At last week’s Romance Writers of America (RWA) Conference 2018 — one of the biggest annual writing conferences in the US — many sessions and panels covered book marketing and sales topics. We gathered fantastic tips from authors, agents, and prolific book marketers, and we’re excited to share them with our readers!
From branding to backlist promotions, panelists were buzzing about cross-promotion strategies, creating launch plans, and optimizing advertising campaigns.
Here were our top 10 takeaways from RWA 2018:
1. Test and iterate to find what works best for you
There are loads of book marketing “best practices” and case studies out there (including on this blog!), but the best way to know what tactics work best for you is to test campaigns with your unique audience to see what your readers respond to best. This came up so many times at RWA I could have made a drinking game out of it.
According to bestselling author and marketing maven Skye Warren, “Whatever works through testing is the right answer.” In 2017, Skye spent $100K on Facebook Ads and generated $850K in profit from those ads. One of her secrets to success is “ad creation via iteration.” Whether she’s running ads on Facebook or BookBub, she tests multiple ads at once. Once there’s a winner, she runs a new test using that test as a starting point. For example, she recommended:
- Create an ad set with six ads at a $20 budget.
- Take the best performing ad and duplicate it, changing only one thing.
- Stop all but the winning ad.
- Iterate on the winning ad to create a new ad set.
- Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
According to Skye, “If you don’t have a profitable ad, then you haven’t iterated long enough.”
She also noted that while it’s easy to use click-through rates as your success metric, clicks do not necessarily correlate to conversions. Since using affiliate links in ad campaigns might violate some retailers’ Terms of Service, she suggested a clever workaround:
- Create six website pages that are exactly the same.
- Link each ad in an ad set to one of the website pages.
- Use different affiliate codes on each of those pages to track the conversion rates.
- The ad / page with the highest conversion rate is the winner.
- Iterate and repeat testing using this strategy as many times as you’d like.
- Once you determine a winner and you’re ready to increase your budget, link that ad directly to the retailer book page.
Note that linking to your website instead of a retailer may reduce conversions since it takes readers an extra click to buy, but the purpose of these tests is to compare the results to determine which ad variation works best, not to drive sales. Once you determine the winner, you’re removing that extra step, so you’ll get as many conversions as possible.
2. Cross-promote with comparable authors
Successful romance authors regularly join forces to create powerful promotions and reach each other’s audiences. Author Deanna Chase recommended running newsletter swaps with comparable authors you trust. She also suggested using BookBub Recommendations to cross-promote. “You can’t recommend your own book,” she said, “but you can run a swap similar to newsletter swaps to reach each other’s audience.”
Author Avery Flynn suggested tracking the click-through rates of emails you send to your mailing list in which you recommend other authors’ books. This will help you learn more about your readers’ interests, the types of books they like, and whether you should swap newsletter placements with that author in the future. But always make sure your recommendations are genuine to you and your brand.
When co-marketing with several other authors, use online collaboration tools to organize your efforts. Latinx romance authors Alexis Daria, Priscilla Oliveras, Sabrina Sol, and Mia Sosa banded together to run a Facebook group 4 Chicas Chat, and they use Google Docs to stay organized. For example, they maintain one spreadsheet as a content schedule and publishing assignment tracker for their Facebook group. Another file has their up-to-date author bios for whenever one of them wants to pitch the group for a panel or event.
Whether you’re marketing a backlist or just starting out in publishing, authors Corinne Michaels, Laurelin Paige, and Kristen Proby all emphasized the importance of having a tribe. They recommended connecting with people at the same publishing level as you who you trust. Learn together, grow together, share information, support each other, collaborate, and celebrate each other’s wins. This network will be invaluable for developing friendships, having resources when you need to ask for help, or cross-promoting each other’s work.
3. Don’t undervalue your books
Making a first-in-series permafree as a gateway to drive sell-through to the rest of the series is a proven way to generate long-term revenue. But it repeatedly came up throughout RWA that authors too frequently under-price their books to $0.99 on a permanent basis. Bestselling author Barbara Freethy said, “I think too many people are pricing their backlist too low. You don’t need to make your books $0.99. A book is a new book to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. $0.99 seems like another cheap book to people.”
