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Are Deep Discount Sales Blasts Like Bookbub’s Still Effective Sales Tools?

What with302820217_f3c78fa10c[1] the growing concern that indie authors are facing more price competition from traditional publishers, many authors are looking to get the most bang for their promotional dollar. That’s why when a post came across my desk last night which questioned the effectiveness of Bookbub, a book-focused promotional mailing list, I immediately started looking into the matter.

Renée Pawlish, writing over at her indie publishing blog To Become a Writer, raises questions about Bookbub and hints that there are behind the scenes rumblings. She doesn’t get into specific figures, but it was enough of a teaser to get me interested:

By now I’m sure just about every indie author has heard about Bookbub.  I seemed to have heard about them later than others, but I’ve used them a few times now for advertizing.  And although their results are better than anywhere else, I believe that there are some concerns with their site.

This isn’t the first time I have read someone questioning the value of Bookbub or the service they offer. Jane Litte, writing over at Dear Author, noted about a month ago that discounted ebooks (like the ones that Bookbub often promotes) aren’t getting her attention (as a reader and buyer) quite so much anymore. She’s simply seeing too many good deals:

A few on the Kindleboards have reported more diminished success with Bookbub, a newsletter that broadcasts sales and freebies to an audience of hundreds of thousands of subscribers. I’ve come across a couple of author posts that suggest that free and even 99c promotions aren’t working as well as they might have in the past even though promotional pricing is more popular than ever.

To me that confirmed my own reading habits of buying and then hoarding at 99c. At some point, I wonder about the 99c efficacy. But price promotions like this will continue unabated.  Even more stingy publishers like Random House and Penguin have started discounting the first in a series to promote an upcoming book and readers are beginning to learn the signs. A recently reduced book signals a new release.

But as more and more books are being discounted including ones by big publishers are discounts teaching readers to wait and diminishing the likelihood readers will take a chance on full priced books by new authors?  In other words, is a discounted book the only way to introduce a new author?

So is Bookbub becoming less effective? I’m not an author and I’ve never used the service, so I can’t speak from experience. But I can note that the service still has its proponents over on KBoards.

Bookbub had its supporters among indie authors, with several on KBoards noting that their book had placed high on the Kindle Store’s best-seller list as a result. Jack Killborn has even shared actual sales data; he reported that in the 4 days following a promotion on Bookbub (and a related promotion on the competing BookBlast service) he "cleared an extra $2460" after an investment of $600.

Even the major publishers like it. BB Griffith points out that at least one email last week included authors with major publishers like Penguin Random House and HMH. Heck, even the occasional Amazon author has made an appearance (though it’s not clear to me whether the promoted title was indie or published by Thomas & Mercer).

Okay, so discounts are working and everyone is using them. So what’s the problem?

That, actually, is the problem: both indies and traditional publishers are using discounts. The excess of discount offers is encouraging readers to, in the words of Jane Litte, buy and then hoard their purchases. It’s encouraging the purchase of a book but not encouraging readers to connect with authors. Or as a friend told me on Twitter:

The point I am trying to get at is that long-term success is dependent on making a real connection between the author/series and the reader. Many people (including both readers and publishers) are saying deep discounts sales are failing in this regard.

Arguably this is a sign that services like Bookbub are only short term solutions, and not a tool which authors and publishers should rely on in the long run.


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Helen Hanson December 12, 2013 um 10:13 am

The discounted book newsletter space is getting more crowded. I’m on at least ten lists. But Bookbub has been the one an author could count on for a ROI. Over the past year, they’ve raised their rates, increased the interval between ads, and (seemingly- but I can’t detect a predictable pattern) tightened the criteria for acceptance, making it tougher to advertize a new book. With apologies to the other list, Bookbub is still the gorilla in the mist.

But so was Barnes & Noble at one time. When it entered the retail book market, everyone bemoaned the loss of their favorite reading hole. The cost to compete with Bookbub is minimal. While I have enjoyed their reach, it’s a matter of time before their singular influence is diminished. My two bits of copper.


p.s. you have a most unfortunate Bookbub typo above 🙂

Nate Hoffelder December 12, 2013 um 10:18 am

Fixed it, thanks.

I was almost tempted to leave it in and claim that Boobbub was a sister service focused on erotica. LOL

Helen Hanson December 12, 2013 um 10:20 am

I bet someone claims that domain name within the hour 🙂

Renee Pawlish December 12, 2013 um 1:03 pm

Thanks for the link to my post. Some of the "grumblings" assertion came from the Rob Guthrie post and the comments therein, and I would kindly say that my post does have substance because the point of it was questioning Bookbub’s practices, not just pointing out that authors are grumbling about it :).
I also think you’ve hit on some great points and so has Helen. It remains to be seen what will happen, but the key is definitely finding true fans, not just bargain hunters. Some bargain hunters will become fans, but I doubt the vast majority of them. It’s why I’ve been doing local signings and book clubs.
All the best,
Renee Pawlish

Nate Hoffelder December 13, 2013 um 9:44 am

Hi Renee,

I didn’t mean to impugn your post, so I rephrased that sentence (minus the word substance).

