What I Learned From Spending $100K on AMS Ads

I was refreshing a bunch of my AMS ads yesterday and noticed that I’d hit the $100K in ad spend milestone.

Now, a few things first. That sales number looks more impressive than it is because that’s retail price not what I receive. Also, though, that number doesn’t include all the KU page reads I had on my books before AMS started reporting KENP on the dashboard, so my direct results from AMS ads are better than this.

Also, while that number I’ve spent can seem big–and given to someone in one lump sum it would be–my total AMS ad spend is much lower than the big hitters spend. There are authors out there who probably spend $50K or more per month on AMS.

So, as with most of what I write on this blog, my target audience is those trying to get a foothold not those who already have one. So the folks spending $50K on AMS per month, I’ve got nothing for you. Same with the so amazingly wonderful writers whose books just sell without effort.

Back in the day when we still got a physical paper everyday there was a cartoon called Pluggers. That’s who this is for. The ones sort of trudging along making progress even though it seems like they’re stuck in the mud half the time.

So…Let’s see what we can learn from my experience with AMS ads. First some context.

I was lucky to run my first AMS ads back in May 2016 before they really caught on. There was a glorious period of time when all the heavy-hitters on Kboards who’d beta’ed the ads were talking about how horrible they were and I started running some ads and…they worked for me.

The beauty of not having a lot of competition. Clicks were cheap then! Ah, it was a beautiful time.

But then people started sharing their success stories. And a few really big ad courses came out on how to use AMS. And things started to shift.

At one point I had a book out on using AMS ads, that I updated once, but I pulled those books because it seemed like every time I published one of those books the good folks at Amazon would completely change the interface or the available options or remove an ad type or add an ad type and the book would become obsolete.

Since I pulled that second book they’ve added columns for orders and KENP and top of impression share and I think moved how you access half the options.

And, thank god, they also added the ability to see information for just a select time period. (To see some of the fun hoops I used to have to jump through to use AMS, you could always check out another title I pulled, Excel for Self-Publishers. Half of the items I covered in that book were workarounds for things AMS didn’t have at the time but now does, like a way to guesstimate your KENP you were getting from your ads.)

So things have changed. And that number you see in ad spend happened over a period of six years.

Which I think is the first lesson here.

DO NOT THROW A BUNCH OF MONEY AT THE WALL

I did not start out spending large amounts of money on AMS ads. In 2016 I spent a grand total of $1,143 on AMS ads.

I don’t know how to describe this, but it’s true for the titles you publish as well as advertising spend. Some just show more signs of life.

I still remember when I published my first billionaire romance short story. Copies sold before I even knew it was live. (Note, this was also back in the days of less competition when that could happen.)

I hadn’t had that happen before. That was a sign of life. It meant, lean into this. There’s promise here. (I didn’t but that’s another story. I seem to learn the hard way.)

So with AMS, every book I publish I try to run some AMS ads on. Some of those books, the ads just don’t work. I publish a weird variety of titles, some of which probably have an audience of one, me. But I give them a shot with an AMS ad just to see.

And then, if I’m seeing clicks and sales, I keep it going. I cut what didn’t work and boost what did and try to refine that ad into something that can run long-term.

So, for example, my books on Affinity Publisher, I tried targeting some self-publishing keywords, but they really didn’t work so I trimmed those out. But there were some others that did, so I kept those and have an ad or two running for a couple of the Affinity Publisher books that deliver low-level sales results.

Full disclosure here before I say this next book, I have not taken any of the other AMS ad classes or read any of the other AMS books. There was a little too much snake oil feel to things at one point so I avoid it all.

But occasionally someone will mention here or there the advice they’ve been given on AMS ads from one of those courses or books. And sometimes the advice is that you have to be willing to lose $500 bucks to master AMS. And maybe that works. But no way in hell I’m flushing $500 on ads that aren’t working. Which brings us to our next point.

AMS ADS WORK FOR SOME BOOKS BUT NOT OTHERS

I’m pretty sure I went into this in far more detail in Data Analysis for Self-Publishers, but here’s the ten-second version.

AMS ads are not necessarily the best choice of ad for a book. The more in the center of a genre a book is the more I think the list-based ad options are a better choice. Things like Freebooksy or Bookbub.

But for a full-price, cold audience looking for X book on any given day, AMS ads can be great. That means someone who comes to Amazon looking for a book on X, with no intention to buy my particular book.

You want to learn Excel and not bog down in a bunch of bullshit about the history of the program and every little thing you’ll never use? I gotcha covered. Since 2017 I have been able to successfully run AMS ads on that book at full price because it meets that need of people who come to Amazon looking for an Excel book.

