Starting From Zero And Success With BookBub Ads With David Gaughran

When you’ve been self-publishing over a decade, it’s easy to see how things have changed for indie authors and where the opportunities lie for publishing and marketing our books. In this wide-ranging interview, David Gaughran discusses the shifts in the industry, starting from zero, book marketing tips, and more.

In the intro, Audible launches an unlimited audio service [The New Publishing Standard]; why this might impact author income [ALLi]; Spotify’s impact on music and artists [Freakonomics]; and my thoughts on what you can do to mitigate any revenue drop from subscription services and make the most of the opportunities they bring. Plus, The importance of 1000 True Fans [ALLi Podcast]; Frankenstein in Bath [Books and Travel]

Useful stuff: Free webinar on How To Get Your First – Or Your Next – 10 Book Reviews with Mark Dawson and James Blatch. Tues 6 Oct. Click here to register for your free place or to get the replay. If you’re new to self-publishing, you can also check out Mark’s 101 Course with everything you need to know about self-publishing. [Ad] Plus, if you want to learn more about podcasting, join me at the Virtual Podcast Movement conference. [Ad]

ingramsparkToday’s show is sponsored by IngramSpark, who I use to print and distribute my print-on-demand books to 39,000 retailers including independent bookstores, schools and universities, libraries, and more.

It’s your content – do more with it through

David Gaughran is the author of non-fiction books for authors and also writes historical adventures as David M Gaughran. He’s also an award-winning blogger and campaigner for indie authors against scammers and bad practices in the publishing industry.

You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript below.

Show Notes

  • How self-publishing has changed in the last decade
  • The importance of knowing what genre you’re writing in
  • How we all start from zero and sometimes do that a number of times, especially when launching a new pen-name (as both David and I have done!)
  • The value of being able to pivot as a self-publisher
  • The importance of feeding Amazon clean data
  • Why BookBub ads work for those who publish wide
  • Why testing ads matters

You can find David Gaughran at and on Twitter @DavidGaughran

Transcript of interview with David Gaughran

Joanna: David Gaughran is the author of historical adventures and nonfiction books for authors. He’s also an award-winning blogger and campaigner for indie authors against scammers and bad practices in the publishing industry. Welcome back, Dave.

David: Thank you very much for having me, Joanna. Good to be back.

Joanna: It’s good to talk. And you and I have been around for way too long now.

I want to start with Let’s Get Digital because you are now on the fourth edition. And I feel the same way. I just don’t even know how many editions we end up doing with this type of thing.

What are some of the biggest changes that you’ve seen over the time we’ve known each other, which is a decade really, in the indie space?

David: When I really started the first edition, it was way back in 2011. And I don’t know if you’ve felt this change yourself as well, but one thing I’ve definitely noticed is that you certainly need to convince people about the merits of self-publishing a lot less.

I think over half the original first edition way back then was a big argument on why people should take self-publishing seriously, why it wasn’t a big scam, why it wouldn’t damage their career, and all that kind of stuff, which I think most people accept as a given these days. I don’t need any of that stuff in the book anymore.

So, I can focus much more and people actually want much more focus on just the practical steps and really nailing those down. I think some of the things we probably got away with in terms of advice in 2011 would just not fly in 2020.

One day I actually really opened the marketing section of the 2011 edition just to see what advice we were giving out. And it’s probably something like, ‘Try and find people online who like your books.’ It’s gotten much more complicated since then.

Instead of talking about all these other things and these industry things, I just focused on the 10 steps to successful self-publishing and just really drill down and gave a lot more detailed information about the kind of things that people need to know because it’s not just about having a cover which looks good or having one designed by a professional. You also need to know what information to give your designer so that your branding is on point.

The bar has been raised in terms of what you can get away with as an author and publisher in terms of the level of presentation and packaging, how well you are targeting your reader even with that packaging and presentation.

Joanna: I was thinking about this the other day as well. I think one of the big changes in 2011, you really could do it with any kind of book with any kind of cover, put the book for free, people would find it. Do you think that at this point as we talk in 2020, can you sell books as a self-published author if you are not doing everything professional, and that implies investment of money?

Can you self-publish for free and have it work anymore?

