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A Quick & Dirty Guide to AMS for Authors

Once again the main AMS thread over on Kboards has grown to the size where it’s probably intimidating to newbies. And one of the wiser members over there suggested that maybe I should just put together a quick FAQ on AMS to direct people to.

Now, remember, I wrote a whole book about AMS ads (AMS Ads for Authors by M.L. Humphrey) the last time I decided to do something like this, so brevity on this subject is not my strong suit.

But here goes.

What Are AMS?

AMS is shorthand for Amazon Marketing Services. AMS ads are a type of pay-per-click advertisement that authors can use that allow them to advertise their books in Amazon search results, on Amazon product pages, and on Kindles.

There are multiple types of AMS accounts that have different dashboards and advertising options, but most authors just open the type of AMS account they can access using their KDP account.

If you do this, there will be two types of advertising available to you: Product Display and Sponsored Product ads.

What is the Difference Between Product Display and Sponsored Product Ads?

There are a number of differences between the two ad types. They display in different locations, contain different information, and behave differently. Also, how you target the ads differs.

For the purpose of this quick and dirty overview, be sure when you’re talking to someone else about AMS that you understand what type of ad they use. Otherwise you may get “bad” advice.

How Long Does It Take For An Ad to Be Approved?

It should be approved in less than a day.

My Ad Was Rejected. Why?

Usually it’s a cover that Amazon thinks is too sexy or violent or you tried to use ad copy Amazon doesn’t like.

There’s a guide to their ad policies that it’s worth reviewing if you run into this or if you write books with sexy people or guns on the cover. And don’t use ALL CAPS in your ad. Or ellipsis. Or a double dash.

When Should I Expect My AMS Ad to Start Running?

For SP ads, immediately. You should see impressions and clicks the day the ad is approved. For PD ads…Maybe never.

I’m Seeing Sales or Page Reads, But the Dashboard Shows No Sales

That’s because there is usually a two to three day delay in the reporting of sales on the AMS dashboard. So you’ll see clicks and impressions but the sales that were generated from that won’t show for a couple days. This is why you shouldn’t use the dashboard to monitor your ads.

Also, the AMS dashboard shows nothing related to KU borrows.

If I Don’t Use the Dashboard, How Do I Monitor My Ads?

For new ads I only use the AMS dashboard to see what I’ve spent. That I believe is pretty accurate. I then compare that to the KDP dashboard and CreateSpace dashboard to determine if I’m seeing increased sales on that book. For a book in KU I will also watch the book’s rank to see if there are increased borrows.

If I’m seeing a lot of spend but not a lot of increased sales/borrows, I will shut that ad down. New ads can sometimes generate a lot of clicks but lead to no sales/borrows.

For my long-running ads…

On a daily basis, I only pay attention to those ads where I’ve maxed out my budget. So if I have a $5 budget and Amazon tells me I’ve spent it, I go look at the Amazon dashboard and CreateSpace to see if I’ve earned more than $5 on sales of that book that day. If so, I up my bid. If not, that ad is done for the day. (If you’re in KU, you should also look at your book’s rank to see if it reflects enough borrows to justify keeping the ad going.)

In addition, I look at profitability across all of my ads every time Amazon bills me. I spend enough on AMS that they bill me every ten days or so. At that point I go and compare what I spent for the period to what I earned on ebook sales, print sales, and page reads for the period. (There are some minor flaws in that approach, but it’s good enough for me.) If I’m profitable, I keep the ad running. If I’m not, I either adjust bids or shutdown the ad.

(You will be billed at least once a month for your AMS ads no matter what you spend, so you can do this at least once per month.)

You Mentioned Print Sales. How Does That Work?

AMS is very good for driving print sales in addition to ebook sales. You have to have an ebook version available to run this type of AMS ad, but they seem to do very well with print sales as well. As a matter of fact, I have a couple non-fiction titles where I get about 60% print sales to 40% ebook with AMS.

Keywords. How Many? Where Do I Find Them? What Makes One Good?

Different approaches work well with AMS. I am of the limited number of keywords, high bid, sponsored product ad school of thought. Others do well with as many keywords as they can find and low bids. So it’s really up to you.

