Early this week I made my first major post on the 20booksto50k Facebook page. It’s the biggest group of Indie authors I think there is – almost 50,000 members, brought together by a shared ‘climb up the mountain’ toward book writing/publishing/marketing success.
On there you’ve got folks making 100k+ a month and more, and sharing how they did it. You’ve got people who run their own small presses, who write a book every two weeks, who’ve been full time indie authors for a decade and more. I’ve never written a post there before – lots of comments, no real content, until March brought me my first 10k month.
That’s a real milestone. I wanted to mark it while also sharing what I’d done to get there. I posted the below in the morning, and within an hour it had 200 likes. Now on Friday that’s up to 1000+ likes and 250+ comments. I guess I mention that because I never expected it. It’s hugely encouraging.
Here’s the link to the post: https://www.facebook.com/groups/20Booksto50k/permalink/3471122772994162/
Here’s the post, for posterity’s sake:
My first 10k month
I just reached $10,000 revenue for this month, March 2021, and would love to share how I did it and what I’ve learned in the long process to get here. A couple of quick stats first: I cleared 10k on an ad spend of approx. 66%, almost entirely on Facebook ads. That’s a 50% Return on Investment – I’ve no doubt others are doing better, but I’m blown away to be making this kind of reliable (thus far) return.
The tl;dr version of this post boils down to this – Working on your ads skill won’t matter if people don’t want to buy your book. Simple and obvious, maybe, but I’m sure there’s many folks out there who, like me, have dug deep into ads looking for the magic copy or image, when what you need to do most is make your book into something your target audience WANTS to read.
My story (at slightly more length)
I’ve been self-publishing since 2014, starting with 2 weird epic fantasy that struggled to sell (though I did get a Podium audio deal), followed by 3 hard science fiction that really struggled to sell (though some famous authors provided blurb copy), followed by 9 zombie apocalypse thrillers that sold pretty well – especially when I rewrote them for pace and content then combo-ed them into a 9-book boxset which sold for 99c – making most of its money through KU page reads.
Nearly 3 years back I decided to make the move to writing thrillers. I wasn’t a massive fan of reading in the genre, but I loved Lee Child and Barry Eisler’s books, while watching most big action/adventure movies and TV shows – with a particular soft spot for 24.
So I wrote my first Christopher Wren thriller. I wrote three in the series, self-edited, made my own covers, wrote my blurbs, then fast released them all in June 2019. It wasn’t to crickets, but it wasn’t good either. The series responded to Facebook ads, had a Bookbub or two, but mostly lost money for a year or so.
I kept the faith, reinvesting my zombie book money (which was starting to dry up) on making the Wren audiobooks while writing books 4 and 5. There were various revelations through this time – primarily that the series had abysmal readthrough (around 10% to book 2), with reviews broadly saying that while people thought it was a good book, various off-genre features turned them off and made them not want to read on. It held a 4.1 star rating on Amazon US, but something was clearly wrong.
I was adrift for a while, wondering if I ought not just move on to a different series. That’s a vast amount of work to write off though. 5 books and 2 years of all my energy poured in. Plus what guarantee was there that in my next series, I’d hit the market square on if I didn’t even really know why this series wasn’t selling?
I decided to dig in and keep trying to figure it out. I solicited reviews from blog tours and net galley deals, and they were all excellent. OK. So maybe those reviewers are not my target audience. I looked to get editorial help, but I’ve had bad experiences with editors in the past, and didn’t want to go big or rely on any one person’s opinions too much.
So I looked at Reedsy and Fiverr, and over a period of time hired a range of manuscript assessment deals and beta readers. Comments were generally incredibly helpful – when I asked them to focus on why people weren’t wanting to read through to book 2.
What came in for me was that the book was off-genre by quite some way. This is a simple way of saying – “It’s not what people want to read”. Super simple, but pretty much the core reason I think anyone who’s struggling to sell is struggling to sell. People just don’t want to read it, and nothing you can say in your ads is going to convince them otherwise.
