Results of the Novel Marketing listener survey show that 97% of our authors hate advertising and math.
And yet, the key to a successful writing career is learning to track the numbers and measure results.
So how can you do the writing you love and still benefit from the math you hate?
Author Chris Fox knows authors have an aversion to math and advertising, but as a successful writer of fiction and nonfiction books, he loves helping authors manage the numbers. He created a course called Ads for Authors Who Hate Math.
In a recent interview, James L. Rubart and I asked Chris how authors can advertise to boost book sales without losing huge chunks of time and sanity.
Why is advertising so hard for authors?
Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: Why is advertising so hard for authors?
Chris Fox: It’s hard because there are so many moving pieces, and you have to get everything right. The image you use, the ad copy you write, the audience you target are interdependent. If you have mistakes within those elements, you may not be able to tell where they are.
It’s like a garden hose with leaks. You might not be able to tell where the small leaks are. You just know the water isn’t going where it should.
Thomas: That’s a great metaphor. Fixing one problematic leak doesn’t necessarily fix the whole problem, and that’s exactly how it is with ads.
What can you tell us about your advertising spending?
Thomas: Walk us through your advertising spending. Why should we listen to you?
Chris: I spend $9,000 to $10,000 every month to advertise my books, which turns into about $30,000 in sales. I’m close to tripling my money every month. That kind of success takes a lot of finesse and practice. I started spending $5.00 per day and built up from there.
Once you understand the ad platforms, your audience, and your product, then you can start to find that intersection.
If you’re looking to break into advertising, it’s as simple as starting to experiment. Start with a hypothesis. Try a certain kind of ad targeted at your audience, and see how readers respond. Do they like the funny ad? Maybe they respond to serious. Running profitable ads is all about experimentation.
Thomas: Your approach proves that it works. If an author spends $10,000 on ads in a month and it doesn’t work, they will run out of money quickly. It takes a proven, working system to reproduce those results every month.
What have you learned the hard way?
Thomas: What have you learned that makes you so good at it?
Chris: In 2015, several courses came out in the advertising world, and they taught an approach about how to run Facebook ads and compare your book to other books. It worked well for many people who took the course, but the effects faded over time.
I watched people use the same trick, but they hadn’t really learned the platform or their audience. They had only learned a single method. As soon as that method stopped working, they were out in the cold. I didn’t want that to be me.
I took a step back to figure out how my target reader finds books today. How does someone interested in my type of writing find books? Are they browsing Amazon? Are they hearing from friends? Do they click on interesting Facebook ads?
I didn’t know. So I came up with a few hypotheses, and I tested them out. Some failed, and I lost money, but others succeeded, and I made money, so I kept doing those things.
Thomas: The secret is fairly basic. If you want to be successful in advertising, you have to approach it like a scientist. Create a hypothesis, test it with your ad, and measure the results to see what worked.
Many authors buy ads, and if they don’t work, they declare, “Ads don’t work!” When you set up an experiment correctly, you know what you will learn from the experiment ahead of time. The key is to test a specific hypothesis to see if it works.
What have been the results of your ad tests?
Thomas: What are some things you’ve tested?
Chris: First, I find a tagline that I believe will convert. I have a book cover image featuring a werewolf that I pair with the tagline. Then I test that tagline on different audiences without changing the ad at all. I separate my audiences by gender and run one ad to men and the exact same ad to women. I would run that same ad to different age groups, for example, readers ages 30-65 and readers ages 18-30.
I would evaluate how each ad performed with each group. If I saw any outliers where men liked my book better than women or where younger kids liked it better, then I’d put more budget toward those ads and kill the ads that weren’t performing well.
I start with a theory that people ages 30-65 will like my book and buy it in greater quantity. But I run that test alongside a test for people ages 18-65. So I have a control group and the group where I’m testing a variable as a scientist does.
Thomas: What is a control group?
Chris: In the control group, nothing changes. You measure one specific thing about that group, and it will always be the same thing. If the control group is aged 18-65, then every experiment we do will be some variable on the age.
