Stop Paying People to Read your Book

In marketing to consumers, there is a well-established “buying cycle.” There are a lot of different variations on this but they generally go:

  • Awareness (finding out your product exists)
  • Research (figuring out whether they want it)
  • Purchase (woo hoo!)
  • Repurchase (they liked it and want another)

I mention this because the business of marketing a book is really no different from the business of marketing anything else to consumers. What I find interesting is that the people marketing books these days are mostly authors, and judging from their behavior, I think many of them are really confused about that whole cycle. So I’m writing this post to help explain it to them, with they hope that they stop throwing their money away solving problems they do not have.

Let’s skip awareness for a second, and dispense with the rest of the cycle.

If you write a great book and get a few people to review it, then you’ve got the “Research” step locked. People will look at the reviews and decide to buy it or not. It’s a meritocracy, and we all love those, right?

“Purchase” is not a problem in the book business. Amazon makes that easy.

“Repurchase” is about getting people to want the sequel. Write a great book, and you get that, too.

The really difficult part in the book business is “Awareness.” The number of new books introduced every year is staggering (one source I found says it’s more than a million). Obviously, you need to get the word out about your book, so people will want to learn more. You need them to be interested enough in your book that they will read the reviews. So how do you build awareness? Advertising. Period. There is no other way to build awareness. And this is the point I think authors are confused about.

I’m advertising my book by tweeting to my followers. I am sure to mention my book whenever I am DM chatting with a new follower. (I never send DMs just about my book. I mean that if I’m already chatting with someone, I make sure I mention it at some point in the conversation.) Every single sale I’ve made has been due to either direct advertising by me, somebody advertising on my behalf by retweeting something I put on my account or one of my character accounts, or somebody I advertised to recommending it to a friend (or outright buying it for that friend). Every. Single. Sale.

I am quite certain that not a single person has bought my book because they “discovered” it on Amazon’s web site.

I’ve been watching the progress of Ana Spoke with great interest. She is marketing her own book that she finished about the same time I finished mine. And she posts all the results of the promotions she is doing. The way book promotion usually works is: You run a $0.99 sale (on the Kindle version) and place ads in newsletters to get people to go buy your book while it’s on sale. Some of the newsletters run these ads for free, and others charge short money—typically $25 to $60 for a placement. If you spend $50 on an ad, and Amazon takes 30% of your $0.99 sales price, you need to sell 72 books to break even. News flash: 72 is a hell of a lot of books. (The average book sells 250 copies a year, and that number is skewed up by a few blockbusters.)

Ana just finished a string of three promotions to measure the effectiveness of this strategy. She didn’t break even in any of them. She did sell a lot of books. She shot up into the top 10 in one of her subcategories for a few hours, and she stayed in the top 20 for a couple days. So even if she didn’t break even, it was money well spent, right?


Let’s go back to the buying cycle. We established that the hard problem is “Awareness”—how do you get people to know about your book. If you can advertise for free (by tweeting or in newsletters that don’t charge to advertise a $0.99 sale), that directly addresses awareness. They see the ad, they like the cover, they go look at reviews. But if you pay for the ad, and you don’t get enough buyers to cover the cost, you are losing money. That might be okay if you already have a sequel, and you are pretty sure they will buy that the moment they finish book one. But if you don’t have a sequel yet, that’s just money you are throwing away. You are paying people to read your book. Stop that!

The delusional thinking that I see over and over from authors is that having a good “bestseller” ranking in their niche is going to increase the visibility of their book. And so people browsing for books will see it, and buy it. There are two problems with this thinking:

  1. Nobody browses for books by best seller ranking. Particularly ranking in some random sub-category three levels deep.
  2. Even if they did, they certainly aren’t going to look past the top 10.

Go look at the Kindle e-books web site. I’ll wait. Did you even see the link to browse by best seller ranking? It was there, but it was pretty well hidden. And even then, it showed you the top 100 books overall. Not the top 100 in some random subcategory. There is no way somebody is going to go digging through subcategories to find out what’s selling well. Why would someone do that? If you scroll down the page, you’ll see the top 10 selling books overall. No amount of promotion is going to get you into that list.

So here’s the bucket of cold water: Your Amazon Ranking Does Not Matter.

It would matter if you got into the top 10 overall, but that will never happen for your book.


So the other thing I keep seeing is authors begging for more reviews. There is a widely held belief that something magical happens when you get 50 reviews for your book. I searched and the only source I could find for this myth is this blog piece. In that, the author says that Amazon considers featuring your book if you have more than 50 reviews. However, she provides no evidence to support the contention, and it is clearly not true. Go to that Kindle e-books link I gave above, but use a “Private Browsing Window” so Amazon has no idea of your purchase history. Now you are seeing the stuff they think the general public will buy. Look at the number of reviews as you scan down the page. I’ll wait.

Here’s what I see: 32 84 0 19 184 24 63 39

And then lots with thousands of reviews. Clearly, 50 is not a magic number.

Don’t get me wrong—getting more reviews of your book is great! It definitely helps with the “Research” step of the buying cycle. But it does not do anything for “Awareness,” which you recall is the only problem you have.

Getting people to write reviews is relatively easy, so that’s what we authors ask them to do. And then we conjure a mythology that if we just get enough reviews, we will solve the awareness problem. But there is no evidence at all that this is true. Just as there is no evidence that having a bestseller ranking in some random subcategories will raise awareness. Of course it won’t. Have you personally ever browsed books based on which one are selling well? No, you haven’t. If you browse at all, you are looking at editor picks, and those are there because of name recognition of the author or inside dealing (Amazon pimps the books they themselves publish) or graft and corruption. You aren’t going to be an editor pick no matter how many reviews you get. It isn’t going to happen.

