I find myself in a strange place with this whole self-publishing venture. My first novel has been out for about two and a half months now, and I’m just over halfway finished with writing the first draft of the second (it still needs a lot of work, but I’m making progress).

I knew going into this that just the fact that it’s a series an anthology would be a huge factor in my success. In all the research I did about self-publishing, I found time and time again that people said they didn’t start to see sales or movement until they had released the second or third book of a series, and then it really started to take off. This makes sense, and I have told myself from the beginning that my focus would be on getting the other books written, rather than on trying to market To the North on its own.

And, for the most part, I’ve done that. I really haven’t done much to promote the book. Hell, I barely told anybody about it until it was already done. I’ve amassed a grand total of 16 likes on Facebook and 40-something Twitter followers, and I hardly post anything on either of those. The biggest promotional anything I did was the Goodreads giveaway – which, thus far, as netted me 2 5-star reviews (well, technically 3, but since one of those giveaway winners was actually a friend of mine, and she probably would have given me a good review regardless out of kindness, I can’t really count it). But for the most part, I’ve just kind of let it sit there.

Well, a couple of weeks ago I decided to do a little experimenting.

When it came time to publish To the North I made the decision to go with a program called KDP Select. Basically, what this means is that the eBook version is exclusive to Amazon Kindle, and in exchange for this exclusivity I am given certain benefits, including a higher commission rate even at a lower price margin, and access to a few different promotional tools. This runs in 90-day terms, so every 3 months I can choose to either re-up with KDP Select or cancel and publish the eBook on other platforms.

Ultimately, I decided to go with this option for the initial release because I knew I wasn’t really going to be missing out on any sales from other eBook platforms. I released Grime on Kindle, iBooks, B&N Nook, and a dozen other sites, and my “sales” from those are so minuscule that I decided the promotional benefits of KDP Select were worth far more than any sales I could hope to achieve – especially in the early days, before I had any reviews or word-of-mouth marketing going.

One of these promotional tools is the ability to make the eBook free for 5 days in any 90-day term (either individual or grouped). I had already taken advantage of that and had a handful of downloads. But another tool I hadn’t looked into yet was an Amazon pay-per-click (PPC) ad campaign, and as my first KDP Select term was set to expire in March I decided I might as well try it out.

It was not at all what I was expecting. Like, at all.

A PPC campaign is pretty simple. Your ad is displayed on different web pages, but you only pay when somebody clicks on it. You set a time frame to run the campaign, a maximum campaign budget (Amazon requires at least $100), and you also set a maximum amount you will pay for each click (at least 2¢). Basically, your campaign runs until you reach the end of your set time frame or max out your budget, whichever comes first.

Whether or not your ad gets shown on any particular webpage is determined by a bunch of algorithms and math and such, of which you have some control over three factors. 1) It’s a bidding system, so if you are willing to pay more per click than the other ads that are eligible for that page, yours is more likely to be shown (and you pay whatever the next highest bid +1¢ is, not necessarily your max); 2) You get to set the pace, whether to saturate with your ads as quickly as possible or to spread it out over the duration of the campaign, and 3) You get to determine which pages or categories can show your ad; The first factor is pretty basic – Amazon tells you what the average PPC bid is for your item category and you decide what you’re willing to pay for each click you get, knowing that if you bid higher it’s more likely your ad will be shown. The second factor is also pretty basic. But the third is where it gets interesting.

There are two different ways Amazon lets you do this. You can either let them choose to show your ad on any product page that Amazon decides is related to yours (which means casting a wide net), or you can individually choose which product pages you want. It was not a difficult decision for me to choose the latter. This is largely because Amazon doesn’t really have any idea what my book is about. It may know the category it belongs to or the keywords I tagged it with, but it doesn’t know anything about the tone or style. I knew from the “similar to this product” ads that run on the To the North page that it would be a crapshoot.

