One common complaint about advertising is that advertisers have to pay for the ad before they know whether it works. Your $10,000 ad could return $20,000 in sales if an ad works. But if it doesn’t work, your $10,000 as-spend could also yield zero sales. In traditional advertising, you don’t know how your ad will perform.
To mitigate the risk, some advertisers start with small ad budgets, and as they learn what works, they grow their advertising investment. The start-small strategy makes mistakes less costly, but the mistakes and learning phase still cost the advertiser something.
In today’s digital world, the risks involved in advertising have been greatly reduced. Affiliate marketing for authors is one way to make sure you only pay for the ads that work.
Advertising Pricing Explained
Before we talk about paying only for ads that work, you must understand the three ways ads are priced.
Pay Per Impression (PPI)
TV, radio, podcasts, and some Facebook ads are sold on a per-impression basis. Ads are often priced in CPM, which is the acronym for “Cost Per Thousand.” If that acronym seems like a typo, remember that the letter “M” is the Roman numeral for 1,000.
If a podcast offers ad slots for $30.00 CPM and has 1,000 downloads per episode, one ad on an episode would cost you $30.00. If that podcast had 10,000 downloads for every episode, the same ad would cost you $300.00.
You can see why TV and radio stations care about ratings. Third-party companies like Nielson calculate the size of the media outlet’s audience. A station’s audience size directly impacts how much the station earns from the ads they sell. If the nightly news on Channel 7 has twice the viewers as Channel 24, Channel 7 can sell the same ad slots for twice as much.
Old school website banner ads were sold the same way until the dot-com crash. In the early 2000s, many people grew “banner blind” and stopped noticing banner ads on websites. With the decreased effectiveness of banner ads, companies needed a new way to sell ads.
Pay Per Click (PPC)
When paying per impression stopped working, advertisers wanted to pay only for customers who clicked the ad, so companies started selling Pay Per Click (PPC) ads. Amazon ads, Google ads, and some Facebook ads are sold on a pay-per-click basis. Facebook allows advertisers to choose between PPC and PPI ads.
With PPC ads, the advertiser only pays when a web visitor clicks on the ad. For example, if 1,000 people viewed the blog post, but only five clicked on the advertisement, the advertiser will only pay for five clicks. With PPC ads, the 9,995 impressions that did not result in clicks are “free.”
Usually, PPC ads are sold on an auction basis where the likelihood of the ad being clicked is considered. That means PPC ads require you to be the highest bidder and have the highest quality score. Advertisers strive to optimize the quality of the PPC ads since a better score means cheaper clicks.
Paying per click is less risky than paying per impression, but there is still a big difference between someone clicking to learn more and completing the purchase.
That’s why the gold standard in advertising is to pay per sale.
Pay Per Sale (PPS)
With Pay Per Sale (PPS) ads, advertisers only pay for the ad after the customer completes the checkout process. Another name for PPS ads is “affiliate marketing.” In PPS ads or affiliate marketing for authors, the author or content creator shares their sales revenue with those who run the advertisements.
Amazon sells ads to authors on a pay-per-click basis. But when Amazon buys advertising on author blogs and websites, it pays on a pay-per-sale basis through the Amazon Associates affiliate program.
How does Amazon (or any content creator) know when a web visitor completes a purchase? They use a tracking link.
Normal product URLs usually look like this: example.com/product-name.
Affiliate URLs include tracking information in the URL: example.com/product-name?affiliate=thomas.
The “?affiliate=thomas” tells the website who to pay when that customer checks out.
Some websites like Amazon.com shorten affiliate links to look something like this: https://amzn.to/3cs9xPT (Affiliate Link).
The short URL redirects to a long URL with the tracking information embedded. If you were to click that URL and checkout, Amazon would give me 4.5% of the purchase price if you purchased the paper book and 4% if you purchased the audiobook or ebook.
Two Sides of Affiliate Marketing For Authors
To understand affiliate marketing, you need to understand it from both the affiliate’s and the advertiser’s perspectives.
I have been an affiliate marketer and an affiliate for over a decade. Over the years, I’ve gained experience. I can help you get started with affiliate marketing for authors and warn you about some pitfalls.
