The Good, Bad, And The In Between Of Advertising Dollars Spent In 2018

Though it's not quite the end of 2018, today I looked at what I spent on advertising my novels and non-fiction books over the past year.

My goal was to set a 2019 budget as well as to figure out how to spend less and earn more.

Where The Advertising Dollars Went

My yearly spending broke out as follows:

  • 43%     e-Newsletters (BookBub, Fussy Librarian, etc.)
  • 22%     Goodreads (ads and giveaways)
  • 16%      Facebook Ads
  • 14.5%   Amazon Ads
  • 2%         My own email lists
  • 1.5%      Other (in-person book fairs, promotional copies)

My royalties totaled almost 2 times what I spent on advertising. If I thought the ads generated those sales, I'd think that was well worth it. Who wouldn't spend $1 to earn $2?

I'd also double it if I knew for sure what was working and felt confident I'd earn twice as much.

But I'm fairly sure some of these advertising dollars resulted in next to no sales.

Dropping From The 2019 Spending Plan

There is some value to new potential readers just seeing my book covers and tag lines more often, so I don't feel any of my advertising dollars were wasted. And I learned a lot, as I wanted to experiment with new platforms if only to rule them out.

Here are the areas, however, where I don't plan to spend in 2019:


In previous years I always had Goodreads self-serve ads running. While I couldn't be positive they generated sales, my click-through rate for my Awakening series ads was usually 5% or 6%, which is very good. And when the ads stopped running because the funds ran out, I typically saw dips in sales.

This year, though, not only did my ads for my new suspense/mystery series (the Q.C. Davis novels) not get any clicks, the ads for my Awakening series also stopped getting clicks.

Q.C. Davis Mysteries, Book 1

Unfortunately, self-serve ads need to be funded in advance.

I typically put $70-$80 at a time on my credit card and let the ads run and use those funds. I renewed the Awakening ad campaign and started the Q.C. Davis campaign at the same time a few months ago. As most ads have gotten no clicks since then, almost all that money sits waiting to be spent.

So far as I know, I can't get a refund (though I may check into that). Right now I plan to keep experimenting with different ads to see if I can get anything to take hold, but I won't be adding any funds.

Goodreads also switched this year from allowing authors to conduct free book giveaways for paperbacks to charging hundreds of dollars for giveaways.

While I may have gotten a review or two from both paid giveaways I tried (one paperback and one Kindle), the cost seemed too high to me for the benefit.


I experimented with Facebook ads during much of 2018. When I advertised the audiobook edition of The Awakening, that got the fewest clicks.

My best results were for Kobo in Canada for The Awakening, Book 1. But by results, I mean the click-through rate on the ads, not necessarily sales. I did see a little bit of a spike in sales but it wasn't clear it came from Facebook versus other ads running at the same time.

Also, as I'd been warned, it's easy for Facebook ads to use of a lot of your funds very quickly.

I haven't ruled out trying Facebook again sometime in the future. But for 2019 I think I will skip it in favor of focusing more on the platforms in the next section.

Planned 2019 Spending

Amazon Ads

Not all my Amazon ads have done well, but most of them have an average cost of sale well below the royalty I earn. (Amazon's dashboard calculates this figure for you and shows you the sales from each ad.)

Because the ads are generating more royalties than they cost and because it's fairly easy to tell what works and what doesn't, I plan to keep spending on Amazon ads. I'm aiming to fine tune and increase spending on those books and ads that are doing well.

BookBub Ads

By BookBub ads, I mean the ones you create yourself and that you pay for based on either the number of impressions or the number of clicks, not the BookBub Featured Deals. (With the latter, BookBub accepts your book or not and charges a flat fee.)

BookBub ad currently running

I only started spending on BookBub ads this month, so they are not in the percentages above.

While I'm uncertain if I'm coming out ahead with them, each day I'm able to see clicks for each ad. Based on increased free downloads of The Awakening, particularly on Google Play, I believe the ads are effective.

Also, because there is so much data, I feel confident I'll be able to tell going forward which ads are working and which aren't.

