The 9 steps I took to achieve #1 in four categories and #159 in the entire Amazon store in under 24 hours.
In my last article about conquering your fears, I gave away the entire second chapter of my book for free. In this article, I’ll show you how I achieved 3,152 downloads during my 5-day free kindle promotion on Amazon, reaching #159 in the entire kindle store — plus #1 in Small Business & Entrepreneurship, Online Trading, Auctions, and Technology and #2 overall in Business & Money. Feel free to scroll past the back story if you’d like to dig right in.
The Back Story
On January 1, 2014, my New Years resolution was to write a book. Eleven months later my book was finished and published.
I’d never written a book before, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to write about. I strongly considered writing a book about health and fitness, since I knew the market would be fairly large. I probably would have continued down that path, too, if not for the fact that a co-worker of mine gave me inspiration to do something different.
This co-worker had born witness to me and the bass player from my band obsessively “flipping” music gear on Craigslist for a profit, day in and day out for quite some time — and he thought it made a good story. Guitars, amplifiers, vacuum tubes, and the like would come in and out of our offices during the day (we worked together, too) as we earned thousands of dollars during our work breaks, and in our spare time outside of work. We used the money we raised to collaborate in building a semi-professional (okay, amateur) recording studio, which we constructed in a 600 sq. ft. commercial office space we rented in the Miramar Business Park area of San Diego, California.
Over time, this project turned into a big deal (for us, anyways). We hired a licensed contractor to tear down walls, build a padded and non-parallel vocal booth with an embedded air gap, and construct a mini-stage in the live room. We furnished the studio with furniture, instruments, and recording equipment of the type that comes with price tags in excess of $1,000.00 per item. Eventually, the effort came to a peak when our band recorded and released its first album some months later, after which we started renting the space out to other bands for a fee.
Returning to my point, my co-worker simply found it fascinating that all this had stemmed from the two of us hustling Craigslist (we managed to raise over $10,000.00 in seven months together). What he thought others might find even more valuable than our story, though, was an instruction manual showing the reader exactly how to replicate the process. Fortunately, I’d kept a spreadsheet of my transactions and knew exactly where I stood financially — and it sounded like a great idea, something that would be easy and fun to write about… so I did.
The book’s kickoff launch on Amazon.com saw 3,152 downloads over the course of 5 days. Now I will be the first one to admit this number could be higher, yes – but it was a number that surprised me considering how little I did to promote the launch. From what I understand, the average number of downloads during a free promotion tends to hover around 60-80 copies total.
So… what did I do differently that led to a successful free promo?
The Life Cycle of My Marketing Plan
Looking for Answers, Ideas, and Advice…
As you can imagine, I was feeling a little intimidated in early January 2014 after making a new years resolution to write a book. I’d always been a decent writer, and I can type fast enough, but to write and publish a real book seemed menacing (it ended up over 300 pages, FYI). At that point in time, I certainly didn’t think I’d get 533 downloads in the first 12 hours – but I did.
Furthermore, I went on to claim the #1 spot in 4 different subcategories of Business & Money, the #2 spot in Business & Money as a whole, and #159 in the entire kindle store.
I’ll walk you through everything I did to make this happen – in chronological order, one step at a time from the beginning.
1. Compelling Book Title
First and foremost, people DO judge books by their cover and this absolutely includes the title. Your title is your headline, and it is your best shot (along with your cover art, which we’ll discuss in #2 below) at getting someone interested in reading more. It has been stated that 50% or more of a book’s sales are generated purely due to title and cover imagery.
What elements should a title contain? A great title should do one or more of these things:
- Intrigue the Reader
- Establish a Need
- Make a Promise
In my case, the title (and subtitle), The Key to Making Money on Craigslist: How I Make Thousands in My Spare Time accomplishes all three. It establishes the promise of teaching a proven system, intrigues the reader by talking about making thousands of dollars, and subtly plays on the need all of us have for a little extra money.