Renee Pawlish December 13, 2013 um 2:40 pm

No problem 🙂 I think the post and the comments have been very interesting and I’m glad you’ve addressed Bookbub as well.

Greg Strandberg December 12, 2013 um 5:59 pm

Thanks for this one. I’ve been trying to find angles to get at those chinks in BookBub’s armor and this will surely help!

Maria (BearMountainBooks) December 12, 2013 um 7:51 pm

I think the 99 cent price is not as effective for a couple of reasons. The main reason isn’t BookBub or other advertisers–it’s that Amazon used to rank differently and also use that ranking for visibility differently. If you sold 150 books at 99 cents in one day, you could ride that ranking for probably two weeks, maybe longer if you kept selling. Your book would show up in the various best seller categories for a while and your book would be visible in the also boughts longer.

In short: In the PAST, 150 book sales at 99 cents gave you visibility. For whatever reason (more books at 99 cents or Amazon has changed it algorithms/visibility) selling 150 books per day at 99 cents no longer gives you a good ranking or visibility for longer than about 48 hours.

I know this from experience. An ad taken out today for a book selling at 99 cents versus 3 years ago simply doesn’t yield the same results. The DAILY sales for that book might be the same…but the longevity isn’t.

What that means (to me) is that Bookbub or ANY advertiser may still sell x amount of books, but it’s worth less to the author. I don’t know if selling 150 books per day at 2.99 gives more longevity, but it is harder to accomplish so there will be less data.

I think there is more to it than just the advertisers. Some of it is reader/buyer fatigue (We have trained them: there will always be a book at 99 cents. There will be a new deal tomorrow). And any hot newsletter can only reach so many buyers…and then those buyers eventually either move on or buy enough that they slow in purchases (Fatigue or they are broke!).

I never jumped on the chance at a bookbub ad because I didn’t have faith it would pay off. These things always work for some percentage of books/authors ESPECIALLY initially when the newsletter/product is hot. But. Get on that train too late and all you are left with is a high ad fee and nothing to show from it.

Timing is everything with these things. And when you don’t know what Amazon’s algorithms are doing, it’s hard to capitalize on any given trend. The risk was simply too high for me to bother with–I’ve watched every advertiser out there start low and raise rates–until their ads simply aren’t working anymore (Kindle Nation Daily, ereaderiq and some that aren’t even around anymore. They all started with low, one day ad rates that ballooned as authors heard that the ads worked.)

I didn’t want to be the last one buying a ticket on that train to the tune of 300 plus dollars. It’s hard to build a readership. It’s difficult to find the nooks and crannies where readers are hiding, but spending money is no guarantee you’ll reach them.

Richard Adin December 13, 2013 um 4:50 am

I receive a BookBub e-mail every day and look forward to it. I find that it brings to my attention some authors whose books I would never otherwise see. I admit I’m a hoarder in the sense that I keep buying books to read so my TBR pile keeps getting bigger. I’ve never been one who buys a book, reads it, and then buys another book. Even when I buy print books, I buy 5 or 6 at a time and I do so regularly — long before I have finished reading even half of the last purchase.

As a reader, BookBub continues to have value for me.

The issue of turning me into a fan is a different story. Very few of the books I have bought through BookBub were so great that I made a special note to buy another book by the author. In fact, I’d guess that has happened twice. There are several reasons why, and not all of the reasons apply to each author, but here goes: (1) the story was OK but not compelling; (2) the writing was acceptable but not stirring; (3) the description led me to believe the book was of one kind but after reading it, I classified it as of being a different kind and not the kind that I would regularly read; (4) the price of the other books by the author was much more than I was willing to pay for ebook on the assumption that I could expect the other books to resemble in quality of writing and story the book I had just read; (5) the book I bought via BookBub was of a particular type (e.g., fantasy without vampires) but the other books by that author are of a different type (e.g., vampire fantasy) and I do not buy or read that type; and (6) although the blurb and the couple of read now pages that I looked at before buying the book made the book look like it was reasonably well written and interesting, once I bought it and started reading it, I discovered it was neither.

Although ebooks have been a significant market for a number of years now, they are still searching for that right balance between quality of authorship and price that is needed to entice and retain readers. Many of us have certain expectations for print books and those expectations are generally fulfilled at the price points we are willing to pay. Those price points have been established over the course of years. eBooks, on the other hand, are still a crapshoot — even if the author quality is present, the production quality may well be missing.