Several bestselling authors voiced that many readers don’t buy permanently priced $0.99 books because of the perceived low value. $4.99-$6.99 was generally deemed a good price range for self-published books. Instead of permanently pricing low ($0.99-$1.99), use limited-time discounts to achieve specific marketing goals. Which brings us to…
4. Temporarily discount to achieve different marketing goals
Bestselling author Carly Phillips regularly discounts her backlist books and promotes those discounts using BookBub Featured Deals. She also stacks promotions using other discounting services, newsletter sends, social media promotions, and more to amplify the Featured Deal. This helps her get the biggest bump on retailer rankings and bestseller lists.
Carlyn Robertson from BookBub shared data on discounting best practices, demonstrating how limited-time discounts can help with more than just promoting backlist titles. She suggested using price promotions to:
- Generate reviews, followers, or newsletter sign-ups. Run a free deal to get a high volume of downloads — BookBub’s partners see 11x more downloads of free books than $0.99 books. Then simply ask readers to review your book in your back matter — 84% of authors who asked readers for a review saw an increase in reviews.
- Launch a new book. Send a Preorder Alert ahead of the release to start building buzz. Once the book is live, discount a backlist book and link to the new book in the discounted book’s back matter. Supplement both the release and the deal with BookBub Ads campaigns, and ask other authors to recommend the new release on BookBub to gain visibility to their followers.
- Hit a bestseller list. Discount a popular book and concentrate your promotions (e.g. BookBub Ads, newsletter blasts, etc.) within a single week. Also ask other authors to post a recommendation for your book on BookBub that week to help spread the word.
- Boost series sales. Discount a first-in-series book — doing so got BookBub’s partners a 5x higher increase in sales than when a later book was discounted — and consider making that book free. Remember to link to those later books in the discounted book’s back matter so readers will go on to purchase them at full-price!
Bestselling author Laura Kaye effectively boosted series sales when she ran a free deal on a first-in-series book with BookBub. Before the deal ran, she updated the back matter to promote book #2. Book #1 had 65K downloads the week that it was featured with BookBub. Book #2 had 1K purchases the first week alone — without any other special promo!
5. A book’s back matter is an important advertising channel
Back matter was regularly mentioned as an advertising tactic. People who read a book through to the end will be primed to buy the next book in the series or another book by that author. So it’s important to always update the back matter of a book to promote another book. Self-published authors can easily update their back matter, and should do so regularly depending on their marketing goals, though traditionally published authors need to depend on their publishers to keep their back matter updated.
According to Skye Warren, free books are a great way to introduce new readers to your work, and they only have to pay if they love your writing and go on to buy the next book. You can earn more from sell-through with a compelling free series starter than by advertising a paid book — as long as you are diligent about advertising the next book in the free book’s back matter. When you’re running ads to promote a free book, your ROI comes from sell-through to other books.
If you’re not seeing sell-through, there’s an issue with the copy of the back matter, the blurb of book #2, or something else in the sell-through funnel. Optimizing the back matter could help increase sell-through, and Skye emphasized that even increasing sell-through from a free book from 2% to 4% will double the ROI of every promotion you’re running for the free book.
The back matter is also a great place to promote your mailing list. Deanna Chase recommended including a link to sign up to your newsletter in the back of your book, as well as on your website and on social media. You could track where those sign-ups are coming from and segment your newsletters based on that information — for example, you might send a different welcome email to someone who clicked a link in the back matter of book #1 than someone who clicked a link on social media.
6. Develop a marketing plan before launch
Months before launching a new book, develop a book marketing plan to keep you on track — if you’re disorganized or try to do everything all at once, the process can be overwhelming. Bestselling hybrid author and marketing expert Mark Dawson generously shared his publishing and marketing plan for each self-published book launch. Note that this is just an example based on Mark’s own experience (and is a very accelerated timeline) — make sure you confirm upload timelines with retailers and aim to create a plan based on your preferred process!
60 days pre-launch:
- Get the cover designed.
- Book your editors even if the draft isn’t ready to reserve space on their calendars.
