When I used to work in the corporate world on a marketing team, you couldn’t make it through a workday, much less a meeting without hearing the phrase ROI, aka:

return on investment

Which (and I’m oversimplifying), can be defined like this:

The ratio between what you put into something, and what you get out if it.

For example, in a marketing campaign, the $10,000 you spend on that campaign would be your investment, and the revenue (or whatever your KPI* is) that results from that marketing campaign is your return.

* KPI = Key Performance Indicator; the measurement tool to determine how successful you’ve been in achieving the goal of your investment.

Got it? Cool.

Why am I talking about it? Because ROI isn’t just relevant to my old corporate career—it pertains to my writer life as well.

But I didn’t realize this, for a long, long time.

Early on in my career, my approach towards promotional/marketing/advertising endeavors for my books looked like this:

Do whatever my publishers told me to do, whatever other authors were doing, and to be safe, in case that wasn’t enough, be on social media as much as possible.

I figured that doing something was better than doing nothing, so I did it all in a “spaghetti against the wall” approach.

Nowadays, I focus not the quality of my efforts, not the quantity.

In other words, I pay attention to ROI.

But don’t ditch me just yet, because it’s not as coldly analytical or as “mathy” as you may be thinking!

Here are a few basic ways in which ROI translates to us authors:

Things you might put in as an author (your investment):

  • Time
  • Money
  • Level-of-Effort (how much mental and emotional energy you put into something)

Things you might out of the above investments (your return):

  • Clicks (as in ads)
  • Money (from book sales!)
  • Joy (or happiness or fun)
  • Followers / Loyal readers
  • Brand exposure ⁣

Now, I’ll warn you right off the bat: some promotional activities are way easier to measure than others.

A really straight forward example of an easy one is an advertising campaign for an upcoming book:

If you spend $5,000 on an ad campaign, you should hope to make at least that much in book sales to ensure you got the return on your investment, because you literally invested $5,000.

Makes sense, right?

Alas, other author promotional activities are a bit trickier.

Let’s look at some of the most common author marketing/publicity strategies:

  • Writing guest posts for book-blog tours
  • Organizing distribution and organization of ARCs
  • Being active on Facebook
  • Being active on Twitter
  • Being active on … (Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, Goodreads …)Writer conferences
  • Giveaways
  • Reader conventions
  • Newsletters
  • Interviews
  • Participating in podcasts
  • Starting your own podcast
  • BookBub Promotions (+discount)
  • Attending book signings
  • Participating in Facebook parties or Instagram “hops.”

For years, I did almost all of those things “by default.” Because I thought more activities could only translate to better, because I was afraid that by saying no, I was missing out on some crucial results that other authors were seeing, and sometimes, I confess—because somebody else told me too.

But something very dangerous was lurking around the corner of my mindless compliance:


As well as the sneaking suspicion that I was spending a lot of time on activities that didn’t sell books and that didn’t make me happy.

That last bit is very, very important to note—if I’m turning you off right now because I’m trying to spewing math all over your your writing dream, I get it, but keep in mind that ROI doesn’t have to be about numbers or money. I listed joy as a possible Return, and in a lot of ways it’s the most important one.

Wasn’t the reason you ultimately started this journey was because the very idea of being a published author made you happy? If achieving that goal costs you that happiness, something’s gone very awry.

Your Return metric is up to you—it can be better sales, better income, or simply enjoying the ride. The key is to have a metric.

And it will take practice! When I first started trying to put on my “ROI” glasses, I was a little dismayed to realize how smudged they were.

Did attending book signings increase my readership? No idea.

Did writer conferences advance my career? No idea.

Did joining a Facebook party sell a single book or gain me a single new reader, or were readers just there for the free giveaways? No idea.

Did those five guest blog posts my publicist asked me to write move a single book? No idea.

Did I gain a single new reader from tweeting every single day? No idea.

Now you may be thinking:

“What can it hurt to try the free activities?! If I didn’t invest anything, it doesn’t matter if I didn’t get any return, because I didn’t have any skin in the game.”

Ah, but dearest. You did invest something: your time.

I’ve never really clicked with the phrase “time is money,” so I rephrased the concept in a way that makes sense to me;

Time is free—but it’s also finite, and nonrefundable. Once you’ve used it, you can never get it back.

Saying yes to something means saying no to something else.