David Gaughran December 13, 2013 um 6:02 am

Current positions of the four 99c deals from yesterday’s BookBub email (the genres I subscribe to at least):

#66 Paid in Kindle Store
#39 Paid in Kindle Store
#46 Paid in Kindle Store
#22 Paid in Kindle Store

I’d say it’s still pretty effective 🙂

Greg Strandberg December 13, 2013 um 6:10 am

Have you done the sale before? What was the cost? What were your earnings this time compared to last? Less or more?

Are your results better than last time, or worse? Is this a series or stand-alone, and are you expecting residual sales?

I think we’re wondering on the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility. Is that first time the best and every time after that less so? And if that’s the case, why is the price the same? From a seller’s perspective, that’s fine, and that’s why you have the author saying BookBub doesn’t care. I wholeheartedly agree with that, and I think it will turn into a serious PR problem for them beginning around the end of the 2nd quarter.

Now from a buyer’s perspective this is not good, it’s bad – worse, it’s inexcusable. And that’s why you’re beginning to see BookBub lose its dominance already. Crummy covers, the same authors again and again, and most important of all – diminished returns.

Some will go down the rabbit hole and abandon BookBub, others will press on, and I think the quality of the site will only continue to go down until they make that switch to established and print authors only, once again beginning around the end of the second quarter, in my opinion.

Sunita December 13, 2013 um 9:11 am

I’m not an author, just a reader and reviewer, and I pay very little attention to the .99 deals unless it’s a book or author I’ve heard of AND have been wanting to read. I don’t use it for discovery unless I have other information about the book (from reader friends, trusted reviewers, etc.). I doubt I’m an average reader, though, because a lot of people do go for the special deals.

One thing that struck me in reading the comments to Jane’s post (and others she’s written on the subject) is that the people who snap up the deals tend to be hoarders, i.e., they have large TBRs. These are not people who are reading the books when they buy them, and in fact they may never get to the books. Also, I agree that discount fatigue seems to be setting in.

Shorter version: I agree with Angela James. These deals may get an author on the list, and it’s probably worth it if sales are pretty low at regular price, but they aren’t a reliable way to build a loyal readership.

Nate Hoffelder December 13, 2013 um 9:41 am

I tend to avoid these kind of deals, myself. Far too many titles have turned out to be uninteresting.

Will Entrekin December 13, 2013 um 9:21 am

If you look at the comment I posted on your story concerning indies "getting clobbered" the other day, I mentioned that 2012 was the year of KDP Select and 2013 was the year of Bookbub. I’m standing by that. Both the newsletter space and the newsletters themselves have gotten far more crowded as more authors have glommed onto it–and not only has Bookbub gotten notoriously difficult to get into, but its reasons for accepting and declining have become notoriously avaricious. RS Guthrie wrote about his experience with them the other day, with a couple of head-scratching examples.

Once you start wondering if anything is still an effective sales tool, the answer is likely "no," though what has become one in its place may remain elusive for a while. If you look back, there were several months between when KDP Select’s bubble burst and Bookbub’s started. As ever, the important things are flexibility, adaptability, and agility.

Julia Kent December 13, 2013 um 9:40 am

I have used Bookbub successfully 4 times, and have another promotion scheduled with them in January. I have also participated in multi-author book/novella anthologies, and while I do believe some readers are buying and hoarding, I am seeing significant sell-through to my other books when I publish in a boxed set or run a Bookbub ad.

By running the first book in a series in one of these vehicles, sales conversion to the next book in the series is one loose way to measure whether readers really are connecting with authors. When I ran a Bookbub ad for the first in a series, my second book experienced about a 300% increase in sales (at full price) the following 4 weeks.

I do not have metrics for sales conversion as a result of participation in a boxed set and the lifting of backlist, but "back of the envelope" analysis shows an increase.

My anecdata — for *my* books — shows that Bookbub is still an incredibly effective marketing tool if used with books in series. Same with multi-author boxed set participation.

Maria (BearMountainBooks) December 13, 2013 um 10:46 am

I agree, that for any ad, the most effective strategy is to list the first in the series. For any price teaser, getting the reader in the door is the first step. For those who try the book and like it, there is likely to be follow-through buying. And for the past year, Bookbub has been an effective place to buy an ad for some authors. I am not sure how long that will last. And it is helpful to have even hoarders buying your book, even if the gain is short-lived. For me, the question will always remain: Is it worth the risk of spending high dollars? My own decision was "no" but that doesn’t mean it won’t work for other authors!

