How many books do I need to sell to make a bestsellers list?
Every author at some point has Googled a variation of that question. Because let’s face it: most of us want to see our name on The New York Times bestsellers list right above or below whichever 50 Shades book is befouling that list, and there’s no shame in admitting that. (Yes, technically it would be nice to be #1, but you’ve got to start somewhere.)
So how do I get on the bestsellers list without cashing out my 401k and buying 9,000 copies of my book? (I read somewhere that 9,000 is the number of books you’d need to sell in a week to get on the NYT list. Whether that’s true, I have no idea. God bless what you read on the Internet.)
My point is you need people to buy your book. And for a majority of us unknown newbies from midsize to small presses, you’re not going to have huge advertising budgets. So it’s basically up to you to spread the word. I wrestled with the idea of paying to put a click-ad on Fangoria’s website (my book is in the horror genre), and it probably would’ve cost around $300. And what would I get? Probably not much—you’re hoping someone who wasn’t looking for the ad in the first place clicks on it to maybe buy a book from a complete unknown author. Time and again I’ve been told there’s little return in investment, so I scrapped the idea. And then late last year I read in the Wall Street Journal what Darcie Chan did. Chan self-published The Mill River Recluse, which went on to be a massive ebook bestseller. To summarize, she budgeted $1,000 to advertise and selected companies that target readers, especially readers who wanted inexpensive ebooks, with email blasts that contain books from the genres selected by the subscribers. One of these companies was Digital Books Today, which offers to feature your book for free on its Weekly Featured Great Read list. Another company is called EReader News Today, which for $60 allows you to be featured as the Book of the Day. Chan availed herself to this, and it got her good exposure. And that’s how it started for me. I checked out these two sites and learned that you need to sign up way in advance to hopefully be selected for these promotions. And there’s your first rule: Plan your promotion in advance, sometimes months out. The quality advertising websites fill up quick. (I’ll list what I think the best ones are at the end of this post.)
I planned for my promotion to take place beginning March 25, 2015. It’s not like late March was an ideal date for a book (The Dark Servant) with a demented anti-Santa Claus theme—that was the time when the first Weekly Featured Great Read slot was available for me. I also attempted to land the Book of the Day slot, but wasn’t successful. I contacted my publisher and explained that I wanted to drop my ebook price from roughly $5.50 to 99 cents. That’s the second rule: The best price points are free (duh) and 99 cents. I don’t believe in giving away free content, especially because I only have one book out. But I’m fine with limited-time discounts. It’s a way to grab readers for less than the price of a cup of coffee (in New Jersey that’s $1.49 for a refill at the Quick Chek, but I digress). And at this point in my career, as much as I would like to earn a lot of money writing books, I need readers first.
Samhain Publishing agreed to drop the price and I waited for March to roll around, and as it did, I realized I hadn’t yet paid any service to promote my book. I was putting my eggs in one free basket. It was then that I fully realized that if I really wanted to sell books, I’d have to open my wallet. And I did. I researched the sites you’ll read about below and ultimately decided to go with them. Samhain dropped the price to 99 cents on March 21, a few days ahead of time, and that actually is important. You want to make sure your book is at the price you tell advertisers it will be on the day of your promotion. So I actually got a few sales before the 25th just by telling people about it, and people stumbling across it. I decided to get the ball rolling earlier than the 25th and officially began promoting my book on Tuesday, March 24. Here’s a chronicle of the sites I used, how much I paid, the size of the email subscription base, the dates of the promotion:
March 24, 2015
Free Kindle Books and Tips ($25). Reach: 750,000 readers. (The website’s operator is very up front and says that while that number sounds like a lot, only 100,000 or so subscribers might take action [i.e., read the post, and not necessarily buy a book].) But it’s a big pool. My results, according to KFBT, I had 65 clicks and 21 sales (a 32% conversion rate), but that was only for Amazon in the USA. It stands to reason I sold a few more from B&N, for instance.
Bargain Booksy Horror Feature ($25). Reach: 40,913 Horror subscribers. Results: 87 clicks, 15 sales.
March 25, 2015
Digital Book Today’s Weekly Featured Great Read (Free, expired on March 31). Reach: hard to say. According to the site, as of March 15, 2015, there are between 20,000 to 24,000 visits per week (my book was one of seven displayed on every page); 80,000 to 110,000 visits per month; 205,000 to 265,000 clicks into Amazon per month; and a daily email subscriber list of more than 13,400. DBT does not provide click/sales data. I figure, it was free, so I really can’t complain. Thank you DBT!
BookSends ($15). Reach: 100,000 overall subscribers, 17,000 in the Horror category, although the web operator said those numbers are a little outdated and should be 15% to 20% higher. Results: 125 clicks, 47 sales. Put BookSends on your advertising list right now. I mean it. It cost me $15 and I more than made that back in sales.