And there are many, many places to find them. (I cover ten in my book.) Think like a reader. When you go to Amazon and look for a book, how do you search for it? I’ve found that with fiction I do best with generic genre terms and author names. With non-fiction I do best with topic-related search terms and book titles.

There is some debate about what makes a keyword a good one. For me, it’s about sales. So lots of impressions with low clicks? Bad. Lots of clicks with low sales? Bad. I want impressions that lead to clicks that lead to sales. I don’t care about visibility if it isn’t also resulting in paying customers.

(And be careful if you’re in KU because AMS ads can lead to borrows that won’t show on the dashboard, so you can see clicks but low sales on a good keyword.)

Bidding. What Should I Bid?

That’s up to you. Some choose a low-bid strategy. Some choose a high-bid strategy. I tend to be on the high bid side of things but I’ve seen people do well with the low bid side. When I say low bid I’m probably talking under 15 cents. When I say high bid I’m probably talking over 45 cents. (But those are moving targets. AMS is a bid system where you are bidding against others for that ad slot. Some genres, like romance, are more competitive than others.)

I Bid Really High. Why Didn’t It Work?

Because AMS is not a pure bid-based system. There is a relevance factor involved in how AMS evaluates your bid against others’. None of us know exactly how it works, but it’s in your best interests to have as successful an ad as you can manage if you want to win your auctions. That means you want people buying your book if you want to continue winning your auctions.

Start a New Ad or Revive An Old One?

Once more, there are different opinions on this. New ads tend to run hot so will rack up more impressions faster. If they’re working that’s great, but they can be a quick way to lose a lot of money. I prefer to keep an older successful ad running because I think that’s part of what Amazon looks at when it judges two bids against one another. But you can’t do that without maintaining that ad. (At least on the SP side of things.)

To maintain an ad, I kill off non-performing keywords, change bids, change budgets, and sometimes will pause an ad for a bit and then start it up again.

AMS Are a Nightmare. It’s All So Confusing. Why Use Them? Aren’t They Just Scamming Us Out of More Money?

I love AMS because they give me direct access to the largest ebook and print book market in the world. And they give me the opportunity to advertise my books at full price on a daily basis.

They also work for me. I make a profit running them. I have one ad right now where I spend about $125 every ten days and I make about $400 in sales.

Are all of my ads that successful? No.

Is it frustrating sometimes to have an ad stop running and not know why? Yes.

Can one competitor entering the market and outbidding me change all that tomorrow? You betcha.

But before AMS existed, that book I just mentioned? It would’ve never sold as many copies as it has.

Since I started running AMS I have seen significant improvement in sales of all of my books. That doesn’t mean I’ve sold millions of copies. I don’t write to market. And some of what I write probably only has a potential audience of a hundred people. But AMS have been a lifesaver for me.

They are what they are. Yes, sales cost more if you run them than if you had organic sales. But…Most of us are not at the stage where we get organic sales. So the choice is: pay to advertise your books or don’t sell at all. I know which I prefer.

If you want to learn more about AMS there is a thread on Kboards with lots of information and opinions: A New AMS Thread

And, of course, I did write a book on this: Easy AMS Ads that’s only $4.99 in ebook or $10 in paperback.

It’s also now a video course, available here  and for a special introductory price until June 30th.

How Do I Keep This?

That was the question I asked myself the other day when I was lounging on my couch outside under the little pavilion I put up, on a perfect summer’s day, with a good book to read, and my dog sleeping at my feet.

It was one of those moments when you know you’re content with life and you think, “Ah, if every day could be like this, I’d be happy.”

But the answer to “How do I keep this?” is “You don’t.”

The weather changes, the next book isn’t as good, time passes and we lose those we love.

I had six weeks in 2010 that were almost perfect. I was living in New Zealand, learning how to skydive, in love, making incredibly good money on a challenging project that let me take the reins and run with it. But that passed. The man I was in love with didn’t feel the same, I hurt my knee and quit jumping, the work slowed down, the next project was a miserable slog, and eventually New Zealand said they didn’t want me there anymore.

Life happens.

All you can do is try to be in the moment enough to enjoy the good ones while they last and be prepared enough to adjust as needed when they pass.

(And remember when the dark times come that they too will pass.)