But some of my fiction? Not so much.

I don’t write to the center of genres. My romances are on the edge of being women’s fiction. My cozy mysteries are probably small town family sagas that happen to involve murder. My YA fantasy has a romance subplot that doesn’t appeal to fantasy romance readers. My fiction is a harder sell.

It’s part of the challenge of learning to be a writer to figure out how to hit the bullseye of a genre, and fourteen published novels in, I know it conceptually but can’t do it yet.

So it’s harder to advertise my fiction.

Early on when there wasn’t a lot of competition I could take 25 clicks to sell a book and still make a profit. Nowadays with bids where they are I need to be at 10 or even less, depending on the title and genre.

Also, in my experience, based on how I run AMS ads, the ads only run well on full-priced books. I have tried to run them on freebies or cheap books or while I was doing a promo and the ads just slowed to a crawl.

Other techniques for running the ads may have different results, but for me it has to be full-price and something that will appeal to a cold audience.

WHAT THE COMPETITION IS DOING MATTERS

When you run AMS ads (or FB ads or Bookbub click ads) you are in a blind auction against an unknown number of other participants employing unknown bidding strategies.

How they choose to set up their AMS ads is going to impact how yours perform.

What they bid, what keywords they use, how successful their books already are, how new their books are, and how new their ads are will all impact whether you win that ad slot or they do.

The more sophisticated the competition becomes about using AMS ads the more challenging they become to run profitably.

Back in the day an author mentioned how they’d bid $9 for some keywords during a launch period because that put them at the top of ad placement, but that they didn’t actually have to spend that because no one else was bidding that at the time.

Well, others thought that was a good idea and started doing the same. And when you have multiple authors using that strategy, suddenly everyone is paying really high click costs.

So in a certain sense AMS ads are not set it and forget it ads. You do have to tend them and keep an eye out for changes and then figure out how to adjust.

DON’T GET PULLED OUT OF POSITION

Which brings up another issue. It’s very easy to react to every little change. A keyword goes from performing well one day to having 20 clicks and no sales the next and it’s tempting to turn that keyword off.

But the problem is doing so can sometimes pull you out of position. In my little Excel niche this is often driven by fake clicks on the ads. And if I turn off that keyword that day whoever is behind that gets the real clicks on that keyword and those sales for as long as everyone else is away from that keyword. If it was a good one that can be a big part of your ad performance.

Same with when someone comes through with really high bids. If you try to match them and continue to dominate the space, they’ve pulled you out of a profitable little pocket.

Which is why I do monitor my ads but I try to not be too drastic about the things I do with them. Because I want to react to long-term changes in the ad landscape, but not be jerked around by every little hiccup.

(I should not here, though, that when you’ve established ads it’s much easier to hold that line than when you’re learning and trying to figure out what really does work and what really doesn’t.)

SLOW AND STEADY

Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows that I am fairly productive (not massively productive, but I get 300K words published a year or something like that), but I am also not driven to be at the top.

I write because I like to hang out with my dog and avoid office politics. As long as I think I can do that for another six months, I’m good.

So I do want to make a profit so I can keep going, but I don’t have to “win”.

Which means I do not spend a lot of time narrowing in and optimizing my ads. Nor do I adopt some of the strategies that probably are more successful but take more time and effort. That seems an exhausting way to live for me.

So I try to have ads that I set and forget. My biggest AMS ad at the moment is closing in on $30K in sales. My two second biggest have hit $25K in sales.

I know that there are others who run AMS ads who do the exact opposite. They wake up every day and they started a hundred new ads and burn through them like wildfire. Which works for them. And they probably make more from that strategy than I do from mine.

But I like my way because I get to set up one ad that runs for three years with some careful tending. So there is room with AMS ads to take the slow, steady, distracted approach and still make some profit. Not as big a profit probably as the optimizers, but enough of one.

ADVERTISING WORKS

Which I guess brings me to the second-to-last point. I would never have spent the amount of money I have on ads if they didn’t make me a profit. If they didn’t return more than I put out there immediately.

Self-publishing is a weird space because there are very vocal people in this industry who will make you feel like shit if you have to advertise your books to sell them.

They’ll either imply that your books aren’t good enough if you have to advertise (even though they write to a very hungry market segment and you don’t so the sales dynamics are completely different).

Or they’ll imply that you’re not a real writer or your some sort of impatient sellout if you aren’t willing to write nine books before you even think of advertising. (Actually I think I saw someone say 20 the other day and I laughed and laughed and laughed and then went and checked my AMS ads.)