- Send the book to editor #1 (e.g. a copy editor) as soon as it’s ready.
30-35 days pre-launch:
- Get the book back from editor #1.
- Send the draft to editor #2 (e.g. a proofreader).
25 days pre-launch:
- Get the book back from editor #2.
- Send the book to your Advanced Reader Team — a group of superfans who want your book in advance in exchange for posting a review. Mark has 700 people on his team, with 250 active for any one book, and is relaxed with the group policies — he doesn’t boot people who don’t participate.
14 days pre-launch:
- Prepare advertising campaigns: Facebook Ads, BookBub Ads, and Amazon Ads.
- Liaise with retailers to try to get special promotions.
- Add your book to BookBub’s “My Books” page. This will ensure that your followers get a free New Release Alert when the book launches.
- Send a BookBub Preorder Alert to your followers.
10 days pre-launch:
- Do a Facebook Live video with a reading of the first chapter, contest, or Q&A.
5 days pre-launch:
- Finalize edits.
- Format the book using Vellum or free alternatives (such as the one Draft2Digital offers).
4 days pre-launch:
- Prepare a Facebook messenger campaign using ManyChat.
- Email mailing list encouraging them to send you a Facebook message.
2 days pre-launch:
- Upload the book to all retailers without telling any fans the book is live — this prevents any last-minute uploading snafus.
- If you haven’t run a preorder campaign, price the book at $0.99 so early reviewers can snag a copy at a low price, and their review will have the “Verified Reviewer” stamp, which increases the review’s legitimacy.
The day before launch:
- Contact Advanced Reader Team via email and Facebook Live in your group, encouraging them to purchase and leave early reviews.
- Explain to readers how to leave reviews (it’s not always intuitive to readers).
- Increase price to $4.99 or $5.99. Verify that the change has taken effect.
- Segment your mailing list based on how readers joined the list (via back matter, website, Facebook ads, etc.). Email the different segments over the course of 24 hours to maintain a steady stream of sales throughout the day.
- Do a Facebook Live video announcing the launch.
- Do newsletter swaps with comparable authors.
- DO NOT: Ask friends and family to buy the book. They likely aren’t your target readers, so your book will appear in the wrong books’ “Also Bought” sections on retailer sites.
The day after launch:
- Activate your advertising campaigns: Facebook Ads, BookBub Ads, and Amazon Ads.
2 days after launch:
- Send Facebook messages via ManyChat to people who like your Facebook page.
7 days after launch:
- Email the people who didn’t open your launch-day emails. Change the header and send as a plain-text email to account for any deliverability issues.
10 days after launch:
- Export the email addresses of people who didn’t open either the launch day or 7-day email campaigns.
- Create a Facebook Ads custom audience campaign and import this list to try to reach these readers on Facebook instead.
7. Build a unified author brand
Laura Kaye ran a fantastic session on how to build an author brand — a message of an experience only you can provide that tells the reader what they can expect from you and why they should care about you and your books. According to Laura, “Branding is unavoidable. Authors are always being judged, assessed, and evaluated by others. People will interpret your work, your relevance, and the value you offer by what you intentionally — and unintentionally — share.”
Effective branding is foundational to the development of your writer platform and audience-building efforts. When building your brand, ask yourself these questions:
- What motivates you to write?
- What motivates you to write what you write? (Attitudes, beliefs, life experiences)
- Are you writing for a particular ideal reader? Who is it and why?
- How is your work unique from other authors? What is in your stories that readers might not find in other stories?
- Which authors are your books most like? Who are your comparable authors, and how are they branding themselves?
- What would be the biggest compliment a reader could offer about one of your stories?
- What facts, feelings, and interpretations define you and/or stories? Is there an argument you’re always making in your books?
- What themes connect all the stories you’ve written or want to write?
Once you understand how you want to position yourself, make sure your branding evokes an emotional response. Be consistent with your branding on your book covers, your websites, your book descriptions, your ads, your social media posts, and so on. This will improve the perceived quality of your products, improve consumer recognition, and help you sell more books.