Finally, BookBub offers good options to tailor the ads. For instance, if you're getting a low click-through rate on Kobo in Australia, you can turn off just that platform and country and leave the ad running for other platforms and regions.

Email List

I handle my writing email lists through MailChimp. The dollars spent on it are well worth it. I see the largest spike in sales when I send out emails to my lists.

In 2019, I plan to do more to provide value to subscribers and to draw in new ones.


I spent the most on e-newsletters. As a whole, I don't think it was worth it. For quite a few I paid $40-$60 and saw only 10 or 20 additional sales, if that.

On the other hand, some were very effective. I spent over a hundred dollars on a BookBub Featured Deal for three countries. That deal earned me the money back in a day and generated a profit.

I also like Fussy Librarian because it includes an Audible link along with ebook links, making it one of the only ways to advertise audiobooks.

Part of my challenge this year is that I spent the most on e-newsletter ads for The Worried Man, the first book in my Q.C. Davis mystery/suspense series. But I defaulted to e-newsletters that worked well for my Awakening supernatural thriller series, which may not be the same ones that draw mystery/suspense readers.

I plan to try e-newsletters again next year. But I am going to set a budget so that I don't spend as much.

Also, I plan to try one at a time when I'm running no other promotions so I can be more certain whether the e-newsletter is generating the sales.

The Year As A Whole

Through the year I felt disappointed with my advertising expenses and royalty income. The first was up and the second down.

Looking back on the year, though, I feel better.

I did spend more than last year on advertising, and some of that money didn't result in sales. But I feel like I needed to try different platforms and track results to find out what works and what doesn't. As I did so, I learned a lot about which tag lines and images resonate with people. Also what readers are most interested in my books.

As far as the royalties drop, it didn't turn out to be as much as I feared. And I feel more hopeful that next year I'll do better with what I've learned about ads. (I'm also hoping not to spend a lot of time recovering from breaking any bones, so cross your fingers for me that 2019 will be injury-free.)

That's all for today. Until next week (and year)–

L.M. Lilly

P.S. If you're free January 1 from noon to 2 p.m. U.S. central time stop by the Writing As A Second Career Facebook page. I'll be sharing 2019 writing goals and plans and would love it if you'd join me and do the same. (Or just read, that's OK too.)

3 Things To Think About Before You Write In A New Genre

Most writers read a lot, and many of us read more than one genre.

These days I mainly read suspense, thrillers, and mystery. I used to read a lot of horror and supernatural fiction. And now and then I read mainstream fiction and classics.

Liking to read multiple genres often leads to wanting to write in more than one of them.

But is that a good thing?

Before you switch genres, a few things that are worth thinking about:

Audience Size

At first it seems like a larger audience would be better. I thought so when I switched from supernatural thrillers and horror to suspense/mystery.

But a large audience presents its own challenges.

  • It’s harder to reach a very large audience because there’s no one specific place to go to find them.

Mary Higgins Clark sells a ton of books per year. So does James Patterson. Almost anyone who likes fiction has probably read at least one if not many of their novels.

Which is the problem.

People who love vampire paranormal romance will likely look for more of those types of books. They may join Facebook groups or like pages devoted to that type of fiction. Or search sites like Amazon, Kobo, or Apple Books for “paranormal romance” or vampires.

But a James Patterson or Mary Higgins Clark fan, especially one who only reads a few books a year, can simply wait for the next book. They’re bound to hear about it through an ad, a friend, or a physical book in a store window or on a shelf.

  • Lack of common interests, making it harder to engage in content marketing.

Content marketing means creating written content such as articles, blog posts, or short stories that you give away to draw in readers who might also buy your other work. This article, for example, can serve as content marketing for my non-fiction books on writing craft, though it’d be better if I sold marketing books.

But it’s hard to tell what might be a common interest of fans of major bestselling authors. Sure, Patterson fans might like other thrillers. But they also might just like Patterson.

It’s a little easier to guess related interests of people who like more niche genres.

An article about haunted houses or true-to-life spooky stories is likely to draw an audience of readers who like horror fiction.

In contrast, readers who like thrillers don’t necessarily read nonfiction about true crime, law enforcement, or real life suspense stories.

