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PPC Advertising Principles for Authors

Learn how successful authors approach PPC ad platforms.

Publishing is a complex game with many moving parts. As indie authors, it’s our job to understand as many of those parts as possible. The key to success, though, is to master enough of them to sell books and please readers without getting lost in the minutiae of publishing to the point where you spend all your time on non-writing tasks. Fortunately, as long as you learn to write and publish high-quality books, you can overlook many other industry processes and jargon. Most mid-listers, for example, never learn how bookbinding works, nor how to adapt a book for TV. One aspect all indies who want commercial success should learn, though, is PPC advertising.

If you’re unfamiliar with this marketing acronym, “PPC” stands for “Pay Per Click” and covers any form of advertising through which a service tracks customer engagement on ad campaigns and charges you according to certain metrics. CPC (cost per click) and CPM (cost per mille—every 1,000 views) are the two primary measures. Google, Amazon, Facebook, BookBub and other prominent online companies offer PPC ad solutions that help authors reach readers. Which you should choose will depend on your audience and goals. The only certainty is that using at least one is vital, in most cases, if you want consistent sales in today’s pay-to-play arena.

On the surface, these platforms’ dashboards all seem to work in different ways. The truth, though, is that they share common principles. In today’s article, we won’t cover all the fine details you must understand to achieve total mastery over individual dashboards. That’s a huge topic that spans beyond the scope of a single post, and SPF has plenty of courses that can help if you want to dive deeper. That said, it will explore a few broad principles you can use to understand how successful authors approach all PPC ad platforms and replicate to help you get the ball rolling on your book sales.

You Can’t Force It

The mantra “it takes money to make money” is partly true but many inexperienced authors misconstrue it. They think that many books only take off because their authors already had cash to throw at advertising. Ask thriving indies, however, and you’ll realise that isn’t the case. Yes, those who manage to sell books in large quantities often come from already lucrative careers and spend money on marketing. But they don’t succeed because of their savings; it’s because of the mindset that they got that money in the first place. Just as they once learned how to get promoted and they also learned how to write books readers want and master ads to build a fanbase.

Indeed, throwing cash at ad platforms won’t help you if there is no existing demand for the kind of books you publish. Commercial success requires you to publish high-quality books for underserved or hungry reader groups. Only then should you start advertising. And when you do, it helps to begin with a small budget to find an audience before increasing spend. Even giant indies start this way, reinvesting their profits to keep growing. You can’t use brute force and a scattergun advertising technique to force a book to succeed. If you want to build a business, you must write and publish great in-demand books and focus your ads on the right readers.

Bulk and Cut Works

When authors talk about running Amazon or Facebook ads, sceptics often claim that they won’t invest in them unless they can guarantee a positive return on investment (ROI) from day one. This statement shows a basic lack of understanding because, while some authors do profit from day one, that’s not really how PPC advertising is designed to work. Unless a marketer is extremely lucky, most campaigns lose money before they make some — but so do traditional marketing efforts like flyers and billboards. The big difference with PPC ads is that they enable you to collect information as they spend, which you can use to improve their performance in the future.

Say you want to get $20 in royalties for every $10 you spend. Initially, a campaign might only generate $2 on a $10 spend — an $8 loss. Using the data provided, however, you can cut fat and dedicate more expenditure to what works until $10 brings in $25. Once you exceed your ROI goal, you can increase your spend to scale or, as many authors do, create a new campaign alongside a profitable one and start again, working in cycles like so:

Day 1 (1 campaign) Spend: $10 a day Sales: $2 ROI: -80%Day 30 (1 campaign) Spend $10 a day Sales: $25 ROI: 150%Day 31 (2 campaigns) Spend $20 a day Sales: $27 ROI: 35%Day 60 (2 campaigns) Spend: $20 a day Sales: $50. ROI: 150%.

This process follows the same logic as a body builder bulking mass and stripping fat in cycles. Bulking might seem like wasted spend but many successful authors oscillate around an ROI goal using PPC ads to build momentum.