How to Become an Affiliate
Affiliate marketing can help you make money promoting other people’s books and products on your platform.
Most authors start as affiliates because they don’t yet have their own books to sell.
Amazon’s Affiliate Program
Amazon Associates is the biggest affiliate program in the English-speaking world and is particularly dominant with books. Interestingly, Amazon’s dominance as an online bookstore is a result of its affiliate program and its long and growing history.
Pros of Amazon’s Affiliate Marketing for Authors
Easy to Use When Promoting Your Book
Once you become an affiliate, getting your own affiliate link only requires a few clicks. When you’re logged in to your Amazon account, the tool to create your own author affiliate link will appear across the top of every Amazon account web page. You don’t even have to log into Amazon Associates or Author Central.
Easy for Authors to Join
We have a step-by-step guide for authors on how to become an Amazon affiliate.
Wide Variety of Products to Promote
Amazon sells everything. You can promote your book, a fellow author’s book, or the food processor that saved you thirty minutes of chopping vegetables and gave you more time to write.
Whether you’re a mommy blogger recommending toys or a hunter recommending camouflage outfits, you can get an affiliate link for any product Amazon sells.
Cons of Amazon’s Affiliate Marketing for Authors
Amazon’s affiliate commission percentages are smaller than most other affiliate programs except Barnes & Noble’s. Barnes & Noble’s affiliate program pays only half the commission Amazon pays.
Affiliate Commission Percentages Have Decreased
The percentage of commission you earn with Amazon affiliate links has decreased. In the early days, authors could earn 8% with an Amazon affiliate link, but the percentage has slowly dropped every few years.
Even though years of email marketing data have proven email to be an effective conversion tool, Amazon’s rules prevent you from including affiliate links in your emails.
Amazon often changes its affiliate program rules to purge its biggest affiliates. You never want to be too successful as an Amazon affiliate. Just ask BookBub.
Amazon’s affiliate program is a great place to start, but you shouldn’t become dependent on it. They have a reputation for being an unreliable partner, especially if you are a successful affiliate. I found that out the hard way.
Back in the day, I was a big affiliate of Amazon. The free version of MyBookTable used my affiliate links, and the affiliate income I earned funded the development and support for that WordPress plugin.
Amazon reached out and asked me to add support for Kindle Instant Preview, which would save them from developing their own WordPress plugin. Then, a few months later, they changed the rules and kicked me out of the affiliate program. Just like that, I lost half my revenue from MyBookTable. The free version of the plugin became a major expense instead of a source of revenue. It was such a traumatic shock that I can still remember exactly where I was when I found out they had kicked MyBookTable out of the Amazon affiliate program.
Whatever you do, try not to get noticed by Amazon. That said, if you are an author linking to your own books and the books you recommend, you should be fine.
If you need help signing up as an author Amazon affiliate, we have a step-by-step guide to walk you through the process. Once you sign up, you will see a gray bar along the top of each Amazon page with an affiliate URL button.
To try and compete with Amazon, many other online retailers created alliances known as “affiliate networks.”
Some popular networks in the publishing world include:
- Impact (AppSumo uses Impact.)
- CJ (Barnes & Noble uses CJ.)
- Rakuten (Kobo uses Rakuten)
- ThriveCart (Popular with virtual summit creators.)
An affiliate network acts as a trusted third party that ensures sales are being tracked correctly. Affiliate Networks reduce the number of accounts and tax paperwork you have to keep track of. They also have tools to help you create affiliate URLs for the products you want to promote.
Private Affiliate Marketing Programs
Some websites run their own affiliate programs instead of working with a network. Private affiliate programs tend to have the highest commissions and are often the hardest to get into. Some private affiliate programs are invite-only.
If you want to be an affiliate for a certain product or service, look for an “affiliates” link in the footer of their website. Signing up for an affiliate program is usually very easy.
If you’re recommending your own book, you’re pretty safe ethically. People know you’re selling and recommending your own book. But when you recommend other people’s books and products, you have to consider what’s ethical.
It is unethical to promote a product just because a company pays you more than another company, especially when the product isn’t a great fit for your audience. Hiding your affiliate disclosure in legalese burried in your website is also considered unethical. Not illegal, mind you. Just unethical.