Laura listed several authors with excellent branding. Visit each of their websites to see for yourself: J.R. Ward, H.M. Ward, Lauren Blakely, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Sarah MacLean, Larissa Ione, Jay Crownover, Jodi Ellen Malpas, Corinne Michaels, Addison Cole, and Vivian Arend.
8. Use BookBub Ads to promote a series
Several authors mentioned using BookBub Ads to promote their series. Bestselling author Cristin Harber recommended a great strategy: To consistently show your target audience fresh content, start by advertising book #1. In a few weeks, switch to book #2. A few weeks later, promote book #3, and so on. In a few months, when you’re ready to promote book #1 again, BookBub’s audience will have grown, and you’ll be reaching new readers. Avery Flynn mentioned she has the best results when advertising a book that’s on sale, so this tactic can work well if the first-in-series is free; then you can use BookBub Ads to remind your target audience of the subsequent books in the series.
9. Offer free content in exchange for reader activity
For years authors and publishers have been using permafree and temporarily-free discounting to garner a high volume of downloads from readers who may go on to buy more books from that author. But you can also use free content to drive other actions from readers. According to author Erica Ridley, you can use free content, a.k.a. “reader magnets,” to generate newsletter sign-ups, Facebook page likes, and BookBub follows. She recommended using a tool like Instafreebie or BookFunnel for content delivery.
Examples of reader magnets include:
- Free prologue
- Free second epilogue
- Free short story
- Free book
- Extended scenes
- Deleted scenes
- Alternate endings
- Character interviews
- Detailed family trees
- Map of the world in a story
- Behind-the-scenes secrets
If you use a reader magnet to encourage newsletter sign-ups, Erica recommended delivering the content via email after the reader confirms their subscription, rather than linking to the content on the sign-up confirmation page on your website. This way you can ensure readers have an incentive to complete the sign-up process!
10. Optimize emails for reader preferences
According to Erica Ridley, readers may unsubscribe from your mailing list if you don’t email them content relevant to their interests. She recommended occasionally sending polls to readers (e.g., one-click button polls) to find out what they’d like to see more of. You can also segment readers by their interests, demographic data, or by which sign-up form they completed, and send each segment different emails. This is particularly helpful for authors who write in multiple genres, or have readers living in various regions (if your books are on region-specific retailers, or if you’re running region-specific giveaways), and more.
It’s also important to understand how readers are consuming your newsletters. For example, on which devices are they reading your newsletter? Are they reading it on mobile? If so, do your author newsletters have a responsive mobile design? Across industries, 48% of emails are opened on mobile devices, yet only 11% of emails are optimized for mobile. And 69% of mobile users delete emails that aren’t optimized without reading them! So it’s important to optimize your emails for the devices on which your readers prefer consuming your content.
But if people are still unsubscribing from your emails, they might simply be overwhelmed with the volume of email they’re receiving in general! Include calls-to-action on your email unsubscribe page encouraging readers to follow you on BookBub or social media instead, so they can choose to stay in touch via another platform.
*BONUS ROUND* Here were some other quotes we loved!
There were so many valuable takeaways from RWA that it would be impossible to fit them all into a single post. But here were some other interesting tidbits from panelists and speakers:
“When I have a poorly performing book, I perform an autopsy on it. Was it the book? The blurb? The cover? Learn from the negative reviews rather than letting them affect you.” —Corinne Michaels
“If you had to pick between asking readers to follow you on BookBub, Amazon, or Facebook, BookBub is guaranteed to send an email to followers when you launch a new release. There’s no guarantee Amazon will do it. Put your stock in BookBub right now.” —Carly Phillips
“Writing is like a muscle. Just like reps in the gym, you have to write every day — even if it’s a blog post, free-writing, etc. Keep that muscle working.” —Cristin Harber
“I have critique partners along the way. While I write my book, I send a chapter at a time to 2-3 trusted people. I’m particular about those people. I used to send to more, but too many cooks in the kitchen is a bad thing.” —Laurelin Paige
[While showing a BookBub Ads example.] “Orange is a really good color for advertising. I don’t know why. But orange really gets people to stop scrolling and click.” —Mark Dawson
Did you attend RWA 2018? What other book marketing takeaways did you glean from the sessions? Let us know in the comments below!
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