• tarahthornburg

Can You Run a Successful Author Business Without Paid Ads?

This post originally aired as an episode of my podcast, The Fearless Creative.

Make sure you subscribe to get your weekly dose of inspiration, motivation, and my very best tips for succeeding as a creative entrepreneur! If you’d rather read instead of listen, I’ve included the abridged transcript below.

Welcome, welcome, welcome to the show everybody. I am so excited to be talking to you today because I am super jazzed to discuss today’s topic.

This week I’m discussing something that has been on my mind for over a year. I’m going to be talking about it today primarily in the context of me and my author business, but it’s really going to apply to any of you who run a creative business online.

If you haven’t opened for business yet, this is might be even more relevant to you, because it’s going to give you an opportunity to think about how you want to structure your marketing strategy from the very beginning.

Today I’m going to be talking about the practice of driving traffic through paid advertising and whether it’s possible to run a successful creative business online without paid ads. 

But first, it’s time for this week’s Discovery segment…This is the part of the show where I share something I found useful or interesting, like a book, a podcast, or a TV show. This week my discovery is not a book or a podcast but rather a tool. If you own an iPhone, you probably already have this tool, but just the other day I learned an ingenious way to use it…

I’m talking about the Notes app. Yep, you heard that right: the plain old vanilla Notes app for iOS. I’ve never been a Notes app user before because I always used Evernote for that sort of thing. But the other night I had some ideas for a podcast and I wanted to get them down, but I’d spent like 10 hours in front of the computer and just didn’t want to type anymore. I remembered that you could dictate text messages with Siri, and I wondered if you could do the same thing with the Notes app.

As it turns out, you can, and if you haven’t used the dictation feature recently, it has come such a long way. The voice-to-text recognition is so good. It only missed two words in the entire note, and that may have been because I was mumbling.

If you haven’t used this before, you just open the Notes app, touch to open the keyboard, and to the left of the space bar, you’ll see a button with a microphone. If you click on the microphone, it will start listening and typing out your words as you speak. I haven’t played with all of the commands much, but you can say comma to insert a comma, period to insert a period, dot dot dot for ellipses. It’s fantastic.

I know some authors have used dictation to write faster using Dragon Speech Recognition. I’ve never tried this because I felt like it would change my writing too much, but I’m going to try it out a little bit more for note-taking because I want to find a way to get less screen time during the day.

One of the reasons I enjoy podcasting is because it provides a different experience than writing. I still have to be in front of a screen to develop the episode and to read from my notes when I record, but I think voice-to-text might be a really good way to reduce my screentime for podcasting and even blogging. Stay tuned.

This revelation that I’d like less screen time came as a result of a little exercise I’m doing this weekend called Happier Labor Day. This concept comes from Gretchen Rubin, who hosts the podcast “Happier.”

The idea of Happier Labor Day is that Valentine’s Day is a day to appreciate your lover or your partner; Thanksgiving is a time to practice gratitude. She has spearheaded a movement to use Labor Day as a time to reflect on your work life: what’s working, what isn’t, and what you might be able to do to make your work life happier.

So this weekend I took some time to reflect on my own work life. I’m going to be publishing a minisode of the podcast on Wednesday to discuss what I discovered. And whether you work for yourself or you’re working a 9-to-5, I’d encourage you to take some time today to sit with what work means to you, how it makes you feel, and what you could do to make it better. Because even if you’re not content with your day job, we only get this one life, and it’s nice if we can find ways to improve our experience in the moment.

So…Make sure you tune in Wednesday…I think I’ve blabbed enough. Let’s dive into today’s topic: Can you run a successful creative business online without paid advertising? 

I think I should preface this by saying that I DON’T KNOW the answer to this question. Currently, I do use paid ads to drive traffic to my books.

  1. I run Amazon product display ads on an ongoing basis.

  2. I run occasional Facebook ad campaigns.

  3. When I have a new release, I usually do a Boosted Post on Facebook to make sure everyone who likes my page can see my new-release announcement.

  4. I’ve paid for BookBub Featured Deals in the past, as well as BookBub display ads.

  5. My websites actually run ads, I learned. These ads aren’t for me. (Apparently, if you don’t pay for a certain tier in your plan, WordPress will now embed ads above your header and below the footer of your website. So that’s annoying, but I don’t create those ads. I’m looking into getting rid of them.)

As a writer, making ads is something I really don’t enjoy, which is kind of funny actually. Even though my degree is in journalism, my emphasis in the J-school was strategic communication, which essentially groomed graduates for a career in advertising. So I’d planned on becoming a copywriter at some point…I guess it’s really good that I didn’t, because I genuinely do not enjoy creating ads, analyzing ad data, and refining audience targeting for ads.

