September 14

An Experiment in Book Advertising

Digital Publishing

Here’s the problem: How do you cost-effectively advertise a one-off product that only sells for three or four dollars?

Yes, I’m talking about eBooks. No matter good your book is, nobody is going to buy more than one (digital) copy of it. So the obvious challenge is to spend less on advertising per book than the price of the book itself. No small task, I assure you.

This puzzle has been on my mind recently, as I’ve had a few author clients that are in the active phase of promoting recently published books.kindlebooks

The truth is, if you’ve only published one book, and you have no other products (i.e. additional books) or services to offer, then paid advertising for your book is almost always a losing proposition.

But that’s not to say promoting your book overall is a losing a proposition. Let’s dive deeper into this topic with my own personal case study.

My Experiment in Book Advertising

Nowadays I make my living in the world of Content Marketing and S.E.O., but once upon a time, when living in Italy, I had a go at freelance writing, which included travel writing, blogging, writing web copy for clients, and yes, I wrote and published a few ebooks about Italian culture.

I wrote them as the “Golden Rush” of Kindle publishing was approaching its twilight. There were still profits to be made, but the easy money era of pumping out crap and making thousands per month was over. Which was a good thing, because it forced me to up my game a bit (although looking back, I still should have done better.)

I wrote three books in summer of 2013, and then set about promoting them in several different ways, which I will mention in a minute.

But let’s jump to the good part.

After a few months, sales caught some momentum, and then for the next two years, these three little ebooks combined to give me a passive income of $500-600 per month. Not enough to live off of, but heck, it made two car payments for me during that period.

Well, the gravy train eventually slowed down, partially due to changes in Amazon’s platform, and partially due to my own inactivity. Yes, after I made that initial push of promoting my books, I didn’t do much else to generate sales. I wanted some truly passive income; and for the most part, I achieved that to my satisfaction. Here’s a screenshot of my historical profits:

If I exchange all currencies into USD, it comes to about $16,000 over the course of four years. I estimate that I spent about 160 hours total in writing those books (spread over 3-4 months) and about half that amount of time promoting them. That breaks down to about $75/hour earned so far. But the royalties have been steadily decreasing of late…

Then recently, I found new inspiration from my author-clients. Feeding off of their enthusiasm, I “re-Kindled” (HA! Get it?) my interest in ebook publishing as a business model. I already had the audience, even if I had mostly ignored them for nearly three years. But all the pieces were there–they just needed to be reactivated. Or at least that was my theory.

So for this new experiment, the first thing I did was schedule a “Countdown Deal” on Amazon for one of these books to bring it back from the dead. (In this case it was Eat Like an Italian.)

Once per quarter, books enrolled in the KDP Select program can offer a deal in order to boost sales. The idea was that this would generate momentum, not only for the discounted book, but also bringing more attention to my other books, hence the need to have multiple titles in your portfolio. This concept is important and I’ll touch on it more later.

When I scheduled my Countdown Deal, they offered me advertising on the Amazon site. They didn’t have this back when I first published the books, so I decided to give it a try, budgeting just $5/day for the four days that my Countdown Deal to run, for a total of $20. Not a big ad spend, but hey, I don’t have enough experience with Amazon ads to feel justified in spending more. This is an experiment, after all.

The next thing I did was to repurpose an old blog post that was relevant to the topic of the book. I chose a popular post on my site called “Why do Italians Live Longer,” which speaks about the food culture in Italy. I used this post as a “landing page” to drive traffic from social media during the promotional period.

I also placed a top banner on all the pages of my site that week (except on the re-purposed blog post and a few other pages). I use a plug in called Thrive Ultimatum, which is great for promoting any type of time-sensitive deal directly on your website. It uses a countdown timer to generate a sense of urgency on the part of your readers, with a call-to-action and direct link to the offer. Marketing gold, in my opinion.

The “Secret Sauce”

Perhaps the most important part of this type of promotion is the inclusion of an eblast to the relevant segment of your email list. (You DO have an email list, don’t you?!?)

I have an email list of about 5,000 active subscribers, but only about 3,000 of these have opted-in with one of my food-related offers. (The other segments are language, fashion, and dealing with Italian bureaucracy.) So I made sure to send this email to ONLY those who are interested in Italian food-related topics, and not the other themes of my blog.

Important note: These types of emails are BY FAR the strongest way to market your products and services, because the people on these types of lists represent the most highly-targeted and highly-engaged folks in your audience. Much more than casual blog readers, and much MUCH more that social media followers.

But speaking of social media, here’s how I improve my engagement with these types of promotions using the above mentioned email lists to create HIGHLY-targeted Facebook ads.

Your lists can be downloaded from your email marketing provider (I use Aweber) as an Excel spreadsheet, and then uploaded to your Facebook Ad account to create a “Custom Audience.” Facebook will find the people on your email list, match them to their Facebook account, and then serve them the ad that you design.

Further, you can also use this Custom Audience to create a “Lookalike Audience” where Facebook matches the criteria of your audience with their database of demographic information to generate new (much larger!) group of folks who are likely to be interested in your book (or other product/service).

Worth noting, I sent the “hot” audience (already on my email list) directly to a sales page on my site; while I sent the “warm” audience (lookalikes) to the repurposed blog post.

In the end, I created ads targeted to these two audiences which ran for four days at $5/day per target audience, for a total of $40.

I also created a Facebook post that my “fans” would see (or a small percentage of them, anyway). I elected not to “boost” this post, but rather rely only on organic reach. I felt the ads I created would do a sufficient job of reaching the right readers, and didn’t need to reach out to my Facebook Fans.