Ereader News Today ($15). Reach: 118,000 subscribers (I don’t know if that consists entirely of horror fans or is the overall subscription base—I’m assuming the latter). Results: 215 clicks (23% conversion rate) with 50 sales, although the site operator said I probably sold more than that number. (I know what you’re thinking: Wait, wasn’t Matt unable to secure an Ereader News Today Book of the Day slot? Correct. But ENT offers other paid advertising options, and for $15, I’d go with them again.)
I should note here that my book was hovering between 50,000 and 60,000 on Amazon around March 21, when the 99-cent sale started. On the morning on March 25, my book hit 3,074 on Amazon’s paid Kindle list, and on March 26 it his 2,516, a number that bumped me into the 60s for Amazon’s Bestselling Kindle Horror, and in the low 90s for Amazon’s Literature/Fiction Horror category, which means, if various websites that estimate rank compared to book sales are to be believed, I was selling somewhere around 70 to 100 books a day. At this point I’m thinking, awesome! I hit the Amazon bestsellers list only a few days into my promotion! Everything’s going according to plan. I’m going to keep building, one advertisement after the next, that 2,500 will turn into 1,000, then to 500, then to 100 and then I’ll hit the NYT bestsellers list with that crappy 50 Shades book(s)! Not so fast. What happened over the next few days was indeed humbling. Let’s continue.
March 26, 2015
The Fussy Librarian ($10). Reach: 48,000 readers. Results: 30 clicks, 9 sales. Readers that downloaded a free book first, and then purchased mine, aren’t reflected. So the number could be higher. OK. That was my first moment of queasiness. I had read good things about The Fussy Librarian, and that’s why I decided to try it (hell, it was $10). But I took a bath on that one. More baths would come.
Buck Books (Free; in exchange for you becoming an affiliate and pimping them on your website and social media, they include your book in an email blast to subscribers who want 99-cent books). Reach: they don’t provide subscriber numbers. Results: 67 sales. I actually believe they ran my promotion on the 25th (because that’s when I noticed it) instead of the scheduled 26th date, and that would help account for my book doing as well as it did on Amazon. But whatever the case, I’d go with them again, and you can see how I pimp them on my website.
BookLemur ($56). Reach 9,200. Results: 16 clicks, 7 sales. This one hurt. The guy who operates the site couldn’t have been kinder. There wasn’t a specific horror category on BookLemur, so I picked two genres I thought would work: sci-fi/fantasy and thriller. Here’s the third rule: Do not advertise with sites that do not specifically offer your genre. It’s my hunch that thriller and sci-fi/fantasy fans are a picky bunch, and if a cover doesn’t look like it belongs in their genre, or if jacket text doesn’t read like it’s in their genre, they won’t buy. (And this easily applies to other genres too.) Also, more important than that: the promotion reached only 9,200 people. If you’re going to pay $56 (or any sum of money that equals the power bill) make sure you’re reaching at least 92,000 people, not 9,200.
March 27, 2015
Choosy Bookworm (Free, you have to sign up for it and hopefully get picked. There are paid options too. I managed the free one.). Reach: 36,000 newsletter subscribers. Results: I don’t know. The Choosy Bookworm people never got back to me. So, my advice, if you can land the free spot, why not do it? The government already has your sensitive information stored somewhere for future use, so it’s not like anything’s private anymore. The paid option prices aren’t too bad: $8, $20 (although I’m not sure what they get you). I’m not inclined to return. That’s just me.
March 30, 2015 (I took the weekend off)
More For Less Online ($25; there is a $15 option). Reach: 3,200. Results (get ready): 106 clicks, 1 sale. You read that right. One sale. Now, the reason I signed up with them is because I read some good things about them. But when you realize that you’re playing the percentages of how many people will even open the email blast, you can’t expect much when your book is going out to only 3,200 readers.
Rule number four: Really research the sites you’re considering. By that I mean find out up front how many subscribers a site has. Some sites make the information readily available. Others don’t. But most of the operators will respond to you. So ask.
Hot Zippy ($45; it’s a service that feeds to Pixel Scroll and Bargain eBook Hunter). Reach: I don’t know. The information wasn’t readily available on the website. I emailed the site twice asking for subscriber numbers and click/sales data and have heard nothing back. My promotion ran on both the 30th and 31st. I signed up to receive both Pixel Scroll and Bargain eBook Hunter email blasts and I only received Bargain eBook Hunter. Hot Zippy was a gamble. I’d read one author had success with them, while another did not. I hit on twelve and was dealt a king. What can you do? I won’t be returning.
