How to sell books without ads

Do you wonder how to sell books without ads?

Have you just joined the selfpublishing community? Have you been at it for a while?
The first question people ask is: what about marketing? The refrain goes that you have to hand over cash to advertising sites because otherwise you won’t sell.

So people will tell you to book some promotions with the very reputable and useful list-based promotion sites on this list.

While I have nothing against any of those promotion sites, and some of them can work quite well, they usually end up being little more than a sugar hit. Unless you have a very long series, it is also highly unlikely that these lists will save your butt.

Then what?

Run PPC (Pay Per Click) ads to each and every individual platform?

You can do that, but if you struggle to get these ads financially viable, like the majority of people selling $4.99 ebooks, you are going to be in a very large financial hole very quickly.

It’s highly unlikely that this will save your butt either.

If only you could get off that rollercoaster that wears you out and gobbles up your spare cash.

Make no mistake, I don’t think paid ads are bad, I just happen to think that you can do a lot of stuff before you consider paying for ads. Paid ads, and especially the PPC variety, are an advanced strategy that will become more profitable once you have all the stuff I’m discussing in this article set up. By the time you’ve done this, you may even find that the added stress (and time suck!) of running ads is no longer necessary.

This is especially the case for authors who are “wide”, not exclusive to any one platform that shall not be named.

Just how to sell books without ads?

Chill out.

Stop panicking.

You need to completely overhaul your thinking.

Let’s talk about fungus. You know, the stuff that grows in your fridge.

In the research lab, I used to grow seeds in petri dishes. You’d put the seeds on a layer of moist filter paper, squirt water on them and look at them once a day. Nice seeds would grow a little root and the next day two little leaves (the little leaves are called cotelydons, for the nerds amongst us), but if you had a bad seed, oh dear. Black fungus would grow out from the seed and soon cover the entire bottom of the dish, growing outwards from the seed in tiny little black filaments that covered the entire surface of the paper.

This is the type of fungus I’m talking about.

Bringing this back to the book analogy, the seed is your book. The fungus is the reach of your discoverability: little strands of growth that spread out like an interwoven patch that constantly pushes outwards from the centre.

Your loyal readers are close to the seed. New readers are at the edges, where the fungus threads are thin and connection with the seed is tenuous.

PPC ads target the outside of the growing edge with blunt force. By throwing ad money at this audience you’re paying for each and every person who sees that product. It’s expensive. You don’t know if you’re targeting the right audience. You haven’t optimised the product. You’re trying to grow the outer edge without having fed the middle.

You need to start talking inside out: start with the middle of the patch, the seed, your book, and we’re going to optimise it all the way to the edge of the patch.

Other than having a nice cover and being well written (and really, be honest with yourself and ask yourself this question at least once a year: does my book and its presentation still cut the mustard?), what else can you do for your book that will increase readthrough, and discoverability?

What is the likelihood that people are going to find that book in a search on a retailer website? How do you increase the chance that people will have heard about you and maybe find you through google?

Apart from your book, you have a very important row of plots of real estate to do this, and you need to optimise the living daylights out of them.

Starting with your book’s front matter and back matter. You need to have live links in there to whatever it is you want people to do next. Sign up to your mailing list, buy the next book, go to your website to read more about the series. Some or all of those things need to be in either the front matter or back matter.

You need to make sure the links are correct, that they work, that they’re evergreen, and that they lead to a page that looks attractive and is relevant to the reason they clicked it.

Your book needs a page on your website. You need to SEO optimise this page to the fullest extent. On WordPress, get a plug-in called Yoast, and simply follow the instructions until you have a green traffic light. This usually involves putting the title of your book in the title of the page, in the image tags, and having clearly readable text with links to other sites.

You need to do this for every page on your website, and don’t forget the pages for direct sales or series.

Next, you need to look at the retail pages of your books on the retail sites. Do they offer series pages? Get them filled out! Are all the data, such as your covers or blurbs still up-to-date and relevant? Don’t forget any of the smaller retailers.

