Advertising for Authors Who Don’t Like Math with Chris Fox

What is advertising? How do you use advertising to sell more books? I asked advertising expert Chris Fox. He’s published over 20 novels and has a series of nonfiction books that teach writers how to duplicate his success. 

What is the difference between advertising and marketing?

Thomas: Some people use those terms interchangeably, but advertising and marketing are different. What are the differences?

Chris: Marketing includes everything you do to get your book into readers’ hands. This can be passive marketing, like designing an amazing cover that attracts people when they see it. It can also be active advertising, such as appearing on a genre-specific podcast so that potential readers hear about you. All these efforts fall under the umbrella of marketing, and advertising is just one type of marketing.

Advertising is simply exchanging money for visual real estate. You might place an ad on Amazon, Facebook, BookBub, or other sites where readers are looking for their next read. This gives your book a chance to be noticed. Advertising is great, but it’s not the only aspect of marketing. That’s why it’s important to understand the difference.

Thomas: As I like to say, “All ham is pork, but not all pork is ham.” While all advertising is marketing, not all marketing is advertising. There’s more to promoting your book than just paying for advertising. If the only marketing activity you do to promote your book is advertising, you’ll discover that it is an expensive and difficult way to get the word out. There’s more to promoting and selling a book than just paying for people’s attention. 

What kind of book cover do I need for my ad?

Thomas: You mentioned book covers. What works and what doesn’t in terms of placing the book cover on the ad? 

Chris: You can boil all ad images and your book cover down into symbols. There will be some sort of symbol on that cover, such as a dragon, a cowboy, a spaceship, or whatever you think will resonate with your reader. This is your opportunity to leverage the idea that a picture is worth a thousand words. If you can visually show them something they’re interested in, that’s half the battle in getting them to buy your book.

Thomas: Part of the goal of the cover is to quickly communicate the genre of your book. As soon as someone sees it, they should think, “Ah, this is the kind of book for me.” Authors often pay for beautiful cover designs that don’t match their book’s genre. This makes selling the book harder and can lead to bad reviews because readers feel misled. They might buy the book thinking it’s literary fiction and then be surprised by the fantasy elements in the book. If your cover accurately represents your book’s genre, you’ll get better reviews.

What mistakes do authors make when buying ads?

Thomas: What are some of the mistakes you see authors make when they buy ads?

Chris: The first thing I recommend every author do, and this is very difficult, is a brutal assessment of their cover and blurb. Look at the basic marketing for your book on any outlet where it’s sold. Assess your presentation honestly. If you can’t confidently say that your cover is the best in the business and can compete with the biggest names in your genre, then stop. You shouldn’t spend money on advertising. A common mistake is spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on advertising with a cover that doesn’t convert. This is effectively wasting money because the fundamentals aren’t correct.

Thomas: Good advertising helps a bad cover fail faster. If a lot of people see your bad cover, a lot of people will be convinced that they don’t want to buy your book. A bad book cover hinders all your advertising efforts. However, with the right cover, advertising can be incredibly effective.

Why does advertising drive amazing sales for some authors but not for others?

Chris: Authors today can market in ways that weren’t possible 20 years ago. Most of us grew up watching television with very broad, shotgun-style advertising. One commercial might be about pizza, and the next about season tickets to a football game. Advertisers didn’t know who was watching and had to guess to reach their audience. 

Thomas: If you target the right people, they won’t be annoyed by the ads. The biggest complaint about advertisements is that they’re an annoying interruption. But if the person seeing your ad is already looking for that product, they see it as content that helps them! 

When you browse books on Amazon, you don’t feel like the ad for a fantasy book is annoying because you’re already interested in and looking for a fantasy book. Regardless of whether you use the ads platform on Facebook, Amazon, or BookBub, this targeted approach is more effective. 

It doesn’t make sense to do radio or television ads for books. You could buy ad space on your local TV station for $2,000 to $3,000 per spot, depending on your market. However, this would be an almost complete waste of money. The general TV audience isn’t the specific audience for your book. For every relevant person you reach, you’re paying for a dozen or two dozen others who would never buy your book under any circumstance.

