What authors need to know about conversion, split testing and lead generation

book marketingMost authors don’t know enough about business. While some savvy non-fiction authors succeed through grit, willpower and constant bullhorning, the majority of authors are making a mess of their book marketing and promotion, using decade-old techniques and advice, which will move few books off shelves and even worse, can be detrimental to an author’s professional reputation.

So I’d like to introduce a few key terms of contemporary online marketing, and suggest ways for you to use them to sell more books.

The first is Conversion

Conversion means, out of all the people that found your website, your Amazon page, a book review – out of all the people who had your book right in front of them – how many actually went ahead and placed an order. 5%? 10%? This percentage is critical.

Most authors try to get more reach and visibility – and that’s all they think about. But some authors are dealing with a zero percent conversion rate, which is like a black hole sucking up all your efforts.

Example One

Let’s say you have an ugly cover, an amateur website with gifs of your dogs dancing, a book about your family vacation that you formatted yourself, and zero reviews (or worse, two five star rave reviews you wrote yourself). Let’s say you had a few sales from your friends and neighbors after messaging them repeatedly on Facebook.

But then the sales died off. When somebody accidentally finds your book, they run away in terror. An author who doesn’t know much about business may say, “Nobody is buying my book! I need to market it more!” So they spend money on advertising or book promotion. But with that zero percent conversion rate, they are throwing money away.

Example Two

Now let’s say you’re a run of the mill author with an OK book, a cheap book cover design (not horrible, but not so great), pretty nice formatting (that was done in Microsoft Word). You’re selling about 10 books a month. You have about 10 nice, unsolicited reviews. You’re about average, in a field with millions of competitors. Should you start marketing?

Well, that depends on your conversion rate, and how much it would profit you.

Let’s assume that, if you spend money on book marketing, you’d like to make it back in sales.

If you make $1 per sale, a $100 advertising budget should lead to 100 sales.

A $100 advertising budget on Google or Facebook Ads (I’ll suggest some alternatives later) might put your book in front of 10,000 people. But mostly people will ignore the ad completely.

Let’s say 1000 people click the ad, and you get your 100 sales.
That means you have a 10% conversion rate, which is actually pretty good.

But it also means that advertising (at the rates I just suggested) will only allow you to break even.

That might be OK – if you spend $10,000 and get 10,000 sales, you’d earn your money back, get a bunch of reviews and a lot of exposure. At that point you could stop advertising and hopefully the sales would continue.

But if your conversion rate was 5%, you’d be losing money. And if your conversion rate was 20%, you’d be doubling the money you spent on advertising!

What if you’re not advertising?

You should be. There are lots of options. Unlike a press release, interview or newspaper review, online advertising allows you to track your conversion rate – and it’s important, so you should figure it out.

The easy way is with Google or Facebook ads, because they will give you a lot of data like exactly how many people clicked. But you can also put an ad on another blog or website’s sidebar (either paid or for free) for as little as $20 a week (or even a month).

Try to do only one marketing/advertising method per week, so you can measure the increase in sales (and, if you have a website and you use Google analytics or a WordPress analytics plugin, you can see the amount of traffic increase you got, and compare that to sales, giving you a conversion rate).

Example: my book’s website usually gets 100 people per day. I run a 2 week ad on a much bigger blog, that I’ve chosen because its readers are likely to enjoy my book. For those 2 weeks I get 150 people per day (incidentally, this means I’m getting 50 “clicks” per day and probably not paying much for them. It can be cheaper to test out an ad this way, rather than on Google, where the ad will show up anywhere).

During those two weeks I make 5 sales a day ($5 a day). So my conversion rate is only 3%. That’s not great… however in 2 weeks I’ve made $70. A two week ad placement may cost much less than that. Let’s say I only paid $20. Now, even though my conversion rate is low, I’m still making money. I’d probably keep that ad and try another somewhere else.

How to improve your conversion rate

Step One: I’ll start with the easiest way. If you are paying for clicks, rather than impressions (like on Google Ads), you don’t want people to click your ad unless they are likely to be serious buyers, because otherwise they’re wasting your money. So you don’t want an ad that appeals to everybody. You don’t want it to be vague or unclear, or just say “Bestselling new book available now!”

You need to qualify your leads. This means getting rid of the ones that won’t like your book. You do this with detail. A good ad will describe the genre, setting, and main plot points extremely succinctly. Focus on getting the text right first. Don’t say stuff like “Bestselling Amazon Author.” Instead hook their attention, use social proof with a nice review, tell them what the book is about (alien cowboy shoot-em-up, New Zealand wartime Romance, etc.) Make sure they know what to expect before they click.

Then, those people who like that type of book, and only them, will click through to your site. The total number of visitors may drop, but they will be more likely to buy (as long as you follow through with a well designed and well written sales page).

If you’re not paying per click – for example you place an ad for $20/week – you don’t need to qualify leads this way. You could just try to get a lot of traffic, perhaps be more vague, and hope they will buy even if they aren’t really that interested.

Either way, qualifying leads is a good place to start improving your conversion rate.

Step Two: Once you have a baseline conversion rate in mind (you’re pretty sure, based on your traffic and sales, how many visitors become buyers) you can start improving your sales page. Most author websites are terrible. I’m not saying yours is, but the vast majority are, so you might want to take another look. Actually, you should get a stranger to take a look – go on fiverr.com and hire someone to go review your website and give critical feedback. Do it right now.

Improving the design of the website so it doesn’t scare people away can help a lot. Start with that.

Then, work on the content: is your book description and sales page set up in a way that makes people want to buy? Copy-writing is an art and a science. Learn it or hire someone. Just because you wrote a book doesn’t mean you can write the 300 word sales description that stirs up an intense desire to buy the book.