David: When it comes to anything in life, you have to pay with either time or money. There’s no getting around that. And I think you can do it to a reasonably professional standard on a limited budget, but then you’re going to have to do things like instead of spending $300 or $400 on a custom cover, you can get that down to $50 or so, but then you’ll have to spend quite a bit of time going through thousands of covers on the pre-made sites.

So, you really have to invest one way or the other whether you’ve got more money or you’ve got more time, but there’s no way you can just skate by totally free, I think, not when you want to put out a professional project, which I think is really, really important today.

Joanna: And you actually have a new free course that I think is fantastic called Starting from Zero. And we will get into some more advanced stuff in a bit. But with this Starting from Zero, many authors are overwhelmed when they start from zero coming into the self-publishing space.

I had someone email me the other day and she said, ‘I listened to one of your interviews and I didn’t understand the language,’ or PPC ads, pay per click ads. Things that people know in certain areas don’t necessarily know as authors or BookBub or the things that we talk about the language, KDP. We use these words and these acronyms and people don’t know.

If people are starting from zero and they’re feeling overwhelmed, what are some of these basic things that they should start with?

David: One of the things that I try to center the course around is a question that I think maybe that authors, when they’re starting out on this path, don’t ask themselves enough and I think even experienced authors also don’t ask themselves enough is what kind of book you’re writing? Who are you writing it for?

Once you start to get your head around those kinds of questions like, where should it be shelved on Amazon? What do the other books look like that are selling very well, because that’s a pretty good sign that readers are responding to them because they’re selling well?

When you start to look at things like that, then you realize you’re writing urban fantasy, and then you see that blurbs are written in a certain style, even titles have a certain style, the cover will have a certain style. And then you can start to zero in on this stuff without needing a Ph.D. in branding or whatever.

You just need to make your book look like it fits in the charts for your particular niche.

First, you’ve got to find your niche.

And I talk about that a bit in the course. Because I think a lot of people think they’re writing something so totally original that they’re not quite sure where it would fit on Amazon, but really, there are 13,000 or 14,000 categories on Amazon now. So, you should be able to find somewhere that’s even as somewhat of a good fit for your work.

Once you do that, everything flows from there. Once you know where you should be shelved in the bookshop, everything flows from there because you start to see, this is your target audience, the chart for that category because every one of those categories on Amazon, remember, has its own top 100 chart for free books, for paid books, for hot new releases.

Even just browsing those charts, you start to learn a lot about how your book should be packaged, what your reader responds to, and how you should tweak your own presentation so that they respond to it. And I think this is a very important first step that a lot of us need to spend more time on before we start throwing money on ads or any kind of marketing.

We need to get that stuff right because if you start spending money, sending lots of people to your books page on Amazon or Google or wherever, and it’s not a package they’re going to respond to, that’s not going to work for you. So, this really is step one, I think when you are starting from zero.

Joanna: I also get many people, they probably email you about this too, which is, ‘I don’t want to do all of that stuff. I want someone else to do it for me.’ What I tend to say now is, ‘Go find a publisher.’

David: I’m totally stealing that. That’s brilliant. Dealing with author emails, especially those more at the beginning stage of their career, it can be entertaining, it can be frustrating, it can be illuminating though as well. It’s interesting to see the challenges that they are wrestling with and how those have changed over time.

This whole course basically came from me constantly getting emailed by people saying, ‘How do you start from zero?’ It’s all very well for you, is often the subtext whether they actually articulate that or not.

So, the first thing you have to try and communicate to people is that everybody starts from zero unless you’re talking about one of the Kardashian clan who just gets a book deal for a ghost-written science fiction novel or something like that.

For most mere mortals, everyone is starting from zero.

We don’t spring forward from the womb with 10,000 people on our mailing list and expertise in Facebook ads. So, you just need to break it down step by step, learn to prioritize, and don’t be in such a rush.

People are in such a rush to get to an expert level with Amazon ads in their first three months of publishing when there’s other stuff they really need to focus on first and to make sure they’re still reserving a lot of their free time to work on their craft and produce new books and all that really basic stuff that we all have to do all the time.