Look at the categories retailers offer. Look at the particular quirks of the retailer website to see if you could make use of them. You want your book to stand out on those platforms. Optimise your metadata. This is why I prefer not to use aggregators.

Next, look at where and how you are interlinking all these places where a reader can find you: your website, your series pages, your retail pages. If a retailer allows it, put up a live link that leads to a place where people can sign up for your mailing list. Make sure that your mailing list signup is in the reader’s face, either in the header of the site or through one of those annoying pop-ups. You just set the popup to appear once a month per person, and ignore the screamers who say popups don’t work. They do. They are annoying, yes. They also work very well.

Next you can make nice pages for your series on your website that list all the places where people can buy them. This is especially useful when you have some series that are exclusive to the platform that shall not be named, and some that are not.
Don’t forget your audio and print books. Make pages for them, too. Put live links wherever there is room to put them.

Don’t assume that people will find or click the one single link to your Books2Read link that you’ve put in the back matter of the previous book. Don’t assume that people will “just” find it on your website. If your website is not SEO optimised, no one will get to your website except when you send them there. Don’t assume one link is enough. Put the links everywhere you can. Attach it to your images, put it in the back of your books, as well as individual retail sites. Put those links in your newsletters! Assuming that people on your list have read all your books is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. They haven’t. Advertise your books to them by mentioning the books, with live links, in your newsletters.
Make sure you list your direct sales pages there as well, and try to encourage people to buy there.

When you’ve got this whole spider web set up and it’s like a big fungus growing outwards with little filaments that reach into all places where people can possibly discover you, now we can start thinking about what people would normally call discoverability.

But we’re still not going to pay for it.

A great way to get a lot of eyes on your book is to make it free. The first free in series is tried and tested method that really sells books. Don’t listen to the people who say it doesn’t work. It does. IF you put free books under the noses of the right people. IF you put it under the noses of *enough* of the right people. IF your book looks nice and well-presented.

It all starts with the book. Really, it does.

But even better than single books, try free box sets. In general you do have to advertise (or cross-promote) free single books, because there are so many free books. The free box sets usually get lots of downloads without any advertising at all.

Of course you don’t want to give away a whole bunch of free books. But you’re sure to have some friends who also have a free book. So form a box set together. Free box sets don’t require any administration on behalf of the organisers, no tax forms, income-splitting, no nothing. Just put it up there, ask the participants to mention it to their readers and let it sit there.

Other than free books, there is also a market for reduced price books. So while you can have a book in a free box, you can also have that same book at 99c at the retailers.

Then you can take part in cross promotions. Bookfunnel has many promotions where people send readers to the retailers to download books. Readers who use Bookfunnel promotions are less likely to be KU subscribers (because otherwise, they’d get their free book fix in KU).

Once you have done all these things, then maybe you can start thinking about paid ads. Paid ads should probably be part of your strategy, but one that goes at the very end and is the pinnacle of driving your readers, once you know who those readers are, once you know where they hang out, what their age group is and what they are likely to respond to.

Of course, all of this is not fast. You have to give people time to read free books. Building an attractive website will take time, and any major changes you make in the back matter likely take months to start filtering through. Changes in your website’s SEO scores take a month. Changes in categories and keywords at retailers are quicker, but all of these are compound-interest activities. We’re talking about SMALL changes, and LONG time periods.

If I SEO-optimise a landing page for a free book, and two people a day find the page, I might otherwise have paid 50c per click to drive them there with PPC ads. That’s $1 per day or $30 per month. But these people don’t exist in a vacuum. They looked for something that brought up your books, and found you. They downloaded a free book, and relied on your backmatter to get the second book in the series from wherever they buy books. Now they need to tell their friends.

This is a long and laborious process. But it is also resistant to any kind of retailer shenanigans or shocks in sales numbers.

They say people need seven touches before they buy. Make sure that all those touches are provided by you and that you’re everywhere.

Unshackle your inner fungus and learn how to sell books without ads!


Change your mindset and reclaim the fun in self-publishing. My “Unboxed” selfpublishing series contains four books that walk you through the basics.

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