Advertising on TV can make sense if you’re making generic products for generic people, but it doesn’t work for authors. 

Facebook ads, however, can work for authors. While I’ve been very negative about Facebook regarding free promotion (since posts often go unseen), as an advertising platform, Facebook can be effective. 

What kind of results have you seen with Facebook ads?

Chris: For the last few years, I have consistently funneled about $3,000 each month through Facebook for ads. I’ll stop as soon as it’s no longer effective. Facebook lets me reach my target audience. I know exactly who they are and what they like to read. I know what movies they like to watch now and what they were watching 20 years ago. Since I have this wealth of information about them, I can reach them wherever they are on the globe. I run a different set of ads for the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and the US. That means I can micro-target all these different niche audiences that comprise my greater audience and get my book in front of them. No other platform in the world will allow me to do that with the same granular control that Facebook offers.

Thomas: Now, when you said $3,000 a month, some people dropped their phones, and their earbuds popped out of their ears. But while you’re spending $3,000 a month, you’re not really spending $3,000 a month, right? Where is the money for those ads coming from?

Chris: When I spend $3,000 a month, I have enough novels in print that I’m making probably 6 to $8000 from the $3,000 I spent. If I can’t spend the money profitably, if I’m not making money back, then I would curtail it. I’ve done a lot of experimenting, and I make a profit because I understand who my audience is and where to find them.

Thomas: Let’s hypothetically imagine you spent $3,000 on ads, and you made $5,000 from those ads. Next month, you still have the $5,000 you made last month, and you can spend $3,000 of it again this month to bring in another $5,000. Effectively, you’re making $2,000 per month in book sales. If you weren’t advertising, you wouldn’t be making that much money. The ads end up paying for themselves. 

While advertising is expensive, effective advertising actually makes you money.

Chris: It’s a little bit scary because you’re spending this money without knowing for sure that you’ll make it back. I could lose money, so it’s a little terrifying. It’s especially terrifying if you’re playing with your own money as an author. But if you learn how to do it well, you can make quite a good living from that skill.

Thomas:  It doesn’t make sense for traditionally published authors to advertise their books on Facebook because of the royalty structure. However, those authors can use Facebook ads to grow their email list, which will help them sell books in other places. 

How can an unpublished author get 2,500 email subscribers by using Facebook ads?

Chris: I would put together a short story or a segment of my upcoming book that is incredibly engaging. Make the first 3,000 to 5,000 words exceptional. You could also write an amazing short story—your best work ever. I would invest a little money to get a decent cover made and then give the story away for free. I would use Facebook ads to promote it, targeting my exact audience by age, gender, location, or other relevant factors. 

The goal is to let people read the story and, if they like it, share it with their friends. This way, you not only get sign-ups from the original readers who are excited about your upcoming novel, but you also generate buzz. You can use Facebook to build an initial list and gain exposure, getting likes on your Facebook page. When a publisher sees that you have a following of more than 2,000 email subscribers, they’ll see potential in you. This approach helps you start generating buzz even before you worry about getting published.

Thomas: I’ve talked to listeners of my other podcast, Novel Marketing, who gained 700 subscribers in a week by running Facebook ads. It’s a great and inexpensive way to find out if there is an audience for your book. It’s less work to write and edit a short story than a book. If people won’t download your short story for free, they won’t pay to read your book. 

How do you write the kind of books people want to read?

Thomas: You write the kind of books that people want to read. You wrote a book called Write to Market. Why is writing to market a good idea from a business perspective?

Chris: There are three tenets to writing to market. First, write in a genre with an audience large enough to sustain you financially. Second, find the intersection between what is currently selling and what you enjoy writing. This is crucial because while there are many ways to make money, writing to market should involve something you want to write. 

For example, my first book written to market was Destroyer, a military science fiction novel. I analyzed the market, studied other books in the genre, and identified the emotional resonance readers were looking for. Then, I created a new story that was similar enough to appeal to them. Some might see this as selling out, but I had a lot of fun writing that book. It worked because I chose an intersection between a large market and something I was passionate about.