Joanna: I would also say that many of us, I’m definitely in this category, I write really cross-genre books that don’t fit neatly anywhere, can fit in lots of different places, which means they don’t neatly fit in one place. And that means you can start from zero again.

I wrote my first three books, and three years after I first put them out, I retitled them, re-covered them, rebranded them, and I’m just doing it again with another one of my series, what were my ‘London’ books and now are going to be the ‘Brooke and Daniel’ psychological thrillers because it felt like I was in the wrong place.

And once you get a whole load of reviews, it actually helps you figure out where you are and where your books fit.

And I think this is one issue…I say issue, it’s a difficult language to use. But if you are traditionally published or if you get an agent who understands niche, then this can be the help with the direction you get.

And it’s very obvious if you are writing to market as such and you know this is this type of book.

If you write cross-genre, what are your thoughts on how to do it? Do you just put it in one genre for a bit and then move it somewhere else or what do you recommend?

David: I think you need that kind of feedback from the market. I think even someone like an agent who is particularly skilled at just having an instinctive understanding of niches, and even then they can’t say for sure that you would be better if you presented your book this way maybe more or put yourself on this shelf instead.

Sometimes you’ve just got to try things. And that is the beauty of being a self-publisher over traditionally published because we are mostly selling an ebook, we are the captains of our ship, we can make all these decisions without going to a committee, without them having to draw up a budget to reprint all these books or all these complicated things that would be part of the conversation if you’re traditionally published.

But when you’re self-published, you can just decide overnight, ‘Okay. I’m going to republish these books under another name. I’m going to re-cover that book. I’m going to make that book permafree.’ And you can do it.

Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. I make mistakes all the time. Without getting too Silicon Valley about this, they are good learning opportunities a lot of the time. Most of the most important lessons that I’ve learned have come from me trying something and screwing up. But that’s okay because we can change direction very quickly.

If we try something and it’s not working, it’s very easy for us to pivot.

Joanna: Talking of different names, you have actually split your fiction and nonfiction books using David M. Gaughran for your historical fiction. I did this back in 2012. I did the first three novels under Joanna Penn and then I went to J.F. Penn.

But many authors still use the same name and there’s a lot of discussion on this in the industry. Some people swear that you should have one name, and other people with the algorithms say two names. And so clearly you’ve come down on one side.

Why this change to two names/brands and why is it important?

David: I’ve been meaning to do it for a few years, actually. I think it was a release a few years ago when all my also boughts got messed up with your books, actually, now that I have you on the line.

I was releasing a historical novel and I think a bunch of your books popped into my also boughts and I realized I actually wanted to keep my nonfiction audience away from the fiction.

What I used to do at the start was the totally wrong thing to do was to try and cross-pollinate these audiences that have no natural crossover whatsoever. And the danger in that, even if I’m successful in convincing people who read my nonfiction to try my fiction or vice versa, even if I’m successful in doing that, I’m giving Amazon a very muddled picture of who my reader is, and then they don’t know who to recommend my books to.

So, I was getting to the point because my nonfiction audience grew faster than my fiction audience, every time I launched a historical novel, Amazon would start recommending it to people who wanted to learn how to self-publish, not people who are into historical novels. That was creating a big problem for me and I knew a few years ago that I had to do this.

I’ve just been putting off the decision for quite a while and eventually I just grasped the nettle in January, I decided to republish everything and restructure everything. I started off writing a lot of stand alones and they are much harder.

So, now I’m moving more towards writing series and then using the standalones now just to boost a brand new mailing list, which is exclusively built around historical fiction.

Joanna: That is interesting. When did you write that first book? I mean, you had that out, I think, when we first met.

David: The first historical novel I released would have been end of 2011.

Joanna: Right. I really want to encourage people listening. You have basically this year, so, what, nine years later, you have almost started it again with your fiction, not your whole brand because, of course, you’ve got a whole load of people, but you’ve started a new list, you’ve started a new algorithm thing with a new author name.

Is it starting from zero or because you know what to do, you’re a bit ahead?

David: Starting from zero, but with a very good roadmap, maybe. I didn’t seed this new audience at all with any of my existing audience. So, I started a new Facebook page and getting those first 10 likes, I was sweating bricks. I really was because I was so tempted to, like, share it on my personal profile, ‘Hey, if some of you guys like my historical novels…’ but I didn’t.