March 31, 2015
ebook Soda ($10). Reach: 1,662 Horror subscribers. Results: a 3.1% click-through rate. That’s all they could offer, so I have no idea if I even sold a book. I picked eBook soda because it was cheap and I didn’t have anything else for March 31. Here’s where some research would’ve really come in handy. Fortunately, it was only $10. Lesson learned.
April 1 and 2, 2015
Discount Books Daily ($35). Reach 25,000 subscribers. Results: No sales data, but the following comes from the site’s operator: I had an average open rate of 8% and 57 clicks. The email went to 20,711 on April 1, and 18,552 subscribed to the Thriller category on April 2. DBD also didn’t have a Horror category, so I believe I picked General Fiction, and Thriller as target audiences. I’m not so sure it worked out. Here’s why:
By April 2, my ebook had reverted to roughly 25,000 in sales rankings. That’s a far cry from the 2,500 I’d hit a little more than a week earlier. Essentially I was hoping for a snowball of book sales that would propel me to even greater book sales. That didn’t happen with the assortment of advertisers I selected from March 27 through April 2. But everything changed one day later.
April 3, 2015
BookBub ($245). Reach: 720,000 Horror subscribers. Results: See below. You read that right. I spent $245 on one advertising website. That email blast went out sometime Friday afternoon, and by that evening I was able to post photographs like this one.
OK, look. I realize that by the time you read this, my Amazon rank will no longer be #27 on the overall Horror/Literature Bestsellers list. But please allow me a little room to smile for being ahead of 29, 30, 31 and 33. (My fantasy: Somewhere in a dark man-cave in Maine, Stephen King is hovering over his computer, glowering at the screen, gritting his teeth, saying “Who the hell is this Manochio guy? Release the Cujos!”)
And that wasn’t even my best showing on Amazon. By Saturday morning, April 4, I hit #411 on the paid Kindle list (Author Central had me at #409), #10 on the Literature/Horror list, and #5 on the Kindle Horror Bestsellers list. And on B&N.com, I reached #73 overall. People were buying my book. How many? BookBub got back to my publisher and provided the following click/sales data. While my book was feautured in one initial email blast on April 3, the book was still visible on the BookBub website through April 8. Here are the figures that encompass US/UK/Canada sales:
1. Amazon: Total clicks: 1,747; Sales: 583.
2. Nook: Total clicks: 392; Sales: 64.
3. Apple: Total clicks: 218; Sales: 72.
4. Google: Total clicks: 249; Sales: 83.
5. Kobo: Total clicks: 124; Sales: 25.
Total combined clicks of all USA/UK/CA sites: 2,730; Sales: 827.
NOTE: Apple, Google, and Kobo do not provide hard sales figures, so BookBub extrapolated the sales numbers based on clicks.
Now, how this translates into overall sales, I won’t know until I get my royalties statement from my publisher, and that won’t be for a while because statements always reflect what happened two or three months ago. As I write this, my book is 3,696 on Amazon and #89 on the Kindle Horror Bestsellers list. So it’s still selling. And I’m getting readers. That’s what I wanted all along. All totaled, I spent $506 advertising my book to readers. I’m thinking I will break even and perhaps come out ahead based on Bookbub alone. BookBub estimates Horror authors can expect to sell anywhere between 180 to 2,670 books (this applies to discounted books at 99 cents, books priced between $1 to $2, and books priced in excess of $2). I’m confident I sold somewhere around 1,100 books, hopefully it’s more than that. But my gut tells me I did OK.
Sites I hope to use again in the future:
- BookBub ($270 [the price went up])
- BookSends ($15)
- EReader News Today (hopefully for their Book of the Day, but certainly for their $15 advertisement)
- Buck Books (Free)
- Free Kindle Books and Tips ($25)
- Digital Books Today (Free weekly feature)
I’d avoid the rest, and not necessarily because the sites were unprofessional. Some just didn’t work for me, others were overpriced for what they were offering.
What I learned:
- The more subscribers to an advertising site, the better. Find that out ahead of time. I’d say anything lower than 75,000 overall subscribers isn’t worth the money. I pulled that number out of the air, but you get my drift.
- Does the advertising site look professionally done? If it looks like a glorified blog, perhaps look elsewhere. One of the sites I looked at had updates from last year, nothing current.
- The more reviews you have, the better your chances of being selected by some of these sites to be featured. Many of these sites set requirements for your book: length, a minimum number of Amazon/BN reviews, a minimum 4.0 review rating, professional-looking cover. Get as many reviews for your book as you can. If you have endorsements from bestselling and/or award-winning authors, play that up wherever you can. Numerous unknown writers are submitting books every day to these sites for selection. Try to make yourself stand out.
- If the site doesn’t feature your specific genre (like horror), don’t risk including your book in genres that might not apply. Move along.
- Be realistic. Yes, you want to make the NYT bestsellers list, but not everybody can be Darcie Chan. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try advertising like her.