AMS US Changes

For those of you who run AMS in the US, time to check your AMS dashboard. It seems Amazon has rolled out some new features to the AMS accounts that access AMS through their KDP account.

(If you’ve been running AMS in the UK using an Amazon Advantage account then a lot of this will look familiar to you and you’ll just be wondering why you still can’t also get filtering by time period.)

Three changes to highlight for you.

1. Keyword targeting

Up until now the only keyword targeting option for AMS if you accessed it through KDP was Broad. Now you can do Broad, Phrase, Exact, Negative Phrase, and Negative Exact. You can use these options when starting a new Sponsored Product ad as well as when adding keywords to an existing ad.

I would suggest going through any existing ads you have running and at least adding negative keywords. For example, my romances are contemporary so I can use negative keywords to exclude historical, etc. And free. That’s a big one to exclude unless you’re promoting a free book.

2. Bid+

This “Allows Amazon to increase the maximum bids in this campaign by up to 50% when ads are eligible to show in the top of search results.”

Now, really, you shouldn’t need this. Because you should already be bidding the maximum you’re willing to pay. But in the UK where bids are cheaper I do have this set because I would be willing to bid higher if I have to. In the US I’m only turning it on for a handful of low-bid ads I just started on books I’m not really focused on promoting.

Do the math for yourself. If you’re bidding 20 cents then Bid+ means maybe bidding 30 cents. But if you’re bidding $1 then Bid+ means bidding perhaps $1.50.

You can either turn this on for a new ad or go to the Campaign Settings tab for an existing ad and it’s at the bottom.

3. Bid Suggestions and Keyword Suggestions

When you start a new SP ad now, as soon as you add your keywords you’re going to see a bid range that Amazon suggests and a suggested bid within that range. I have a set of keywords where I’m pretty sure I’m the highest bid and I tried it and the suggested range did top out with my high bid. So it looks accurate to me. But I’ll also say that if everyone were to start bidding at those levels that it would not be profitable for most to do so.

I don’t think this changes bidding strategies all that much for that reason. If you could through series sellthrough and click rates afford to bid at those levels then I assume you already would be. If you’re bidding 10 cents right now there’s a reason for that and seeing that the suggested bid is $1.26 isn’t going to change that approach for you. But it’s interesting.

(I’ll say in the UK where I can run headline ads and this info is available, that for one of my keywords the bid they list to have 50% of the visibility is more than my book even costs.)

The other thing that occurs as you’re entering new keywords is that they provide a list of suggestions as you enter a keyword. (This is something already available in Advantage in the UK and I’d presume Advantage here.) I was able to use those suggestions to find a few additional negative keywords for one of my ads, so even if you don’t want to stop a good existing ad it might be worth trying just for that.

Bottom line:

It’s still not as robust as Advantage, but I’m glad to see the Bid+ option since I think that was giving an unfair advantage to those with non-KDP AMS accounts and I’m very pleased to see the negative keyword options since those have been very useful to me in the UK.

Like it or not, AMS are here to stay so time to learn and adjust to these changes. I expect some shake out in terms of ad performance over the next few months as a result of the changes, but maybe not as much as you’d think since I’m pretty sure the big players were already accessing AMS through non-KDP AMS accounts where these tools already existed.

Let’s Talk Categories

I was having a conversation in a private group yesterday that touched on categories. In this particular case the question was about what constitutes YA and what you do with a book that doesn’t fit neatly into a category. This comes up a bit in Achieve Writing Success, too, because a lot of early novels aren’t targeted to existing categories. And if you self-publish you will soon find yourself asking, “Well, where the heck do I put this?”

So let’s break this down. Categories are a kind of short-hand that indicates to readers that they’ll get a certain emotional experience or a certain type of story.

So romance, which is one of the ones where these discussions happen often, tells the reader you’re going to read about the journey two people take to find their happily ever after together. If you put a book in romance and it isn’t about that journey, you will have disappointed readers.