I wanted to keep this pure just to make sure that my also boughts didn’t get polluted. Because especially at the start when Amazon doesn’t have a lot of data, basically, when you haven’t sold a lot of books after republishing something, I’m starting from zero then in the eyes of the algorithm too. So, I’ve got to feed Amazon high-quality data. And it can’t be anything messing things up there.

I wanted Amazon to exclusively see purchases coming from hardcore historical fiction readers rather than anyone who might be a casual fan or someone who might be just supporting me or whatever else. I really did have to start from zero in that sense, a brand new mailing list, a brand new Facebook page.

I built walls on my website to basically cut it in two so there were no links going from either side, and then republished the books under a fresh name, just sticking an initial in is enough to make it look like a totally different author on Amazon. And then new, separate author page. I really did separate everything and I really did start totally from zero again.

Joanna: I absolutely agree. I think it’s really good. And in fact, my Amazon auto ads on my Joanna Penn work really well because the brand is so separate, but my J.F. Penn is all over the place because I write across so many sub-genres.

Even if you do have a separate name for your fiction, it can still be complicated. But you’ve actually got a new book out, haven’t you, around Amazon?

Does that include some of your lessons learned? What can we find in there?

David: It’s called Amazon Decoded. And I just launched it today, actually. I did the first send to my mailing list. I’ll split that send over three or four days, but the first tranche went out about an hour-and-a-half ago, actually.

I have no idea how it’s going. Maybe Evan is emailing me and complaining while we are breezily chatting away here. But, yeah, that’s one of the things that I take a look at in it is the whole issue of pen names because there really is pros and cons here because I can definitely speak from firsthand experience now that it is a lot of extra work and it’s an extra expense too.

You’re buying a new domain name. You might have a different hosting package. You might have costs involved in republishing and getting those covers tweaked and then getting your paperback editions done. But in terms of admin as well, there is more time both in the setup, there’s a lot more time in the setup, and then a little bit more in the ongoing sense as well. Just extra bits of admin you have to take care of.

But I’m making the bet and the initial results seem to be proving it as a good choice that this will be the smart long-term play and that the benefits will way outweigh the costs. But there are costs to it. And that’s why there is a big debate over this and that’s why everyone doesn’t agree.

If you’re in two genres where you do have a lot of natural crossover, there’s a lot of authors who write both fantasy and science fiction, and there’s a lot of readers who read both. I would be fine with somebody using the same name in something like that.

But even some authors who do that will separate the name slightly. They’ll shorten their first name or something. So, there is a big debate about this. I think anyone before they take the step of doing that just to read up on both sides of it and just get a feel for what might work better for you.

Joanna: Any other really interesting tips in Amazon Decoded? I’m sure everyone is going to go get it.

Give us a sneak preview of anything else interesting you think people would like.

David: Well, there are about 76,000 words of epic tips.

Joanna: Just one epic tip?!

David: Okay. Well, this is more of an interesting quirk. I discovered something very interesting when I was researching how the whole recommendation engine on Amazon was built. And this might actually put a lot of people at ease rather than giving them a solid marketing takeaway.

There’s been a lot of worry about also-boughts on Amazon because we’re just starting to understand that they’re central to how the whole system works, the role they play is kind of murky, nobody is really sure what they do.

But they know if their also boughts gets screwed up, they’re in trouble, right? That’s usually what people feel. And they know that they’re something to do with how books are recommended to customers.

I did a little digging and I found out some really interesting stuff about this because I think there was a worry that started about, I think, November last year when that was the first time that also boughts disappeared for a lot of people everywhere. And everyone just kind of decided, ‘Oh, that means Amazon is pay to play now.’ You have to be spending tons of money on Amazon ads or you won’t get any organic recommendations.

But I think I can put everyone’s minds at ease because what I discovered was that the underlying system, the recommendation engine, the thing that’s basically like a literary version of Tinder just pairing books and readers constantly every day, that is blissfully unaffected by whether also-boughts get removed from your page or not. So, everyone can just relax at that point.

