I'm also going to be working on the 3rd edition of How to Market a Book soon, so I wanted some personal experience of this kind of ad stacking.
Here are my results and then below that is an explanation of what I did.
Total number of books sold @ 99c (reduced from $6.99 for the week)
- Amazon.com Kindle: 4294
- Kobo: 491
- iBooks: 544
- Nook: 902
- Total books sold: 6231
- Total income from box-set sold: $2524
- Total extra income in the week from other books – comparing previous weeks income so can be extrapolated as related to the promotion: $1654
- Total income: $4178
- Started at around 84,000 in the Amazon.com Kindle store
- Top ranking reached on Amazon.com: #34 overall in the Kindle store #1 in Men's Adventure, Women's Adventure, Terrorism, Supernatural Thrillers, Paranormal Suspense
- Top ranking reached on Amazon.co.uk: #106 overall in the Kindle store #1 in Men's Adventure, Women's Adventure
Cost of advertising
- Total paid promotional email list cost (BookBub and others as below): $1261
- Total Facebook Ads: $2131
- Total BookBub extra ads (beta service): $1573
- Total cost: $4965
Overall LOSS: $787
Yes, that is an overall loss, but it is for that week only, and does not take into account future income from sale of other books based on new readers, which I would expect to more than offset that in coming months. It's also worth noting that most companies would consider marketing as an investment and would not expect positive ROI (return on investment) from immediate sales in the week of promotion.
What about other measures of success?
- New signups to my JFPenn email list: 2347
- New Likes to my JFPenn Facebook page (which you often get when you advertise): 111
- No of new readers who now have books 1-3 of my ARKANE series and could go on to buy the other 6 books in that series, or more of my books in general: 6231
- New reviews that will be coming in over the next few weeks
- Revenue from future book sales that will now come in as a result of new readers finding my books
- Intangible benefit of making the USA Today list as a single author
So was it worth it?
Absolutely. Even though it was a slight financial loss in the week of the promotion, I more than expect to get that back over the coming months from new readership and ongoing sales based on boosted ranking.
Here's some tips on how you could try and hit the list yourself.
Tip 1: Make sure it's the right book and a good deal for customers
Established indie authors (mainly romance) hit the USA Today and even the NY Times with new releases all the time, but in the thriller genre, it is mainly traditionally published authors who do that. You also have to sell a decent volume across multiple stores to make the lists so the best idea is to have a time-sensitive deal that people want so they buy on impulse. So I went with:
- ARKANE boxset 1 containing 3 full-length thrillers: Stone of Fire, Crypt of Bone, Ark of Blood. These books have been out for several years and the box-set has been out for over a year
- Reduced from $6.99 to 99c for a limited time – which made it attractive to readers
- 73 reviews with 4.9 star average on Amazon.com – which made it acceptable to the merchandizers
Tip 2: Utilize ad stacking
I got a BookBub Featured Deal for the Wednesday, and then organized other promotional services around it for the week of the promo. I used Booksends, Just Kindle Books, Kindle Nation Daily, BooksButterfly, eReaderNewsToday, and BargainBooksy. These are all paid promotional email list services that promote limited time deals to voracious readers. There are lots of other options but I went with this selection.
You need to book these as soon as possible as many of them sell out. They have varying success rates but for a week of promo, I decided it was a good idea to be everywhere. Thanks to Michael Lister for sharing the services he used for his successful USA Today run, which he discussed on the Sell More Books Show.
Thanks also to Draft2Digital for helping me get some Nook merchandising, as you need sales in more than one store to make the lists. I focused on Nook as it's harder to get movement on iBooks, and Kobo has fewer sales in the US.
As well as the paid email services, I also layered on Facebook Ads a few days BEFORE the promos, so I would start the week at a higher ranking.
On the Monday morning when the book sales started counting, the boxset was already at #7425 on Amazon.com and in the Top 100 for Men's Adventure and Terrorism (up from around #84,000 in the store), so it had a running start.
I then continued to run Facebook Ads for the whole week to fans of authors in the same genre, as well as to my email list and LookaLike lists (more detail below.) As ever, credit due to Mark Dawson for his encouragement around FB Ads. You can listen to this interview if you want to learn more.
After the main BookBub Featured Deal, I also used the beta ad service from BookBub, which shows paid ads at the bottom of the daily emails, to target Kindle and Nook readers for the last 2 days of the run.
Yes, I should have included tracking links per service in order to work out which was most effective, but I didn't, because I'm just not enough of a data geek 🙂 My main approach was ‘be everywhere' and then round up the numbers in total.
Tip 3: Use your email list in multiple ways
Your own email list is a critical asset in your author business. It's like having your own Bookbub, but of course, it takes time to grow. [If you want to grow your author email list, check out this case study of how I grew mine.]
In the words of Gary Vaynerchuk, online marketing is about ‘jab, jab, jab, right hook,' or ‘give, give, give, ask.' So if you have been generous with your readers and fans over time, now's the time for the ‘ask.' If you promote too often, then I don't believe readers will care too much, but if you do deals occasionally (as I do), then you should get good support.
I sent out an email to my JFPenn list notifying them of the deal, plus I mentioned it on The Creative Penn podcast and also sent an email to my Creative Penn list. Many people had already read the separate books, but supported me anyway with 99c, and some tried the book on a whim. Thanks to everyone who bought it or spread the word!
It's also true that you often need to be seen more than once for readers to buy. So I also targeted my email list readers with Facebook Ads and used the list to create a LookaLike list of similar people to advertise to. This is one of the extra benefits of building a list as you can use it for targeted advertising as well as just emails.