  • You could spend two hours writing guest blog posts to promote your current book. Or you could spend that same two hours writing your next book.
  • You could spend an hour a day posting updates to your Facebook group. Or you could spend one hour per day creating Instagram stories for your backlist. 
  • You could spend three hours a week filling your Buffer Queue with pithy tweets and Facebook posts, or you could spend three hours a week writing an exclusive epilogue for your most popular book that you can use as an opt-in offer for your newsletter.
  • You could spend an hour minutes putting together a giveaway and fun posts for a Facebook launch party + the 30 minutes on the party itself, OR you could spend that hour and a half watching the James Patterson Masterclass to make your next book even stronger.

I’m not here to tell you which of the above you should be doing, or that any are inherently better than the other. The ROI for all the above will be different for every author depending on her goal.

The point I’m trying to make is that for every activity you put time into, there are trade-offs. Every minute you spend on one activity is a minute you can’t spend on another activity.

Stop looking at time as an infinite resource, but as a currency.

And when you start to see time as a currency, you’ll want to spend it on the most valuable items.

What are the most valuable items, you ask? The one with the greatest ROI. 

Now, I can already feel some of you coming up with a counterargument: maybe the reason I was able to pull back on my promotional activities and not do “everything” is because for awhile I did do everything, and that enabled me to start being picky—because I’d built up enough momentum.

Maybe. But I know my numbers. And I know my annual income started increasing at almost the exact same time I started saying no to those things where I wasn’t seeing any ROI.

But my data doesn’t matter. I don’t want you to take my word for it that paying attention to ROI makes damn good sense. I want you to do your own experiment, and gather your own data.

How to get started measuring ROI:

Whenever faced with the prospect of spending time or actual dollars on a promotional/marketing/publicity activity, ask yourself the following:

  1. What am I trying to accomplish/what’s my goal?
  2. Can I measure whether or not this activity will bring me closer to that goal?
  3. If it can be measured, how well will it help me accomplish my goal?
  4. If it can’t be measured, am I willing to spend time on it, knowing that it may not result in more book sales or dedicated readers [whatever your KPI]?

Asking yourself the above questions can also force you to realize that the thing you thought you were chasing was really only means to something else.

For example, how many of us wish we had more Facebook/Twitter/Instagram followers?


  • Why do we wish we had more followers?
  • Because we want more readers!
  • Why do we want more readers?
  • To get more book sales!
  • Why do we want more book sales?
  • To make more money (let’s be honest, most of us wouldn’t mind making more money!)

Ah ha! So it’s not actually followers you’re after—that’s merely means to what you’re really after: better book sales! And if it’s better book sales you’re after, would your time still be best spent on social media chasing followers, or would it be spent writing another book (or improving your craft)?

The point is to look out for red herrings when it comes to how you spend your time.

Things that appear to be goals are often metrics simply dressed up as goals.

If you take anything out of this post, author friends, it’s this:

When it comes to deciding how to spend your time, ask yourself what you’re trying to achieve:

“I want to …”

That’s it, to start. Just get used to asking yourself the question every time you get asked to do a podcast, or to join a Facebook party, or go hop on Twitter.

And I bet by asking yourself the question, you’ll start craving the answer:

“I want to achieve [better sales, more happiness, brand awareness], does this activity help me with that?”

One you want to know that answer, you’ll go probably starting wondering if you can figure it out by looking into some data. And it may take time! ROI does not generally yield an immediate yes/no. It’s a bit of trial and error.

  • Try doing a Facebook party for one book release, and not your next. See how sales compare.
  • Try distributing ARCs for one book release, and not for the next. See how sales compare.
  • Try going dormant on Twitter a month before one release, and then making it your key “reach” strategy for your next book release. See how sales compare.
  • Try spending $x on an ad campaign for one release and on the second, spend $0. See how sales compare.

Or, if it’s joy/happiness you’re after:

  • Try going to every signing you get invited to for a year, see if it makes you happier.
  • Try writing every guest blog post you’re asked to for a year, and see if you look forward to writing them.
  • Accept every podcast request for a year, and assess whether or not you’re excited for them, and how you feel when they’re done.

Respect yourself enough to know where your time goes, and making sure it’s paying off for you, based your standards. Time is precious. Life is precious. Spend it well.

ROI for Authors