I’ll give you an example of how it actually works in practice. And if thousands of people want to test this out right now by downloading my book, I’m totally fine with that. But if you were to download that edition now, which is actually free, if you were to download it, in about two weeks time, roughly, it doesn’t work like clockwork, but it’s pretty regular, Amazon will actually send you an email suggesting that you buy the next book in the series.

It’s not actually necessarily done because it’s the next book in the series, but because the next book in the series is the number one also bought. Amazon knows that everyone who downloads Let’s Go Digital, the book they are most likely to purchase next or the one that they have a strong response to if they’re recommended it is Strangers to Superfans.

So, Amazon will recommend that two weeks later. And the same goes for any other series, right? Assuming that you have all your metadata in place and you haven’t messed any of that up.

And even before that, Amazon will be recommending that book. They always try and close the sale in different ways. They try and reach the reader in different ways. Anytime you buy a book on Amazon, you will see a confirmation page pop up on the screen confirming your purchase. And right there on that page, because Amazon doesn’t miss a trick, they recommend you another book.

Almost always it’s the number one also bought for that book, which if you write a series, it’s almost always going to be book two in your series. And then Amazon will actually recommend that book a couple of times on-site, and then eventually if you haven’t purchased it a couple of weeks later, they will actually email you and try and get you that way.

So, this whole recommendation engine is constantly working like that all the time regardless of whether also boughts happen to be on your page on Amazon today or not. So, I think people can just relax with that.

The recommendation engine, the organic recommendation engine hasn’t changed, it’s still working perfectly.

Joanna: That is good to know. And I agree. As a buyer, I just spend so much money. I just love it, especially in lockdown. Goodness. It’s the only thing to buy. It really is.

David: I have a whole cupboard full of banana slices, let me tell you.

Joanna: I want to talk about other sites because everyone gets a bit obsessed with Amazon. Of course, they are the biggest player and they do have all those different formats, which I think is one of the great reasons to send people to Amazon.

But there are also loads of other sites, and it’s very important, I think, to remember that. When I decided I was going to really reboot my fiction brand a couple of months back, in April, I was like, ‘Right, I’m going to get back into this,’ because unless you are focusing on sales they can drop off.

I got another one of your fantastic books, which is BookBub Ads Expert and I bought it on ebook. And then I bought it in print because it’s that good. I’m big upping you here because I basically used that book and BookBub ads to reboot my fiction sales on the other stores, and also my nonfiction books on the stores where it just wasn’t really selling.

Let’s just get into a bit on BookBub ads and why they’re so good, especially for people who publish wide.

David: When I was writing that book I was trying to wrap my head around, why are BookBub ads so effective once you get over the testing phase? We’ll talk about that in a second. But once you get them working, why are they so effective? Why are the conversion rates just so much higher?

Every three or four clicks I get from a BookBub ad, that will turn into a sale for me which, that kind of conversion rate, the best Facebook marketers in the world would give their eye teeth for that kind of conversion rate. And I just didn’t get it until, like…I think I was actually sitting there in front of my Gmail account and my BookBub email arrived, and then I realized it’s because the ads are delivered by email. And any marketer will tell you that nothing converts like email.

And email is just, it feels more intimate, it feels more personal, there are fewer distractions. It’s not like you see an ad on Facebook, there’s a lot of other things competing for your attention there. Same on Amazon. But there is one ad in that email.

Okay. You are competing for attention with all the other deals in the email, but that’s already putting someone in the frame of mind to buy as they scroll down and see all these different deals going on in different genres. And they get to your ad and their buyer intent, if you like, is just at maximum at that point, and then they see your ad and it’s only your ad there.

I think people forget that a lot of the time that this is a different ad platform because it’s being delivered by email.

But in terms of wide authors, they’re such a godsend for wide authors because, obviously, you can’t use Amazon ads to push your wide books. And then when you try on Facebook, it’s a little bit tricky, especially for Kobo and Google Play. And even Apple. They’re hit and miss for me, whereas I can get Facebook ads working really well for Amazon. No problem.

And especially going into smaller niches because Facebook just because of the structural nature of Facebook, it’s much better at targeting bigger, broader audiences whereas BookBub seems to be much better at targeting those small pockets of readers.