  • Many readers in popular genres only read a few books a year, and voracious readers often already read multiple series.

Readers who read 1-5 books a year probably stick with big names we’ve all heard of. And there are enough of those, at least at the moment, that there’s no need to shop around for a lesser known author.

That’s not to say there aren’t voracious readers in popular genres like mysteries. Many of them, though, already read multiple series by multiple authors. They’ll try a new author, but typically only when they want a break from existing series or if something truly catches their eyes.

In genres with smaller audiences, voracious readers are often more excited to find another author, as they may be having trouble feeding their love of that type of book.

The flipside of all of the above is that if you do get your books to catch on, you can potentially draw in a much wider audience. I gave copies of the first book in my new mystery/suspense series to my dentist, my eye doctor, and my podiatrist (might as well get something more out of breaking my foot this past Spring). They all not only read and loved it but passed it on to other people.

My supernatural thriller series, on the other hand, is one I only promote to people who definitely like that genre because many people simply don’t like that type of book. Giving them a copy is sort of like giving them homework.

So what if you have an existing fan base? Will it help you when you switch genres?

Readers Rarely Cross Genres

In a recent interview on the Science Fiction And Fantasy Marketing Podcast author Tammi LaBrecque talked about genre crossing. She said when she was young she read whatever she could get her hands on because publishers had no way to target readers specifically.

I had the same experience.

My mom had three bookshelves of books she’d bought in the 60s from a book club. They included everything from suspense to historical fiction to humorous essays. I read them all.

In addition, I used to simply wander the stacks in my local library and pull out titles at random that looked interesting. I wasn’t even looking at covers because all I could see were the spines.

Now, though, if you shop on Amazon you’re likely to see books that are similar to ones you’ve already read. Other platforms do the same. Because marketing is so targeted, and so many books are so easily available, fewer people read widely.

I love that books are easy to come by. But it also means your readers may very well not to follow you to a different genre, something I’ve been finding out the hard way this year.

Last year I more than doubled my royalty income from the previous year. I put out the last book in my Awakening Supernatural Thriller series and released two non-fiction books.

This year due to an injury and some other issues I wasn’t as productive. I did, however, put out the first novel in a new genre. It’s a suspense/mystery novel, The Worried Man, and I just released the second book in the series, The Charming Man, this week.

Given that I now have two more books for sale, I would have thought I might at least match last year’s royalties. After all, the previous series is still selling a bit and my email list has grown.

What I discovered, though, is that the readers who eagerly awaited the fourth book in the Awakening Series are not necessarily jumping right into my Q.C. Davis Series. Those who do so far have liked it, but there isn’t the same eagerness as there was for a new book in the past series.

This difference surprised me because I always thought of supernatural thrillers as a subset of suspense, thrillers, and mystery. I figured most people who read the sub-genre would read the larger genre especially from an author they know and like.

But the books are different.

My supernatural thrillers brought in the elements of ancient prophecy and philosophical questions about religion. They also were told from multiple viewpoints, quickly shifting from one to the next.

My suspense series is told in the first person, deep in the point of view of my female private eye type hero, Quille Davis. It’s still suspense and still fast-paced, but it’s a different type of suspense.

Interestingly, I’ve gotten more reader email in the seven months since The Worried Man came out than I did in the first few years with the Awakening Series. But so far it’s a much smaller reader base.

So does all this mean you should stick with your first genre especially if you have built a fan base?

Not necessarily.

Love What You Love

Story expert Lani Diane Rich often says of the fiction we consume that you should not apologize for what you enjoy. Love what you love.

I believe that’s also true with writing. Yes, if we want people to read what we write we do need to think about our readers. But it also matters what we feel excited about writing.

Most of us have or had other jobs that we don’t love the way we do writing. Perhaps we dislike those jobs at times but they pay the bills.

If you’re going to write something you don’t enjoy to pay the bills you need to weigh whether you might be better off doing that other thing for the money.

Of course, it’s not an either/or question.