Thoughts on Video Courses

I promised that at some point after I’d finished my foray into video courses that I’d share some thoughts about it in case anyone else was considering that path. And since I just published the fifth of five video courses I’d resolved to publish this year (Creating a Paperback Cover Using GIMP) I figured now was a good time for that.

So without further ado…

I enjoyed the process of making the videos.

One, it turns out I’m someone who likes to learn new things and take on new challenges and creating video courses let me indulge that side of my personality while still feeling like I was doing something somewhat related to all my other publishing efforts.

Two, even though I was sitting in what was essentially a padded room (my walk-in closet full of sound-deadening materials), it was nice to feel like I was talking to people. I work from home, I live alone, I don’t go out much, so most of my conversations are with my mom or my dog.  Feeling like I was sharing something I knew with others was nice. And doing the videos felt more tangible that way than writing the books does.

(And it had the added perk that it wasn’t an actual conversation which can involve disagreement and pushback…What can I say? I have issues.)

Three, the subjects I covered in the courses, Excel and AMS, both lend themselves to a visual presentation. It’s not easy to use just words and pictures to convey something like Pivot Tables to people. But being able to say “Here. See?” and show that to someone is easier. One of the three main ways people learn is through observation. Through watching someone else do something. So video formats lend themselves to teaching.

So that was all good. And I’m proud of the products I put out there. I think they were well done if I may say so myself. Perfect? No. But good. Worth watching.

Where I hit a roadblock was on the marketing/advertising/payment side of things.

There are a number of online options for posting video classes like this.

Youtube is an obvious option. But if you don’t have at least 1,000 followers you can’t share in the ad revenue for your class so you’re just doing it for the love.

There are a number of other options out there like Teachable and Ruzuku where you can post your videos and then drive traffic to your page, but they cost somewhere around $75 per month to use so that’s a pretty significant capital commitment for potentially no return.

Udemy, the one I went with, is free and has a large pre-existing audience that goes there to find courses.

The problem I didn’t recognize with Udemy is that they always, always, always have a sale going. So I posted my first course, the AMS one, for $99.99 with an intention of offering it for half-off here on my blog and elsewhere. But because I’d signed up for their promos it was immediately put on sale for $14.99. Which meant I couldn’t exactly be offering it to people at a new release discount of $49.99 like I’d intended.

I pulled my classes from their promos, but that damage was already done.

For the AMS class and Excel for Self-Publishers not being in their promos is probably fine. Most people who find those classes are going to do so from my website or books and be willing to pay what the classes are worth.

But with Excel for Beginners and Intermediate Excel I think it may be an impossible sell. Those who are on Udemy are going to see thethe ultra mega everything you ever wanted to know about Excel class for $9.99 next to my Excel class for $99.99. Granted, mine has subtitles that actually make sense and aren’t auto-generated. And maybe I can teach the material better or without creepy mouth sounds in the background. But unless someone comes looking for me and my course in particular I don’t see myself selling those courses on that site because of the price difference. And even driving traffic there might not work because of that, because even with a half off coupon that’s still a pretty big gap in what someone would have to pay.

Now, I could just throw in the towel and say, fine, sign me up for your promos. But if I do that I will be earning less per class sold than I do on each book I sell. And I just can’t bring myself to be okay with that.

Not to mention the fact that Udemy makes you put all of the classes under an account into their promos. You can’t choose which ones go in. It’s all or nothing. And I don’t need to put the AMS class on their promos for it to sell.

(That’s why I now have two Udemy accounts, so I could sign the mini courses on Excel up for their promos while leaving my AMS course out of them. But I’d already published the two main Excel courses on the same account as the AMS class and don’t want to move 150+ videos to a new account at this point.)

So this all left me at a crossroads. I enjoyed making the courses. I have about five or six more I could do. But in order to really make it work I think I’d either have to move to a different platform and spend a lot of time learning new advertising options like Google AdWords or I’d have to bite the bullet and enroll in Udemy’s promos. I’m not sure I’m willing to do either one.

The courses are there. Discount codes are available here (and in the back of the related books–that’s the best discount code for each class, the ones for people who already read the material and now just want a visual version to help reinforce it). I am trying a few ways to advertise them, so I haven’t quit entirely. But I think it’s just too different a platform for me to leverage easily without a massive amount of additional effort I’m not interested in putting in at this point.