John Kurtze December 14, 2013 um 4:19 pm

I know several indie authors who are trying to find ways to reach a larger audience. I am only an avid reader of good books and often hear about Bookbub’s specials. When I hear from Bookbub, I respond to the books information first and the special pricing second. The special pricing of 99¢ for the book doesn’t mean anything to me if the book isn’t what I am interested in reading. Bookbub should help more indie authors as well as emerging authors find an audience.. While the special pricing is appreciated, I am more interested in learning what the indie authors and new authors are writing. Bookbub has a reputation of demanding the special 99¢ as well as requiring the author or indie author jump through Bookbub’s hoops. Authors who have met the criteria of solid reviews posted and discounted pricing still receive a rejection from Bookbub. This refusal of access to Bookbub’s mailing list puts a heavy burden on the author. It is the reader who seems to be the loser if this offering fails to find an audience

.I find it hard to understand why any organization such as Bookbub, established to help authors new and existing authors market their work would make it difficult to qualify to have access to Bookbub’s subscribers. If indie authors or new authors can show they have a fan supported new book with good reviews from readers, most all paying the full price to access the selection. From my point of view as a reader, if an author is willing to meet Bookbub’s requirements and offering a discounted pricing of 99¢, Bookbub should help the author find an audience or know the true reason why their book has been rejected.

C. S. Lakin December 15, 2013 um 11:02 am

It seems now it’s almost impossible to get chosen by the gods at Bookbub. I’ve submitted eight times to them with four different novels (some very good sellers online) in four different genres and they’ve turned me down. All my author friends now are saying this is happening to them, as there are just too many requests. We need a ton more sites like that so there are places authors can submit their books and get exposure.

Lloyd Lofthouse December 15, 2013 um 11:47 am

BookBub is but one tool of many that an author may use. Authors who want to build a career and name recognition must be willing to put in the daily hours necessary to build a wide-flung internet platform with a Website; themed Blog/s that feed to Twitter, Facebook, an Amazon Authors page etc. Some of that time is also best spent learning how to use these sites properly. And that learning curve seems to never end.

Also leaving comments on other forums and Blogs is part of platform building and spreading one’s name. As an author, being anonymous does not work. Authors must stick their neck out; risk recognition that might lead to attacks by trolls. Authors must be willing to take chances and express their onions on issues even when those opinions may not be politically correct to some groups.

Authors who rely only on a site or sites such as BookBub probably will be left out in the cold in the long term.

With that said, my one foray into BookBub earlier this year resulted in almost 3,000 sales at .99 cents of my first book—an award winning historical fiction novel that had already sold more than 12,000 copies by the time the BookBub ad ran, but that one month sold more copies than any other month since that novel was first published.

I haven’t' submitted any of my work to BookBub since but plan to with my next release. Meanwhile, I still sit down daily to feed the growing and hungry beast that is my internet author’s platform.

My family thinks I’m obsessive and crazy and humors me.

Steven Zacharius December 16, 2013 um 5:17 pm

We use Bookbub quite often for promotions for building an author or to stimulate sales for the first in a series of books from an established author’s backlist. There has yet to be a promotion for Bookbub that we’ve done that hasn’t proven to be worthwhile financially for us. It’s a wonderful service giving those readers that have voracious appetites for books a platform listing where they can get great deals. I wish I had thought of it.

Steven Zacharius
President and CEO
Kensington Publishing Corp.

C. S. Lakin December 16, 2013 um 5:30 pm

Steve, so what is the trick to getting chosen by the gods at Bookbub. I’ve submitted eight times with four novels, and I always get rejected. I’ve checked with about a dozen other authors, and they have experienced the same thing. Not a problem when they first started. Do you "get in" because you are a publisher?

Lloyd Lofthouse December 30, 2013 um 5:36 pm

C.S. Lakin,

I know you asked Steve this question but I thought I’d add my perspective on this.

I’m an indie publisher/author and I submitted my first novel to BookBub, and they accepted it.

Because "My Splendid Concubine" is historical fiction set in 19th century China, I belong to an online historical fiction group and we have discussed BookBub a number of times because some HFAC members have had books accepted and others haven’t. And every member of HFAC who has had a book accepted has reported good things about the results of the BookBub ads. One member mentioned that she had one book turned down but it was accepted several months later when she submitted it again.

And from those discussions, the consensuses is that getting accepted by BookBub usually has more to do with how many books BookBub has already accepted at a given time for specific genres while making sure that within those genres, BookBub is offering a wide variety of themes and plots.

And if an author has the bad fortune of submitting a plot that is already represented or is overrepresented, then the odds go up that a book will not be accepted. I think that acceptance or rejection at BookBub usually has nothing to do with the quality of an author’s work but more to do with timing.

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