I’ve been learning this lesson for years. My epic fantasy books were very weird – in setting, narrative, hero, villain – kind of Victorian steampunk with invented races and a crazy kind of memory-magic. Totally my kind of thing, but not mainstream. In my hard science fiction books I just went all out crazy, with a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk mind-jacking adventure through ruins and nightmare-scapes. Again, wholly my bag, but almost impossible to find the audience.
I tried very hard to market all these. I put solid dark epic fantasy covers on the fantasies, but couldn’t reach ‘my’ readers. I put cyberpunk covers on my science fiction, but nobody really reads cyberpunk now, and the books only loosely fit that genre anyway. My zombie books however had great covers and only subverted the genre tropes reasonably late in the story (naturally, I had to flip everything), so people were reading through more.
It’s turned out to be the same story with my thrillers. Jack Reacher thriller readers want thrills that are fun and exciting, not gross-out, dense, deep, confusing, disturbing – which is what my books were. I had lots of blood and gore, lots of death of sidekicks, a hero who was violently dark and out of control thanks to mega past trauma, multiple viewpoints including from the perspective of killers (great for serial killer genre, not great for lighter thrillers), lots of swearing, real downer endings, real downer beginnings.
I basically bludgeoned the reader. In some genres this may work really well. Not in this genre.
So I worked to learn the genre more – not what we see in movies and TV, which is what had largely inspired me, but in what we see in books. I am still learning it. I got those fiverr and reedsy readthroughs and acted on comments I kept hearing, changing the body text across all 5 books. I read lots of books in the genre. Things finally transformed when I realized I had to remove ALL the multiple viewpoints, straighten out the narrative, make my hero way more in control, massively reduce the violence, blood, swearing, brutality and downer vibes, and basically make my books less challenging and more FUN.
So I did all the above, including writing all new action openings for books 1 and 2. I added new slightly cliff-hangery endings. I made big cuts of downer stuff – book 1 dropped from 90,000 words to 70,000, book 2 from 100,000 to 80,000, book 3 from 90,000 to 63,000 (very short! I am currently bulking it back up).
I got new covers made by a pro on 99 designs. They are dark and on genre for terrorism thrillers. I wrote new blurbs. Things totally kicked off when I put up the new version of book 1 on Amazon, with its all-new action opener scene, and a new tagline to hook people in.
‘They stole his truck. Big mistake.’
Book 1 started selling like never before. Conversion on my low-level Facebook ads spiked. I watched readthrough to book 2 jump from around 20% which I’d coaxed it up to over the past year to around 50%. That carried over to later books in the series well. Reviews coming in on both Amazon and on the Facebook ads are so different from what they used to be.
Previously people said a lot of ‘I liked this book, but I’m going to need some time to recover before I read book 2.’ Now they were saying they leaped straight to book 2. Yes.
So, I cranked up my ads. I read the recent income report posts by Blake Hudson (thank you!) and started making more images, trialing more audiences, and expanding my spend. I made $200 in a day! Then $300! Then $500! Then it dropped because Facebook cost per click went up, so I made more images (both square and rectangle) and went back in hard.
Yesterday I made $650 in a day, off about $350 spend. That’s nearly 100% return. Wow. How far can this go? I have no idea. It might all disappear tomorrow. But the lesson I’ve learned is simple and super clean.
Ads won’t sell a book. I’ve done nothing really different with my ads to cause this recent surge, other than scale up once they started working. I always was using my cover image as the image, always was using my blurb as the copy, always targeted a mixture of interests (Thriller authors narrowed by Kindle) and Lookalikes (built off my Facebook ad click engagement), was always sending clicks to both the series page and the first book in the series, was always targeting mostly newsfeed in both US and UK primarily.
The thing that sold my book was the new blurb, and the cover, and the opening chapters for the Look Inside, and the fact that they finally were all singing from the same hymn sheet. Fun. Exciting. On genre.
Write and package something that readers want, and they will come to you. Ads will suddenly start working like someone opened up a spigot. If your ads are not working, look to your book, and your genre, and roll up your sleeves to start syncing them up…