Speaking of which, here are a few proven and effective “formulas” for constructing your titles:
- The Key to…
- How to…
- 101 Ways to… (or 99 ways, or 47 ways, etc.)
- The Story of…
- The Art of…
- The Truth in…
Notice how all of these title formulas make a promise and create intrigue. In the case of the first three titles listed above the language implies there is a need, too. To get a better handle on creating great book titles, just go take a look at any major news site online — there are plenty of great and modern ideas waiting there for you.
As a secondary matter in choosing your title, realize people are more likely to find a book online when its title includes keywords with a relatively high search volume and low competition.
Now in my case my title isn’t actually the best example, and I knew going into this particular project that my niche audience would be relatively small. Had I written the book on health and fitness that I originally considered, surely the audience would have been much larger, but I had a certain passion for writing about my system for resale on Craigslist — and I stuck with it.
However, I did make sure to take advantage of 7 additional keywords (plugged into the back-end of the KDP publishing control panel for my book, they allow a max of seven) that were a little more broad and related to the content of my book.
- how to make money online (40,000 searches/month, Medium competition)
- how to make money from home (40,000 searches/month, Medium competition)
- how to make money fast (50,000 searches/month, Medium competition)
- ways to make extra money (8,000 searches/month, Low competition)
- make money (40,500 searches/month, High competition)
- how to earn extra money (6,600 searches/month, High competition)
- how to sell on craigslist (6,600 searches/month, Low competition)
For a serious book project where selling lots of copies is a concern, the book’s content, title, and keywords should have a monthly search volume in the 40,000 – 80,000 range. Much lower and the audience may be too small to hit your sales goals; much higher and your book’s topic may be too vague to interest the buyer.
By the way, something Vic Johnson advocates (another very successful book author and publisher) is to use a program called FreshKey, which aggregates what people are searching for most on Google and on Amazon based on the first letter typed into the search box. If you’ve ever something into a search bar, surely you’ve noticed the drop down menu of suggestions that comes up…
FreshKey quickly puts together a ranked list for you in alphabetical order showing the most commonly searched terms. The newest version has additional features, too, although I think the price has gotten a little steep. Of course, you can manually do some guessing and checking by simply going to Google and Amazon and typing some keywords in that you’ve pre-qualified using Google Adwords.
The real key is to spend some time researching your target market. With any new business or project, taking the time to put together a plan including market research is crucial. It will ultimately make or break you in the end. For more detailed information on this, including a free premium business plan template, grab a free copy of our Business Launch Kit now:
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2. Flashy Cover Design
Continuing on with our discussion of how people do judge books by their covers (go ahead, admit it… because it’s 100% true!), your actual cover design is just as important as the title itself. It is the visual element that psychologically draws people into your book and therefore should be taken seriously.
Professional book covers can cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars to design. However, with respect to my talented friends in the graphic design world, I felt it was just fine to roll the dice on Fiverr.com and see what a few gigs would buy me. If you aren’t familiar with Fiverr.com, it’s a great site where people are willing to provide a wide range of services on the cheap — and it’s certainly worth looking into if you haven’t before.
The first designs that came back for my book weren’t exactly jaw-droppers. However, eventually this highly-ranked Fiverr seller managed to spit out the following cover, which became my final design after a few tweaks:
It could be prettier, yes, but it got the job done alright. It also happened to print very well at its designated 6″ x 9″ size, courtesy of CreateSpace:
And it was only $10.50 all said and done:
For the price, I got way more than I paid for.
