Guest Post: Daniel D. Hickey

Leaping Into Self-Publishing

By Daniel Hickey

Sunday March 7th turned out to be a good day to launch my first book.  The day has sentimental value and I think this may have been less crowded than other days.  Worried sick about my cover and description, I rewrote the latter the night before and I’m still waiting on Amazon to reflect the correct text.  My mailing list was barely 100 mostly family and friends who had complimented my writing in the past, and hadn’t unsubscribed since I began blogging last fall.  I started to build a Facebook presence last summer and I have several hundred LinkedIn contacts who hadn’t heard anything from me in recent years. All combined, I probably reached about 1,000 people with the announcement that I self-published my first book.

Writing the book is another story, I had now entered the marketing phase, educated through scores of hours of YouTube videos.  There’s Dale and Dave and the guys who say I can retire making adult coloring books. There’s Reedsy with lists of book bloggers, like Book Fairy, and there’s a handful of Facebook groups. Much of it is actually quite helpful. I decided to offer free e-books for the first 5 days in order to prime the Amazon algorithm for an ad campaign to follow.

Using Dave Chesson’s Publisher Rocket, I found keywords and categories that suited my strategy, as naïve as it may have been.  I originally intended to put an ad next to a particular bestseller in my category, only to find the suggested bid to be almost $5. I guess I knew it wasn’t going to be so easy.

Most of the industry knowledge I acquired comes from Mark Dawson’s Self-Publishing Formula and his 23,000 person Facebook group. Following the conversations of those ahead of me has been a huge help. I’m on the waiting list for his paid course and have watched so many hours of his various video series that I’m beginning to pick up a British accent. So standing on the shoulders of those giants, I was ready to take the leap.

Diving In

While I have nieces and nephews among my targets, most of my friends have little interest in a self-help book for teens entering high school. Their kids are already looking at the path out of college. 50 years of friendships paid gratifying dividends nonetheless and I was inundated with responses congratulating me and wishing me luck. Most said they would download a copy.

At the same time, I launched my first ad campaign. Dipping a toe in the water, I set up the simplest type of Amazon sponsored products campaign, using auto targeting to run at the suggested bid rate for $5 per day.  I figured I would let the algorithm decide who to target based on my description and categories, and then see what interesting data might appear.

I knew it would take a few days to get a real picture, but sitting on the couch after dinner, I decided to see if there was any data after a day and a half.  Scrolling down to the details section of my book’s Amazon page, I was astounded to see it ranking #1 in the Being a Teen category.  Not quite believing my own eyes, I called my mother to ask what she saw. “Oh my, it says number 1!”  My illustrator in Boston also pointed out that it was #44 in the very competitive self-help category.  I congratulated him on the cover and stopped worrying about that. Meanwhile, the paperback got tagged as the #1 New Release in Being a Teen!

I raised my daily ad budget to $10 and watched the book bounce around the top 20 positions in my category, taking screenshots of everything. The next morning it was still number 1 and the paperback still had that tag. I had no idea how many books I was selling, it didn’t really matter though because the e-books were free.  Oddly, the #1 New Release tag was on the paperback which was not ranking as high. I raised the ad budget to $30 a day hoping to form as wide a foundation as possible. Still having no idea how many books were actually moving.

My first review came in at 5 stars with a couple of very nice sentences.  I have no clue from the user name who may have left it. Fortunately, they don’t share my last name or initial. Now that the sales data was coming in, I saw how easy my category really is.  I was surprised how few books I sold but sure glad to have that #1 tag, which I put on my website, social media, and anyplace else I can. My blog post to thank everyone for the great launch generated another little wave of sales.

Swimming in Data

Once you have that taste of number 1, nothing else is good enough. I should have been thrilled to remain in the top 10 for a few days but the ad campaign hadn’t shown any effect now that my friends had all gotten their copies. I noticed my auto targeting campaign had generated a total spend of $0.96 after the first week.  Now that the book costs money, sales have dropped to pretty much nothing and the ads aren’t working yet. 

The algorithm is probably showing my ads to a lot of people with profiles like my friends who downloaded the book.  My mother’s friends bought a bunch of paperbacks so I should be good with targeting grandmothers. That said, the great launch may be hurting the effectiveness of my campaign reaching its early teen targets, or I might be overthinking the whole thing and just need to be more patient. My auto campaign ended after two weeks and no real data. Now I’m running a couple of keyword campaigns with ad text and a sponsored products campaign targeting other books in my category.

Watching the data closely, I noticed a certain keyword getting thousands of impressions and only a few clicks.  The very low click through rate seemed anomalous so I decided to watch it a little while.  A few hours later, I had spent about $8 after more than 8,000 impressions and a couple dozen clicks. I entered the term into Amazon’s search box and found a hot, newly released, romantic thriller from a popular author. I turned off that keyword and am downloading daily spreadsheets of the rest, tweaking bids in an attempt to get more impressions and clicks.  I spent last weekend watching excel videos trying to make all the data more accessible. Fortunately, my business background suits me well to this phase.

I bid above the suggested price on the keywords I felt most confident about, but I’m finding most of my activity is around keywords where I bid below the suggested price. My favorites aren’t getting many impressions yet.  I’ve also been surprised by how responsive Amazon agents are, you can actually get them on the phone quickly, even if they aren’t very helpful.  The robots are too mysterious for anyone to fully figure out.

Having Fun

Another surprise came when my book was selected for a promotion by Hello Books, the new project from Mark Dawson’s company.  They have compiled lists in various genres of readers who want steeply discounted and free books, and they have gotten thousands of submissions from authors wanting to reach them. Amazon’s rules prevent me from making the book free again so soon, but I hope to make it available for $0.99 from this Friday throughout the weekend.  Any reader can sign up to receive Hello Books’ weekly deal announcements.

Even if nobody else reads my book, it’s all been worthwhile.  It was written for my three sons who have all gotten a great lesson in pursuing a dream and having a lot of fun when it begins to gain traction. They see their friends and family calling their dad a best-selling author, even if I’m not quitting my day job just yet. If there are any exceptional early teens in your life who might want to learn about Socrates, Galileo, Shakespeare and so much more, please check out my website and please download a discounted book this weekend. If you read it, I would really appreciate it if you could please leave a review. Reviews are the protein that sustains self-published authors, and what I’m worrying about now.

Many thanks to Eli for letting me share my story.  If you are on a self-publishing path and have any questions, please contact me through my website, and please subscribe to my blog while you’re there.

Daniel D. Hickey is the author of A Classic Path Through High School: For Exceptional Early Teens, the #1 New Release in Amazon’s Being a Teen category (March 8, 2021). If you have read the book, please leave a review at this link.

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