Mystery says there’s going to be something that is solved, most often a murder.

Science fiction says it’s going to involve things in the future.

Fantasy says it’s going to involve things that aren’t real or possible. So magic.

YA is about a coming of age journey focused on a teen protagonist who is generally around 16 years of age.

Those are all general guidelines, but there are rarely hard and fast rules. Categories exist so that I can walk into Barnes & Noble and find the three shelves worth of books I’m interested in without having to dig through all the rest. That’s all they are. A selling tool.

And so if you can write books that fit into existing categories it will be easier to sell those books. One, people who are looking for the type of book you’ve written will be able to find it easily. And, two, people who buy books in that category will get the emotional reading experience they’re looking for.

But not all of us do that. My YA fantasy series is YA (although I prefer to think of it as coming of age fantasy which is a separate category) but it doesn’t fit into any of the provided subcategories on Amazon. It’s not sword & sorcery. It’s not really epic. It’s just a little lost.

Which is why I love AMS so much. Because I can say, “I don’t what category you want to call it, but people who like Mercedes Lacky, Kate Elliott, and Anne McCaffrey are going to like this.” And then I can target them with my ads, put that cover in front of them, with a blurb about what the story covers and let that sell the book. Do I get the people browsing categories? No. But I do get the people who like those authors and might like me, too.

In an ideal world,  you write to an existing category. But if you’re life isn’t ideal, like most aren’t, then you find other ways of getting your book to the right readers. CPC ads (Bookbub CPC, Facebook, AMS) are probably the best way to do that.

Keep Spending The Money or Not

I once more find myself in that stage where I’m contemplating where to go from here. One of the big issues I’m trying to figure out for myself is if it matters to me to be a fiction writer or not. Or if it’s enough to write non-fiction only. It’s a heart-head fight going on and I’m not sure yet which will win.

But while I’m working through that I ran myself a report that looked at sales by series for March-April-May of this year versus advertising spend, which was 95% AMS ads.

And what’s interesting is that for most of my non-fiction I’m spending about $4 for every $10 I make. There was one that was losing me money that I’d already shut down. And another that was closer to $9 for every $10 I make, but overall it’s about 40% advertising costs.

For my fiction, both fantasy and romance, it’s about $7.50 for every $10 earned. I’m still profitable, but half as profitable with those as I am with the non-fiction.

Which bugs me. But is understandable. More competition means higher advertising costs. And as much as I’d love for the conspiracy theorists to win and drive everyone away from using AMS, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

So it raises the question: Do I keep spending advertising money on low-margin products like the fantasy and romance? Or do I focus my advertising money on high-margin products like the non-fiction?

Both are profitable, which would argue for spending that money because I’m making money even if it’s less per dollar. And it’s not like I spend time on the ads. Maybe ten minutes a day total across all of them, so there’s no added cost in that respect. And it is nice to see things you’ve written sell as opposed to sinking in the rankings.

I guess if I had a finite budget for things and was maxing out that budget with the non-fiction it would be an issue. But I’m not. AMS, the way I use them, only spend so much per title.

So I guess I keep them going. But I do miss those lovely halcyon days before everyone else had discovered AMS and I was spending $2.50 to make $10 on the romance and fantasy novels, too…

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.

Conspiracy Theories

The indie self-publishing world needs to take some deep breaths. The blows have been coming fast and hard lately. Kindle Worlds is gone, people lost half their KU page reads for April, RT convention is gone, there was that whole trademark thing…

Everyone wants to understand. They want an explanation. They want it to make sense. And it doesn’t. At least not given what we know.

So then the conspiracy theories start…

Like the one that says that running AMS is why people lost page reads.

Or the one that says that somehow Amazon used Pronoun as some sort of data gathering effort and then turned on Pronoun and merged with Draft2Digital? (By the way, person who said that, that word does not mean what you think it does. A merger is a very different thing from a distribution agreement. VERY. Also, Amazon doesn’t need Pronoun’s data. I think you got that backwards.)