Record Keeping Helps

No matter what PPC platform you use, you’ll struggle to understand trend details and turn a consistent profit on campaigns if you aren’t organised. The best way to get organised is to create a system. Coming up with a naming convention for campaigns is a useful place to start. Ideally, a campaign name should include details about the campaign’s product, audience demographics, bid level, target territory and goals. What specific shorthand you choose doesn’t matter; all that does is that it keeps you organised. That way, you can find specific ads and identify what does and doesn’t work at a glance, even if you’ve neglected your dashboard for a while.

Similarly, it pays to be organised offline. A simple way to do this is to use the same naming convention on any supporting documents. Imagine, for example, you have Facebook or BookBub campaigns that contain specific images and copy. Label them appropriately in a designated folder. Doing so makes it easier to cross-reference campaign performance with supporting assets. Likewise, record lists of keywords that drive results and lists that hamper the performance of different campaigns in a spreadsheet if you manage Amazon or Google ads. Keeping clean, well-organised records is a sure-fire way to save you time and money in the long run.

Change One Thing

Science teaches us that experiments work best when we change one variable at a time, and the same logic stands for PPC ads. It’s simple but difficult to put into practice, particularly if you’re an impatient author with lots of creative ideas. Indeed, this cocktail of factors is a leading cause of failure in PPC-ads testing. Lots of us jump ahead and change several settings in one go at one point when we have “a good idea” of what will work. Make no mistake, though; changing multiple variables at once is unhelpful. At best, it will leave you never knowing which variable is driving growth and, at worst, doing so will deliver you a painful loss you can’t analyse.

As an indie author, you can change all manner of variables to optimise ad performance. Working on a campaign, for instance, you could change keywords, images, sales copy, calls-to-action, button colours and bids, depending on the platform. Meanwhile, when optimising a landing page, whether the goal is newsletter sign-ups or book sales, you could alter images, copy, calls-to-action, navigation buttons, your product description or your book cover. Every platform and scenario contains different variables. Yet, this principle applies across them all. Test one variable at a time and you stand the best chance of creating efficient, productive PPC ad campaigns.

Test and Re-Test

Love the challenge or loath the learning curve, when it comes to PPC advertising, what works today might not work tomorrow. Nor is it guaranteed to work in another territory. Far from a simple process, PPC ads require an iterative optimisation process to scale and maintain sales. The game never ends. Platforms change and so do human tastes. What’s more, it’s common to experience opposing responses to exactly the same images and sales copy when feeding them to readers from different cultures. Hence, testing once isn’t enough. If you want to keep reaching readers and thrive as an author, you must be prepared to re-test.

The good news is that you don’t have to try everything, in all places, all at the same time. It’s possible to learn the ropes and find success running a small selection of campaigns to a single territory then expand later only after getting a positive early return on investment. Many authors find that the US is a good place to start because it has a large audience size and an abundance of disposable income. However, if you live in another country, you might want to start on your home turf. Learning in a familiar market can help you minimise your early losses as you improve your skills. Then, once you’ve mastered your process, you can dominate the rest of the world.

Conquering PPC advertising isn’t easy, especially if you enter the arena with few technical skills and marketing experience. That said, millions of creative entrepreneurs have mastered the basic principles and even gone on to become fully-fledged experts after spending time working with platforms’ dashboards and studying the data they gather to figure out what works for their brand. Trust the process and you too can reach that place in time until selling your books feels just as natural to you as writing them.

Daniel Parsons

Daniel Parsons

Dan Parsons is the bestselling author of multiple series. His Creative Business books for authors and other entrepreneurs contains several international bestsellers. Meanwhile, his fantasy and horror series, published under Daniel Parsons, have topped charts around the world and been used to promote a major Hollywood movie. For more information on writing, networking, and building your creative business, check out all of Dan’s non-fiction books here.