The reason I wanted to broach this topic is that I’m currently exploring other types of marketing for fiction that are more aligned with my values and that will (hopefully) make my author ecosystem more sustainable in the long run.

But I don’t actually know any indie authors who are making a full-time living from their books without running paid ads. It’s pretty widely acknowledged in the author community that advertising is a necessary evil of the business…But I don’t know how much of that is the truth and how much is just the result of all of us authors listening to the same podcasts and reading the same material, which kind of creates this echo chamber where the same ideas just get repeated.

I also want to cut in here to remind you that this conversation is still relevant to you even if you’re not an author. If you sell your stuff on Etsy, Etsy is becoming pay to play, too. Not only are there Google ads and promoted listings, but Etsy just introduced its own Etsy Ads platform. If you sell anything online — even services — you probably have to run Facebook ads or Instagram ads. You might even just run those ads to get mailing list signups.

If you run an online-only business, you need a way to drive traffic to your products and services. This is the top of the sales funnel. 

If you don’t have a background in sales or marketing, you can think of sales like a funnel: wide at the top and getting progressively narrower toward the bottom. Your goal is to get people into the funnel and eventually down to the bottom of that funnel.

So traffic is the top of the funnel where you try to get your message in front of lots of eyeballs in your target audience…In my case, I run product display ads to try to get in front of anyone who has bought a book by an author who’s similar to me or writes in my genre.

Perhaps one of those people clicks on an ad. This person might look at the cover, read the book description, read a couple reviews…Maybe he leaves because he doesn’t like books with strong female leads or the nuclear apocalypse sounds too depressing. But maybe this person likes what he sees. 

If this person thinks my book looks interesting, he might purchase it or read on Kindle Unlimited…Maybe this customer is cheap and he decides to download my free book instead. 

In my case, moving down the funnel looks like a person reading the next book and the next book until they’ve read 17 of my books and have nothing left to read. Then he’ll sign up for my email mailing list to make sure he doesn’t miss a new release.

This is a case of being firmly at the bottom of the funnel. This is the ideal we’re striving for.

If a reader loves the first book of mine that he reads, he becomes a repeat customer. Later on, he might become a brand evangelist. In my case, this looks like the reader recommending my books to all of his Facebook friends, his book club…basically anyone who will listen.

If it sounds like there are a lot of places where someone could get lost in the sales funnel, that’s because there are. People are easily distracted. People have to go to work and live their lives. Sometimes your work just isn’t for them. This is why you constantly need an influx of new people — more eyeballs, more traffic.

And right now, the most efficient way to get those eyeballs on a large scale is through Facebook ads, Google ads, Instagram ads, Amazon ads, etc.

So why don’t I like paid ads? Let’s start with the obvious:

Ads are expensive, and they’re getting more expensive all the time.

When I first got into advertising in 2015 — when I was just a leetle baby author — I could buy a click on Facebook for about 13 cents. That’s pretty good. You can afford a lot of traffic that way. These days, on a well-targeted ad, I can get a Facebook click for about 30 cents.

On Amazon, my cost per click right this past month ranged from 36 cents per click and 70 cents per click. In case you’re wondering, a 50-cent click is not good by industry standards.

If I was a better steward of my ads, I’m sure I could get those costs down, but I’m running a business here. I have a zillion other things to do. So at the moment, I have 11 Amazon ads running for the same book. Each of those has 200 to 900 keywords each, and I’m bidding on all of those keywords.  So it would be a lot to micromanage if I was trying to count pennies. I spend about $300 a month on Amazon ads. That’s about all I can stomach spending. I’ve spent as much as $500 or $600 on ads before, and all of that cuts into my bottom line.

Ads are only getting more expensive across the board. Facebook’s been warning about what they call “peak ad” since 2016, which means there are more people wanting to advertise on Facebook than there were slots for ads. Of course, Mark Zuckerberg being the greedy little troll that he is, Facebook didn’t start turning advertisers away. They just created other crappy places to show your ads, like the sidebar. And because more people are bidding for placements, this drove the cost per click up.

So for me, the primary motivation is economical. I see this runaway ad market as being unsustainable in the long term. It’s kind of like The New York Times bestseller list, which is dominated by big publishers who actually buy up their own inventory to get certain authors to the top of the list. It just becomes a money game, so I’m looking to circumvent that.

The other thing is that creating ads is not what I’m good at…It’s not what I enjoy. My ads are currently underperforming because I’m not giving them the attention they need, and the reason I’m not spending time with them is because I don’t like them. Ads are like kids…If you don’t spend time with them, they start behaving badly.

I’m a writer — not a marketer. If I wanted to be in marketing, I’d go get a job where I can get good benefits and collect a steady paycheck to do marketing all day. No thanks.