So let’s all take a deep, deep breath. In…..Out…..

Here’s the deal:

Self-publishing is chaotic. It’s one of the only areas in my life where I’ve ever felt the need for the serenity prayer. You know the one that basically says grant me the strength to do what I can and ignore the rest?

If you’re going to stick with self-publishing long-term, you need that. Put it on your wall. And every time one of these situations arises ask yourself: “Is this something I can do anything about?” and “Is this something I should do something about?”

If it’s yes, then act. If it’s no, then move on. Usually the answer to one or both of those questions will be no.

Also, if someone makes some sort of insane claim about what’s going on, step back. Think Occam’s Razor. The simplest solution is usually the correct one.

It’s not some vast conspiracy. There is not some masterplan bent on your personal destruction. Usually what’s happening is the outcome of a lot of people or companies making decisions that are best for them without thinking about the impact on anyone else. It’s that simple.

Yes, there are cutthroat assholes out there. At the individual level and the corporate level. For them it’s rarely personal. They make decisions based on what will earn them the most money. So once you know that about them, act accordingly. Don’t feel betrayed that they acted within their nature. They are what they are.

One more point.

I was about to respond to the umpteenth post I’d seen recently about how everyone who had page reads stripped last month seems to have been running AMS. (Not necessarily true. Just like it wasn’t true that they were all running Bookbubs last year when page reads precipitously dropped for some people.)

I was going to make a comment about how it’s easy to look at a small number of people who had X happen to them, see that they all had Y in common, and conclude that Y was the cause, while failing to see that there are a hundred times as many people who also had Y but where nothing happened to them.

But then I asked myself whether I should be spending my time on the internet trying to convince strangers to calm down and stop seeing conspiracies around every corner.

No, I should not. I should be writing. I have a book I need to finish editing. So I can publish it. And advertise it. With AMS.

AMS and Writing

I had an interesting conversation over the weekend about AMS Ads for Authors and writing in general. And one of the points we discussed in that conversation is something I specifically call out in the AMS video course (now renamed Easy AMS Ads), but maybe not as strongly in the book, so I thought it was worth addressing here.

Which is that: as a self-published author looking to make money off of your writing (lots of assumptions in that sentence, but that’s who I’m talking to here), you need to keep producing new material.

Yes, you should market what you’ve already done. (And I am arguably not as good at that as I should be which is why I thank my lucky stars for AMS because I can run them full-time and with maybe fifteen minutes a day spent on them.)

But more importantly, you need to feed your readers. You need to give them new material. Otherwise you’re spending all this money to acquire customers (readers) and then you’re losing them because you have nothing more to offer them.

The most effective use of advertising is when you can bring people in the door and then keep them there and buying more from you. (See Amanda M. Lee for a good example.) Now, not everyone can write that fast, but if you’re spending all your time advertising what you’ve already written to the detriment of producing new material that is not a successful long-term strategy.

And what’s even more important about this is that AMS are an Amazon ad product. Meaning they favor new and shiny and already successful.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m running ads on books I published in 2013, 2014, 2015. But my most successful ad the last six months was on a book published September 2017. My second most successful, same thing. There’s a reason for that. Amazon is the reason.

So writing one or two books and then running AMS on them to the expense of everything else will perhaps do really well for you the first six months or year or maybe even two years you run the ads. But after that you need something new. You need new material to throw at the ads.

(And you need new material for your fans, too. Don’t forget them.)

Never ever lose sight of the fact that new material is what will keep the lights on. The JK Rowlings of the world who have a series selling well a decade after release without new material are the rarities. (And even she has had new stuff come out related to the original HP books. The movies. A play. A book of the play. The website that tells you your house and your patronus.)

Always be sure that whatever strategy you take to promoting your books doesn’t keep you from producing new material.

Speaking of. I have a book that’s waiting on final edits.

A Quick & Dirty Guide to AMS for Authors

A wise person suggested that maybe I should 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.

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.