3. Chapter Titles as Headlines
Very similar to #1 above, Chapter Titles (and sub-headings) should intrigue the reader and either establish a need or make a promise. In writing my book, I knew keywords were not important because they are not tracked in any way, shape, or form by Amazon or any other online search engine. You can use the same “formulas” to construct chapter titles as for the actual title of your book. In my case, this is what I came up with and have received positive feedback on so far from my readers:
- Prepare for Launch: A bird’s eye view of my system
- Sharpen Your Mind: Four ways to achieve a winning frame of mind
- Raise Capital: How I turned a free item into $500
- Pick a Niche: Make this one decision to maximize your success
- Set a Threshold: Why I walk if there isn’t at least $100 in a deal
- Sell Low, Buy Lower: The power of intelligent data analysis
- Roll the Dice: How I Earned $935 in just two deals
- Be Prompt: Two powerful reasons to be on time
- Play Nice: Leveraging emotional intelligence for greater results
- Take Quality Photos: Seven simple rules that will make or break your listings
- Make Them Drive: Every team likes home games better
- Negotiate Value: Six steps to closing the deal
- Leverage Trades: The hidden key to bigger profit margins
- Exploit Other Markets: How I doubled my cash on a rare, 1930’s era trumpet
- Conclusions: Putting it all together
There are two additional tactics I used with the nomenclature for these chapters worth mentioning.
First is the development of a grammatically consistent list, where each list item begins with the same type of word. Sharpen, Prepare, Raise, etc… with the exception of the last chapter, Conclusions, these are all verbs that convey a strong sense of action and reveals to the reader exactly what they will learn to do in each chapter. Maintaining consistency in lists not only makes them more orderly, visually appealing, and grammatically correct; but also serves to inspire additional trust and belief in the accuracy of the information.
Second is the use of examples to illustrate key points. In this case, I only peppered in a few (Chapters 3, 7, and 14) but you can understand intuitively how phrases like How I Turned a Free Item into $500 or How I Doubled My Cash on a Rare, 1930’s Era Trumpet build intrigue and make someone want to read more. Using examples also establishes credibility, which is important when claiming to know how to do something well, and when in the process of teaching it to others.
4. Professional Editing
In writing my first book, I wanted to make sure it was done right. Now I’m not one to seek absolute perfection in the things I do, but I do take a certain pride in my work and wanted to get a second set of eyes for QC. And boy, I’m glad I did. Marian Kelly from Raven’s Gate Editing not only did an excellent job proofreading and copy-editing my first scribbles, but also provided key developmental insights that caused me to restructure a few chapters, which would not have been nearly as strong without her help.
For under a thousand dollars, I got far more than I paid for and would highly recommend her as she’s also worked with a number of New York Times best-selling authors in the past.
While I have yet to determine the long-term financial results of this particular project, it is my strong belief that keeping one’s work to a high standard always pays dividends in the long run. In particular, adherence to quality always helps with customer loyalty and retention in the business world, and with a book it’s no different.
Speaking of reputation and credibility, two additional measures I took when finalizing this book were to copyright it and get it added to the Library of Congress catalog. These are primarily just formalities that go along with releasing a book for print, but they can add an additional layer of protection to your work (in the case of copyrighting) and open up additional opportunities for exposure and distribution to libraries/bookstores (in the case of LOC cataloging).
5. Prelaunch Book Reviews
Social Proof is an incredibly powerful thing. At its core, it describes how people buy into things more when they see other people have already bought in. Put another way, you are more likely to buy a product that you know has been bought before by plenty of other people.
This works in so, so many ways. It plays into viral marketing, describes why women are more attracted to men who appear to be wanted by other women, explains why you may think twice about being the first person to like someone’s post on facebook (yet think nothing of lumping the 37th like on top of the pile…), and why testimonials or reviews are so critical in the proper marketing of products and services on the open market. On a core subconscious level, we trust our fellow human beings to make good value judgments about things, and when we see them endorsing something in advance of us, it reassures us that getting on board or making a purchasing decision is the right thing to do.
In the case of an Amazon book launch, what’s the “right number” of reviews to have before setting up your free promo? Tough question, but I would recommend having at least 5-10 reviews before your promo fires off. I went into mine with just 7 positive reviews, which increased to 9 during the course of the promo.
While it’s difficult to measure, having these 7 reviews surely helped me achieve the more than 3,000 downloads that occurred during my 5-day promotion. Had there been zero reviews, or just one or two, people may not have been so sure it was even worth their time to download the book (even for free).