Finally, I want to quit paid ads because I just don’t think people like ads and we’re exposed to WAY too many as it is. According to one president of marketing at some big-deal marketing firm, people were exposed to up to 500 ads per day back in the 1970s…Today we are exposed to up to 5,000 ads per day

Personally, I think that number is high. I don’t know how people could possibly have the time to see 5,000 ads per day, but I’ve seen estimates that are twice as high.

Maybe the reason I don’t think I see that many ads is because I don’t watch cable TV. I listen to Spotify while I write, so I pay for Premium so that I’m not interrupted by ads. If I’m listening to the radio in the car and an ad comes on, I turn the radio down. I quit Hulu because they were showing me ads on there even. I spend very little time on Facebook or LinkedIn because of the ads.

So really my main sources of exposure are Instagram, podcasts, Amazon, my email inbox, and whenever I’m out in the world. Oddly, I don’t mind podcast ads because they’re usually read in the host’s voice. I actually buy things that I hear about in podcasts.

The reason that sort of advertising doesn’t bother me — the same reason that Amazon ads don’t bother me — is because they’re native to the platform. They blend right in…You know it’s an ad, but it’s not interrupting my experience.

My biggest annoyance with ads is when they interrupt me in what I’m doing. That’s why we all hate pop-ups so much. I don’t know if you’ve been to Forbes online lately…Just wow. Forbes is the worst. I challenge you to go to Forbes and click on an article…Try to read it. Just try. You won’t be able to because there are about a zillion pop-ups. It gives me a headache.

We are all exposed to way too many adds. And personally, I don’t want to be part of the noise.

I want the books and blog posts I write and the podcasts I create to be a reprieve from all the noise and crap that’s out there. Because one of the few times we don’t get ads is when we’re at home reading a book.

So what are the alternatives if you run a creative business online — particularly if you’re an author who sells books online?

Of course, the most obvious alternative to paid traffic is organic traffic. So if you own a website, organic traffic is the traffic that finds you through search alone. If you go on Google and you type in “plumber,” the first results you’ll see have little tiny green boxes next to them that say “Ad.” Anyone who clicks on that will be paid traffic. Down below those search results, you might see a website for a local plumber who doesn’t pay for ads. If you go to that plumber’s website, you would be organic traffic.

I get organic traffic to my blog and podcast through the keywords I use in the title, in the metadata, and in the body of the post itself. Organic traffic works well if you have a blog or a YouTube channel on a specific topic in a niche, but it’s not great for drawing readers to fiction books.

Now it used to be that Amazon would give your book organic traffic, but there are just too many books on Amazon now, and the company has figured out that people will pay for visibility. Hence, Amazon ads.

So then you have social media. Personally, I really don’t enjoy most social media. I hate Facebook with a passion. I just think it’s too cluttered. And, to be honest, very few of my friends that I care about are active on Facebook.

I’m a Millennial…They just aren’t on there. My friends are on Instagram — and I love Instagram. It’s clean. It’s pretty. Unfortunately, it’s owned by Facebook, so I’m sure it’ll be all cluttered up before long, but it’s not bad. So this is one of the few social channels that I put any amount of effort into. 

I also like Twitter for blogging because there are a lot of writers on Twitter, and because of hashtags, Twitter is fairly searchable. I’ve driven traffic to my blog and this podcast through Twitter. This is easy to do because, as with Instagram, people organize into communities. Those communities are identified by hashtags. 

The big issue I have with social media is this: Is it tainted by association with paid ads? Can any platform that collects your user data and sells it to advertisers so that those advertisers can turn around and sell you products that you don’t need and fake news be ethical?

I don’t think so. And to be honest, the thing I hate about social media as an introvert is that it feels like shouting into a crowd. I don’t like doing that. 

If you’re a person who doesn’t like shouting into a crowd, email marketing can be a good alternative. I don’t love the term “email marketing” because email marketers tend to be spammy. I have an email newsletter. I have several different lists. I have multiple for my fiction and I have lists for my blog and nonfiction.

What’s neat about email is that the people on your mailing list have raised their hands and said, “I like you. I like what you do. Can you please let me know when you have more of what you do?”

And then you can communicate with them as if you’re having a one-on-one conversation. Of course, you’re not. You’re communicating with thousands of people at once, but you know these people and you know what they’re about.

I have several automated sequences for my fiction that can help sell more fiction, but it’s kind of difficult to scale because people are reluctant to give you their email address because they’ve been burned in the past. You really have to offer a nice incentive for them to do so, like a free book or bonus content for a book they like. And email has an unpredictable aspect I don’t like, which is deliverability. So I get a couple of newsletters myself that go straight into my promotions tab on Gmail. Not ideal.

I prefer to be on a platform I own and be able to control every aspect of that platform.

Take this podcast, for instance. I can control every aspect of your listening experience. I control the intro, the outro…If I say something really stupid, I can edit it out. I could insert ads if I wanted to, but they would all have to be companies I believed in and that you would find useful. I have no immediate plans to put in advertising, but if I ever wanted to, I could control all of that.