You can avoid this step – and maybe you should – by ignoring your author website for now and just linking your ads to your Amazon sales page. There’s much less for you to control on your Amazon sales page: your description, your reviews, and your book cover. Those three things are responsible for your conversion rate, so I’d focus on them first, make sure they’ll all working for you really well, before you waste months (as most authors do) fiddling with your website.


Which brings us to split-testing. If you’re trying to improve your conversion rate, it’s hard to say what element of your sales page is broken. As I suggested earlier, paying someone on fiverr.com to take a look is a good start. They may be able to point out some major flaws. But after that, you need to test different elements by making small changes at a time.

Can’t decide on a cover design? Test out more than one. Your cover is the face of your book and directly linked to conversion and sales. I know for a fact that the majority of authors choose the covers they like, over the ones that will sell the best (I design hundreds of covers a year – over 75% of my authors ignore my preferred cover design, the one that I feel will sell the best, over the one they prefer). This is your prerogative and you can make your book however you want. But if you want people to read it, share it, buy it… make sure you get a cover that sells, not necessarily the one you like the best.

I always recommend my authors show the book to a lot of people to do some testing. Often they come back and say “I’ve shown it to 10 people and this is what they like.” Other times they steer their friends’ comments in a way to agree with their own opinions, so they feel they have an excuse to disagree with me and go with a plainer, less attractive cover.

(I know I sound like the bad guy, but all I want in life is to help authors sell more books, and it’s frustrating to have the authors themselves getting in the way of that goal.)

Asking people you know for feedback on your cover design is basically worthless. Try to get at least 100 votes, and make sure the margin is wide (70 to 30, rather than 40 to 60). But a more reliable way is to put up one cover for a week, then change covers, and see what effect (if any) it had on sales. This is split testing. To do split testing well, you really need a lot of traffic. Measuring the actions from a few dozen people doesn’t mean much. Try to get 1000 visitors before you analyze the data. Use bitly.com to generate shortlinks to your Amazon site if you want to know exactly how many people are clicking on your ads (valuable for measuring Amazon traffic, which is otherwise difficult.)

Two different but comparable cover designs may not make a huge difference in sales, as long as they are both well done and look professional – but it’s worth testing (Quick design tips: faces/eyes sell better, but don’t use a stock photo model, use lots of space between lines and letters, simple but powerful colors, lots of contrast between light/dark and opposite colors, make an emotional connection. Also, the thumbnail doesn’t matter nearly as much as you think it does).

Use split-testing to tweak your sales description too, which can always be better. Make it amazing. Hire someone to write or edit it.

And if you haven’t yet…Get reviews! All this split-testing stuff doesn’t matter unless you have at least 10 reviews – not all 5 star, but a healthy mix of critique and praise, with an average of at least 4. If you aren’t selling and you don’t have reviews, that’s your problem.

So let’s say you’ve done all of this, and you are pretty sure your conversion rate has been improved, and hopefully is up around 20% (although 10% is still not too bad).

Finally, it’s time to start marketing, and you can do it with lead generation: finding the right leads that may lead to a sale.

Lead Generation

You can use the Bullhorn effect and just yell at everybody really loudly, but it’s annoying and infantile. The new marketing – which is far too scarce among authors – is to create positive relationships by providing value: it’s not about selling (in fact you should never talk about your book directly!). It’s about sharing things that other people will enjoy, helping them solve their problems, caring about them, making things easier for them.

Sure, 99% of authors don’t want to do any of that stuff. They just want people to buy their book. But you need to be more subtle than just promoting your book with contests, giveaways, and lots of repeated tweets. If you have a blog or social media profiles, less than 10% should be directly about your own book, which means you’ve got to find 90% worth of other stuff to talk about!

If you can’t do that, give up. Focus on advertising. It’s OK to pay for ads which lead people back to your book. If you aren’t willing to make an investment in time, do research, find valuable things to share and talk about, interact with people… then it’s better to just pay.

But remember – less than 10%.  If you can’t do that, you shouldn’t be using social media, because more than that will be seen as flagrant self-promotion and most people will be annoyed.

A little more on lead generation, since I’ve gotten off topic:

You need to focus on your core customers: the types of readers who will enjoy your book. What else do they enjoy? What are their fears, wishes, hobbies, pastimes, dreams? What is their location, age group, race? Where do they hang out? How do they spend their time online? The more detailed answers you can provide, the better you’ll be able to figure out how to reach them – either by advertising where they are, or better yet, creating something fun/meaningful/interesting that they will enjoy.

It doesn’t have to be related to your book, at all.

A very brilliant example of smart marketing I just saw was Lydia Kang’s buzzfeed “Weird things that authors do.” It’s a very simple list, illustrated with short videos, which is cute and funny and easily shareable. It doesn’t have anything directly to do with her novel, Control, but it’s becoming viral and getting a lot of traffic. At the bottom of the post is a short by-line about the author.

There’s no hard sell, or buy link, or special discount to buy the book right now. Nothing. Just cool, free, enjoyable content she made, that authors will enjoy and share. That’s the kind of content you should be creating: things that are valuable that aren’t about your book, that you can guest post or share on bigger blogs with more traffic.

Your book is not news. Your book is not viral content. (Unless it’s 3 shades of gray – and that kind of viral isn’t something you can control or manufacture).

You need to do other things, that aren’t your book, to get some attention so that you can very quietly and subtly show off your book. And if it’s great and people love it, it will be successful.





About Derek Murphy

I help authors and artists turn their passions into full-time businesses, make a bigger impact, and blaze a luminous trail of creative independence. Right now I'm in Taiwan finishing a PHD in Literature, writing several books, and managing a handful of online businesses. Find me

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