That second one strikes me as the self-pub equivalent of “you should spend ten years querying agents if you want to get published” or “you shouldn’t write a novel until you have a dozen pro short story sales” that trade pub sometimes throws out there.

I would not be writing right now if I hadn’t started advertising my books, because they will not sell on their own. If I didn’t advertise the Excel books, people would happily buy Excel for Dummies and get on with their lives. If I didn’t advertise my fiction there are plenty of fiction titles out there that they would buy instead.

I am my publisher. And as a publisher I have an obligation to get my work in front of potential readers. Advertising is a very good way to do that on a daily basis. Sure, this website gives people links to my books, but they’re not just gonna stumble across it. Something has to pull people here.

Putting a book up and then thinking the world will find it is a good way to be disappointed. And being disappointed is a good way to quit something you might have actually been good at.

BUT ADVERTISING DOESN’T ALWAYS WORK

I currently have a list of sixteen titles that I wrote down where I’d run AMS ads on them at some point this year, but the ads just weren’t doing well enough and I turned them off.

I have another ten that I wrote down where the ad was okay-ish, but I wanted to redo the ad because I thought it could be better and I didn’t think tweaking the existing ad was going to cut it.

(This in addition to the twenty ads I do have running right now that I think are doing alright.)

The reality is that sometimes advertising doesn’t work for a book. Maybe it’s the cover or the blurb or something else that can be redone to make it hit better. But sometimes…a book just isn’t going to appeal. Maybe forever, maybe just right now.

And that’s tough. It sucks.

But if you write enough books you will find that some do better than others and it’s not a matter of packaging or of getting the right description, it’s just that some books don’t appeal as much as others do.

Sometimes, though, it’s a matter of having enough books for those ads to work. On the fiction side I tend to lose money on book one, make it all up with sales of book two, and then have profit from book three onward.

Well, if all you have is book one…that’s not gonna work.

Or if people don’t read through to book two or three, that’s not gonna work.

So sometimes it is a matter of getting better at your craft. Or of writing enough books to make the ads profitable.

With AMS, even though I know that pattern exists for my fiction, I still tend to want an individual book to be profitable when I advertise it. I want that ACOS number to be under 55%. But sometimes that does not happen. And I have to let go, for now, of that book.

Look, people write for all kinds of reasons. For the love, for the exploration, etc.

But sometimes they write for the money. And if you’re writing for the money, you have to let go of the ones that don’t work. Learn what you can from that experience and move on to the next.

IT ALL CHANGES

One final thought.

I’ve been writing towards publication for a little over a decade and self-publishing for about nine years at this point.

What I can say with certainty is that things will be significantly different in another ten years. I’m not quite sure how, but I’m certain they will be. Maybe that change will happen at the industry level, maybe it will happen at the national level, maybe it will be international. But overall there will be significant change.

Over the last ten years self-pub has significantly evolved. What worked for people in 2013 when I was putzing around not doing anything I should have been is not what works for people who start today.

(Heck, KU didn’t exist when I got started and that was a game-changer. If Amazon opens KU up to all authors or splits out pop lists by KU versus other or does any of a number of other things they may be forced to do to not be considered anti-competitive, that’ll be significant for many authors.)

So knowing that, I will say that the single most important skill you need to develop as a self-published author is the ability to see that things have changed and to adjust.

I can sit down with someone today and walk through the mechanics of using AMS and tell them how I approach the ads. And that may benefit them for the next year.

But if that person can’t take the higher-level principles and let got of the details, they’re going to get stuck at some point trying to rely on what used to work.

So my best advice with AMS and self-pub is to stay flexible. Build up slowly and steadily. Don’t flush money away but do take some risks to see what’s possible. Accept failure. Follow-up on success. And adapt as needed.

(Oh, and if you want to see all the books I’ve written about writing and self-publishing they’re all on this page. I tend to write them for myself to cement my knowledge, but I do think they have some valuable discussion, too. And what kind of self-publisher would I be if I didn’t at least mention that they exist?)

Author: M.L. Humphrey

M.L. Humphrey is a former securities regulator, registered stockbroker (although only briefly), and consultant on regulatory and risk-related matters for large financial institutions with expertise in the areas of anti-money laundering regulation, mutual funds, and credit rating agencies. Since 2013 M.L. has also been a published author under a variety of pen names and across a variety of subjects and genres. You can contact M.L. at mlhumphreywriter [at] gmail.com.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: