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.
Maggie Percy says
I have read this post before, and it’s so full of useful information. This week I am applying your suggestions, as Book 1 in my Autumn In The Desert series got a Bookbub Featured Deal, so I added FB ads and Amazon ads and will be posting on FB, etc. Plus Book 2 in the series is available for pre-order. It will be a slightly smaller scale project than yours, as my budget is a little less, but I’m excited about doing it. So thanks for the tips!
I have a silly question. How do you find out whether you hit the best seller lists and at what rank? Do you have to just keep looking at the lists?
Joanna Penn says
Yes, you just have to keep monitoring the lists in the week of your promotion
Gundi Gabrielle says
thanks for this awesome and very detailed information! – I’ve heard that’s it’s next to impossible to get on these lists, esp. NYT, with non fiction (even James Altucher didn’t get on though he sold more books than 99% on the NYT list) – unless you go with the big publishing houses.
Do you have any experience or feedback on that?
thanks so much!
Thanks so much for this! Next writing goal is to make it on one of these lists. Your post is exceedingly helpful in coming up with a plan.
Thanks for the great post! Does the USA Today list count ebooks only or is it a sum of ebook and paperback and audio for a single title?
Joanna Penn says
There are different lists. Just go have a look 🙂