Just because Hollywood hides the names of companies who pay for product placement in movies doesn’t mean you should.
What are the best practices in affiliate marketing for authors?
Recommend the Best
Try to recommend the best product for your audience, regardless of whether that product has an affiliate program. Your long-term reputation for recommending the best products is more valuable than a quick affiliate commission.
But remember, “the best” is subjective. ConvertKit (Affiliate Link) is better than MailerLite (Affiliate Link), but it is also more expensive. I’m an affiliate for companies because I know not everyone can afford ConvertKit.
I use WP Engine (Affiliate Link) as a web hosting service because it is better than BlueHost (Affiliate Link), but since it is is also far more expensive, I don’t often recommend it to beginning authors. WP Engine costs me nearly $1,000 per month, while BlueHost costs as little as $4.95 per month.
Since authors have different needs, I try to share the pros and cons of various services so you can decide if a product is worth your money or if you can safely save money on the cheaper option.
Your transparency is important to your author affiliate marketing practices. If you receive a commission for recommending a product or service, disclose it to your readers.
My policy is to make affiliate links obnoxiously obvious.
I try to put “(Affiliate Link)” after every affiliate link for authors on my blog because some podcast listeners look up the blog version of the podcast to find my affiliate links. They know that I will get a commission for the sale if they purchase through my affiliate links.
That’s how listeners support the show without spending additional money. My web visitors aren’t charged extra. They simply make their purchase through my link, and I get a percentage of the sale.
Unfortunately, affiliate marketing is not a great tool for podcasters. Listeners must leave a podcast app and open their web browser. They have to find my website, the specific episode, and the affiliate link in the middle of a paragraph. That’s a lot of extra work.
Listeners will occasionally do the extra work to click my affiliate links, but most will go directly to the website of the company I recommended. Those listeners help illustrate the point that transparency doesn’t hurt you.
If you provide valuable content to your readers, affiliate transparency should help you. Readers will want to click your affiliate links to say “thank you” for providing amazing content. Savvy readers know how much work goes into writing blog posts, recording podcast episodes, and making videos, and if they have a spirit of goodwill, they’ll try to use your affiliate links when possible.
You should also be transparent about why you recommend a product or service.
For example, I have affiliate links to MailerLite, ConvertKit, and MailChimp in my email tool comparison article, even though I do not recommend MailChimp. If you sign up for MailChimp against my recommendation, you can still use my affiliate link if you want to, and MailChimp will still pay me.
Quick Tips on Making Money with Author Affiliate Marketing
To maximize your affiliate revenue, implement the following best practices.
Pick Products Your Audience Will Love
While recommending a poor product is unethical, it’s also ineffective. You add value as an affiliate through your product curation.
If you are a gluten-free mom blogger, your recommendation of the best gluten-free playdough is an act of service to your readers. Toddlers will inevitably eat playdough, and if gluten makes them sick, so will the playdough. When you notify your audience that the product exists, you serve them, but when you tell them which one is best, you thrill them.
Test the Options
Whether you test gluten-free playdough or podcast microphones, the more products you test, the more valuable your recommendation will be.
If you have read dozens of Edwardian mysteries and curate a list of your three favorites, you offer far more value than someone who lists the only three Edwardian mysteries they’ve ever read.
Use Email When You Can
Amazon is the only affiliate program I know of that doesn’t allow their affiliate links in emails. Most other affiliate programs encourage it because it works.
Email your subscribers a recommendation for a product you think they will love. Explain why they will love it, and you may be surprised how many affiliate sales you make. Email is an effective sales tool.
To work around Amazon’s limiting policy, you can include a link to a page on your website in your email. Once your readers are on your website, they can click on an image of the book or product, which is embedded with your Amazon affiliate link.
If your book has its own page on your website, include that page link in your email. Your book page can have multiple affiliate links, and by linking to it instead of Amazon, you’ll comply with Amazon’s strange limitation on email.
Host Affiliate Webinars
One effective affiliate marketing method is inviting your audience to a webinar about the product you are recommending. Make the webinar valuable, entertaining, and educational. Explain the what, why, who, and how of the product. One excellent webinar can yield thousands of dollars in affiliate commissions.
