To Advertise or Not to Advertise?

Sarah Bernhard as Hamlet 120One of the ongoing quandaries a self-published author faces is whether to dedicate part of her hard-earned cash to advertising. That’s a tough one, since advertising is rarely cheap, and may often fail to generate more in immediate profits than has been spent on the ads. True, advertising may also assist in brand-building, leading to greater sales at a later date, but any direct results in that regard are usually hard to detect, let alone measure.

So when does advertising pay off, and how can you tell if it did?

As so often is the case with promotional efforts, there’s no obvious clear answer. But let me offer a few rules I think are worth keeping in mind that may help you decide whether to advertise, and if so, how to get the most for your money. Some of those that follow are generic, while others are more situation-based. In the latter case, they are based in part on my own recent observations.

1. Advertising books is just like advertising anything else. What I mean by this is that you shouldn’t expect that the rules that have traditionally applied to advertising won’t apply to your ads, regardless of where and how you go about it. For example, running an ad once is not likely to have the much of a result – or often any result at all – as compared to running multiple ads in the same venue over a reasonably short period of time.

2. Don’t try to sell skis to mermaids. In other words, all things being equal, if you want to run a book ad, run it where people are likely to be buying books. That means, to give one example that I’ll expand on later, that running ads at GoodReads makes a heck of a lot more sense than running them on Facebook, even if the latter have been well-targeted. Why? Because people who go GoodReads want to know about books, while most people that spend time on Facebook aren’t likely to be following up on book ads, no matter where they may be placed.

3. Impressions aren’t Clicks – and that can be a good thing. Some sites charge by the “ad impression,” while others charge by the “click.” The first means that you pay every time your ad is displayed, while the second means you only pay if someone takes an action you want them to take – like clicking on a link to a page where they can buy your book. Both can be useful, but it depends on a variety of factors (on which more below).

4. The cheaper your books, the less cost-effective your ads will be. This is just simple math. If you’re selling an eBook for $.99, then if you’re paying $.25 a click and those clicks yield one sale for every ten clicks, you can’t possibly make any money – in fact you’ll lose heavily. On the other hand, if your eBook costs $3.99, and you keep 70% (e.g. at Amazon), then you’ll net $.29 from the same ten clicks.

5. That said, loss-leaders can work (sometimes). A common practice is to advertise a free, or discounted book. The theory is that you’ll pick up new readers, and make it up on the profits you make on the full price books your new fan goes on to purchase (this assumes, of course, that you have further books, ideally in the same series, available for sale). The “maybe” part is that because it’s hard to match effect back to cause (as you’re unlikely to be able to know which return customer bought their first book as a result of the original discount ad click), you may not be able to tell whether your strategy paid off or not.

6. You can sometimes found out what doesn’t work before you waste your ad budget. Happily, authors as a group do a lot of blogging about their own experiences, and it’s not hard to find lots of posts reporting on actual ad campaigns that people have tried. But take these with a grain of salt – not because what an author reports is unreliable, but because their own particular trial might not tell you more than what that particular effort produced. If, for example, the author ran an ad for only a few days, or didn’t write good ad copy, it might not indicate whether the given venue is worth trying or not.

7. Don’t confuse activity with results. Remember that getting clicks or impressions isn’t a goal in itself. For example, there are lots of services out there that will send your ad to lots of recipients in an email blast, but if sales don’t follow, don’t throw good money after bad.

8. The best ad campaigns are the ones that build on your other efforts – and vis-versa. The first challenge to advertising is simply getting someone to actually “see” your book. That’s the reason why people run multiple ads rather than single ones. If you’ve already succeeded in making someone aware of your book through another means, it’s far more likely that the ad will catch their eye, and that they’ll go on to actually buy a copy.

9. Invest in a great book cover! Print and on-line ads by definition are visual, so you need something that will grab peoples’ eye, and then use that image consistently in all of your promotional efforts. Besides a proof reader, I really can’t think of a more important service to spend your money on than to develop a really good book cover (you can still do a lot of the work yourself to minimize the cost). Don’t forget that your cover has to work at thumbnail size, too. You can see my cover to the right, and I think it’s served me well.

10. Take advantage of every opportunity to gather data on your campaign. Otherwise, how will you  be able to whether  or not it worked? Sites vary widely in what they make available to you, and the ideal platform will allow you to edit your ad copy and then see whether it improves the desired results.