The best advice I got on this point came from author Steve Barnes in a retreat group he led. He told us to think about writing as concentric circles. One is what we absolutely love to write and really enjoy, shown in the yellow circle above. The other, the green circle, is what is the most marketable. The place to aim for is where the circles overlap.

How seriously you target the overlap depends upon your goals.

If you need your writing to be a significant part of your income, you will probably want to aim for the K and M in the graphic above. If earning a lot and becoming well known is important to you, you’ll probably do your best to write all the time in the green circle.

On the other hand, if you have other sources of income you might inch farther into the yellow circle. And if you write mainly because you simply love writing, you can write anywhere you want.

There is a caveat to this, too. We don’t always know what’s the most marketable. Sometimes we’re surprised.

But if you aim generally for that overlap you can adjust from there depending on your goals.

That’s it for today. Until next Friday —

L.M. Lilly 


Learning Characterization From TV

How To Show Your Characters' EmotionsWatching TV or movies you love can help you improve characterization in your own fiction.

Screenwriters almost always show characters' emotions through their actions and choices, not by telling the audience how the characters feel. In other words, TV and film provide lots of examples of the best side of the “show don't tell” advice.

Show Don't Tell

As a new writer, I often struggled with “show don't tell” because I thought it applied to everything.  For example, let's say my character grew up in Chicago. I thought I couldn't simply tell the readers that through narration.

Yet no other way made much sense to me.

Writing flashbacks of the character's childhood in Chicago struck me as time consuming and likely to bore the reader.

And putting it in dialogue seemed artificial: “As you know, Sue, I grew up in Chicago.” Or, “Say, Jamal, since you grew up in Chicago, you must know where the Sears Tower is.” (Yep, a lot of us Chicagoans still call it the Sears Tower.)

Finally a writing instructor told me “show don't tell” mainly applies to emotions, not background facts.

Insides Or Outsides

That insight helped make my fiction less clunky. For a long time, though, I still didn't quite grasp how to show a character's feelings. I thought it meant revealing emotion through the physical sensations the character experienced.

So my characters' hearts raced or their palms sweated. They heard buzzing in their ears or felt their stomachs drop.

These types of physical sensations draw readers into a character's experience. Which is definitely stronger than saying, “She felt anxious.” But it has its limits.

For one thing, people get sweaty palms due to anything from public speaking to a driver's exam to committing murder. (I don't know about that last one from experience, by the way. Just guessing.)

This is where watching TV or films comes in.

Unless there's a voiceover to share the character's inner life, and that's rare, emotion can't be shown through physical sensation or narration. Instead, the screenwriter shows emotion through what the character chooses to do. (Or say, but I'll talk about dialogue in other articles.)

Next time you watch an episode of TV or a film you find compelling, focus on what the characters do and what emotions that conveys. To get a better sense of how that works, turn off the sound.

Now let's talk about how to apply what you see to your own writing.

Action As Characterization

Compare these examples:

  • Aaron felt scared.
  • Aaron's heart raced.
  • Aaron locked himself in the closet and remained motionless, his back against the wall, his knees at his chest, and his hands clamped over his mouth.

The third example is the only one that works for a television show or movie. It shows Aaron's fear solely through his actions. It's also the most powerful.

That's because Aaron's actions cause the audience to infer how he feels, making them a more active part of the story. Also, to do it, they must draw on day-to-day life, where all of us guess at other people's emotions as we interact with them. And the more interacting with a character feels like real life, the more the character feels like your reader's friend, enemy or acquaintance.

Finally, Number 3 is powerful because it conveys information about where Aaron is and what's likely going on around him rather than only his emotion or physical sensations.

Imagining A TV Scene

Now when I'm truly stuck on how to get my character's feelings across to the reader, I imagine the scene as part of a television show.

For instance, when writing The Worried Man, the first book in my detective mystery series, in my first draft I included the inner physical sensations of my main character, Quille, the morning after finding her boyfriend's dead body. They were vivid, but something was missing.

Before I revised, I shut my eyes and saw a scene as if it were on TV.