Use Multiple Affiliate Links for Your Own Books
Nearly every author’s website links to the author’s book on Amazon, but some authors don’t use affiliate links. If you’re linking to Amazon without affiliate links, you’re leaving money on the table! Ninety percent of traditionally published authors only make post-publication income through affiliate commissions from Amazon.
But don’t stop with Amazon!
Sign up for every bookstore affiliate program you can find. It’s free, and if you have a link to Barnes & Noble on your website, you might as well get an affiliate commission from them.
Test the Affiliate Links
Most affiliate programs have a dashboard that shows how many clicks you have received on your affiliate links. Once you have added your affiliate links to a web page, open an incognito tab and click the link. Make sure your click shows up and is counted in the affiliate dashboard.
As I was researching for this episode, I realized my Descript (Affiliate Link) link was missing a character which ruined the affiliate tracking. I have been recommending that tool for a year and have no affiliate commissions. I should have tested the link!
How to Set Up Your Own Affiliate Program
Now that we have talked about you becoming an affiliate let’s talk about the other side of the coin. You can also pay a commission to affiliates who recommend your books. It’s important to realize that book bloggers, reviewers, and podcasters are probably already using Amazon Associates to supplement their income. They get the same 4% commission regardless of whose book the reader buys. They’re not financially motivated to recommend your book above another.
Pick an Affiliate Platform
To motivate your affiliates, you need your own affiliate program and your own shopping cart or ecommerce website.
Gumroad is one of the best ecommerce platforms that allows you to earn money by selling digital products and memberships. They also have an affiliate program built in. Gumroad will collect and remit your sales and VAT taxes, which makes it very easy to use. Gumroad also has hosting, so you don’t need to rebuild your website to use it.
The next best option is ThriveCart, which has an excellent built-in affiliate program that integrates with everything. It is a no-code way to sell directly. One downside is that ThriveCart does not remit sales taxes. It calculates sales taxes, but you will still need to file your sales tax returns.
Wix, WooCommerce, and Shopify don’t have affiliate programs built in. They also don’t remit sales taxes. Avoid these platforms if you are just getting started. If you are already using one of them, they each have third-party affiliate solutions you can pay extra for.
For selling courses, Teachable (Affiliate Link), Podia (Affiliate Link), and Kajabi have affiliate programs built in. Of the three, only Teachable collects and remits sales taxes, which makes it the obvious choice for me.
I have paid my affiliates nearly $100,000 in commissions over the years on Teachable with no issues. Teachable also handles the 1099s and direct deposits, which allows me to have an affiliate program with no additional bookkeeping.
Offer a Motivating Commission
Have you ever wondered why so many authors feature the Amazon link prominently and often leave off the Barnes & Noble link? For some, it is because Amazon offers a more generous affiliate commission. Amazon pays a 4.5% commission, while Barnes & Noble only pays 2%. Traditionally published authors make twice as much money by sending readers to Amazon.
The commission discrepancy is one major reason Barnes & Noble lost the market share war to Amazon. They were stingy with their affiliates. Don’t be like Barnes & Noble.
If you are generous with your commissions, your affiliates will be motivated to promote you. Affiliate promotions require a lot of work. If you want them to do the work, you need to make it worth their time.
The most common cause of failed affiliate programs is stingy commissions. If your commission is high enough, your affiliates might even work to help you improve your program.
For selling digital products, I recommend you pay your affiliates a commission of 30%-50%. If that seems high, remember that you’re only paying for completed sales. Affiliate marketing is risk-free advertising. The cost of goods sold on digital products is so low that a 50% commission still leaves a lot of margin for you.
Remember, half of a watermelon is more fruit than 100% of a grape.
When you sell physical products, you need to account for the cost of goods sold before calculating affiliate commissions. The affiliate commission you pay should be proportionate to your margins. I recommend paying 30%-50% of the net profit.
If it costs $10.00 to produce and ship a copy of your book and you sell it for $16.00, you calculate 50% of the $6.00 profit as the commission. If you offer your affiliates $3.00 for every book they sell, they will be motivated to promote your book.