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What would I recommend and not recommend? For what it’s worth, I haven’t read of people having much success with either Twitter or Facebook, although I haven’t done a real survey. On the other hand, I’m currently running an ad at GoodReads, and have just completed a one month give-away of ten signed copies of my book, and I’ve been pleased with the results. Here’s how things have gone so far:

Ad impressions: 43,154 (3/1 – 3/27)

Clicks: 7

Ad costs to date: $3.75

People who signed up for the promotion: 1,107

People who added my book to their “to read” shelves: 480

Number of books given away: 10 (my cost: $6.64 per book, plus shipping)

Number of books sold as a result: 10 (estimate)

How does that stack up? On the one hand, the immediate results may have been as few as ten book sales, most or all of which would be in the $2.99 eBook format. But on the other hand, the ads have still been a great deal, since I paid almost nothing to display over 43,000 ads to a group of people that go to GoodReads exclusively to indulge their passion for books – more than 1% of which added the title of my book to their “to read” shelves for further consideration.  So clearly, the ads have been noticed, given how many people have added it to their shelves. So whether or not the actual clicks resulted directly in a sale, the exposure has been a bargain (or will be, so long as I continue to engage in other activities at GoodReads to capitalize on the raised awareness).

The promotion campaign also clearly registered with many potential readers, given how many people entered the drawing. True, it may be that no sales have yet resulted from it, but that’s no surprise, since anyone that entered the give-away isn’t likely to buy the book until it’s over. My challenge now is to find a way to remind those that registered that it’s over (not so easy at GoodReads). But with only about $100 invested in the books and shipping, I can’t be too much out of pocket even if fewer than hoped sales follow.

Clearly, the combination of ads and promotion resulted in a lot of attention, but this only underlines the importance of continuing to promote at GoodReads in order to reap any benefits. Why? Well, take a look at peoples’ “to read” shelves at GoodReads, and you’ll see that most people have added anywhere from hundreds to thousands of books to their shelves, few of which presumably ever get purchased or read. If you want anyone to go back and select yours, you’d better figure out how to remind them that it’s there.

GoodReads gives you a few to continue to connect with those potential readers, including sending friend invitations, engaging on on-line discussion groups, commenting on their reviews, and sending direct messages. Each person that added the book to their shelf is visible to me, and I can message them through GoodReads. To its credit, in order to protect its members from spam, GoodReads limits you to sending a maximum of 15 emails a day. That means that email is likely to get attention, but also means that it’s not only laborious making connections, but also needs to be accomplished over a long, drawn out process.

Lastly, people who win copies generally will end up posting reviews, which will display briefly to those folks that sign up for the ongoing daily site updates. Winners and other readers may also recommend a book to their friends. I intend to include a personal letter with each book encouraging them to do so.

So to wrap things up, here are the top items I’d keep in mind:

1. Don’t advertise anywhere until you’ve researched whether it’s likely to pay off

2. In the right venue, free impressions can be a great deal

3. Where possible, avoid advertising at a venue or on a platform where you can’t follow up in some way on the impressions made

4. Advertising should be an element of promotion, not your only promotional tool

Those aren’t hard and fast rules by any means, and GoodReads isn’t the only site where advertising can make sense. That said, I think that GoodReads is probably a good place to start.

If you’ve tried advertising in the past, I invite you to share your experiences (positive and minus) in a comment below.



About Andrew Updegrove

I'm a cybersecurity thriller author/attorney that has been representing technology companies for more than thirty years. I work with many of the organizations seeking to thwart cyber-attacks before they occur.
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7 Responses to To Advertise or Not to Advertise?

  1. Doug Norton says:

    Thanks, Andy. This is really useful because it is full of facts and action steps, not fluff. I’ve been thinking about Goodreads ads and your post inspires me to get off the dime (so to speak) and try some. Doug Norton, author of Code Word: Paternity.


  2. I’m considering doing a Goodreads ad campaign, but I’m not sure it’s meant to sell books, at least not directly. There is no way to track conversions through Goodreads, which is one of the prime metrics if you use Google.

    I didn’t know about the fact that they told you who had added your book. That would be a valuable tool. I have to think about that.

    The numbers, though, are not very encouraging if you’re looking at it as a way to actually sell books. They encourage you to spend 50 cents per click, which I think is high. At that rate, you’d have to have a 30% conversion rate to make any money.

