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How to BookBub: Should You Do Discount Promotions or Free Ones?

Let's talk BookBub. Do you BookBub?

If you're an indie author, you've probably at the very least heard of BookBub, a well-known discount book promotion service. Millions of people looking to save a lot of money on digital reading material subscribe to this service, and they receive daily emails with fresh offerings. And, if you're an author, chances are you've been turned away at their door after failing to meet their stringent requirements for advertising with them, which in many cases are a mystery. But what seems apparent is people get turned down by BookBub for one or all of the following reasons:

1. Book is part of a series or is an anthology. BookBub doesn't like those as much, though they have been known to make exceptions. In general, I think the book has to appear to be popular with readers.

2. Book hasn't been reviewed enough (or positively enough).

3. Book cover isn't good enough.

4. Your genre is a bit too niche for one of their categories.

At any rate, it's worth it to keep trying, because once you can actually get a BookBub promotion, it has the potential to do great things for you. But I must stress when I say potential. There are no guarantees, and often times an otherwise successful promotion may only barely cover the cost of your ad. There are numerous things that can affect this, and I'll detail all that below.

My book STRINGS has had two BookBub campaigns in the last year. The first one was for a discounted promotion in February, when we dropped the book to $.99. The second one was for a freebie promotion just recently that started on October 1st. I'm going to break down the performance of each promotion and the pluses and minuses of each one.

Keep in mind a couple things first:

1. BookBub pricing varies based on the genre of the book. Some genres have more subscribers than others and have the potential for far bigger sales; therefore, the cost of the ad is that much higher. STRINGS is listed in Horror, which is one of the more affordable genres. It also has a smaller subscriber base. This chart demonstrates cost, subscribers, and average downloads for each of the genres it lists, and from what my publisher has experienced, the numbers are more or less accurate.

2. If your book is in Amazon's KDP Select, and you have a BookBub discount promotion scheduled, it's a good idea to schedule a Kindle Countdown Deal starting the day of your promotion. Countdown deals allow you to keep 70% of your discount price as opposed to the usual 35% on books priced below $2.99. This increases your chances of your ad being profitable. Alas, we didn't do this with the STRINGS discount promotion, but lesson learned.

What to Expect from a BookBub Discount Promotion

BookBub emails typically arrive in subscriber inboxes around noon, Eastern time, so don't hop out of your bed like a kid on Christmas morning expecting a major spike in sales.

Then, when sales do start to kick in, expect Amazon to lag a little bit on updating your rank. While typically agile enough to adjust by the hour, when a book is seeing a ton of new activity, it's a bit like throwing a wrench into a Kitchen Aid mixer while it's running. I didn't start getting steady ranking data until around 3 or 4 in the afternoon.

Another thing, your sales won't immediately taper off after the ad finishes running. Expect about 2 weeks' worth of decent sales and rank as Amazon gives your temporary little superstar a bit more TLC before sending it back down into the rankings crapper from whence it likely came.

So the average downloads for my BookBub promotion was about 700 copies. A little short of the average BookBub states for horror books, but overall, not terrible. I peaked at around #300 on the Amazon bestseller list and in the top twenty of the horror and thriller bestseller lists. Exciting stuff! I managed to get a handful of new reviews out of it too, though it's tough to say how many of them were directly attributable to BookBub or any other promotions we were running at the beginning of the year.

Was it worth the $180?

Let's do the basic math: 700 x $.35 = $245.

The sales DID pay for the ad, so there is that. However, since that money had to be split between the publisher and me, the publisher did not turn a profit. Still, as a promotional expense, that's a lot of books in hands for less than $60. A paid ad at that price on most any other website would probably not fare nearly so well. If you're your own publisher, you would have an extra $65 in your pockets (or $130 if you did the Kindle Countdown promotion alongside it), so all in all, not a bad venture as far as these kinds of things go.

Assuming this is all relative, you can probably apply similar ratios to your genre to get an idea for how much you might profit from doing a discount ad. Mystery and Romance authors would undoubtedly have much larger numbers. It's just a larger risk you're taking with the price of the ad.

What to Expect from a BookBub Free Promotion

It probably sounds a little crazy to run a paid promotion for a book you're giving away, but bear with me here, because I wasn't initially convinced either.