If advertising makes you feel negative in any way, consider these questions:
- Do you believe your book is good enough for readers to want to read? Do you want them to know that it's available on a special deal?
- Do you believe that your book will stand out from the crowd without readers being notified that it's on special?
- Do you think that publishers invest money in marketing for books they want people to read?
If you think your books are good enough and that readers will find them entertaining, useful or inspirational, and if you take your author business seriously, and if you want to grow your readership, then I believe that this type of advertising investment is well worth it.
I'd love to hear what you think, so please do join the conversation and leave a comment below.
Congratulations! And thanks for all the details. I love writing and hope to have something published this year. The marketing is what I’ve never liked. After the webinar with you and Nick and your post here, I’m not quite as terrified as I was before! At least now I see a doable program. Thanks for all the great information. I’m a fan for life!
Tikiri Herath says
Thank you so much Joanna for sharing your knowledge and insight. Really appreciate your openness – this is immensely helpful and inspirational too to know what you are doing so I know I am not just reaching for some esoteric goal but true realistic practical goals that others already have achieved. I still have far to go but this is great info and inspiration! Thanks again.
Joanna Penn says
This is totally achievable in you just put the process into practice!
Icy Sedgwick says
I love how transparent you are with these posts – it really demystifies the process and makes selling books look a lot less like alchemy! It’s also nice to know which BookBub-type services get the Penn seal of approval so I’ll check them out for myself. But best of all, I like the fact you qualified the ‘need for advertising’ with the fact that you want readers to actually ENJOY the books. So many writers just seem to treat readers as ‘sales’.
Joanna Penn says
They will only buy more if they enjoy the books!
Congratulations on hitting that list, Joanna!
Thank you for your detailed P&L.
I think that even if we’re not aiming at hitting the big lists we can all use your strategy of ad stacking to drastically improve our rankings and visibility.
Let’s just make sure we have our reader magnets, landing pages and autoresponders set up so that we can offset any potential loss in the weeks after the promo.
Ron Yarosh says
You are always so giving, Joanna. I have a question on your course. Is it different from Mark’s and Nick’s? (BTW I’m in them due to your recommendation) If it is different, in what way(s)?
Joanna Penn says
yes, our courses are different 🙂
Nick’s course is specifically on marketing and building email lists
Mark’s course is specifically on Facebook Advertising
My courses are:
– How to successfully self-publish – which includes how to publish ebooks, print and audiobooks as well as marketing
– Creative Freedom – how to make a living with your writing – which is all the business stuff you need to run your own author business – includes working with teams, money, strategy and production planning, and mindset. This is the advanced course for people with more than 1 book who want to move to the next level.
I hope that helps 🙂
Heather Sunseri says
Fabulous information, Joanna! You’ve given me lots to think about.
Great info Joanna – I love how you did the cover for the book bundle. I’ve been enjoying your podcast!
Tim Moon says
Congratulations! That’s really exciting. Do you know of anyone who’s been able to ad stack successfully without the use of BookBub or their beta ad service? Not necessarily to hit a bestseller list, but to launch a book kind of like how Bryan Cohen did it with his fairy tale book. I’m curious what other advertising sites are successful at moving product.
Congratulations on hitting the USA Today Best Sellers. I was particularly interested in the BookBub Extra Ads as I’ve been waiting for this to come out of beta. It looks like you used a BB featured deal for one day and the extra ads for two days.
Do you have any figures on download comparisons between the featured deal and the extra ads or were they all lumped in together? The $1,573 cost for two extra ads looks to be on a par with the cost of a <$1 Thriller featured deal at $778.
Stephen Black says
Ms. Penn… Information and inspiration: I thank you greatly for both. WOW! I will no longer postpone looking at the newsletters you send me, will read them the millisecond they show up in my inbox! You are a gamechanger; a lifechanger! Onward and thanks again! (I seem to have used up my weeks ration of exclamation points 🙂
Joanna Penn says
I’m so glad you found this helpful!
Shonah Stevens says
Joanna, you are always an inspiration! I’ve yet to do any serious marketing, apart from the odd Twitter campaign and posting on Facebook. However in today’s competitive climate, marketing our books is essential. I’m looking at Amazon ads 🙂
Congratulations!! Well deserved 🙂
Audrey Pflugrath says
Thanks, Joanna. And congratulations on making the list! It’s my understanding that the New York Times doesn’t count digital sales towards its bestseller list. I take it from this post that USA Today does?
Joanna Penn says
Yes, it’s still possible to hit the USA Today list with just pure numbers, whereas the New York Times has pretty much added manual curation and seem to weed out boxsets and indie authors.
Jean Gill says
Congratulations and thank you for sharing! Very useful and I will definitely be trying some of your strategies over the next two years.
You’re suggesting that sheer volume of sales took the book to the US Today list? I know of bigger sales figures where the book hasn’t reached the list (including a couple of my own spikes) so I’m wondering whether genre is a big factor. Your genre is thriller (the most popular genre, I think, according to author earnings) – my experiences are with historical fiction and memoir.
Joanna Penn says
It’s volume – but that changes every week. I did it in the slow time of August, where no trad publisher launches. If you try for the same list in Sept-Dec, or Jan, or April/May – it will take a lot more sales. Also, you have to have volume at multiple stores, not just Amazon. That stops a lot of massive sellers hitting the lists, because they only focus on Amazon.
Jean Gill says
Thanks, Joanna. I noted that you contacted D2D re direct ad in Nook – nice idea.