Thomas: There is nothing wrong with having a servant’s heart and wanting to serve readers by writing the kind of book they want to read. Many authors feel they need to create something entirely new, but they don’t realize that if it’s truly unique, there is no existing market or built-in fan base. 

Consider J.R.R. Tolkien, who essentially created the epic fantasy genre, separate from traditional fairy tales. Before Tolkien, fairy tales were the main form of fantasy. Creating a new genre is extremely rare. It is much easier to write books that already have an audience, as advertising is more effective for familiar genres. 

For example, I’ve often wanted to write about Cyrus the Great of Persia, but there is no substantial market for books on Persian history. Historical fiction readers tend to prefer stories set in more familiar contexts, such as 18th-century England.

Chris: But if you wrote about Pharaoh Khafre from Egypt, then people would be eating it up.

Thomas: If I wrote about any Roman figure, there would be a market. Julius Caesar gets a new book about him every year. Benjamin Franklin also gets a new book about him annually. Certain historical eras already have fanbases, while others do not. As you approach the market, keep in mind whether the market exists and if it is full of passionate fans. 

There are markets that exist without passionate fans. For example, most people buy the same ketchup, but no one is passionate about it. On the other hand, hot sauce fans are very passionate; they care deeply about their hot sauce and even watch YouTube videos about it. This illustrates how different literary genres can have varying levels of passion among their audiences, affecting how you market to them.

What kind of results are you seeing with Amazon ads for your books?

Chris: Amazon ads are expensive. I spend around $2,000 to $3,000 a month on them. Facebook is my largest platform, but Amazon is not far behind. The advantage of Amazon is that people are already primed to buy. They are on Amazon to purchase something, and it could be a book, so you can reach a ready-made audience. While you pay more for each click, you are also much more likely to sell a book to that person.

I’ve had a good overall experience with Amazon ads, but it wasn’t until my backlist was deep enough to get read-through that it became profitable. For example, someone might buy the first book in a seven-book series, leading to six more sales. This makes it profitable. However, just advertising one book with Amazon ads doesn’t seem to be profitable these days because they charge a lot for those ads.

Thomas: This is an important point because it affects both how you write and advertise your books. If readers don’t continue past the first book, then having a long series does you no good. You need to end each book in a way that makes readers eager to buy the next one. For example, I’m currently reading a series where I’m buying the books faster than I can read them. I can’t stand the idea of waiting to go through the purchase process on Audible between books. I’m now ten books deep into this series and thoroughly enjoying it. 

The author, David Weber, has made it worth my while. I’ve probably spent $100 in Amazon credits for his books. If he spent $20 on ads to acquire me as a reader, it’s still financially worth it because I’m so invested in his series. 

The more books you have in a series, the more you can afford to pay to acquire readers. This gives you a competitive advantage. Someone with seven books can bid more for ads than someone with five books, who can bid more than someone with just one book.

Chris: Having a long backlist gives you a significant advantage. I can afford to spend $5 to sell a copy of the first book, even if I only charge $4 for it. While it might look like I’m losing money initially, the investment pays off if there are seven, ten, twelve, or more books in the series. 

For example, David Weber has an extensive backlist of 40 to 50 books. I was recently at a conference with him, and when asked how many books he has published, he admitted he doesn’t know the exact number.

Thomas: He just keeps cranking them out, and people like me just keep buying them. It’s a tough life. So, we’ve talked briefly about Amazon ads, and I agree that their advantage is being in front of customers when they’re ready to buy. It’s like buying an ad in a bookstore. Publishers often buy on-shelf advertisements or other in-store ads to promote a book. The advantage is that everyone who sees the ad is already in a bookstore and in the mood to buy a book. You’re not paying for people driving by on the highway; you’re only paying for those in the bookstore.

However, Amazon ads are more expensive, and the platform is less robust. Facebook has invested billions of dollars in its advertising platform, which is central to its business model. In contrast, Amazon’s advertising platform feels like an afterthought, added as a feature rather than a core component. Consequently, there are fewer tools available.

Does Amazon still have a less robust platform than Facebook?