Normally, when you use a few freebie days on KDP Select, it's not a bad idea to advertise your freebie with a few promotional sites who put out Tweets, Facebook posts, or send out alerts to mailing lists letting people know about what's available. These things are free and they can usually give you a small bump in downloads, though not always. Many freebie days, I've received as few as 20 downloads. But if the constellations and planets are all in proper sync, big things can happen. I've had days where I didn't promote anywhere but Facebook and Twitter, but still managed to give away up to 1500 copies of a single title. There's no explaining it. When your numbers get that high, you can normally count on a little bit of a post freebie bump, too. Those bumps have decreased more and more over the years, making KDP Select less appealing from that perspective, but it's always interesting to see if you get any real payback out of a promotion.

However, I was not prepared for what came my way when Hobbes End ran our $90 freebie ad with BookBub.

Now, first of all, the actual promotion on Amazon started October 1st, and the BookBub ad didn't run until October 2nd, and we had nearly 5000 downloads before then from other ads we had run (one of them with E-Reader News Today, another great promo site worth checking out). However, when BookBub went online, numbers jumped exponentially. In four hours, we had over 9000 downloads (in addition to the pre-existing 5K, so around 14K total). By the time the dust had settled on October 5th, over 26,000 people had copies of STRINGS on their Kindles.

The book reached #8 overall on the Kindle freebie charts, and was in the top 3 in three other categories over the course of several days.

But the fun didn't end there. We are still experiencing a great post-freebie bounce, with around 70 and counting paid downloads (sales and Kindle Unlimited combined), as well as a spike in paperback sales. And the reviews. On October 1st, STRINGS had 58 reviews. As of this writing on October 14th, there are 80. Some days, I've had up to 6 new reviews post one after the other. Activity on GoodReads has also increased considerably, with new ratings and reviews posting throughout the day.

Assuming around a $2 earning on the Kindle Unlimited/Lending Library borrows, that alone paid for the cost of the ad. Everything else is just cake. And it's earnings on 70% of $2.99 instead of $.99, so that's very good indeed. Ten days after the promotion, the book is still hanging out in the 10K-20K rank section, which isn't too terrible at all.

It sounds crazy giving away that many books, but this isn't really about that. It's about raw exposure, and this is the true benefit of doing the free promotion. While the discount promotion will certainly bring you good rank and put a few hundred bucks in your pocket, if you're really looking for people to download, read, and review your book, the free promotion has been monumentally better. Furthermore, with 80+ reviews on STRINGS, the Amazon algorithm gods will treat the book far better, increasing the chances it will sell.

So Which Should You Choose? Free or Discount?

If you can get BookBub to list your book, chances are you will do well regardless of which option you choose. The subscriber base there is immense and faithful. People WILL download your book. Possibly a lot of them. Or at least enough to pay for your ad. In that regard, it's just a decent promotional expense.

However, if you can throw away artistic ego a little bit and not chafe too much at the notion of giving away your work for free, in exchange for far more reviews and the immense exposure that comes with upwards of 26K or more people having your book in their hands . . . even if only 1% of them actually follows through, reads it, and reviews it, that's STILL a lot of advertising value for $90. And even if some of those people hated your book? They know who you are. They won't forget your name. With those kinds of numbers, the flavor of your publicity doesn't matter so much.


Are You Prepared to Self-Publish? A Managed Expectations Checklist

Publishers Weekly just announced today that there have been 400,000 self-published books released in 2013. In light of that staggering number, as well as some recent discussion about how reviewers choose not to review self-published books simply because it's a numbers problem (meaning, there just aren't enough people to review the glut of traditionally published books every year, let alone the tsunami of self-published stuff that hasn't really been vetted at all), I figured it was time to gather folks around and talk about what the average person can expect from having a career in self-publishing. Because the more popular of an alternative it becomes, the more noise we'll have to fight through in order to be noticed.

Some of this isn't easy to admit, but these are the questions you must be prepared to ask yourself if you're deciding to forego the drudgery of traditional publishing in favor of the drudgery of self-publishing. Hybrid authors will probably note some overlap, but no matter.

If you answer YES to most of these questions, you may be ready to self-publish.

1. Are you prepared to sell anywhere between 0 and 15 copies in your first month, with a buying audience comprised entirely of people who know you?