You get lots of small pockets of readers when you’re a wide author, but it’s like Kobo readers in Australia or Apple readers in the U.K., it’s all small pockets. It’s all these little streams that we’re trying to add up to a rushing river.

And it’s really, really effective at that because you can target a really small audience on BookBub and on Facebook, that ad wouldn’t even run because the audience is too small, but on BookBub you can do it and you can really make it work

Joanna: Yes. I guess we should make it clear. We are talking about the pay per click ads. We’re not talking about featured deals, which are great. Get a feature deal, for sure.

But the great thing about the pay per click ad is that you can be very targeted, as you say. And sometimes the issue with a feature deal, especially with fiction, is that your also boughts do get messed up on things because people might take a chance, whereas with the pay per click ads, you can just really hyper-target which authors you’re doing.

Any more tips on pay per click?

Let’s talk about testing because this is the thing that changed it for me once I understood how that works.

David: It’s really essential that you spend a good deal of time testing. I think something like a quarter or even a third of that book is devoted to the testing process because with BookBub ads, I don’t know if you found this personally, but all the difficulties at the start, the learning curve is very steep at the start and then it levels out once you get through the testing phase.

Some people get through it quickly. Some people get stuck there for a little while and get quite frustrated. And I get a few emails from people desperately looking for assistance.

But what you need to do is, firstly, you’re starting fresh on BookBub. If you have targets that work for you on Facebook or Amazon, so you can test them, but don’t assume. Don’t just start a campaign, put together all your comp authors from Facebook or whatever, and then just turn up the budget. You will lose your money straight away.

You need to test each author individually to see if they work for you on BookBub and you do need to double-check that before spending any real money.

Also, the image is really, really important. And I think over the last couple of years, the standard of what image readers respond to has increased a little bit and you just need to make it really as pro as possible. I think I have a couple of tutorials now on my YouTube channel showing you how to do that for BookBub.

It’s a really simple method you can use just basically taking the cover, and you don’t need to be a graphic designer of any skill to do this, just taking the cover out of your book, using that as a background, putting your book cover in there, and then putting your offer in there.

I think this is one place where people slip up. You really need to have some kind of strong offer in your ad for BookBub to work. It’s not like Facebook where you can sometimes get away with a higher-priced book, or even Amazon ads can be quite tolerant of higher prices.

But BookBub you really need to have a deal because it is a deals newsletter.

You’re competing against the biggest authors in the world will be in that email, some of them, and the books will be all be free, 99 cents or $1.99. So, if you’re going to try and advertise a $4.99 book, it’s very difficult. I can sometimes make it work.

I think if someone’s experienced and skilled with BookBub ads, they can sometimes make that work, but starting off that point is really difficult. So, I’d say do your testing, do it on a 99 cent book because that will give you the best response or best kind of feedback because sometimes a freebie…anyone will jump on a freebie because it doesn’t cost them anything. And you’re not really getting a good test if that target is going to work for you.

Do 99 cent books.

Spend a lot of time on the image. Test a few different images. Test a few different authors.

And eventually, you’ll start nailing both of those down. And then once you do, once you actually have a list of authors that you know you get a good response with and then a few different images that you know you can get a good response with, you can really turn up that budget. And the consistency of results that you get, once you get beyond that testing point is amazing.

Joanna: And so just to be clear, essentially you do, like, 1,000 impressions on, you say the hardest market, Amazon U.S. for a 99 cent book. I might say, ‘Dan Brown on a 99 cent book for 1,000 impressions’ and see what the click-through rate is. And I think it’s over 1%, right?

David: I think it kind of depends. It really depends what price clicks work for you personally in your business. If you’re trying to shift a standalone book, it’s very different than if you’re trying to push a book one in a series where you’ve got eight more books in the series that readers could buy. You’re going to be able to tolerate a higher click cost if you have a long series.

So, for me personally, I always try and get clicks below 50 cents. So, then between 1.5% and 2% on the ad usually delivers that. But you’ll find that threshold yourself as you’re testing and as you’re seeing the cost of the clicks come in.

But one thing I should stress, because you used the example of Dan Brown there, I personally find it very hard to get big authors to work. Sometimes you can get really, really lucky and one of those bigger authors can really work for you.