Chris: Amazon changes their entire system frequently, so they’ve got big iterations happening behind the scenes. I expect even the name of the system will be different in the next 12 months. 

Thomas: That’s how Facebook was in the early days. I started buying Facebook ads back when they were called Campus Flyers, and Facebook was only for college students. I’ve been advertising on Facebook since around 2006 and have seen many iterations of the platform. Initially, Facebook changed drastically every six months. Now, the changes are more evolutionary rather than revolutionary. They are focused on making improvements rather than reinventing the wheel. Each year, the platform gets a little better.

I believe Amazon will eventually find a stable approach and stop making drastic changes. However, we’re not there yet. I think we’re still in for many changes on the Amazon platform.

Chris: In the meantime, we are still making money. It’s a great platform, even though it’s constantly in flux.

Thomas: It was easier to make money on Facebook in the early days because all that complexity scared people away. As a result, you were bidding against fewer advertisers, and clicks were much cheaper.

Thomas: If you’re not using the correct micro-targeting techniques, Facebook advertising ends up being incredibly expensive because you’re bidding against people who are using those highly- effective techniques. 

What does it mean to bid for ads?

Chris: You choose one of two processes: either bidding for impressions or bidding for clicks. In the first option, you pay for impressions (CPM, cost per mille, which means cost per thousand views). In the second option, you pay only when someone clicks on your ad (CPC, cost per click). You select one of these methods on your advertising platform, and going forward, you will be billed based on the chosen billing method.

Thomas: The bidding happens in real-time, and you set up a proxy to manage it. Essentially, you have a robot assistant on Facebook that follows your instructions, such as not bidding more than a dollar per click or not spending more than $30 total. This robot bids against others in real-time for the target audience. Prices can fluctuate dramatically, especially around elections. 

Avoid buying advertisements for your books in the two weeks leading up to an election in your area because political money floods in and drives up the cost per click. Politicians will waste their own money, but don’t let them waste yours by driving up your ad costs. Remember that during a presidential election year, October can be particularly volatile for Facebook ad pricing. Keep this in mind and avoid making long-term decisions based on pre-election pricing trends.

What’s a BookBub ad, and how is it different from the other two?

Chris: BookBub figured out early on that readers like free and cheap books, and they would use the internet to find them. As a result, BookBub has accumulated millions of readers. As an author, you can pay BookBub to reach this audience. The holy grail of author promotion is getting a BookBub ad in your genre, where your book is one of the few featured that day. For example, they might email two million readers a list of five books that are on sale for $0.99, which would potentially lead to thousands of sales for those featured authors.

BookBub also offers pay-per-click ads. These ads appear in the sidebar of the email alongside the featured books. Their platform allows you to design your ad and encourage readers to click through and buy your book. This way, you can advertise through both featured listings and sidebar ads. Ultimately, you’ll be included in emails that reach millions of readers in your genre every day.

Thomas: If you go to Amazon right now and look at the top 30 Kindle books, there’s a good chance that 20 of them were mentioned in that day’s BookBub email. That’s how powerful BookBub is; it significantly influences the bestsellers list. This explains why the list of bestsellers can change daily. It’s always impressive when a book remains in the top ten without being featured in BookBub, as it shows that something truly special about that book is driving its consistently high sales.

Do you have any final thoughts about book marketing? 

Chris: I recommend that you, as an author, adopt an experimental approach. Stop relying solely on “experts” who tell you to do specific things. While it’s good to gather information, the most valuable insights come from testing your ads with your audience. It’s easy to postpone this testing because it costs money, but you need to get comfortable with it. By experimenting yourself, you’ll learn things you can’t find anywhere else.

Thomas: One of the biggest benefits of advertising is that it allows you to experiment and learn about your audience. For instance, consider someone who couldn’t get more than two people to download his free e-book. This provides valuable data, suggesting that changes are needed, perhaps in genre or content. It’s better to obtain this information early rather than after spending two years polishing a book only to discover it’s not the kind of book anyone wants to buy.

Data gleaned from your advertising experiments help you adapt your advertising and writing so that both are more effective. Experiment, measure, and adapt, and you’ll see your sales increase.

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