As far as other social media platforms, I shared my repurposed blog post on LinkedIn and Google +, but didn’t actively promote those.

For Twitter, I used Hootsuite to schedule and automate Tweets leading up to and during the promotion, focusing on content that was food-related, in line with the subject of the book I am promoting.

The Costs

So what were the cost of these promotional efforts. Well, that depends on how you break them down. In absolute costs, it’s clear that I only budgeted $60 for ads. But realistically, I’d have to allocate some percentage of costs for my blog hosting, email marketing service, and other ongoing expenses that do not directly contribute to the cost of this promotion, but yet are necessary for me to maintain my platforms.

But then, of course, there’s the biggest expenses of all, which is my time. My estimate is that I spent a total of about 4 hours preparing for this promotion. The going rate for a freelance digital marketer averages around $75/hour. If we consider just that rate plus my advertising expenses (and not my usual monthly expenses), then my total cost for this campaign came to $360.

That means that I’ll need to sell A LOT of books at just $0.99 each!

I knew realistically, there’s no way that it would happen.  Recover my out pocket expenses for the ads, sure (maybe), but not enough to cover my time.

So now we’re back to my original hypothesis: a one-off book promotion is a losing proposition. The only way that this promo makes money is if:

1) The momentum gained will generate full-prices sales for a good bit of time after the discount has expired. This is where Amazon’s algorithm kicks in and can really boost your sales.

2) The readers buy copies of my other books (also at full price) if they liked the discounted one.

There are other promo efforts that I could have explored. For example there are book promotion sites that will push your book to their subscribers and social media followers for a fee. The most famous of these is BookBub, but it’s really quite expensive. If you’re a serious author that makes your entire living from selling books, then this is worth checking out. But for most of us, it’s cost-prohibitive.

Anyway, let’s see how we did.

The Results

A Best Seller? YES!   (Technically, but…)

So now for the results. There is some good news and bad news.

First the good news: I have (well, had) an Amazon Best Seller! Yes, for about a day or so,  I had the top book in category of “Italy Travel.”

This is misleading, however, because these lists are updated HOURLY, so it’s actually not that hard to have a best-seller if you have just one good day of sales, which can be accomplished by aggressive promotion. Take a screenshot, pat yourself on the back, and then get back to work on writing another book.

rick zullo best seller

The bad news, of course is that the experiment was a complete failure from a financial side. I earned only about $50.

Let’s break it down and try to pinpoint what went wrong.

As I mentioned, email marketing is by far the most efficacious way to promote and sell products or services online. My results this time were lukewarm, at best. While I can’t directly track conversions here since it would require a pixel on Amazon’s platform, open rate and click through rate give pretty good indications or a campaign’s success.

That’s an open rate of 32% (I’d like to see it at least in the mid to upper 40’s) and a CTR of 5% (15-20% would have made me happier).

I suspect that the reason for this is that my list is both saturated and somewhat inactive. While I do get new subscribers every day, many of these folks have been on my list for years, and have either already bought the book, or decided that they weren’t interested a while ago.

For new acquisitions, I turned to Facebook ads. Again, the results were not dismal, but could have been a lot better.

The cost per click was way too much, especially on the ads served to my established email list. However, they were sent directly to a sales page rather than a blog post. Facebook knows this and charged me accordingly. The have openly stated that landing page content is a major factor in ad costs. Facebook want their users to be given value, not a pitch, so these results are consistent with that fact.

The Amazon ads were another story. It was my first time to try them out, and the results were surprising, if not enlightening. As it happened, I spent nothing because nobody (yes, NOBODY) clicked on my ad. I’m quite sure that the ad itself was attractive, so I can only assume that the issue was my bidding. This is where experience would have come in handy. In sum,  a poorly designed campaign, but at least it didn’t cost me anything.

Regarding the collective traffic to my site that resulted from the promo efforts, that was pretty good and about what I had expected. Note: the two posts in question were “Why Do Italians Live Longer?” (327 hits) and “Eat Like an Italian eBook”(89 hits).

And the clicks from my website to Amazon weren’t too bad either (both and

An Experiment in Book Advertising – Conclusions

It’s safe to say that this was mostly a losing effort all around … EXCEPT that I learned a lot in the process. So that was the value of the experiment for me; certainly not the $10 profit that I netted after the ad costs.

The takeaway? I was trying for a lazy way to make a quick hit and predictably, it failed. I had hoped that I could use good marketing to sell a worn-out, mediocre product after years of neglecting it. You can’t. The old adage is “Nothing makes a bad product fail faster than good marketing.” Lesson (re)learned.

So no, for an ePublishing business model to succeed, it requires your on-going attention, which includes, above all (in my opinion) a consistent revitalization of your brand by publishing new content on a regular basis, and that means especially new book titles. The four-year gap on my author bookshelf just won’t cut it.

Many authors make a solid living from eBook self-publishing. Some make six-figures. Why? Because they treat it like a business, and realize that it is NOT passive income. Scaleable, yes, but not passive. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get back into book writing/publishing, but if I do I will commit to it 100%.

What have your experiences been with Kindle publishing? Which good (and bad) ways have you tried to advertise and promote your books?

About the author 

Rick Zullo

Web designer, copywriter, content strategist, funnel builder, and teacher helping individuals and businesses create results-oriented digital marketing campaigns. [email protected]

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  1. Hi Rick,
    This was an enjoyable read. I am one of those folks that only have 1 ebook and my marketing efforts definitely failed. I’ve always wondered about ads, etc, but like you said who wants to spend the money when you’ve barely made any money off the book. Back to the drawing board I guess.

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