For me, I prefer targeting those bigger authors on Facebook. I find that works a lot better. When it comes to BookBub, I think your kind of mid-to-large size indies or the smaller trad authors usually end up being better targets.

Joanna: I guess I just used him because he’s kind of obvious.

My second question: I have found some authors work for me, say, on Amazon Canada and Kobo Canada, but not on Apple, for example.

Or I found some authors work particularly well on Apple U.K., but not elsewhere. So, what I started out with was, okay, these are my seven or eight authors who work really well for my ARKANE series. But then what I found is sometimes they differ by platform and also by country. And obviously, it’s very expensive then to test on every platform in every country.

What are your thoughts on this testing by territory and by platform?

David: What I usually suggest is starting out on Amazon U.S. even if you do want to focus more on wide markets because it is the toughest market for many reasons. It has the most competition for starters.

And then secondly, it’s the most deal-saturated audience. So, it has the most kind of BookBub-like sites and different ways that people can get deals and discounts.

The market is absolutely swamped with 99 cent books and freebies. If you can get an ad to work on Amazon U.S., then almost always you can roll it out to all the other Amazons, all the other stores internationally and you can be really, really confident that it’s going to work well. So, that’s why it’s a perfect testing ground.

But that said, you might find as an author like you did  or somebody like that, which didn’t quite work for you in Amazon U.S., and this is especially true with bigger authors, by the way.

So, if you do have a big author, let’s say you are definitely squarely aiming at Dan Brown’s audience and the ad is not working for you on Amazon U.S., you can try it in Kobo Australia or one of those smaller markets because you will generally tend to see a higher click-through rate on your ads in smaller markets and smaller retailers partly because books are just more expensive in places like Australia or books tend to be more expensive on Apple or Kobo than they will be on Amazon.

And so when you combine all those things together, the readers are more hungry for deals. They don’t get as many opportunities to buy a 99 cent book or download a freebie. So, you do tend to get a higher response. If you feel very strongly there is a big author who is definitely a strong comp author for you and it’s not working on Amazon U.S., that’s one of the joys of being a wide author, you can roll that out in the U.K. or Canada or Australia and you should get a lot better results and sometimes the results will be good enough to really make that a workable target for you.

Joanna: And that’s what’s really encouraged me. I really found this to be working. I’ve finally got Google Play moving, which is just brilliant. I just hadn’t been able to get things moving at Google Play, but it’s the kind of store where if you can get things moving, then it’s that snowball effect. Well, maybe all of these places are, you know, if you can get things going.

I also have found, like you mentioned, it has to be a deal. What I have found is that using full price nonfiction, particularly, often our full price nonfiction still looks like a deal to people in many territories. So, I’ve just used a read now on a nonfiction book and getting 5%, 7% click-through.

David: That’s great.

Joanna: Just incredible because these stores are starved. And most authors are so fixated on Amazon U.S., U.K. that the rest of this place is super cheap. I’m very excited by this. I just feel very happy about finding your book, not that you were hiding it, but I finally put it into action and I feel like it’s a really big deal.

Are there any other things that you feel are working for wide authors, in particular?

David: Here’s one that might be a little counterintuitive. I actually talk about this a little bit in Amazon Decoded that we don’t need as wide authors because I’m wide with everything now, although I’ll be doing some KU pen name stuff in a bit. But I don’t want to seed the entire Amazon market to all these KU people. I’m more than happy to still compete for some of those readers.

And what I found is…and I think this will actually fit the wide mindset kind of well because we don’t really care where the reader comes from as long as they’re buying, it doesn’t matter what country they’re in, or whatever. I tend to find, especially when it comes to ads, that there’s an opportunity in Amazon Canada and Amazon Australia.

Now, they’re smaller markets, but most KU people tend to ignore them, I find, because a lot of KU people tend to focus on countdown deals, especially, over free deals. And countdown deals are only available in the U.S. and the U.K. So, that’s where all their ads are pushing, all their marketing focus and resources and everything is always on pushing the U.S. and the U.K. And I’m getting a great response from just a little bit of a push in Australia and Canada.