Thomas: The control group helps protect you from events outside your experiment that might influence the performance of your ads. For example, if a new werewolf movie comes out halfway through your experiment, it will affect all your experiments. It will help you see that there was a boost of 5% in each test group, which was caused by something outside of your experiment. If you didn’t have the control group, the increase might lead you to believe it was the day of the week, or some other variable, that boosted your test ad. But the truth was, it was an external factor that affected all ads.
What have you learned from other experiments?
Chris: I’ve tried to talk to the audience differently.
For example, I’ll run different kinds of ad copy. In one ad, I might include an excerpt from the book. I’ll take the best action scene I’ve ever written and dump it into an ad with a picture of the cover. I let people start reading the book, and when they’re done, they can click a link and buy.
But you will need to test that strategy for your genre. It may work for epic fantasy, but it may not convert as well for romance. If it doesn’t work for your romance novel, try a different approach. Maybe you write something comical about the book instead. You’re trying to get the audience to laugh, and if they have a positive emotion, they might investigate furthers.
I approach the problem from different angles and see how my audience reacts. Do marketing quotes work? Does scarcity work? Can I say my book is on sale until Tuesday, or should I just talk about the plot?
Do your ad experiments influence your writing?
Thomas: Do your experimental findings influence your writing? As you write a new book, do you consider the things you’ve learned about your audience through advertising?
Chris: It doesn’t influence the plot much, but if I write a good scene and sequel, I’ll look for good marketing copy within it. I’m more hyper-aware of how I will use the words in my marketing, but it doesn’t necessarily shape the plot.
What is the minimum budget to start advertising?
James L. Rubart (Jim): Talk to us about the budget. Many authors don’t feel they have the money to test that many ads.
Chris: You could begin with $30 per month and start gathering data. But I would encourage authors first to do a brutal self-assessment of your cover, blurb, and book. If your book looks as good as the top books in your genre and the description sounds as good, then you’re ready to advertise. If your blurb or cover isn’t perfect, don’t spend a dime on advertising. Walk away from it entirely and focus on getting your book where it needs to be.
Jim: How do you go about evaluating those parts of your book? Because if those aren’t right, no amount of frequency or budget will work, and authors are often biased about their own work.
Chris: We’re all attached to our books because we’ve poured so much of ourselves into this creative endeavor. It’s hard to be objective.
If you go to an online community of writers, particularly where the members are anonymous, you can ask what they think of your cover and blurb. They will be brutally honest. Some of them may even be rudely honest. If there are any problems at all, they will tell you.
Thomas: If you ask for feedback at AuthorMedia.social, we’ll be a little more polite, but we’ll still be constructively honest.
Trying to buy ads for a book with a bad cover is like trying to run a marathon while dragging a car. The car will keep you from succeeding. It’s not about training harder for the marathon. It’s about cutting the rope to the car.
A bad cover does not equal an ugly cover. It’s not about how pretty the cover is. It’s about how effective the cover is. Sometimes an “ugly” cover is very effective for getting attention and clicks. On the other hand, covers that could be mounted in the Louvre blend in with the webpage’s background and become invisible to readers.
What covers work for sci-fi and fantasy?
Chris: A sci-fi cover that works will evoke a symbol in someone’s mind. Every word, number, color, and noun is a symbol. If you think of the word “dragon,” you will conjure an image in your head that breathes fire and has wings. You have a bunch of information associated with symbols.
Your job is to choose a symbol for your book cover that will convey the genre in a thumbnail image. When people browse Amazon or Netflix, all they can see is that little one-inch thumbnail image.
One of my book covers has a dragon and a spaceship. Without me even saying a word, readers see magic and technology, and they know what kind of book it will be. Their brain is already churning because of those symbols.
On the other hand, if your cover is a beautiful depiction of an epic battle scene with 14 characters on the front, the thumbnail image will look like a blur, and it will evoke no symbolism in the reader’s mind. They will simply scroll on by.
Jim: Some writers want their book to stand out from the other books in the genre, but sometimes they make their covers too unique, and readers won’t take a chance on it.