Where to Find Affiliates
Once you set up your affiliate program and choose a motivating commission rate, you need to find affiliates. Look for influential people with large followings. You probably already know a few people who could be affiliates for you, but how do you find more?
One perk of hosting a podcast is meeting influential people in your genre, some of whom may be good affiliates for your books and courses. Almost all my affiliates were guests on one of my podcasts before they were my affiliates. My own affiliate opportunities sometimes come from the podcast too.
Conference faculty and attendees are often interested in affiliate opportunities. Flying around the country to recruit affiliates at conferences can be expensive, so be careful.
Most affiliates want to be well acquainted with the people they are working for and with. Recruiting affiliates from your mastermind group may be more efficient than attending conferences only to return with a stack of business cards from strangers. Relationships are important to affiliate marketers.
Your existing affiliates may introduce you to their influential friends who might be interested in being your affiliate. You will get referrals if your commission is high and participation is easy.
Your “competitors” can be a great source of affiliate referrals. For example, Alana Terry (Affiliate Link) teaches courses on some of the same topics I teach, but she also offers courses on topics I don’t cover. Our webinar about how to become an author’s assistant was a smash hit.
How to Equip Your Affiliates
Equipping your affiliates to promote your products makes it easier for them to send you referrals. If you make it very easy to promote your products and receive payment, they will tell their friends. People are busy. Make promotion easy, and you’ll make more money.
If you ask your affiliates to promote your product but don’t provide the wording, you’re making more work for them. They may think, “You want me to do the copywriting for you too?”
The classic way to equip your affiliates is to write swipe text they can use. Swipe text is pre-written copy for emails or posts about your book, product, or course. Your affiliates can use your wording as a starting place to develop copy for their own emails.
The best affiliate emails are customized by the affiliate to fit the audience, but you must give them a template to start with.
Images & Graphics
Provide beautiful photos of your book or cover image. Help your affiliates “show” your book or product to their audience.
Affiliate webinars are incredibly effective. You can offer to host a webinar with your affiliate’s audience. A webinar lets you clearly explain your product, and your affiliate doesn’t have to work to explain it. Hosting webinars for someone else’s audience works well.
Do your affiliates have a mastermind group, podcast, or YouTube show? Offer to be a guest. Sometimes a brief appearance on Zoom can go a long way.
Maintain an Attitude of Thankfulness
Whether you are an affiliate for someone else’s product or someone is your affiliate, cultivate a spirit of gratitude. When someone helps you succeed or lets you share in their success, thank them for their kindness. Money does change hands, but you shouldn’t allow a payment to replace a heartfelt thank you, a handwritten note, or even a gift basket.
You’ll know affiliate marketing is working when the advertiser, affiliate, and customer all say, “Thank you!” In a good affiliate marketing program, everyone wins.
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Mercy’s favorite book right now is Library’s Most Wanted (Affiliate Link) by Carolyn Leiloglou. Carolyn was a student in our Book Launch Blueprint course. Her excellent book is about a sheriff’s deputy who works in the library. Mercy brings me the book repeatedly, and so far, I haven’t tired of it.
Tommy’s current favorite is Mouse Mess (Affiliate Link) by Linnea Riley. It’s a cute little story about a mouse who sneaks out after the family goes to bed and gets into all the food.
My wife had the idea to make a special lunch from the foods the mouse eats in Mouse Mess. It was a clever idea because Tommy is a picky eater, but he loves the book. We made the meal, and Tommy loved it. Since every book is written by a regular person who needs to know their work made a difference, we even took photos to send to the author, Linnea Riley.
But when we looked up Linnea Riley, we discovered she had passed away from cancer a few years ago. We couldn’t share our joy and gratitude with her.
As I thought about the situation, I realized that our writing impacts people even when we’re gone. Linea has passed away. She is no longer interacting with people or paying them. And yet, she is still giving people joy. Her book has outlived her and given her a legacy.
One of the most profound privileges we have as authors is that we can leave a legacy. Your book will continue to bless people after you’re gone. If you write for children, your book may continue to bless children in future generations. Dr. Seuss is no longer with us, and yet he’s still influencing young readers.
When you sit down to write today, remember you’re not simply writing for a target reader. You’re writing for future generations.