Keep on mind most people looking for books on Amazon are quickly glancing over many covers at a time (and judging those books solely by their covers during their perusal), and if there’s any reason to “filter out” a title (such as one with no reviews) they will do so and not explore it further. In my case, they may never know I wrote over 300 pages, spent a full year pouring my heart into the project, or spent hundreds of dollars on professional editing — because they will never get that far if I can’t win their attention in that first critical moment. Therefore, the key takeaway here is to not rush into your promotion. It took me over a month and a half to accumulate the 7 reviews I needed to feel comfortable moving forward, and for you it may take more or less time. Just be sure to do it right.
That being said, whatever you do be sure not to pay anyone for reviews on Amazon or attempt to manipulate your rank by other means. There are 101 ways they can find out if you are doing this and ban your publishing account forever. Yes, that’s right — forever. Hence, it’s just not worth the risk.
What you can do is promote your new book as much as possible through social media channels, with PPC advertising, and through active outreach to key influencers in your niche to accumulate that initial mass required to establish some social proof. There is also nothing wrong with giving away a few free copies of your book to folks in exchange for an honest review, if they are legitimately interested and find your material worth commenting on. However, I personally believe it pays to have “verified purchaser” reviews since they carry a little more weight than those without the designation.
6. Price Manipulation
This section is short and sweet: raise the price of your book immediately before your promotion. Why? It gives the appearance of increased value and entices more people to download your book. When people see they are getting something that is normally $6.99 for free, they psychologically experience the pleasure of saving $6.99 and simultaneously attach a higher perceived value to your material. After your promotion, you can lower the price back down to an equilibrium level where you believe profits will be maximized.
Now in the very beginning, when you are seeking to accumulate reviews it makes the most sense to have your book at $0.99 — the lowest price Amazon will allow. This is to maximize the amount of purchases happening and thus the amount of reviews you can accumulate in a short period of time. The $0.99 price level only affords you a 35% royalty, though, so it’s not necessarily the best pricing strategy for the long run unless your main goal is to simply spread your message.
Therefore, the strategy is simple:
- Price at $0.99 until enough reviews are accumulated to run the free promotion
- Raise the price to $5-10 immediately before the free promotion
- Lower the price to equilibrium after the free promotion (i.e., $2.99, $3.99)
7. Targeted Emails
Targeted Emails Part 1 – Key Influencers
My key influencer emails were one part of my prelaunch plan that I cannot claim provided any return, because truthfully I do not know. However, I will share with you what I did for the sake of sharing.
What I did was send emails to over 400 university professors at top schools around the nation letting them know the free promotion was coming up. In particular, I targeted economics professors and suggested their students may be interested in downloading a free copy (during the promotion). As I explained to them, my book not only provided advice regarding how to make extra money on the side, but also showed the connection of my system to key economic principles most students learn in a typical microeconomics course.
As a former student and teaching assistant, I know first-hand how easy it is for a student to dismiss something if they can’t see or understand the application of what they’re learning “to reality.” My argument was that I had a nifty case-in-point any professor could show to students as a direct application of economics to something fun and profitable.
The issue is that I did not receive any responses to these emails, and it could be due to my decision to send them out en masse. It’s very possible my emails were caught in a spam filter and never made it to these professors’ inboxes at all. On the other hand, perhaps a few professors did notify their students of my free promotion, and maybe it’s part of what drove me to #1 so quickly. It’s my mistake for not using an email handler that could track email opens, forwards, etc. which would have allowed me to better measure this at the time.
Nonetheless, despite my own uncertainty as to the effectiveness of this strategy in this exact situation, the underlying principle is quite strong. Reaching out to key influencers in your niche and offering them something helpful or free to share with their audience/readers/students can lead to great win-win outcomes. Moreover, this concept has already been validated by Scott Britton (the article from this link has a ton of good advice, by the way, which was very helpful to me prior to doing my own book launch — be sure to check it out!). In his case, he also reached out to instructors on Udemy and Meetup.com prior to his book launch, and received at least one response confirming a willingness to spread the word.