Chris: Yes. Unique is the kiss of death. You want to broadcast to your reader that they’ll get an emotional experience similar to an emotional experience they had in the past. When they see your cover, they want to see something new and different, but they also want to relate back to something they know from the past, for example, another series.
You can capture this through the image and the typography. If you use typography that was used in the 1960s on pulp science fiction novels, and if you’re targeting that audience, they will recognize the typography and style. You can use typography as a symbol in the ad, and they’ll know it’s a book like the ones they read when they were kids.
Thomas: Traditional publishers rely heavily on typography. It’s partly because their designers have bigger font libraries and partly because the art direction is different. You can do so much with good typography. You will see New York Times bestsellers that make the list week after week that have no symbol except the typography. But that kind of cover design requires a designer who is fluent in typography. The fonts listed in Microsoft Word probably won’t have an emotional impact on your reader.
Chris: A good example is Star Wars. If you see the Star Wars font, you’ll recognize it instantly.
Thomas: Star Wars is a fascinating example. If ever a show could have justified using a spaceship or stars as a symbol to depict the genre, it would have been Star Wars. Instead, they used typographical treatment.
With higher-budget book covers, the font is often created specifically for the book. It’s not in a font library. It’s custom-designed.
How do I know which symbols are best for my book?
Thomas: How do you find out which symbols to use?
Chris: You research your genre and find out what is selling. You can ask your audience, but I start with my own brain.
If I were writing a Dan Brown style religious thriller that involves the shroud of Turin, I would use the shroud as the symbol on my book cover.
What if I can’t come up with a symbol?
Thomas: I’ve found that if I can’t come up with an image to encapsulate the idea of my blog post, it means the post is too abstract and won’t resonate. If finding a book cover symbol is hard, it’s probably an indication that the book will be hard to sell and won’t resonate with the audience.
How do Facebook ads work for authors?
Jim: How do you make Facebook ads work?
Chris: Facebook ads are tricky, mostly because so many authors have become so savvy with them, and they’re making a fortune. There are all sorts of tips and tricks that may or may not work for you.
The advantage of Facebook is that it gives you a way to reach your audience. I often do a form of content marketing. When I create a cool trailer for one of my books, I post it on Facebook as a regular post. After I’ve Boosted the post, I might have 500 people who interacted with it. I use those 500 people to create a lookalike audience in Facebook. Then I create an ad to sell the book and target the lookalike audience. That ad will go to all the people who have already interacted, plus many other people who have similar interests.
Thomas: That’s such a cool strategy because it’s using two broken strategies to make one that works. I’ve said before that book trailers don’t sell books, nor does boosting a Facebook post. However, using those two things together to create a lookalike audience is brilliant!
Chris isn’t trying to sell books through the video. But once he had an audience of the right kind of people, he sold books and covered the cost of the original ad.
What is a Facebook lookalike audience?
Chris: Facebook reaches into their data science to see that those 500 people have certain things in common. They may be roughly the same age, live in the same general location, and have common interests. Facebook then finds other people in their database of 2 billion users who look just like the people who interacted with your post. It’s pretty easy for Facebook to find 100,000 people who are just like your first 500.
Thomas: Facebook matches people to your first group of 500 based on millions of data points that are so complicated no human even understands it. It’s all complex machine learning. It uses all the creepy, invasive, privacy-invading things Facebook does for your own benefit. So you have to be okay with it on a moral basis. You can complain about Facebook violating your privacy, but if you’re running ads, you’re benefiting from the thing you’re complaining about.
What about Google ads?
Thomas: Have you played with Google ads much?
Chris: Yes. They are very expensive because Google advertises many different products. You’re competing with people who are selling more expensive products. But authors who take time to learn the platform can make money with them.
Thomas: In my experience, it’s best to use Google ads with retargeting. It’s not as much about getting people to your website. It’s about getting people back to your website. But it’s tricky when you’re an author who wants people to go to Amazon rather than your own website.