2. Are you prepared to sell about the same or less than that in your second month as you exhaust the People Who Know You list?

3. Are you prepared to feel victorious when your Amazon sales ranking has 5 digits instead of the more common 6?

4. Are you prepared to feel like Stephen Fucking King when your sales ranking reaches 4 digits after the debut of your BookBub ad? Or maybe like Stephen Fucking King Conjoined To James Goddamn Patterson when that rank hits three digits?

5. Are you prepared to peak out when you've sold several hundred (or thousand) steeply-discounted copies and then watch your ranking precipitously fall back into the 5-6 digit rank tank about five days later after you raised your price back up?

6. Are you prepared to celebrate when Smashwords can finally pay you because after six months you exceeded the $10 payment threshold?

7. Are you prepared to celebrate when you get your first review from someone not your best friend and/or mom?

8. Are you prepared to wonder if you still have to claim earnings at the end of the year if you only made about $37 from Amazon? (The answer is yes, you still should claim your earnings).

9. Are you prepared to spend about nine hours combing through a database of book reviewers and bloggers, sending out query letters to no fewer than thirty people begging for reviews, only to hear back from two of them? One of whom can't post a review for you any sooner than 8 months from now because their reading list is about three dozen books high?

10. Are you prepared to give thousands of books away with the hope that dozens will pay actual money and that you'll get enough reviews that maybe a couple dozen more will pay actual money?

11. Are you prepared for people's eyes to dull just a little when you tell them, "I'm self-published"?

12. Are you prepared to feel like a raging success story because after plugging away at your endeavors for five years, you've managed to sell an average of 50-100 copies a month, with maybe a couple bad months in the middle of summer, because hey that's publishing for you?

13. Are you prepared to take your whole family out for a celebratory steak dinner when your yearly earnings cross over into the four-figure range? What about the first time your monthly earnings are enough to cover a decent basket of groceries? Or a tank of gas?

14. Are you prepared to accept that most people don't agree on what a fair price for your hard work is (though they're pretty much unanimous on the whole $.99 or less price point) and no number of boorish "daily latte" arguments will persuade them to spend that four or five bucks on your thing?

15. Are you prepared to hold your breath before reading every review, because if it's one or two stars, and you only have 5 reviews, it will be visible on your product page and could adversely affect future sales?

16. Are you prepared to hold late night discussions with yourself about the moral implications of purchasing only a few reviews? You know, just to bump up the enthusiasm factor a little?

17. Are you prepared to become unnerved and a little jealous at how well some of your friends are doing at this thing, even though you just KNOW your stuff is totally better than theirs?

18. Are you prepared to be perpetually ENRAGED at Stephenie Meyer or (insert some other highly successful author you consider a hack) because, again, your stuff is totally better?

19. Are you prepared to stare at sales rankings like they're tea leaves, trying to divine why it was so much higher the other day when you only sold 3 copies, but it's in the toilet now that you've sold 6? Have you Google searched already on how to crack and/ or game the Amazon ranking algorithm?

20. Are you prepared to seek solace in the words of the self-publishing pioneers who insist that if you just do what they do, if you believe in the paradigm hard enough, if you just keep releasing every single book you write, you too can dine at their gold-plated trough?

21. Are you prepared to feel like, at any moment, the few people who have discovered your work and have diligently reviewed it, will leave you because you haven't released anything new in a few months, and irrelevance is just one more nail bite away?

That should about cover the basics. I hope this was helpful in getting your brain into the place it needs to be in order to be your own publisher. No, it's not easy. No, the money doesn't flow. I have said it before, but most times you get out of self-publishing what you put into it. If you make promotion a second full-time job, you can wind up doing pretty well for yourself. Or sometimes, magic does happen, a perfect storm between the right book and the right tastemaker getting your book in front of the right set of eyes, and you can be off and running in no time, racking up day job-quitting numbers after only a month or two.

But if you find that things haven't quite been the money-spooging success you thought they would be,  that for whatever reason, your book hasn't found its way onto thousands of Kindles despite all your hard work and monetary investment, take heart. You're not alone. There is plenty of solace in knowing there are tens of thousands of us planting our gardens and reaping our pennies. And then one day you might wake up to find something beautiful has sprouted, and it has your name on it.