(Also, it kind of creeped me out that every time I published a class I either received a private message offering to sell me fake reviews on my course and/or a message from some stranger saying they really liked the look of my class and would I please send them a free link to take the course. Udemy seems to not have caught on to the damage that fake reviews can do.)

So there you have it. I won’t rule out doing something more with video courses in the future, but for now I’m turning back to books where I at least know the basics of advertising them and how the market works.

This I Know…

Right now I’m trying to decide what the next new project should be. Those three or four more Excel titles I could write? That new romance novel? That new fantasy series? Maybe a MG fantasy that I’d sub to trade publishers? A domestic suspense thriller? (Because you can never have too many names, right? Ha!)

Each has its pluses and minuses. Write more to market and maybe see much higher sales. Write something you know will sell but at a more modest level and you’ve added one more brick in the wall of steady long-term success.

Which do you choose? The guaranteed $10 payout or the 10% chance at a $100 payout?

I don’t know. Which is why I’m sitting here doing nothing. (Although I did just hit publish on a mini video course about an hour ago, so not nothing nothing. Just a little bit of nothing now that that’s pending approval.)

And what if it’s a choice between a $10 payout and a 50% chance at a $50 payout or a 50% chance at a $5,000 payout? Do I really know what the odds and payouts even are in all those different choices?

(No.)

This is what I know: If I do nothing, nothing will happen. Zero action means zero payout. So it’s better to pick a direction and go in it than to sit still and do nothing because I can’t decide.

So enough. Time to act. Maybe I’ll just break out the old D&D dice and roll the six-sided one. That’s always a healthy way to make life choices isn’t it?

On Authority and Authenticity

First, a quick note. AMS Ads for Authors is now Easy AMS Ads. With the ebook I just changed it over, but for the paperback I had to publish a new version, so don’t go getting confused and buying it twice.

It seemed the best thing to do since the Dawson course seems to have been rebranded as Ads for Authors, including a module on AMS Ads for Authors. Not to mention that someone much wiser than me recently pointed out that I was burying the lede with the prior title.

So, rebranded. Done.

And it’s the AMS book and video course that have had me thinking a lot lately about this issue of being an authority on a subject and how you also maintain authenticity at the same time.

For me, the Excel books and courses are easy that way. I know Excel. Every single professional job I’ve had since college when people wanted to do something in Excel I was that person they asked about how to do it. Or when something went wrong I was the one to fix it. So I have no hesitation claiming authority when it comes to day-to-day use of Excel. I know it.

AMS is a different beast. I’m comfortable with explaining the mechanics of how you start an ad and what the differences are between SP and PD ads. That’s easy to do. I’m even comfortable explaining how I use the ads. And I absolutely have told new writers who aren’t seeing a lot of sales that the ads are worth running and believe that 100%.

I feel confident and would stand behind everything I’ve said in Easy AMS Ads.

Where I get a little hesitant is in putting myself out there as some sort of ultimate authority on the ads. Given the fact that this is Amazon we’re dealing with it seems supremely arrogant for me to claim I’ve cracked the code to AMS and that everyone should listen to me and do things the way I do them and only that way.

And it’s not realistic to think that things will stay static that way. Even if I believed that I had cracked their code today, there is no certainty that I could still say that tomorrow. As I mention in the video course, this is a blind auction system with millions of participants and unknown relevancy factors at play that are subject to change at Amazon’s whim. And that’s before you try to account for changing consumer behaviors.

So it’s tricky. I recommend the ads today, but will I feel that way tomorrow?

A few folks have recently urged me to be more aggressive with pushing the AMS book and video course. And I can see the argument for it. I wrote the book out of a place of frustration with things people were saying about AMS and I still have that sense of frustration when I see people talk about AMS as if they’re the most complicated, insane, involved ads out there.

They don’t have to be. You just have to remember the serenity prayer and accept that you can’t control it all or know it all but if you’re making money at running them then yay. And so I can see the value in pushing the book and course more than I do to reach those people who could benefit from the ads if they’d just see past the angst and drama.

But building too much of a reputation on AMS ads seems like a shaky foundation to me. I want to be able to call it one day and say, “Nope. Done. Not working anymore.” And I want to be able to do that without hesitating because I’m earning good money off of selling people on using the ads.