Chris: Facebook allows for retargeting through their Facebook pixel. It’s a very powerful tool, and I recommend all authors have a Facebook pixel installed on their websites.
If you were browsing the web for a wedding dress, and you see a Facebook ad with the exact wedding dress you were looking at, that’s retargeting via the Facebook pixel. They’re tracking where people go on the internet and then handing that information to Facebook.
How do I set up the Facebook pixel?
Chris: You’ll create an ads account on Facebook. Your ad account will generate a pixel, which is a little bit of code. You just take that code to your web designer or plug it in yourself, and you’re good to go.
Thomas: That pixel tracks everyone who comes to your website and everything they do while on your website. Facebook then uses it for other purposes besides your own retargeting. It’s how Facebook collects so much information. Even if you’re not a Facebook user, they can still track you around the web because any website with a Facebook pixel tracks you.
But you can use that information to create an audience of people who visited your website. If you have 500 people who visited a book page on your site, you can advertise to those people for that specific book. But you can also create a lookalike audience.
You can tell Facebook to create an audience of 100,000 people who are just like the 500 who visited your website. Facebook will produce an audience of people who are already predisposed to be the kind of people who will buy your book.
Advertising is not a tool for convincing people who are not fans to read your book. It’s for convincing current fans to buy your book. It’s not a form of discussion with opponents. It’s a form of rallying the troops. With Facebook, it’s easy to identify people who will likely become fans.
Do Amazon ads work?
Thomas: There’s an ongoing disagreement between authors about whether Amazon ads work. What do you think?
Chris: Amazon ads work too well. Any Author can go to Amazon, hand them $100 and say, “Advertise my book.” Amazon is good at finding readers who will like your book. However, because so many authors do this, the clicks become very expensive. In the beginning, clicks cost around $0.15 – $0.50. Now, I see top authors in my genre bidding $8.00- $9.00 per click.
Thomas: How does that even work financially when authors have a $10.00 book?
Chris: Usually, they also have an audiobook for sale, and they have a long series of books. If you’re promoting Book One for $0.99 and you have ten more books in your series, you’re making up a lot of money through your read-through rate. You’ll probably make $10.00 – $15.00 per person who buys book one. Not everyone will read through, but enough people will, and you’ll make that money back.
The other component is that Amazon rewards success. Everything I do is based on Amazon’s data science. For example, I currently have a book that is number one in all its categories. The only thing I’m doing is spending a small amount of ad money daily, and I’m letting Amazon figure out what to do with that book. I spend $100 and get $100 in sales and break even. But Amazon generates $500 more sales on my behalf because they’ve seen that people like this book. Since people like it, Amazon shows it to more people who look like the audience I showed them initially.
Thomas: You have to approach Amazon advertising strategically. It works better for people who approach writing as a career and have multiple books. Many authors have one book, and instead of writing their second book, they just keep pushing the first book long after its time is up. The best thing an author can do to help sales of the first book is to write another book in the series. That will open the advertising playbook for you.
If you have 24 books in your series and each book is $5.00, you will make $100 off that reader even if it costs you $8.00 per click to advertise. You can’t do that if you only have one book.
Do ads work for authors who have only one book?
Thomas: For authors who have only one book, is there an effective Amazon ad strategy, or is it better to look at Facebook or BookBub ads for a single book?
Chris: Any platform can work. It just takes more work if you only have one book.
I’d recommend going with a higher price point for a standalone book. If you price it at $4.99 or even higher, your advertising will get profitable, and you’ll have better luck. But you have to scale your expectations a little if you only have one book in the series.
Give it a shot, and if it’s not profitable, you can always turn the ads off. But be prepared for an uphill battle if you don’t have a deep backlist.
Thomas: Where can people find out more about you?
Chris: At ChrisFoxWrites.com, you can find all my videos and articles to learn more about marketing and how you can use data science to sell books.
Learn key areas of life that help cultivate enduring peace—including handling stress, quieting the mind, prayer, and forgiveness.
Watch the replay of our webinar to learn how ads can work for you.