By the way, this is another great opportunity to point out the usefulness of Fiverr.com. To put together my list of more than 400 university professor addresses, I simply bought a couple gigs to have data scraping guys do the work for me. Rather than log onto tons of individual university econ department websites and copy/paste everything myself, they were able to use sophisticated tools to handle all of this quickly and efficiently, delivering large spreadsheets that looked like this:
This Fiverr seller was the most effective in this task and over-delivered with additional data (beyond what was requested).
Targeted Emails Part 2 – Leveraging Your Network
In addition to the emails I sent to key influencers, I also took the time to email my entire address book of friends and family with a more personal message letting them know about my book promotion, and invited them to download my book for free. Altogether I emailed over 650 people and received tons of affirmative responses, which I suppose is to be expected given the fact these are people who have an existing connection to me and were likely willing to support my cause (especially being that it was free). Therefore, this was measurably effective in comparison to my emails to professors above.
Building a list of friends and family who are willing to be “early adopters” of your new ideas, projects, and businesses is also recommended by Noah Kagan of okdork.com. In the same article on okdork.com that I linked to above (in reference to Scott Britton’s validation of reaching out to key influencers), Noah gives away his Amazon Best-Seller Marketing Pack, and one of the things he includes is a spreadsheet template where you’re can list “insiders” — such as friends, family, and folks in your professional network.
Whether you use a spreadsheet like he provides, or simply leverage your email address book like I did, the point is the same. Compile a list of friends, family, and other people you know and take advantage of it in these types of situations. Since these are people who are likely to be supportive of your interests, it’s actually a great idea to market to them first.
In my case, the extra 50 or so downloads of my book this generated right away may have been all it took to reach “critical mass” on Amazon, pushing my book’s rank high enough during that moment to attract additional organic downloads from Amazon site users, fueling the upward cycle further with rapidly increasing rank and download volume.
8. University Flyers
Here again I’m going to hit you with something that was immeasurable and uncertain, but I strongly believe my flyer campaign led to increased downloads during my free promo. In short, I had over 1,500 flyers posted up around major universities and also New York City the day before my free promotion began.
These are the exact Fiverr gigs I used to accomplish this:
- Stanford University (bought the gig extra to get over 1k flyers)
- New York City
- University of Chicago
- York University
- Harvard University
While several of the flyer gigs I purchased included gray-scale flyers only, it’s noteworthy that the Fiverr seller who posted over a thousand flyers for me on campus at Stanford printed them in color.
I used a QR Code on the flyer, so that any student walking by in passing could quickly scan it and go directly to my Amazon sales page. This addition turned out to be fairly useless, however, as you can see in the scan/click analytics for yourself that I only received a whopping ONE click during my promo towards the end of January 2015 (note: click analytics are publicly accessible for shortened goo.gl links by simply adding “.info” to the end of the shortened link).
Several conclusions might be drawn from this information, including the possibility that the flyer campaign as a whole was useless. However, I think it’s more likely some people did download my book after seeing one of my flyers, but they probably just punched my name or the title of the book into their phone instead of scanning the QR Code. After all, the jury is still out regarding the popularity of QR codes (see: HubSpot’s article, Are QR Codes Dead?) and I personally don’t use them much myself. It’s one of those situations where having one makes things look a little better, but it’s not really doing much to functionally improve customer interaction.
That said, you can generate a QR code for free here if you ever need one.
9. Social Media
When my promotion kicked off, I let my network of about 865 Facebook friends know about it as well as over 100 people who liked my author page. In addition to posting a status update, I took a tip I’d heard about a while back and updated my Facebook cover picture to promote the book.