For me it’s an issue of authenticity. I don’t want to ever feel like I’m lying to people to make money. It’s damned easy to do, but it’s not who I want to be. So the book and the course are out there and I stand behind them and may even do a few things to push them more than I have, but don’t expect me to build my empire on AMS ads.

I don’t think I’m suited to it.

Free Video Course: Pivot Tables

To celebrate the release of my latest series of books, the Easy Excel Essentials series, I have a free video offer for anyone who wants to learn how to use Pivot Tables in Excel.

Here’s the link: https://www.udemy.com/pivot-tables/?couponCode=EEE_PT_50FREE

If you are a self-published author, have Excel, and don’t know how to use pivot tables yet, please use the link and learn how. Because I honestly do not know how authors monitor their sales on Amazon if they don’t know how to use pivot tables.

True story: My annoyance at the fact that authors do not know how to use pivot tables (even though they really are as easy as dragging and dropping fields in the right places), led me to write four books.

I started writing an Excel for writers book that would include how and why I use pivot tables as an author. That book ended up being split into two books: Excel for Writers and Excel for Self-Publishers. But then I realized that there would be some folks who didn’t know how to use Excel at all and some who knew some Excel but not enough. So I wrote Excel for Beginners and Intermediate Excel.

Four books written. All because people annoyed me with their overreliance on BookReport and their complaints about not being able to see their sales using the Amazon reports.

(Yes, I am crazy…)

And, as a side point, here’s a picture of the new books:

New Release Image EEE

The astute observer will realize that these books actually cover material that I’ve already covered in my other Excel titles. But I figured there was a market for people who just wanted to learn one specific topic. (And do so for just $2.99 in ebook, nonetheless.)

This was one way I thought of to “extend” my Excel books when I felt that I’d pretty much already said what I felt needed to be said about Excel. I have another idea for extending the Excel titles, but pretty sure that’s going to have to wait a while. I think I’m just about to pivot back to writing fiction for a bit.

See what I did there? Pivot.  Haha.

(That wasn’t intentional…)

Anyway. Time to upload links for all six of those books for all five sales platforms I have linked from this site. Happy happy, joy joy.

There Is Hope. Maybe.

So May numbers are in for me. Mostly. Authors Republic is a black hole until the very end of the next month and ACX is just a guesstimate and D2D is also prone to adjustments until they  pay. But I have the ballpark numbers at this point.

And I’m pretty happy.

Because June of last year was the first month I’d ever made $1000 in revenues. That was straight-up sales. I went from my best month being about $800 in sales to my best month being almost $1,700 in sales.

A huge jump but a step back in terms of profits. It was one of my rare months for losing money. (I’ve only had three of those so far and all less than $100 lost per month. That’s just ads versus revenue, though. No production costs included, mostly because mine are usually minimal.)

Anyway.

A year ago I couldn’t crack $1,000 in revenues. Last month I closed out my fifth month straight and sixth month overall of profit over $1,000.

(A few times there I even made more than a local McDonald’s employee can make in a month with a forty-hour workweek…)

(Let’s not talk benefits, though. Those folks are still doing better than me when you factor those in.)

For me that’s a huge jump in one year. So I’m pleased.

Are the numbers where I want them? No.

Do I still think I’m an idiot for not focusing on consulting work instead? Oh yeah. Good thing I have lots of friends with nice couches.

Ironically, the closer I get to where I want to be the less possible reaching that goal seems.

Sure I just made a huge jump, but can I really expect to make another equally sizable jump from here? Because that’s what it’s going to take.

I want to. I want to hope. But…Yikes. I don’t know.

The reason I’m sharing this (since someone recently called out all those horrible folks who share numbers), is to remind people that incomes are seldom linear.

Even when I was in salaried positions this was true.

I remember sitting down after I got my first professional job and calculating how much I would be earning in five years and in ten years based on what I knew about the promotional path at my company (first promotion at 9 months and then every 2 years after that for about three promotions) as well as average raise per promotion (10% or so) and annual cost of living raise (3% or so).

Well…I hit that ten-year amount within the first two years.

Because I couldn’t see the jumps that would happen in my career. I couldn’t see that early promotion or that new bonus program they introduced or that new job I took out of state that jumped me up two more levels.

When I sat down at the beginning and ran those numbers, all I could see was a slow, linear progression.