Because I like to have my own platform, the most obvious choice for me is content marketing. I actually have a background in content marketing. It’s what I did for my day job, and I will take on freelance projects here and there. But in that case, I’m writing articles to help other people with their branding. Content marketing for me would just be me sharing me…my brand.

Content marketing just means creating and sharing material online that is educational, informative, or entertaining. This can be articles that appear in external publications. It can be blog posts or podcasts or video. 

And the key here is that you aren’t selling anything with that material. Content marketing can have lots of different goals, but essentially you’re just drumming up interest in you, educating people about a certain topic or entertaining them in some way. The hope is that eventually, they’ll buy something from you, but that’s not a requirement. It’s not a quid pro quo situation.

My brother has a YouTube channel where he talks about finance and investing. The hope is that someone will get to know, like, and trust him and eventually buy his book or another info product.

Take this blog. My revised content strategy is to keep all of my blog posts highly focused on writing. I do publish transcripts of podcast episodes, which are more broadly for creatives about creative entrepreneurship and the creative life, but my blog posts are very targeted to writers to attract other writers.

The hope is that these writers will read my blog every week. They’ll begin to know, like and trust me, and eventually one day maybe they’ll buy one of my nonfiction books or a course for authors. Or maybe they won’t. If they read my blog for years and never buy anything from me, I’m fine with that because I enjoy it.

Content marketing is really about developing a more personal connection with your audience and delivering great information or great entertainment without expecting anything in return. 

Now one idea that I’m playing with is the idea of creating content marketing for fiction. And I’m not talking about blogging because blogging is soooo 2010. I still have two blogs because I’m a writer. Blogs are also good for SEO and for building credibility. But blogs are a dime a dozen, and people are reading less and less. They’re still consuming content, but they’re consuming more audio content. 

That brings me back to podcasting. I love podcasting. And I know another author who is using podcasting to promote her fiction in a very smart way. This author is Joanna Penn, or JF Penn. She is the host of The Creative Penn as well as the podcast Books and Travel. And I talk about her so much, I really need a T-shirt with her face on it. Like a Bob Marley T-shirt but with Joanna Penn’s face. Or maybe a WWJD bracelet that says “WWJPD.”

Anyway, Books and Travel is a podcast she specifically launched to promote her fiction, which always is set in some exotic location. She likes to go travel to a place for research, and then she writes about it.

If I were to create a podcast for my fiction audience, it would need to be something that would appeal deeply to my existing audience, attract more people like them, and be crazy fun for me to do.

I already have an awesome idea burning a hole in my pocket, but I’m not going to share it yet because I don’t want to let any of this bottled up excitement escape. Bottled-up excitement is my creative fuel.

I’m in the process of developing this loose long-term plan where I would phase out my paid ads and really pour a ton of energy into growing my audience organically. I’d like to funnel all of my Facebook followers onto my email list if they’re not there already and get them subscribed to the podcast. I could use the podcast to get new people to try my books. I can promote my books within the podcast like an ad…even give away free copies of my books to get people interested.

The sky’s the limit. I’m really exciting.

For me, I think first on the chopping block would be Facebook ads. I don’t run them all the time anyway…It’s just kind of a nice tool to have in my back pocket. But I was telling my writing friends in my mastermind group yesterday: Running Facebook ads is like taking a suitcase full of money and throwing it out the window. Then you sit quietly in the corner and hope that your neighbor throws a few fistfuls of bills back through the window.

And Facebook is the problem. Fake news. Russia. The Chinese misinformation machine.

I think I’d keep Amazon ads because those ads feel native to me. They don’t disrupt the online shopping experience. I’m reaching readers where they’re already looking for information. I’m just aiding in that discovery. I consider them to be kind of like Google Ads.

As long as you’re targeting relevant searches, I don’t see anything wrong with Google Ads because you’re just helping people find you — not interrupting them when all they want to do is look at pictures of their friend’s newborn baby.

So can you run a successful creative business online without paid ads? Yes, you probably can. There are other creative ways to find your people. My first writing coaching client ever actually found me through a free ad in The Independent, which is a tiny little indie newspaper here in Colorado Springs. I’ve found nearly all of my other past clients through word of mouth.

So is it possible? Yes. Is it proven for authors? No. This is not a proven model for indie authors anymore. It hasn’t been since maybe 2017. If you want to argue with me about that, I am all ears. I would love to argue about that. You can get in touch with me via the contact form at the top of my website.

You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram @writewithtarah

That’s all I have for you this week. As always, if you enjoyed the episode and you feel so moved, please go leave me a written review.

I’ll see you next time, and happy creating!

Photo by Wojtek Witkowski

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