In it, Quille stands in her closet and stares at her clothes. Finally, she pulls on a T-shirt her boyfriend left there. But she freezes in the middle of doing so, breathing in the scent of it. She can't move because she doesn't want to go on to the next moment of life without him.

I don't tell the readers that last part, though. I let them infer how overwhelming her grief is through her actions. Or in this case, her inaction.

Characterization Is More Than What You See

Because as novelists we can go beyond the visual I'm not suggesting you limit yourself to what the reader can see. With the written word, we get the best of all worlds. We can show a character's inner sensations and outer actions. And we can delve into the all the senses.

Going back to the example, a novel or short story can combine 2 and 3. Aaron's heart can race as he hides, frozen and silent, in that closet.

Why not throw in 1 as well? We don't need it. 2 and 3 together show the audience Aaron is not just scared but petrified.

And remember to use the other senses. Television and film necessarily draw mainly on the senses of hearing and sight. But you can and should consider how the senses of touch, smell, and taste can convey emotion.

Aaron, for example, might become hyperaware of the smell of dust or stale smoke in the closet. Especially if it makes him want to cough, sniffle, or sneeze and give away his location to an intruder.

That's all for now. See you next time.

L.M. Lilly

P.S. Looking for help with the plot of your novel? Click here for free story structure worksheets and more.

Making Your Novel A Fast Read

If you write commercial fiction or hope to, you probably want to make your novel a page turner. Plot is a big part of that. But making it a fast read is also about how easy it is to comprehend the words you write.

Of Sentences And Syllables

The Flesch-Kincaid index estimates the level of education needed to read a piece of writing.

The calculation is based on the average number of words in each sentence and the average number of syllables in each word.

Many bestselling authors write books at the fourth grade level. As did Ernest Hemingway.

Why Write Below High School Level

If you want people to read fast, writing in a way that's easier to understand helps. Compare the amount of effort and time it takes to read a scholarly article or college textbook chapter to a non-fiction book on the best seller list about the same topic.

Which are you more likely to read for fun? Or for information for that matter?

Writing below high school level (and perhaps at a sixth grade or fourth grade level) also helps ensure your novel will be read it at all. And finished.

If you hand someone 60,000-100,000 words and the first page takes a lot of effort to read, many people won’t continue. If your reader flies through page one, though, and there’s a story hook, it’s easy to flip the page or hit the button for page two.

Also, as readers go on in the book, they’re bound to hit points where they feel tired. Or to have days when they return home exhausted.

If your novel takes a lot of mental focus, they’ll be less likely to pick it up in the first place. They’ll also be more likely to put it down in the middle.

Calculating Reading Ease

This article  explains the specific formula if you’d like to manually calculate the grade level of your work. Some word processing programs will figure it out for you. In Microsoft Word, it’s part of the information you get after you do a Spelling and Grammar check.

Some blog platforms, including Word Press, which I'm using to write this post, provide a readability analysis and tips.

You can also do an Internet search for online reading level and reading ease calculators.

Too Basic

Writing at a too-basic level can backfire. Most of us don’t want to read See Spot run. It’s boring and distracting.

But writing that’s easy to read doesn’t need to be dull. Or limit itself to three-word sentences, one-syllable words, or generic plot lines. The Grapes Of Wrath is at a 4.1 grade level. To Kill A Mockingbird scores 5.9.

Also, preferences vary from person to person and during a person’s lifetime. I sometimes like reading something a little more complex because it takes me longer. The downside of wading through dense case law in law school and in my law practice is that sometimes I fly through novels far too quickly. I want to savor them, not gulp them whole.

Other times I want a book that takes little or no effort and pulls me along. That’s especially so if I’m working through issues in a novel I’m writing.

At those times my brain tends to go into analytic mode when I read unless the book is so fast-moving it sweeps me away.

Look at your favorite books or a group of popular books in the genre in which you write. You can do a formal calculation or eyeball the sentence and word length.

Once you’ve done that, you can get a sense of where you’d like your work to be.

By the way, this article scores a 6.7 grade level.

That’s all for today. Until next Friday—

L.M. Lilly

P.S. Looking for help with your plot? Try out the Free Super Simple Story Structure worksheets.