But that’s not how it works in the working world. (Not always, at least.) And it’s not how it works with publishing. (Definitely not how it works in publishing.)

One title can change your life.

One title did change my income this last year. At least it’s responsible for my current baseline performance. It’s not all of it by any measure, but it’s a significant part of it.

Did I predict that? Oh, hell no. I believe my FB post at the time was about my wasting time and effort on yet another book no one was going to want to buy.

I don’t write to market. I don’t write what I think will sell. The non-fiction I write is driven by what I feel people should know. (I wrote four books because I wanted authors to know how to use pivot tables.) And the fiction I write is driven by the big picture questions I need to work out for myself.

The only thing I’ve ever written with an eye to it possibly selling was my first billionaire short story. (Which did sell, but let’s not go there.)

So what does any of this mean for any of you? This is my result, but who cares? Not like anyone else could duplicate my path even if they wanted to. (And you don’t want to.)

First, don’t give up. You never know when that pop in performance is going to happen. Sure, it’s more likely to happen if you’re aiming at a large, hungry market, but that’s not the only market out there.

Second, do put out brand new material. A new cover or a new version can sometimes help (I’ve done that myself a few times), but usually if the first version didn’t show some signs of life, all the retooling in the world isn’t going to get you the pop that something new could get you. (Do finish a series before you write it off, though. But that’s new material, see?)

Third, there are so many different ways to level up. If one doesn’t work, try another. This last year I benefited from AMS, participating in a Storybundle, and getting two Bookbubs on my fantasy series.

Each little piece helped.

So you can’t get a Bookbub? Try AMS. AMS don’t work for you? Try cross promos. Cross promos don’t work for you? Try first-in-series free. That doesn’t work, try Bookbub CPC ads. Or FB ads. Or ENT. Or Freebooksy. Or work Twitter until your fingers bleed.

Or screw all that and write something new. Forget advertising. Write. Write an entire trilogy. Or at least the first three books in a series. Then go back and worry about sales and profits when that’s done and out there.

The point is, you never know when the change is going to come. Or where it’s going to come from.

But I can tell you when it won’t come. It won’t come if you don’t advertise at all. And if you don’t release anything new.

If you lay down and give up on all of it, yeah, sorry, you’re done. I don’t believe in that kind of miracle. I believe in the kind of miracle that happens when you actually buy the lottery ticket or build the ball field.

So keep trying. You can’t lose this game unless you quit. And if you keep playing (and learning and changing things up), you’ll get there. Eventually.

Some Interesting Numbers

It’s an absolute fact that all self-publishing journeys are unique. We can talk about what the average writer needs to do to be successful at this, but at the end of the day people will find success by following a number of different paths and those who follow the tried and true path aren’t necessarily guaranteed to succeed.

Today I was crunching some numbers. I’ve been feeling a purge of books coming on. I have eight pen names I’ve published under but I don’t actively promote everything I’ve written and there are some names or titles that I have no intention of going back to.

The question is, do you unpublish titles like that or do you leave them up for the occasional sale they’ll generate? A hundred bucks a month is still a hundred bucks a month. I go back and forth on it. And I’m not sure what I’ll do this time around.

But while I was in there crunching numbers I did something else I’ve never really done, which was look at sales across each of my series across different platforms. And what’s kind of crazy is that for 2018 I have made more in paperback sales than I have in ebook sales. By about $600.

I knew that I’d made more in paperback sales for one of my series, but it turns out I’ve made more in paperback sales for four of them. And I had one series that’s made more in audio than ebook this year.  I also have one series that sells better on D2D than Amazon and another two that sell better on Nook and Kobo, respectively, than Amazon.

I also made more in audio on both ACX and through Authors Republic than I made in ebook sales on D2D, Google, Kobo, or Nook. Not combined, individually. And that’s with most of my audio being for non-fiction titles. (Still not going to do anymore audio at this point. I simply don’t sell in high enough numbers to justify it.)

So what’s that mean for anyone who isn’t me?

It means that there are lots of ways you can do this gig. And just because one way is working for most people that doesn’t mean you have to follow the same path as them. Find one that works for you and is sustainable for you and block out the voices that tell you there’s only one way to do this “right.”

And don’t discount those other formats or other sales channels. You never know what will work for a particular title until you try it.