Joanna: I’m definitely doing that too. I just was more encouraged by these other markets where I just had never really even got some sales, so now I’m like, ‘Yay.’ I’m very excited. Thank you for recommending that.

David: It’s wonderful when you roll out a Kobo Australia campaign or something and you see the results come in. And sometimes you’re getting these really wonderful click-through rates of, like, 7%, 8%, 9%. And just for anyone who doesn’t know BookBub ads, that means it’s driving down the cost of your clicks to like 10 cents or something. So, those are really, really profitable ads to run.

Joanna: And also, just from a personal perspective, Facebook is really complicated and the setup is complicated. There’s a gazillion fields that you have to think about when you set up a Facebook ad. And Amazon ads obviously really do highly benefit people in KU for ebooks and also they’re not available for the wide platform.

So, for me, BookBub ads just fill this great gap that is missing.

Also, the other thing with Facebook ads is you have to track comments. And I’ve just had too many instances lately where there have been comments that have really ruined my day. So, my criteria for advertising now is there is no way to leave a comment.

David: I hear you on that.

Joanna: Just for a happy life!

David: I have one historical novel which, how shall I phrase it diplomatically, touches on the occasional thorny relationship between Ireland and England. And when I released that in 2016, I never once saw a negative comment from anyone. But obviously, the political climate has changed a little bit and people are probably just crankier in general right now because they’re stuck at home. And I noticed when I did a campaign in June, I was attracting all sorts of comments that it would make you go for a lie-down, quite frankly.

Joanna: I think the message of this discussion today is that things change, we change, and we have to adapt to whatever the new situation is. And hopefully, you and I are going to be around for the next decade.

Is there anything that you’re excited about or that you see coming that people should focus on?

David: Well, this is less of an exciting thing and more…I think there’s a couple of dangers facing publishing right now. Obviously, we’re all dealing with the coronavirus issue. And while that would seem to affect the traditional end of the business more, anyone that’s dealing in print and bookstores and all that, I think some kind of economic downturn is pretty much unavoidable.

And while books, ebooks, especially, are a little bit recession-proof, I think everyone having less money or being more distracted or whatever is never good on any level.

But then there are dangers which are more specific to the digital world and ebooks and self-publishers in particular, like we’ve just seen in the U.S. some move towards antitrust actions against Facebook and Amazon and Apple and Google as well. And those are three of the four big markets, or four of the five, three of the five big markets for indie authors. And then Facebook is one of the main ways that we use to reach readers as well and, obviously, Amazon is the majority of income for most indie authors.

I actually have made a few changes in my business this year just thinking about all this, that I’m focusing more on building up my own platforms, building up traffic to my website, building up my mailing list, and refocusing my business more about that. I don’t want to sell direct or anything like that, but if the worst was to happen tomorrow and someone pulls the plug on Amazon or Facebook or whatever, I’d be in a better position to set that up overnight because I got more people on my list now.

I’ve got more people coming to my website. I’m doing a bit of training with my list as well, sending from my website rather than direct to retailers. Just doing it every so often. Not doing it all the time, but just every so often get all your links here. And I might lose a couple of sales, but not linking direct, but I’m just trying to bring that in as a thing that I’m going to send you to my website first. If I ever do need to switch to selling direct or whatever happens, I’m a bit more prepared.

Joanna: That is a great recommendation. I’ve been selling direct for a long time and I’ve been focusing on it more this year as well.

And also what’s lovely is people have started to choose to buy direct from me in order that I get more money, which is great because you also get the data and you get email, you get country, you get all kinds of things. I think you’re right. I think this is going to be the way forward. So exciting times ahead.

Where can people find you and your books and everything you do online?

David: Here is something that I should have done 10 years ago. I actually bought a vanity URL, And that redirects now to, which is a bit harder to say on a podcast when nobody knows how to spell it.

So, you can go to and then you’ll get redirected to my website. You’ll find everything there. You’ll find my free guide to self-publishing. You can sign up for the free course. I also have a mailing list, which I recommend signing up to. It’s a weekly marketing newsletter. I think you get another freebie for signing up to that. So, you can check all that out.

Joanna: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, Dave. That was great.

David: Thank you very much.

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Author: Joanna Penn

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  • September 27, 2020