On the other hand, by personally choosing the pages it would appear on, I could very narrowly target people that might actually be interested in or enjoy the book. It took a lot longer than letting Amazon do it automatically, but I thought it was completely worth an hour of my time. I picked books like Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane, Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland series, and John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things. I picked the top sellers in categories that matched my book. In the end I had about 150 selections.

Prior to launching this campaign I’d looked up a lot of other people’s blogs and forum posts about it (obviously), and all of them said basically the same thing. “I ran this for a week and it ended up costing me 40¢ and I had no sales.” “I ran this for a month and I spent $7 and had one sale.” Over and over, people posted that they ended up having very few clicks, spending very little money, and had very few sales, but that the number of “impressions” (times the ad was displayed on any given page) was pretty high, so it was basically like a billboard. It’s just exposure, and I decided for that alone it was probably worth the 3 or 4 bucks it might cost me if that many people even bothered to click the ad.

I mean, who clicks those sidebar ads on Amazon, anyway? This would be a harmless experiment, and at the end I’d at least have some data I could analyze to figure out whether ad campaigns like this work. Right?

Once I launched the campaign, there’s a dashboard where I could watch the progress. It wasn’t live, but updated every few hours or so. I expected that, like everyone else who had posted about it, I would get a few thousand impressions, maybe a handful of clicks, and probably no sales.

The first time I checked the dashboard, a few hours after I set it up, I had over 23,000 impressions, 11 clicks, and 1 sale. Each click had cost me an average of 55¢.

I… I was not expecting that.

I actually ran out of my $100 budget in under 5 days. I was really not expecting that.

My final numbers were (in 5 days):

Impressions – 276,096
Clicks – 176
Average cost per click – 57¢
Total sales over the course of those 5 days – 7

After I factor out the average royalty rate (some of those sales were through Kindle Unlimited and one was a paperback, the rest were Kindle), that means each sale cost me about $12.35.

Well, that blows.

Well, look at the positive, right? That’s 176 people who have now checked out your book, even if they didn’t buy it. Repeated exposure is key to marketing, so that’s a step in the right direction. And if any of those 7 sales yield ratings/reviews, that’s good. I can do some research on average click-through rates and see if I need to change the ad copy, and I can look up the average sale rate after a click and see if I might want to change the description on the product page. Think of it as an investment that might pay off later. And, most importantly, I learned something.

Or did I?

A couple of days after the campaign ended, I got a text from a friend of mine. A handsome, charming, intelligent, talented, basically god-like friend of mine. He had chosen To the North for his book club and the 5 of them had all just picked up copies to read for the month.

Which means those 7 sales might actually be 2.

Which means any numbers I calculated may be off by up to 350%.

Which means I have no fucking idea whether or not any of this was worth it.

Don’t get me wrong. I am over the moon delighted that my remarkable, sexy, genius, hilarious, incomparable friend suggested my book for his book club. I could not be more grateful. Seriously, buddy, I owe you flowers and some delicious eats. But damnit, I’m now fairly certain this whole ad campaign was just a waste, and I really shouldn’t have spent any more money on this before finishing the second book.

At the very least, it’s allowing me to have two different directions to funnel my obsessive tendencies. I can work on To the East until my fingers bleed (I wrote over 18,000 words last week, which is kind of insane), and when I need a break from that I can go crazy with promotion strategies and ideas.

Yeah. This is healthy.

So now I’m going to try, really try, to focus on just finishing the second book. I do have a Goodreads giveaway scheduled to start next week, but I already have the copies ready to go and I’m only opening it to the states this time, so it will only cost me about $8 in postage and 10 minutes of my time to package everything up. And I will probably continue to use KDP Select for the second 90-day term and will run a few freebie days during that time, but that’s it. No more experimenting with marketing for now. No more obsessively checking the sales reports (which are nearly always flat) and rankings stats (which are usually sloping downward). It just turns me into a crazy person and I really, really want to get the next book done. FOCUS.

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