Another myth I’ve seen repeated frequently is that having a lot of reviews or a good bestseller ranking makes your book appear when the user searches, or in the “similar to” list. This is also demonstrably not true. For example, as I’m writing this, Beth Teliho is running a $0.99 promotion for her absolutely wonderful book Order of Seven. (Go buy it; I’ll wait.) Her promotion is going great. She’s selling a lot of books. Right now I see that she is #2 and #3 in some subcategories. 6,659 overall rank. She has 82 reviews, averaging 4.9 stars. You wish your book was in this position!

So let’s go to that private browsing window and search for “Young Adult Adventure” and see if she comes up. Nope. What does come up? Number of reviews (in order that Amazon listed the books): 54 87 14 37 115 0 0 59. Number of stars (same order): 0 4.2 4.3 0 4.4 4.0 4.1 0 0 4.2. Bestseller rank (overall, same order): 777; 544; 36; 147,573; 1,058; 2,648; 3,571; 122,471; 3,128; 52,020

The only conclusion you can draw is that however the fuck Amazon is picking these books, it’s not based on reviews or ranking.

Just to emphasize how much your bestseller rank does not matter, I refined my search. Her book is #2 in eBooks > Teen & Young Adult > Historical Fiction > Ancient Civilizations and #3 in Books > Teens > Historical Fiction > Ancient. I searched “Young Adult Ancient” and “Young Adult Ancient Civilizations” and her book did not appear in the first 100 listed. I searched the exact name of the category “Teens Historical Fiction Ancient” and her book came up #79. Think about that: The #3 book in the category named exactly what I just searched is the 79th one Amazon thought they should list!

So let’s review:

  1. Stop thinking having a lot of reviews helps get you discovered. That’s simply not true.
  2. The only benefit to running an ad campaign is the direct sales you get from that campaign. The boost in your bestseller rank does not help you get discovered.

If you are making $0.70 for every book you sell at $0.99, then you had better be spending less than $0.70 for each buyer. You must get 14 sales for every $10 of advertising spent just to break even. If you get fewer than that, you are paying people to read your book.

For the vast majority of authors, the only cost effective strategy for awareness is free advertising. Twitter, Facebook, and newsletters that promote $0.99 sales for free. The number of reviews doesn’t matter. Bestseller rank doesn’t matter. Anything that costs you money is paying people to buy your book.

If you are an author, and you are paying people to buy your book, cut it out. All you are doing is propping up an advertising machine that is overcharging everyone. Demand that you get more than 14 buyers for every $10 you spend. If we stop paying these ridiculous rates for ineffective ads, the rates will come down. And stop justifying your overspending using myths that are demonstrably untrue. Stop it. Just. Stop it.

14 thoughts on “Stop Paying People to Read your Book

  1. I totally see your point (btw, thanks for the lovely shout out!). But. If the audience is big enough via a particular ad, I think discoverability makes spending a little worth it **once or twice** for hopes of a future payoff via word of mouth, etc. I think paying big bucks for ads consistently is absolutely fruitless, like you’ve explained here.

    • Word of mouth only happens when people buy the book. The people who have read my book mostly really, really like it. Yet I’ve only seen about 2% of them actually cause a word-of-mouth sale. Your numbers are probably better than that, because your book isn’t all horny like mine. Trouble is, these are e-books we are talking about and we have lending enabled because Amazon requires that, so that eats into the word-of-mouth sales, because people can easily lend books they liked. But suppose 4% of your buyers cause a knock-on full-price sale. You get $0.70 + $3.99*0.04 = $0.86 on average. So you still have to sell 12 books for every $10 of advertising.

      In other words, I think “word of mouth” is yet another author-generated mythology that people use to justify spending money they shouldn’t have spent.

      • I have to disagree on this. I’m a huge reader, so people constantly contact me for book recommendations. I ask what they’re looking for, and then I give them a title that I’ve read and enjoyed. Word of mouth is huge to addict readers like me. I also always go to the same girl for recommendations because she reads about 4 books a week. In addition to her, I check several groups I’m a member of for recommendations. And btw – I recommended your book the other day, and I’m pretty sure it resulted in a sale for you.

      • (Thank you for that!!) I’m not saying word-of-mouth doesn’t happen. Of course it does. And of course it’s important. I’m saying that it isn’t enough to backfill a hugely financially ineffective campaign. Ana did a post this morning with her final numbers. It’ll probably take a whole blog post to explain this, but the number of word-of-mouth recommendations she’d have to get to make up for the losses suffered from overpriced ads is crazy.

  2. I absolutely agree. I’ll spend one round of money per book with an advertising site. If they don’t break even, they’re done. At the end of my research, I’ll know which of these outlets actually drive sales and which are taking authors’ hard earned money and laughing all the way to the bank. (So far? Most are rip-offs, but I’ve found a couple of gems besides BookBub.)

  3. Thank you for confirming what I’ve been dreadfully realizing for quite some time now! I am a bit saddened to have my imaginary 50 reviews-goal smashed though. Yet I’m glad to hear I can let that one go – so thanks for that! Going to get back on the horn on my Twitter page. Had been trying to not shout my book so much b/c, and this could probably be another whole blog post for you- but so many people say stop sell-sell-selling so much on social media, bc it’s meant for getting to know others and interact, not just for advertising your wares. But I think, as you’d probably agree, it’s a fine balance of both, and that socializing and selling work in tandem. Please keep ranting on these matters, if only to wake up all of us authors from a falling-for-the-advertising-myths stupor that so many of us have found ourselves in!

  4. Reblogged this on Just Can't Help Writing and commented:
    This is an older post from alfageeek, but like all his posts, it’s full of hands-on, practical advice that actually soothes some of my guilt over my abysmal marketing efforts. While you’re checking out his site, also check out his latest report on his experience with Bookbub ads.

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