    Really, then I think all it is good for is to gain exposure, and give you a way to connect directly with people who showed an interest in you book, which may be worth the money.


  3. Michael, I think you’ve summed up the value of a GoodReads ad campaign fairly accurately, with one exception I’ll come back to.

    I agree that GoodReads advertising is more useful from a marketing and branding perspective rather than sales. In a vacuum, it’s likely to do little, but in conjunction with an overall promotional effort, I think that it’s worthwhile. I found that I got as many ad exposures at $.25 as $.50, by the way, and as many as 5,000 ad pages per click. Since you only pay for clicks, it’s remarkably cheap marketing. This assumes, of course, that people notice and read the ads. If they don’t, then it’s not worth placing ads at GoodReads at all.

    The exception I mentioned would be if you are running a sale. In that case, the purpose of the ad wouldn’t be just marketing, but also a more pointed effort to actually move sales (or giveaways) right away. If no clicks resulted, that would indicate that the sales (and perhaps the marketing goals as well) were clearly not being met.


    • I agree. At first I thought the object of the Goodreads ad would be to sell books directly, as it is with Google adwords. But since there’s no conversion metric, and their main goal (outside of getting your money) is to have a clickthrough to another page on their site with the hope that someone would add your book to their “to read” list, then sales is not the immediate goal.

      If not for the fact that you get to contact the people who have clicked through, there would be little value to it. I’m going to try it on my novel “The Ghost of Caroline Wald,” which has sold about two copies in the past year, with no marketing. From that I can assume that any sales that show up are from the campaign.


  4. Michael, I’m not sure that I’d be that bleak about it. An ad is an ad, and anyone at GoodReads is a reader. So I don’t see why ads at GoodReads shouldn’t do as well, and presumably better, than anywhere else. The bigger question, I think, is whether GoodReads places author ads prominently enough for them to get noticed.


    • I don’t think I’m being bleak about it. In the world of pay-per-click advertising, there are certain metrics that need to be considered. One, or course, is click-through-rate (CTR), and the other is conversions; the number of clicks that generate a sale. The whole purpose of advertising in any form is to generate sales. Period.

      Google has a means of detecting a conversion, or sale. They have code you can put on your website that tells you when someone has bought something. Goodreads does not have that. Goodreads’ sole goal, apparently, is to get a click, and maybe get the person to add your book to their “to read” list. That’s it. While Google adwords is intended to generate actual sales, Goodreads is not.

      That may okay. There is a benefit to knowing who clicked through. I don’t know that on Google. So, it seems to me that the only real benefit of Goodreads advertising is to generate a list of people who might be interested in you book.

      I intend to test it. I have a book that has sold about two books in the past year. So, as I may have mentioned, any spike in sales will come from the Goodreads ad. I’m going to try it, but I’m going in my my eyes open. I’ve used pay-per-click advertising for many years, and understand how it works.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think where I differ a bit is that I don’t see things as being that binary. First of all, advertising has always been used for brand building as well as to make direct sales. There’s no reason for that to be any different for an author and a book than it is with a Coke or a Burger King ad – neither of those has a “buy” button, so at best they are hoping to predispose you to buy something when the time is right.

        Second, one thing I’ve learned from building a business (a law firm) is that very few single actions result in a sale. We call it “casting bread on the waters” at my firm. When someone gets around to hiring us, they may heard several of us speak before, read an article or two, and maybe finally asked several people to make a recommendation, one or more of whom picked us.

        Did the recommendation make the sale? Probably not all by itself. And the person that made the recommendation often won’t be a client, either. Advertising fits into this mix as well, and often those that have read my book did so as a result of several separate inputs, some of which were ads at GoodReads.

        Second, Amazon owns GoodReads, so they have a lot to gain by authors being successful

        But perhaps most of all, I don’t think that any ads anywhere really result in the sales of books unless the buyer had already heard of the book or the author. I know I’ve never clicked on a book ad – but I have noticed a lot of them.

        So the bottom line is that I think if you rely on ads alone anywhere, you’re likely to be throwing your money down a hole. But if you look at them as a form of marketing that together with all of your other efforts add up to an effective campaign, then you’ll get results. Looked at from that perspective, GoodReads pay per click (as compared to pay per view, which is what you find almost everywhere else) is a real bargain.


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