In similar fashion, I also updated my Twitter cover picture, and modified it 12 hours into the promo to let people know the book had already been downloaded over 500 times:
By changing my cover photos during the promo, anyone who might have missed my status updates or randomly stumbled across my social accounts had the opportunity to become aware of my promotion. And in the case of Twitter, of course I used hash tags such as #free #ebook #kindle to gain some additional public visibility. How well did my Twitter hash tagging strategy work out? According to bit.ly’s analytics, I managed to drum up 68 link clicks during the five days of my promotion:
This wasn’t monumental, but here again these additional clicks (a percentage of which likely converted into downloads) likely accelerated the process of reaching the “critical mass” I was talking about earlier, as each individual download tracked by Amazon continued to push my ranking higher and fed the upward spiral. At any point in time, a few less downloads could have meant not reaching that critical mass, which could have meant significantly less downloads and lower rankings throughout the promotion.
By the way, here’s a cool story that came from my social media efforts on Facebook during my promotion.
One of my friends from college who I haven’t spoken with in years apparently downloaded the book for free and started reading it, and gained some inspiration to do some checking around on the Free section of Craigslist after reading Chapter 3 (that’s the chapter where I talk about finding an old organ that I picked up for free and resold shortly thereafter for $500).
As it would turn out, he ended up scoring a set of law books worth $13,000 completely for free – and that night, I found he’d posted a review on Amazon sharing his success story and including a picture of the entire collection of books.
While it’s hard to measure how much his review and incredible story boosted downloads, it made me so deeply happy to see that someone had scored such an awesome deal after reading my book. This alone made the whole process of completing this project well worth it to me.
All in all, I was very satisfied with my download volume and rankings at the conclusion of my free kindle promotion. It wasn’t of epic proportions – and it wasn’t paid sales, no, but it did exceed my expectations by a fair margin.
You’ll notice I didn’t do much to prepare, either, despite what the length of this article might suggest. What’s great is to see how the few things I did do led to increased downloads, and likely helped me reach the critical mass that fed organic customer interaction with the book throughout the promo.
Had I been more prepared, I might have invested more time into things like:
- The Book Website
- SEO & Link Building
- Guest Blogging
- Outreach to Personal Finance/Frugality Blogs
There’s always a next time, though, right?
Update 8/3/15 – With all the free downloads of my book during the original promotion, I managed to accumulate several more 4-5 star reviews that have driven consistent additional monthly sales ever since. I’ll admit it’s not a huge amount – I won’t be rich anytime soon – but I do consistently receive a nice little monthly deposit into my checking account now – a paycheck worth the effort, I’d say. 😉
Also – I’ve received certain criticisms from other kindle authors who feel I’d have made more by never doing the free promo (their argument is that I may have wiped out a good chunk of my pool of buyers during the free promo), but I’m not sure I can agree with their analysis. It’s my belief that the additional exposure and reviews I obtained through the promotion were instrumental in driving today’s sales.
The simple fact is, you could have the best product/service/book ever made, but without any exposure or marketing, nobody will ever buy it – and while investing in marketing (whether through free giveaways/samples or other paid tactics) often means losing in the beginning, such campaigns often drive more success later once their effects have had time to settle in.
Furthermore, I don’t believe most of the people who discovered my book through the free promotion would have found it otherwise anyways. The average person who downloads a free kindle book is simply scouring the free listings looking for interesting titles, and if your book is listed there’s a higher chance they’ll download it than if they had to pay. Most folks certainly aren’t looking for a specific book every day for 365 days, hoping to catch it when it suddenly goes into a free promotion for a few days.
In layman’s terms: while it’s possible I lost a small chunk of potential buyers who would’ve been looking for my type of book during the 5-day period during which my promo took place, it’s highly unlikely that the remaining potential buyers (who would search for my book the other 360 days of the calendar year – a much larger chunk of potential buyers, I might add) magically knew it was free and hopped on to grab the book for free.
My book wasn’t that popular to attract the type of social media attention required to drive such a feeding frenzy, and my ongoing month-to-month sales prove that quite a few buyers completely missed the boat on the free promo to begin with.
Because of all this, the logic that I “wiped out a large chunk of buyers” during the promo doesn’t hold up in my mind – and I would encourage any new author to at least strongly consider the potential benefits of conducting a free promotion. 🙂